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.”

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1938: Vladimir Varankin, Esperantist

Add comment October 3rd, 2019 Headsman

Russian writer Vladimir Varankin was executed on this date in 1938, during Stalin’s purges.

Varankin got interested in the international Esperanto language movement as a secondary school student in Nizhny Novgorod during the ecstatic months following the Bolshevik Revolution, and he founded an Esperantist club there that soon reached throughout the province.* This was the high-water moment for the Esperanto movement, now 30 years mature since its founding: World War I had shattered the international system and spawned small states and revolutionary governments shaping a new world on the fly. Esperanto would have been adopted by the League of Nations for official use but for the furious resistance of jealous France.

For the same reason that it interested visionaries and radicals, the language attracted the suspicion of authoritarians; in Mein Kampf Hitler denounced Esperanto as an insidious Semitic project.

the language spoken at the time by the Jew … is never a means of expressing his thoughts, but for hiding them. When he speaks French, he thinks Jewish, and when he turns out German poetry, he only gives an outlet to the nature of his people.

As long as the Jew has not become the master of the other peoples, he must, whether he likes it or not, speak their languages, and only if they would be his slaves then they might all speak a universal language so that their domination will be made easier (Esperanto!).

Esperantists became targets for political persecution in the Third Reich as a result.

In Soviet Russia, the utopian 1920s offered a far more congenial scene. These were the years Varankin came into himself and as he advanced in life, so did his enthusiasm for the artificial tongue. The late 1920s find him living in Moscow, teaching at the pedagogical institute and churning out a corpus of Esperanto books (Theory of Esperanto, the ideologically calibrated Esperanto for Workers) as well as study curricula. His magnum opus, the 1933 novel Metropoliteno, was also composed in Esperanto.

But Stalin’s purge years soon cast a pall over Esperanto and much else besides — even though Stalin actually studied a little Esperanto himself in his youth, according to Trotsky. (Pray, good reader, for Koba’s Esperanto instructors.) In about 1937 he abruptly reversed the Soviet Union’s formerly benign view of Esperanto; now, the movement’s internationalism would be held to affiliate it with the purported foreign cabals whose subversions furnished the pretext for demolishing so many lives. In Varankin’s case, and facilitated by an unauthorized visit he had made to an Esperanto conference in Germany many years before, the charge — unanswerable in those terrible days — was that his Esperantist circles comprised a network of fascist spies and saboteurs overseen by enemies abroad.

The verdict against him was posthumously reversed in 1957.

* The regional environs of present-day Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, of which the city Nizhny Novgorod is the capital; in Varankin’s youth, this was a gubernia, a regional unit held over from the deposed imperial administration. Russia’s “states” were greatly redrawn and redefined during the first decade of the Soviet experiment, and gubernias were abolished in 1929.

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1937: Alexander Shlyapnikov, Workers’ Opposition leader

Add comment September 2nd, 2018 Headsman

September 2 was the execution date during the purge year of 1937 for Old Bolshevik trade unionist Alexander Shlyapnikov.

The metalworker Shlyapnikov was a man who came by his revolutionary politics right from the shop floor. At the age of 10 he left school to work in a foundry, “having learnt to read and write. School was no mother to me, and it was not the teachers who educated me … the teachers were young and very rude, and they often meted out justice to their young charges with their fists. Even during these years, life taught me that there is no justice in this world.” (Source) Born to an Old Believer family, his fervor for justice had an initial religious bent, but after moving from provincial Murom to St. Petersburg/Petrograd* he discarded godliness and became a labor militant of sufficient stature to start turning up on blacklists before he was out of his teens.

During the political chill following Russia’s failed 1905 revolution, the oft-arrested Shliapikov worked abroad in western Europe — by now both a master of his difficult craft, and a Bolshevik who had led an armed rising in his hometown of Murom. Here he became socially and politically close with Lenin and all the brand-name Communist exiles, as well as with European labor unions and left parties.

He also shuttled to and from Russia coordinating the movement’s internal and external actors; he’s left us a memoir of the political maneuvers and adventurous border-crossings of these years. Thanks to this role, Shliapnikov was the most senior Bolshevik on the scene in Petrograd when the February Revolution broke out; he was immediately a key figure in the Petrograd Soviet, and was the Bolshevik state’s first Commissar for Labor.

