Posts filed under 'USSR'

1929: Yakov Blumkin, Trotskyist spy

Add comment November 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Yakov Blumkin was executed on this date in 1929.

It was a decade and more since he’d made his great historical mark, the July 1918 assassination of German diplomat Wilhelm von Mirbach.

Blumkin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) undertook this as a deadly — so he hoped — strike against Bolshevik power. In the aftermath of the fledgling Soviet government’s controversial peace treaty with Germany to exit World War I, the hit was ordered by Blumkin’s party, the Left SRs, as a means to instigate renewed hostilities. Simultaneous with the murder, Left SRs launched a failed coup in Moscow, again on the inspiring policy of resuming the horrible war.

But Bolshevik Cheka director Felix Dzerzhinsky didn’t take this sort of thing personally, and by 1919 he’d made this ruthless operative into Moscow’s own asset. The ensuing decade would feature James Bond-esque adventure in Persia, the Caucasus, Arabia, Mongolia, and beyond; he was Leon Trotsky’s friend and, for a time, his secretary, who helped edit Trotsky’s Military Writings.

Blumkin lived large, and was not above flaunting his terrorist’s notoriety — “always brandishing his revolver in public places,” in the disdainful recollection of Nadezhda Mandestam. Blumkin adored poetry and poets; Victor Serge, another of the many writers he knew, is full of Blumkin anecdotes in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, where he recalled him just back from Persia

more poised and virile than ever, his face solid and smooth-shaven, the haughty profile of an Israelite warrior. He stayed in a small apartment in the Arbat quarter, bare except for a rug and a splendid stool, a gift from some Mongol prince; and crooked sabres hung over his bottles of excellent wine.

Poets could be dangerous enough in the Stalinist nightmare years to come but it was that old Trotsky association that put him on the leading edge of the purges — especially since it wasn’t just ancient history. Blumkin apparently met with Trotsky secretly in Turkey after the latter was exiled, and even carried secret messages from him for friends still in the USSR. Reckless enough in retrospect but Blumkin was a veteran practitioner of the double game. Moreover, the judges were split on the penalty until Stalin personally weighed in — a reticence on recourse to this measure that purgees charged with personally conspiring with Trotsky would certainly not enjoy as the terror ripened in the 1930s.

Unlike many others who fell prey to political prosecutions in this period, Blumkin has never been rehabilitated by Russia/the USSR.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Spies,USSR

Tags: , , , ,

1937: Nikolai Nikolayevich Durnovo, Slavist

Add comment October 27th, 2020 Headsman

Russian linguist Nikolai Nikolayevich Durnovo was shot during Stalin’s purges on this date in 1937.

The man descended from tsarist nobility — not only the House of Durnovo but his mother’s House of Saltykov — and the Durnovo name might have been hateful to radicals from a key minister involved in the smashing-up of the 1905 revolution.*

Our Durnovo had more modest interests as “one of the pioneers of linguistic and geographical study of East Slavic languages” who did some of the foundational work sorting Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian linguistic features. He published a 1915 “Dialectological map of the Russian language in Europe with an essay on Russian dialectology” and (in 1924) the first Russian dictionary of linguistic terms. He had an appointment in Belarus and researched and lectured in Czechoslovakia as well, but was eventually denounced as a “bourgeois nationalist” and struggled for work with the pall of the 1930s.

In 1933-34 a number of Slavic studies intellectuals and especially linguists were arrested in an affair known as the Case of the Slavists — seemingly, as with a previous Case of the Academics, a campaign to enforce discipline upon a field of growing ideological importance to Moscow. Accused of suspect foreign contacts, convicts in this early purge received “mere” prison sentences, some eventually escaping to exile. But the scarlet letter upon them stood all in great danger as purges grew more deadly late in the 1930s, and our man Durnovo was not the only Slavist who was subsequently executed.**

He was shot at Sandarmokh in Karelia, a site with over 9,000 recorded executions from 1937 to 1938. His sons, Andrei and Yevgeny, were also both executed in 1938. All the convictions from the Slavists’ trials were overturned after Stalin’s death.


Memorial stone at Sandarmokh; the inscription implores “People! Do not kill one another!” (cc) image by Semenov.m7.

* That man, Pyotr Durnovo, is also famous for a 1914 memorandum acutely diagnosing the state of imperial rivalry between England and Germany and correctly forecasting that should Russia foolishly ally with England — he wrote in February, before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand made the imminent onset of war obvious — it would court “social revolution in its most extreme form.”

[T]he trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen.

