On this date in 1951, liberal East German activist Arno Esch was shot in Lubyanka Prison outside of Moscow.
Plaque at the University of Rostock honoring Esch. (cc) image by Schiwago.
Just 17 when World War II ended, Esch emerged as a leading student activist for the Liberal Democratic Party in the postwar Soviet Occupation Zone — a pacifist who advocated political liberalization and civil rights.
These weren’t times for any common fronts: “a liberal Chinese is closer to me than a German communist,” Esch remarked, denoting a clear and present danger in the communist zone: his party attempted in vain to form a coalition across the nascent Iron Curtain with its like-minded brethren in the western zones.
Esch was arrested in 1949 and prosecuted as a spy and counterrevolutionary by a Soviet military tribunal.
Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.
Late the night of March 31-April 1, which was in 1923 the dark between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, the Catholic priest Konstanty Budkiewicz (Konstantin Budkevich) was shot in the cellars of Lubyanka.
Born to a Polish family in present-day Latvia, Budkiewicz (English Wikipedia link | Polish) went to seminary in St. Petersburg. He was in that same city, now a 50-year-old vicar-general, when the Bolshevik Revolution shook Petrograd.
Given the Bolsheviks’ anti-clericalism, this was bound to be a trying position: Catholic clergy, especially of relative prominence, faced intermittent harassment. The outlander Latin rite and any Pole’s hypothetical association with Russia’s ancient geopolitical foe only exacerbated the situation.
Matters came to a head with the March 13, 1923 arrest (Polish link) of a number of Catholic clergy. In the ensuing days, most would be convicted and sentenced to death at a show trial on the grounds of “inciting rebellion by superstition.” To be charged with “inciting rebellion by superstition” is pretty much to stand condemned for it, one would think.
New York Herald correspondent Francis McCullagh, who was present in the courtroom, would later publish his observations of the proceedings in The Bolshevik Persecution of Christianity. The proseutor, McCullagh wrote,
launched into an attack on religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. “The Catholic Church,” he declared, “has always exploited the working classes.” When he demanded the Archbishop’s death, he said, “All the Jesuitical duplicity with which you have defended yourself will not save you from the death penalty. No Pope in the Vatican can save you now.” …As the long oration proceeded, the Red Procurator worked himself into a fury of anti-religious hatred. “Your religion”, he yelled, “I spit on it, as I do on all religions, — on Orthodox, Jewish, Mohammedan, and the rest.” “There is not law here but Soviet Law,” he yelled at another stage, “and by that law you must die.”
Although information about anti-Christian hostility in the USSR tended to reach the wider world in fragmentary form only, there was an outcry in the western world over this trial’s condemnation of Budkiewicz’s boss, Archbishop Jan Cieplak, as well as that of Monsgnor Budkiewicz. International pressure would ultimately save one of those men … but only one.
Cieplak’s death sentence was commuted, and in 1924 he was even released and allowed to leave for Poland. He died in the United States in 1926.
Budkiewicz made do with grace of the celestial kind. He was whisked from his cell late on the 31st, and shot sometime overnight in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Soviet authorities were so tight-lipped and obfuscatory about his situation that the pope prayed publicly in St. Peter’s later that same day for Budkiewicz’s life to be spared. Only several days later was the accomplished fact of Budkiewicz’s execution openly confirmed.
The Polish poet Kazimiera lllakowiczówna dedicated a verse to Budkiewicz, titled The story of the Moscow martyrdom.
Budkiewicz is being investigated by the present-day Catholic church for possible beatification. (Archbishop Cieplak is, too.)
Set against the background of the Soviet moderisation process, the development of sport in the two decades from the early 1930s to the early 1950s not only established the world-recognised pattern of sport in the Soviet Union and, later, in many other communistcountries (like China, Cuba and the GDR), it also resulted in a phenomenon unprecedentedin world sports history: the arrest and execution of a host of sports personalities. No one knows the exact numberof victims; but the purges carried off five sports ministers, Olympic Committee members for the Baltic states, heads of the major physical education colleges, eminent sports scientists and medics4 and probably thousands of leading athletes.
Sports and the physical body emerged early in Soviet history as a major doctrinal focus. A 1925 party resolution (quoted in this pdf) declared it
“essential to consider physical culture not only from the standpoint of physical education and health, and as one aspect of our youth’s cultural-industrial and military training, but also as a method of educating the masses.”
Dziga Vertov’s Soviet silent masterpiece Man With A Movie Camera (1929). This clip should cue up at the sports bit (45:26), but the entire film is a must-watch.
In the Stalin years, Soviet athletics took on the institutional patterns that continue to structure Russian sport to this day.
Given his position during the time of purges, Alexander Kosarev might have been bound for a bad end regardless. At least he had the consolation of leaving his fingerprints on a sporting institution that still thrives to this day.
We get to Kosarev by way of another man, Nikolai Starostin, an elite athlete of the 1920s and 1930s.**
A hockey star as well as a footballer, Starostin supported his family with his athletic gifts in the 1920s, and in 1922 helped found the local sports club that eventually developed into one of Europe’s most storied champions.