As the newborn USSR solidified in form and function, Shlyapnikov nursed growing concerns about its distance from — and tendency to run roughshod over — actual workers. He soon became a leading voice for the Workers’ Opposition** around 1919 to 1921. Where the Bolsheviks held that theirs was an ascendant workers’ polity that had subsumed mere guilds, Shlyapnikov insisted on the trade unions as distinct from the Soviet state and the Communist party — “a syndicalist deviation” in Lenin’s charge. The Workers’ Opposition was prescient in its critique of the once-utopian project’s creeping bureaucratizm, with real workers’ material interests, dissenting perspectives, and local idiosyncracies giving way everywhere to the center’s policy orthodoxy dictated through “apparatuses of power … located practically in hands alien to the interests of the working class.” (Source)

Although prominent in its day, the Workers’ Opposition viewpoint was not destined to carry forward into Soviet theory or practice. After bread shortages drove workers and sailors at Kronstadt into a rebellion that the Bolsheviks crushed in 1921, the Workers’ Opposition tendency was quashed within the party. Shlyapnikov thereafter held second-rate posts, and was several times investigated by the Communist Party for “factionalism,” finally being expelled under Stalin in 1933.†

He was favored with a 2016 biography by Barbara C. Allen, Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik (review). Allen discussed Shlyapnikov in an interview with the indispensable Sean’s Russia Blog podcast, here. We yield to Allen’s description of Shlyapnikov’s demise among the purging of Old Bolsheviks following the Kirov affair — tragic, banal, and heroic in his plain refusal to gratify his persecutors with any manner of confession or groveling.

In April 1937 he was accused according to article 58-8 and 58-11 of the RSFSR law code of having led a counterrevolutionary group called the Workers’ Opposition, of having linked up with the ‘counterrevolutionary Trotskyist-Zinovievist terrorist bloc’ and of having ‘tried to conclude a bloc with Ruth Fischer for joint struggle against the policy and measures of the Comintern.’ It alleged that he advocated ‘individual terror’ and that groups he directed in Omsk, Rostov-on-Don, Kiev, Odessa, Baku, Kharkov and Moscow had ‘prepared and tried to realise the murder of comrade Stalin.’ Acknowledging that Shlyapnikov did not confess his guilt, the accusation established it through the testimony of Zinoviev, Safarov, Vardin and others. It recommended that the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court should try him and apply the 1 December 1934 law. Applying to cases of terrorist acts, this law ordered the immediate execution of capital-punishment sentences, with no appeals.

The USSR Supreme Court Military Collegium met on 2 September 1937 in closed session to sentence Shlyapnikov, who appeared before the court in a two-hour long session. Refusing to admit his guilt, he also detailed his objections to others’ testimony against him. Given the last word, Shlyapnikov declared that he was ‘not hostile towards soviet power.’ Perhaps as a last ironic remark, he confessed guilt only to ‘a liberal attitude towards those around him.’ Nevertheless, the court on the same day found him guilty under article 58, paragraphs 8 and 11, of having led ‘an anti-Soviet terrorist organisation, the so-called “Workers’ Opposition,”‘ which carried out ‘counterrevolutionary activity directed towards the topping of soviet power.’ He was convicted of having been in contact with ‘leaders of Trotskyist-Zinovievist and Right-Bukharinist terrorist organisations’ and of having ordered members of his ‘anti-Soviet organisation’ to carry out ‘terrorist acts’ against party and government leaders. Then the Military Collegium sentenced him to ‘the highest measure of punishment — execution by shooting with confiscation of all personal property.’ Below this was pencilled: ‘the sentence was carried out on that day in Moscow.’ Despite ‘eyewitness’ tales that he survived for years longer, either abroad or under a false name in the Gulag, documents attest to the fact that shortly after his 1937 execution, Alexander Shlyapnikov’s body was cremated and buried in Donskoy cemetery in a common grave.

* Peter the Great‘s jewel was still St. Petersburg when Shlyapnikov arrived there in the last years of the 19th century; it was renamed Petrograd in 1914 and carried that name during the events of the 1917 revolutions and thereafter. It became Leningrad in 1926, a name that stuck for the remainder of the Soviet era.

** Alexandra Kollontai was also a noteworthy Workers’ Opposition exponent; her apologia makes for sad reading considering the Soviet state’s coming vector towards sclerotic authoritarianism.