Nicholas II should have listened to him.

** Not all were so unfortunate. Victor Vladimirovich Vinogradov was actually reinstated to the summit of the academy during Stalin’s life (and received the Stalin Prize in 1951). He’s still widely known in his field to this day as one of the seminal Russian linguists.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1921: Fanya Baron, anarchist lioness

Add comment September 30th, 2020 Emma Goldman

(Thanks to American anarchist Emma Goldman for the guest post — not her first in these pages — on her friend Fanya Baron, an anarchist whom Goldman had known in Chicago but who was enticed by the horizon opened by the Russian Revolution to return to her homeland. Goldman, too, was in Moscow at this time, with her partner Alexander Berkman (“Sasha” in the narrative below); decisively disillusioned and frightened by the violent suppression of anarchists, the two left the USSR that December. Goldman’s recounting of Fanya Baron’s arrest and execution comes from Volume II, Chapter 52 of her memoir, Living My Life. A similar narrative, albeit misdated to August 30, appears in her My Further Disillusionment in Russia.)


Then the blow came and left us stunned. Two of our comrades fell into the Cheka net — Lev Tchorny, gifted poet and writer, and Fanya Baron! She had been arrested in the home of her Communist brother-in-law. At the same time eight other men had been shot at on the street by Chekists and taken prisoners. They were existy (expropriators), the Cheka declared.

Sasha had seen Fanya the preceding evening. She had been in a hopeful mood: the preparations for Aaron‘s escape were progressing satisfactorily, she had told him, and she felt almost gay, all unconscious of the sword that was to fall upon her head the following morning.” And now she is in their clutches and we are powerless to help,” Sasha groaned.

He could not go on any longer in the dreadful country, he declared. Why would I persist in my objection to illegal channels? We were not running away from the Revolution. It was dead long ago; yes, to be resurrected, but not for a good while to come. That we, two such well-known anarchists, who had given our entire lives to revolutionary effort, should leave Russia illegally would be the worst slap in the face of the Bolsheviki, he emphasized. Why, then, should I hesitate? He had learned of a way of going from Petrograd to Reval. He would go there to make the preliminary arrangements. He was suffocating in the atmosphere of the bloody dictatorship. He could not stand it any more.

In Petrograd [where Goldman and Berkman were visiting to explore options for fleeing Russia -ed.] the “party” that traded in false passports and aided people to leave the country secretly turned out to be a priest with several assistants. Sasha would have nothing to do with them, and the plan was off. I sighed with relief. My reason told me that Sasha was right in ridiculing my objection to being smuggled out of Russia. But my feelings rebelled against it and were not to be argued away. Moreover, somehow I felt certain that we should hear from our German comrades.

We planned to remain in Petrograd for awhile, since I hated Moscow, so overrun by Chekists and soldiers. The city on the Neva had not changed since our last visit; it was as dreary in appearance and as famished as before. But the warm welcome from our former co-workers in the Museum of the Revolution, the affectionate friendship of Alexandra Shakol and of our nearest comrades, would make our stay more pleasant than in the capital, I thought. Plans in Russia, however, almost always go awry. Word reached us from Moscow that the apartment on the Leontevsky where we had stayed had been raided and Sasha’s room in particular had been ransacked from top to bottom. A number of our friends, among them Vassily Semenoff, our old American comrade, had been caught in the dragnet laid by the Cheka. A zassada [a safehouse lair used by law enforcement in the context of, e.g., a stakeout or staging for an ambush -ed.] of soldiers remained in the apartment. It was apparent that our callers, who did not know we were away, were being made to suffer for our sins. We decided to return to Moscow forthwith. To save the expenses of our trip I went to see Mme Ravich, to inform her that we were at the call of the Cheka whenever wanted. I had not seen the Petrograd Commissar of the Interior since the memorable night of March 5 when she had come for the information Zinoviev had expected from Sasha regarding Kronstadt. Her manner, while no longer so warm as before, was still cordial. She knew nothing about the raid of our rooms in Moscow, she said, but would inquire by long-distance telephone. The next morning she informed me that it all had been a misunderstanding, that we were not wanted by the authorities, and that the zassada had been removed.

We knew that such “misunderstandings” were a daily occurrence, not infrequently involving even execution, and we gave little credence to Mine Ravich’s explanation. The particularly suspicious circumstance was the special attention given to Sasha’s room. I had been in opposition to the Bolsheviki longer than he and more outspoken. Why was it that his room was searched and not mine? It was the second attempt to find something incriminating against us. We agreed to leave immediately for Moscow.