After juggling sponsorships and team names for a decade, Starostin approached Kosarev about bringing the club under the patronage of the Communist Party’s youth organ Komsomol, which Kosarev headed. He also suggested the name by which the team is still known, Spartak Moscow — paying tribute to the ancient rebel Spartacus.†
Komsomol support was not Komsomol control, however: Spartak remained basically independent, and this set it starkly apart from the other top Soviet teams, each controlled by a state ministry and its associated industry. (e.g., Lokomotiv Moscow, or the Red Army team CSKA.‡)
The football bully on the block at the time was Dynamo Moscow, a club dating to the tsarist age that was in the ambit of the internal security services. Dynamo won the first Soviet championship in 1936.
But Spartak quickly stepped over the Lokomotivs and established itself as Dynamo’s top rival.
Football matches, like everything else in Stalinist Moscow, were about politics, bureaucratic infighting, and the characteristic through-the-looking-glass rules of the dictatorship. Spartak used a controversial goal to beat Dynamo Tblisi (there were six Dynamo teams in the top division) in a Soviet Cup semifinals in 1939, the last before World War II. After Spartak went on to win the final, the Dynamo teams’ scary patron, NKVD boss Lavrenty Beria, ordered the semifinal match replayed. Spartak, already the tournament champion, then proceeded to win its semifinal a second time, compounding Beria’s fury. The referee from the first match was later arrested.
Beria was a passionate fan of the beautiful game — the ultimate football hooligan, you might say. He frequently attended Dynamo matches.
The secret police chief had even played for a Georgian club in his youth; in fact, he had played against (and lost to) a Starostin team. (Starostin thought Beria was a dirty player. Truly the Georgian was a man who tackled life studs-up.)
In contrast to Dynamo’s establishment backing, independent Spartak didn’t even have a home stadium until 1956. Nevertheless, it soon began attracting a sizable popular following. Its tactics were less stodgy; its persona less institutionally leaden; its star, Starostin, was a legend. And Spartak won, a lot.
“The people’s team” became a pole for — not resistance, exactly. But something a little bit alienated. A little bit defiant. Sport might not be your thing, but you have to appreciate any team that can embarrass the national torturer-in-chief. You have to appreciate the opportunity to hiss the secret police under cover of innocent fandom.
Unfortunately, Spartak’s Komsomol patron Kosarev fell. There’s an apocryphal story that Kosarev’s fate was football-related; surely the rivalry did him no favors when his life was hanging in the balance.
But it was actually just the routine infighting that did Soviet bureaucrats in throughout the late 1930s. His power eroded; a Komsomol official whom Kosarev had previously booted went over his head to Stalin himself, and Uncle Joe’s apparatchiks brought him down at a November 1938 Komsomol plenum with accusations of favoritism and alcoholism. (Stalin popped in briefly to see if “maybe this is a system and not a mistake?”)
Kosarev spent November 19-22 desperately fending off accusations at the rostrum, was removed from his post by the end of the session, and resided in a Lubyanka dungeon before the month was out. And you thought your committee meetings were awful.§
Kosarev got the bullet. Spartak lived on.
So did Starostin, who was not executed but sent to the Gulag. In 1948, Stalin’s son Vasily extracted Starostin to use as a coach for the Soviet Air Force’s football team, leading to a bizarre saga as a, well, human football between Vasily and Beria. (Beria’s security services kept trying to arrest Starostin, leaving the coach shuttled from city to city as the political winds shifted — and sometimes even bunking with his young protector and the revolver Vasily kept under his pillow. All for football!)
Kosarev was rehabilitated shortly after Stalin died. Khrushchev mentioned him by name in his “secret speech” denouncing the previous years’ terror.
And since Stalin’s death precipitated Beria’s own execution, Starostin was rehabilitated as well. “It was like the sun rising in the Far North after the long Polar night,” Starostin remembered of 1953.
The exiled football legend returned to coach and manage Spartak Moscow — from 1955 until 1992, when he retired at age 90. Nikolai Starostin was associated with the club he helped create in 1922 almost as long as the Soviet Union was associated with Russia: 70 years … minus those lost to the Arctic labor camps.
“Camp bosses, arbiters of the life and death of thousands upon thousands of human beings, personifications of the GULAG brutalities and horrors, were so benevolent to anything concerning soccer,” said Starostin in his memoirs of the starstruck commandants who treated their special prisoner with kid gloves and invariably recruited Starostin to coach local clubs. (Dynamo clubs, ironically.) “Their unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of soccer over them.”
“The soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach.”
* “The Strange Story of Nikolai Starostin, Football and Lavrentii Beria,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1994). Riordan, a Briton, played for Spartak in the 1960s. (He wote an autobiography about it.)
** Nikolai was the oldest of four Kosarev brothers, all four of whom played for Spartak. All four were also arrested and tortured in 1942. Nikolai was the only one of them to remain involved in football after his release.
‡ In the 1930s, the Red Army team was known as CDKA. The reason its name changed was because a CDKA-based national team lost to Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1952 World Cup, and Stalin in a huff ordered the CDKA club dissolved.
§ Information on Kosarev’s fall and the November 1938 Komsomol plenum from Seth Bernstein’s 2011 University of Toronto graduate paper “‘Lifestyle Cannot Be Separate from Politics’: Degeneracy and Promotion in the Purge of the Soviet Komsomol Leadership, 1934-1938”. This paper no longer appears to be available online.