† Stalin’s ideological mediocrity is commonplace observation but perhaps its signal instance occurred upon his arrival to revolutionary Petrograd before Lenin: where Shlyapnikov was refusing to entangle the Bolsheviks with the Provisional Government (post-February revolution, pre-October revolution), Stalin insisted on a more moderate and cooperative attitude. When Lenin arrived shortly thereafter, his April Theses famously re-set Bolshevik policy in Shlyapnikov’s more intransigent direction — a defeat to which Stalin owed the Bolshevik conquest of power and his own eventual opportunity to execute men like Shlyapnikov.

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1961: Rokotov and Faibishenko, black marketeers

Add comment July 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1961,* two 22-year-old Soviet men were — very much to their surprise — shot as black market currency speculators.

Ian Timofeyevich Rokotov and Vladik Petrovich Faibishenko were leaders of a small ring of illicit currency traders who made their bones swapping Soviet rubles with foreign visitors at a handsome markup, earning “wealth” on the scale of moderate personal ease that seems laughable compared to their homeland’s present-day oligarchy. Among this nine-person ring, authorities recovered 344,000 Russian rubles plus about $19,000 in gold coins and a few thousands each of various western European currencies.

These deeds augmented the inherently parasitic act of profiteering by the inherently subversive act of making unchaperoned contact with foreign visitors, at a moment when the Soviet state was particularly sensitive to both infractions. This was nearly the exact apex of the Cold War, in the tense months between the U-2 Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis.** “Peaceful coexistence,” Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev said in a 1961 address, means “intense economic, political, and ideological struggle between the proletariat and the aggressive forces of imperialism in the world arena.”

In a 13-day trial concluding on June 15, Rokotov and Faibishenko were sentenced along with another of their circle, Nadia Edlis, to 15 years in prison. You might think that’s a stern message sent, but the excitable Khrushchev took an almost personal offense to their behavior and on viewing the intentionally nettlesome exhibition of the black marketeers’ banknote heaps, exclaimed, “They need to be shot for this!”

The minor matter of having no capital statute on the books for the occasion was resolved on July 1 by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which introduced the death penalty for major economic crimes; the statute was then immediately deployed to retroactive effect in a new trial before the Russian Republic Supreme Court.

Many people more would face capital punishment for economic crimes under that 1961 law.

* The official execution date is elusive but press reports indicate that the Soviet news agency TASS announced it on July 26. Given that their final condemnation had occurred only five days previous, we fall at worst within a narrow margin of error.

** Also of note: the USSR had just revalued the ruble as of January 1, 1961.

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1951: Arno Esch, liberal

Add comment July 24th, 2018 Headsman

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.

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1575: Archbishop Leonid of Novgorod

Add comment October 20th, 2017 Headsman

Jack Culpepper’s “The Kremlin Executions of 1575 and the Enthronement of Simeon Bekbulatovich” (Slavic Review, September, 1965) notes a single anonymous chronicle dating to the early 17th century alluding to a mysterious Kremlin purge … several years after the notorious Oprichnina.

Regarding the other executions of the same year in Moscow on the square near the Uspensky Cathedral, the Tsar disgraced many individuals, ordering the execution within the Kremlin and in his presence, on the square near the Uspensky Cathedral, of the following: the boyar Prince Petr Kurakin, Protasii Iur’ev, the archbishop of Novgorod, the protopope of the Arkhangel’sky Cathedral, Ivan Buturlin, Nikita Borozdin, the archimandrite of the Chudov Monastery, and many others. Their heads were thrown before the residences of Prince Ivan Mstislavsky, the metropolitan, Ivan Sheremetev, Andrei Shchelkalov, and others.

According to Culpepper that Archbishop of Novgorod, Leonid by name, faced the executioner on October 20, 1575 after being summoned to a sobor — but no records preserve the conclave’s deliberations or the proceedings against Archbishop Leonid. Others both secular and ecclesiastical shared his fate throughout that autumn. (Ivan had no compunctions when it came to burdening his soul with the death of a clergyman.)

A Holy Roman Empire courtier who reached Moscow late that year would record by way of explanation for the bloodbath that the perennially paranoid Ivan had put to death some forty nobles for a suspected interest in his assassination.

This supposed plot against him is one possible reason for Ivan’s strange decision around the same time to faux-abdicate the throne. In September or October of 1575, Ivan plucked the ruler of a vestigial khanate dependency and made this gentleman, Simeon Bekbulatovich, Grand Prince of Rus’.