On reaching the capital we learned that Vassily, arrested when he had called on us during our absence, had already been liberated. So were also ten of the thirteen Taganka hunger-strikers [fellow anarchists -ed.]. They had been kept in prison two months longer, despite the pledge of the Government to free them immediately upon the termination of their hunger-strike. Their release, however, was the sheerest farce, because they were placed under the strictest surveillance, forbidden to associate with their comrades, and denied the right to work, although informed that their deportation would be delayed. At the same time the Cheka announced that none of the other imprisoned anarchists would be liberated. Trotsky had written a letter to the French delegates to that effect, notwithstanding the original promise of the Central Committee to the contrary.

Our Taganka comrades found themselves “free,” weak and ill as a result of their long hunger-strike. They were in tatters, without money or means of existence. We did what we could to alleviate their need and to cheer them, although we ourselves felt anything but cheerful. Meanwhile Sasha had somehow succeeded in communicating with Fanya in the inner Cheka prison. She informed him that she had been transferred the previous evening to another wing. The note did not indicate whether she realized the significance of it. She asked that a few toilet things be sent her. But neither she nor Lev Tchorny needed them any more. They were beyond human kindness, beyond man’s savagery. Fanya was shot in the cellar of the Cheka prison, together with eight other victims, on the following day, September 30, 1921. The life of the Communist brother of Aaron Baron was spared. Lev Tchorny had cheated the executioner. His old mother, calling daily at the prison, was receiving the assurance that her son would not be executed and that within a few days she would see him at liberty. Tchorny indeed was not executed. His mother kept bringing parcels of food for her beloved boy, but Tchorny had for days been under the ground, having died as the result of the tortures inflicted on him to force a confession of guilt.

There was no Lev Tchorny on the list of the executed published in the official Izvestia the next day. There was “Turchaninov” — Tchorny’s family name, which he almost never used and which was quite unknown to most of his friends. The Bolsheviki were aware that Tchorny was a household word in thousands of labour and revolutionary homes. They knew he was held in the greatest esteem as a beautiful soul of deep human kindliness and sympathy, a man known for poetic and literary gifts and as the author of the original and very thoughtful work on Associational Anarchism. They knew he was respected by numerous Communists and they did not dare publish that they had murdered the man. It was only Turchaninov who had been executed.”

And our dear, splendid Fanya, radiant with life and love, unswerving in her consecration to her ideals, touchingly feminine, yet resolute as a lioness in defence of her young, of indomitable will, she had fought to the last breath. She would not go submissively to her doom. She resisted and had to be carried bodily to the place of execution by the knights of the Communist State. Rebel to the last, Fanya had pitted her enfeebled strength against the monster for a moment and then was dragged into eternity as the hideous silence in the Cheka cellar was rent once more by her shrieks above the sudden pistol-shots.

I had reached the end. I could bear it no longer. In the dark I groped my way to Sasha to beg him to leave Russia, by whatever means. “I am ready, my dear, to go with you, in any way,” I whispered, “only far away from the woe, the blood, the tears, the stalking death.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1938: Nikolai Bryukhanov, hung by his balls

Add comment September 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1938, former Soviet Finance Commissar Nikolai Bryukhanov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was shot during Stalin’s purges.

Bryukhanov — no apparent relationship to Chernobyl nuclear plant director Viktor Bryukhanov — was a Bolshevik agitator going back to his days as a student radical in the first years of the 20th century.

In 1926, he became head of the powerful People’s Commissariat for Finance (NarKomFin) replacing another future purge victim, Grigori Sokolnikov — which meant that he was there at the helm at the moment that Stalin executed his 1928-1929 Great Turn towards Five-Year Plans and forced industrialization.

This pivot also entailed the bureaucratic sidelining of NarKomFin, thanks in part to Bryukhanov’s affiliation with Stalin’s so-called “Rightist Opposition”. (Who were, no surprise, also future purge victims.) This pornographic cartoon circulated among Bryukhanov’s political rivals, the author says with understatement, “illustrates the fragility of Bryukhanov’s position.”

Stalin himself, who in 1930 was not yet in a position to simply murder foes on his say-so, commended the caricature in the spirit of a witch-dunking:

To the members of the Politburo. Hang Bryukhanov by his balls for all of his sins present and future. If his balls hold, consider him acquitted by the tribunal. If not, drown him in the river. J. St.

Deposed here in 1930 from his acme, Bryukhanov nevertheless continued over the succeeding years in several lesser posts relating to administration of the Soviet economy. As with many Old Bolsheviks who had at some point in time resisted Stalin in a large way or a small one, that former enmity lived long in Koba’s mind … and come the era of the purges, what the old man had once scribbled in jest was visited on Bryukhanov’s flesh. (Metaphorically.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

Tags: , , , , , ,

1918: Captain Alexey Schastny

Add comment June 22nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, Captain Alexey Schastny received the cold thanks of the Bolshevik government for saving its Baltic fleet.

Icebound in the city of Helsingfors (Helsinki) across the Gulf of Finland from his Red homeland, Schastny (English Wikipedia entry | the more substantial Russian) orchestrated an emergency speedy breakout just ahead of a German incursion that seized the city in April and could have grabbed the Soviet Baltic fleet.

Schastny’s decisive action brought 236 vessels, including six battleships, across the frozen sea and safely home to Kronstadt.

The heroism of this operation at a moment of such low ebb for Russian prestige made Schastny a potentially dangerous element, should the onetime tsarist sailor choose to exercise his great prestige in the navy to the detriment of the Bolsheviks. This was the winter of the Russian Civil War, when White insurgents tore at the nascent Revolution.

Leon Trotsky, at this same moment scrambling to organize the Red Army to stabilize the situation, had Schastny arrested as a counterrevolutionary barely a month after the celebrated ice voyage. So grave a threat did this sea dog present that the Soviet state, having briefly abolished the death penalty, restored it in June 1918 specifically so that Schastny could be shot.

Schastny makes his appearance in the slick 2017 serial Trotsky, where he’s played by Anton Khabarov; the first half of episode 7 focuses heavily on Schastny’s arrest, court-martial, and execution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , ,

1947: Jonas Noreika, “General Storm”

Add comment February 26th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Jonas Noreika was executed in Moscow.

Memorial plaque honoring Jonas Noreika in Vilnius; it was destroyed in 2019 by an anti-fascist politician. (cc) image from Alma Pater.

Long held as a hero of Lithuanian patriots, “General Storm”* has been headline news in recent years having his legacy complicated.

It all started when author Silvia Foti, Noreika’s granddaughter, took up her late mother’s unfinished project to write a biography of their famous kinsman. At the time, she accepted the received lore that Jonas Noreika had been an anti-Nazi resister during the Second World War, prior to being an anti-Communist resister afterwards — a story facilitated by Noreika’s 1943 arrest and detention in the Stutthof concentration camp among dozens of other high-profile Lithuanians taken as hostages.

But Foti’s understanding of events evolved painfully, as she described in a wrenching 2018 Salon article with the spoiler-alert title “My grandfather wasn’t a Nazi-fighting war hero — he was a brutal collaborator”.

According to Foti’s research in conjunction with the (since-deceased) director of Vilnius’s Sugihara House and Holocaust researcher Grant Gochin, Noreika was a principal of the anti-Soviet June Uprising sparked by the Nazi invasion of the USSR, but preceding the Wehrmacht’s actual arrival; in those days, Lithuanian militia seized control of towns, often massacring Jews (or, which was tantamount to the same thing, preventing their escape to the Soviet Union). Foti believes that Noreika did exactly this in his town of Plungė in the Samogitia region where he was later appointed as a county administrator during the German occupation.

[Sugihara House director Simon] Dovidavičius; was the first to suggest that my grandfather conducted the initial akcija (action) during World War II before the Germans arrived. It coincided with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, the same day Lithuania began its uprising with the Germans against the Soviets, marking the start of a Holocaust there, where 95 percent of its 200,000 Jews were murdered, the highest percentage of any country in Europe. (About 3,000 Jews remain in Lithuania today.)

Within three weeks, 2,000 Jew had been killed in Plungė, half the town’s population, and where my grandfather led the uprising. This preceded the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, when Nazi Germany decided to make mass-murder its state policy. Put in more chilling terms, Dovidavičius claimed that my grandfather, as captain, taught his Lithuanian soldiers how to exterminate Jews efficiently: how to sequester them, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them. My grandfather was a master educator …

By the end of the trip [to Lithuania] I came to believe that my grandfather must have sanctioned the murders of 2,000 Jews in Plungė, 5,500 Jews in Šiauliai and 7,000 in Telšiai.

Foti’s revelations have been roughly received in a country where the Holocaust complicity of anti-Soviet national heroes remains a very sore subject; there are still monuments to and streets named after her grandfather in Lithuania, and apparently a military academy there even published a prewar antisemitic essay by Noreika in 2016 in a wholly uncritical light.

* Not to be confused with a Philadelphia property repair contractor.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lithuania,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR

Tags: , , , , , ,

1938: Herman Hurmevaara, Finnish Social Democrat

Add comment February 16th, 2020 Headsman

Finnish parliamentarian Herman Hurmevaara was shot during Stalin’s purges on this date in 1938.

Hurmevaara (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Finnish) sat in parliament for the Social Democrats from 1917 to 1919, which was also the period when long-restive Finland broke away from Russia’s grasp while the latter was preoccupied with deposing its tsar.

This rupture brought Finland into a nasty Whites-versus-Reds civil war. The Whites won, and Hurmevaara ended up knocking about in exile in Sweden and (after expulsion in 1930) the USSR. There, he worked in publishing.

Shot as a spy in the capital of Russia’s Finland-adjacent Karelian Republic, he was among numerous emigre Finns destroyed during the late 1930s nadir of Stalinism. Hurmevaara was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Finland,History,Politicians,Russia,Shot,USSR

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1957: József Dudás, Hungarian Revolution wild card

Add comment January 19th, 2020 Headsman

Hungarian politician József Dudás was hanged on this date in 1957, for participation in the previous year’s abortive Hungarian Revolution.

Although he’d been a Communist in his prewar youth, Dudás won election to the postwar government on the Independent Smallholders line. This agrarian opposition party was gradually pushed out of power and eventually suppressed over the course of the late 1940s; Dudás himself ended up getting arrested and detailed for a long visit to the feared Romanian Securitate.

He’d long since been repatriated as a non-political engineer when the Hungarian Revolution briefly cracked open the horizon of possibilities in the autumn of 1956.

Dudás immediately proved himself not so non-political — and a distinct thorn in the side of the Imre Nagy government. He advocated not only for Hungarian Independence (which was also the title of his newspaper) but also for a multiparty reformulation of the Hungarian state, which was a bit much for Nagy to process during the revolution’s two-week lease on life. Dudás’s penchant for off-script revolutionary improvisations, such as putting out feelers to Soviet commanders and also having his militia lynch agents of the temporarily disempowered secret police, made him an unwelcome wild card and Nagy had him arrested shortly before Soviet tanks re-established control.

The Soviets, of course, also had no use themselves for the peasants’ party deputy who’d been trying to subvert Nagy from the right.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason,USSR

Tags: , , , , , ,

1938: Vladimir Beneshevich, Byzantinist

Add comment January 17th, 2020 Headsman

One of Russia’s most cherished national myths is that of the “Third Rome” — Russia (via its protean polity, Muscovy) as the successor to Byzantium, which in turn succeeded Rome. Modern humans might no longer do the thing where the official lineage of the sitting dynasty traces to the loins of the local war-god, but claiming a through line all the way back to Romulus and Remus is a pretty good simulacrum.

Like all national mythologies, it’s an idea with a history of its own — and not one that enjoyed anything like its contemporary popularity at the moment that, say, Byzantium fell to the Turks. After all, those Byzantines were were an emblem of defeat.

“Political thinkers of this period, for example Ivan Peresvetov, warned Ivan the Terrible against imitating the Byzantine basileis [emperors], who had lost their empire because they had ceded their prerogatives to their magnates,” as S.A. Ivanov puts it in a chapter of The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture since 1500 — our primary source for this post. “Generally speaking, Byzantium was viewed ultimately as a failure, and nobody particularly cherished that pedigree. The same Peresvetov presented Mehmet the Conqueror as a true role model for the Muscovite tsar.”

It was a Pskov monk named Filofei (Philotheus) who formulated the Rome-Constantinople-Moscow succession around the turn of the 16th century but according to Ivanov the appeal to Byzantium was no more than occasionally and superficially grasped at in the centuries that followed, and then completely binned by Peter the Great — oriented as he was towards those counter-Byzantine values of efficiency, modernity and the west. (It’s only quite recently that western interest in Byzantium has revived.)

Only in the 19th century did Byzantium as a kindred civilization emerge widely for Russians in something like the shape of the myth as it exists today. No surprise, the scholarly field associated with it, fascinated as it was with kingship and Orthodox Christianity, became associated in the subsequent generations with right-wing politics … and by the end of this post, we will come to the execution during the Stalinist purges of an eminent scholar of Byzantium named Vladimir Beneshevich. While this fate is not surprising on its face for the circumstances, we think the journey of the idea — continuing as it does down to the present day — is well worth the taking. The following is excerpted from Ivanov:

The Byzantine question reappeared in the nineteenth century, when the Russian elite became aware of Russia’s uncertain status among the civilizations of the world. Yet the tone of the discussion had changed: in 1836 the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev in his ‘Philosophical Letters’, asserted that the very choice made by Rus’ in favour of Constantinople, not Rome, had rendered inevitable the misfortune of Russia: … ‘Driven by a baneful fate, we turned to Byzantium, wretched and despised by nations, for a moral code that was to become the basis of our education’. This was the opening of the debate that has continued until today without any substantial variations in its terms or arguments …

Byzantium as an empire once again gained importance in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the notorious Jakob Fallmerayer [a race theorist later beloved of the Nazis -ed.] enunciated his theory regarding the Slavicization of the Balkans in Byzantine times, he wanted to warn the West against the ‘Russian menace’; the Russophobic nature of his theory notwithstanding, the new trend of thought in Russia, the so-called Slavophiles used it to substantiate their claim to the Byzantine legacy. The earliest Slavophile and the great Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev had many conversations with Fallmerayer in Munich ‘de fatis byzantinis’, as the latter notes in his diary, in which he also briefly recorded Tyutchev’s ideas: ‘Byzanz Heilige Stadt. Pruritus Rezidenz zu verlegen’. For Tyutchev, as for the other ‘Slavophiles’, Constantinople was a ‘natural’ goal, but it was not an end in itself: in his poem ‘Prophesy’ (1850) Tyutchev implored the Russian tsar: ‘And the vaults of ancient Sophia / In resurrected Byzantium / Will again shelter the altar of Christ. / Throw yourself down in front of it, oh, Tsar of Russia, / And rise as the Tsar of all the Slavs’. The fact that the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 coincided with the 400th anniversary of the Fall of Byzantium inspired a new upswing of imperialistic dreams. The poet Apollon Maikov wrote: ‘Let everyone know that the dream of Christian Byzantium is still alive in Russia!’

There were two facets to the Russian debate on the Byzantine legacy: the political one dealt with the fate of Constantinople and the Orthodox Christians after the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire. Some, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, insisted that ‘Constantinople must become Russian’; others thought that it should become the capital of a Pan-Slavic federation. Saltykov-Shchedrin, a great Russian satirist of the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the Russian obsession with Byzantium in ‘The History of a Town’. Yet, this discussion on the fate of Constantinople seemed exciting and flattering to wide circles of learned society, especially in the 1870s, when a successful war with Turkey brought Russian troops to the very outskirts of Istanbul.

The other aspect of the Byzantine debate concerned domestic issues: is Russia a unique civilization, with only one predecessor, Byzantium, or is it part of Europe? When the famous German historian Zacharia von Lingenthal proposed a theory that the Byzantine peasant commune had been a Slavic innovation, this hypothetical construct was enthusiastically embraced by the Slavophiles. However, not everyone in Russia regarded the Slavic ‘link’ as indispensable. Konstantin Leontiev, a diplomat and philosopher, despised the Slavs and adored Byzantium. He used it as a symbol of theocracy, which he then offered as a model for emulation. ‘Byzantium gave us all our strength’, he wrote. ‘Under its banner we shall withstand the onslaught of the entire Europe if indeed it dares impose on us the rot and filth of its prescriptions for an earthly paradise’. Of course, he knew next to nothing about Byzantium — to him it was but an ideal construct. In his book Byzantism and Slavdom, which has been highly respected, praised and criticized ever since its publication in 1875, Byzantium proper is mentioned just a few times. Yet Leontiev was the first to coin the term ‘Byzantism’ (as opposed to ‘Byzantinism’), which became commonly used by the admirers of the Empire as a label for a benign tyranny. As a counterbalance, another new coinage, ‘byzantischina’,* emerged as the equivalent of the Western derogatory epithets, such as the German ‘Byzantinismus’ or the French ‘Byzantiner’. The debate about the Byzantine legacy involved prominent public figures such as Alexander Herzen, who condemned Byzantium for ‘debility’, as well as Vladimir Soloviev and Vasilii Rozanov. Rozanov, one of the greatest and most original thinkers of the Russian ‘Silver Age’, objected to Leontiev’s utopian constructs; his observations were so sharp that they are worth quoting at some length:

When, in what epoch were we particularly imbued with Byzantine principles? Wouldn’t everyone agree that it was during the time when Moscow was building the Russian state? But if that is so, why did we absorb these principles not during the period of our child-like receptiveness when Byzantium was alive and close to us, but at the time of our distrustful seclusion when Byzantium had already fallen? … Don’t the Byzantine origins of the Muscovite way of life represent a phenomenon that is far more illusory than real? … So when Byzantium was transformed from a powerful and attractive empire into a slave of Islam … that’s when we want Russia to be imbued with the principles of Byzantium. Isn’t that an illusion? Aren’t we ascribing to the imitation our deeply original and unique aspects? … Sophisticated and depraved Byzantium that mixed abstract disputes of theological and philosophical nature with orgies, with the noise and debauchery of the circus, can hardly be seriously regarded as an antecedent and prototype for Muscovy — morosely silent, stubbornly persistent, far more forceful than devious, so universally unrefined in its thought, taste and emotional inclinations.

Never afraid of internal contradictions, Rozanov in his later writings embraced the idea that Byzantium in fact did play a great role in Russian history, but that its role was negative: ‘Has the millennium of Byzantism in Russia done any good? One can answer with one’s hand on one’s heart: no, it has not! Then be consistent and help liberate Russia from the yoke of Byzantism’.

As the Russian Empire entered the twentieth century, Russian Byzantinism was at its peak: the conquest of the Straits (Bosphoros/Dardanelles) and the erection of a cross over St Sophia were the prime goals of Russian foreign policy. The public sentiments of the time can be illustrated by the fact that in 1912, a young Osip Mandelshtam, whose family tradition barely had any connection with the imperial Orthodox yearnings — he was a Jew who had recently moved with his parents from Poland to St Petersburg — wrote enthusiastic poems about Sophia of Constantinople:

1.
Hagia Sophia — here to stop and stare
The Lord has ordered people and the tsars!
Your dome, as an eyewitness once described it,
As if by chains is hanging from the stars.

2.
To all a shining light — age of Justinian,
When to steal off for foreign gods unseen
Dedicated Diana the Ephesian
Hundred and seven marble columns green.

3.
To what aspired your generous creator,
When high in spirit and in reason blessed,
He laid your features on the ground
And pointed them directions east and west?

4.
The temple shines, in the world’s aura bathing,
And forty windows — triumph of the light;
On sails under the dome the four archangels
Finest of all and basking in delight.

5.
This building will outlast people and ages
So wise and spherical and nobly built
And incandescent weeping of the angels
Will not corrode away the darkened gilt.

The idea that Russia itself was the reincarnation of Byzantium was mot graphically reflected in the architectural style referred to as ‘Byzantine’. This emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century, when 40 ‘Byzantine’ cathedrals were completed all across the Russian Empire as well as beyond Russian borders: in Greece, in Bulgaria, and even in France and Germany (in Biarritz and Kissingen). The most ostentatious and grand among them was the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas in Kronstadt, whose similarity to Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, both in its exterior and interior decorations, is striking.

Byzantine Studies was one of the pillars of the Russian humanities. In Turkey, the Russian Archaeological Institute in Constantinople held a leading position among the city’s European academic institutions. Naturally the vast majority of scholars involved in Byzantine Studies were monarchists or at least conservatives. The only republican among them was Pavel Bezobrazov, whose book about Michael Psellos was a veiled critique of the Russian imperial bureaucracy. This tradition of ‘Aesopian language’, talking of Byzantium but implying Russia, was later used by Soviet Byzantinists.

The outbreak of World War I further spurred public debate. In 1915, the leading Byzantinist Fyodor Uspenskii submitted to Tsar Nicholas II a memo detailing the urgent steps to be taken after the Russian takeover of Constantinople. In the same year, Archbishop Antonii Khrapovitskii, one of Russia’s most influential clerics (he was the first contender for the Patriarchate) published a plea for the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in its original borders — in a sense, his dreams were even bolder than the appetites of the [Greek irredentist -ed.] ‘Megali Idea’. Yet the official position on Istanbul was less favourable to the Greeks. On 3 March 1915, Tsar Nicholas II told the French ambassador (whose name, ironically, was Paleologue), ‘The city of Constantinople and southern Thrace must be annexed to my Empire’. After the Entente Cordiale accepted his claim, the capture of Tsar’grad looked imminent. On Christmas Day, 1916, the mystical poet Vyacheslav Ivanov implored, ‘Oh Rus’, when you wrap yourself in the purple robes of Tsar’grad, do not serve worldly interests’.

The February revolution of 1917 did not stop the imperial hysteria; instead, the Byzantine question became even more acute. In the atmosphere of overwhelming uncertainty after the fall of the monarchy, some theologians blamed Byzantium for excessive gnosticism and asceticism, which, in their minds, were later planted into the Russian psyche.

The Bolsheviks who came to power in October 1917 could not have cared less about Byzantium, but those on the other side of the barricades did not forget about it: the abrupt collapse of the formidable edifice of the Russian Empire compelled religious and political thinkers to search for the roots of this catastrophe. The famous theologian Sergii Bulgakov,** for example, blamed Byzantium for the loneliness of the Russian culture, which made it vulnerable to pernicious influences.

Together with Christianity, at that fateful moment Russia also adopted all Byzantine insularity and its constraints; it became separated from the whole Western, Christian Europe by a “Great Wall” and remained isolated … Meanwhile, Byzantium’s attitude towards Russia was never sincere or warm, but always arrogant and hollow-hearted.

Bulgakov’s book At the Walls of Chersonnesos, written at the end of the brutal Civil War, in the atmosphere of terror and despair, was all about Byzantium and its legacy, as if they were the primary concerns of the time. The writer Alexei Tolstoy, one of the Russian emigres in Constantinople in 1920, describes the bitter disappointment of a White-Guard officer in this deceptive imperial dream: ‘Byzantium, may it go to hell! So much of our Russian blood has been spilled for this damn Byzantium. It’s the usual Russian stupidity all over again!’

To the Bolsheviks, Byzantium was one of the attributes of tsarism; more generally, for people of the new, avant-garde era, it became a symbol of everything dilapidated, moth-eaten and dusty. From the late 1920s through to the late 1930s, the very word ‘Byzantine’ was banned and was used only in quotation marks. Byzantine scholars became the targets of repressions; Vladimir Beneshevich, the most prominent among them, was executed.

* Russian uses the -schina suffix to attach an evaluative negative judgment to a period or concept; for example, a term like Stalinism (whatever its specific connotations) is a neutral description, whereas Stalinschina conveys the speaker’s scorn. One common way to refer to Stalinism’s apex of secret policing and internal purges is by reference to his notorious police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — hence, the yezhovschina.

** No relation to the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

Tags: , , , , , ,

1954: Jonas Žemaitis, Lithuanian Forest Brother

Add comment November 26th, 2019 Headsman

Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Jonas Žemaitis was shot in Moscow’s Butyrka prison on this date in 1954. He’s one of the big names in the Forest Brothers movement that kept up a hopeless fight against Moscow from 1944 into the 1950s.

An artillerist of Polish ancestry who deserted the retreating Red Army and surrendered himself the Wehrmacht arriving in the summer 1941, Žemaitis is breezily credited in state histories (and as of this writing, both English and Lithuanian Wikipedia pages) of essentially taking the war years off because “he did not want to serve the Nazis.” That was sure considerate of the Nazis! Instead the fellow just mined peat since he preferred not to get involved.

Now, peat production was and is an important economic sector in Lithuania; indeed, even this seemingly innocuous activity hints at exploitation of Jewish slave labor. But there is circumstantial and even eyewitness evidence that Žemaitis’s participation in one of the Reich’s most thorough exterminations was quite a bit more nefarious than vegetation management.

One could turn here to Joseph Melamed, a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto who collected witness testimonies and published thousands of names of alleged Lithuanian “Jew-Shooters” (zydsaudys). Melamed has charged that Žemaitis put his Polish fluency to use facilitating genocide and “having proved his efficiency and diligence in murdering Jews, was rewarded by the SS and promoted to the rank of Colonel” in the Police Battalions, Lithuanian paramilitaries that worked hand in glove with Nazi executioners.*

Or alternatively, one could rely on the plain fact that Žemaitis was a trained, early-30s officer in a desperate war zone where everyone was being pressed into action, and that anti-Soviet fighters afterwards treated him as a General. That’s not the profile of a figure who simply kept his head down while the Great War raged past him.

The post-USSR independent state of Lithuania, which has not been shy about whitewashing Holocaust collaborators, absolutely rejects such inferences and has retroactively elevated Žemaitis to its officially recognized head of state during his postwar resistance; there’s a Vilnius military academy that’s named for him.

* Melamed is now deceased but during his latter years Vilnius accused him of slander. Modern Lithuania is ferociously determined about apotheosizing the Forest Brothers; officially, the Venn diagram between wartime genocidaires and the postwar anti-Soviet resistance consists of two different shapes on two different planets.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Heads of State,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,USSR

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

December 2020
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!