Ivan, of course, maintained the real power; he would claim to an English visitor that it was a ruse to throw off his murderers, telling him:

we highlye forsawe the varyable and dungerous estate of princes and that as well as the meanest they are subiect unto chaunge which caused us to suspect oure owne magnificence and that which nowe inded ys chaunced unto us for we have resyned the estate of our government which heathertoo hath bene so royally maynteyned into the hands of a straunger whoe is nothinge alyed unto us our lande or crowne. The occasion whereof is the perverse and evill dealinge of our subiects who mourmour and repine at us for gettinge loyaull obedience they practice againste our person. The which to prevent we have gyvene them over unto an other prince to governe them but have reserved in our custodye all the treasure of the lande withe sufficient trayne and place for their and our relyefe.

Ivan did indeed relieve his proxy tsar the very next year, demoting him to Prince of Tver and Torzhok. Despite the approaching “Time of Troubles” crisis following Ivan’s death when nobles would struggle for the right to sire the next Muscovite dynasty, the still-living former Grand Prince was such an absurd character that he never figured as a contender for the crown. (He would be forced into a monastery, however.) Bekbulatovich died naturally in 1616.

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1718: Stepan Glebov, lover of the tsarina

1 comment March 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* the vengeful tsar Peter the Great staged a horrible execution on Moscow’s Red Square.

Stepan Glebov was the collateral damage of Peter’s ferocious conflict with his ill-favored crown prince Tsarevich Alexei — the whelp who had only recently been repatriated to his glowering father after fleeing Russia altogether, to cap a lifetime of letting dad down. Alexei was back in Peter’s clutches, and a few months from the events in this post would be shockingly knouted to death at Peter’s orders.

This Freudian clash also mapped sharply onto Russia’s political schisms (and many of the links in this post are to Russian pages). Alexei was the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia [or Evdokia] Feodorovna Lopukhina, a princess whom the teenage Peter had been required to wed as part of the political logrolling involved in overcoming the 1680s regency of his sister Sofia.

Peter had achieved that victory, definitively, and once it was secured it didn’t take him long to tire of both Eudoxia and of the stagnant boyar class she represented. Peter was all about westernizing the motherland; what better way to start than by immuring his Russian bride in a monastery** and grabbing a German merchant’s daughter for a mistress?


Out. (Painting by Evgeny Alexandrovich Demakov, from this Russian-language page)

The blows were borne together by Eudoxia, by her devout son Alexei, and by that part of traditional and Orthodox Russia horrified by Peter’s innovations. Resentments ran along the familiar channels, here to an immoderate fantasy of deliverance come Peter’s death and there to dangerous plans to immanentize same.

When exposed by to Peter’s hostile gaze little distance would there seem between these varietals.

When Alexei returned to face Peter’s investigation, the old man turned his harsh scrutiny on the ex, knowing her to be a locus of opposition. She was found living outside the monastery in secular garb, having taken an officer named Stepan Glebov as her lover. Their correspondence was ransacked by persecutors determined to discover indicia of treasonable scheming therein. Dozens of associates and monastery monks and nuns would be caught up in the affair, damned for anything from failing to prevent the former queen’s dalliance to plotting against the life of Tsar Peter. Most were stripped of rank and sent to exile with various forms of corporal punishment — whipping, severed nostrils, tongues sliced out — but several would be tortured to death or executed on the breaking-wheel including Dositheus, Bishop of Rostov, a confidante of Eudoxia who had allegedly prophesied Alexei’s triumph over his father, and Alexander Kikin, a mentor of Alexei’s who had helped to arrange his escape from Russia.

But upon Glebov, miserable man, Peter would give free rein to his amazing talent for cruelty: the lover to be impaled alive on a stake artfully inserted to miss all vital organs so as to maximize his suffering; some accounts even give it out that the naked Glebov was bundled in furs for the freezing winter’s execution, that he might endure his pains the longer.

Glebov survived impalement for over 14 hours, only dying after 7 a.m. on the morning of March 16. Folklore (it’s probably just that) has it that, importuned on that stake by the tsar to admit to the treasonable conspiracy, Glebov justifiably retorted that he had refused such a confession under unspeakable torment in Peter’s dungeons, so why would he break now? “Depart, and let me die in peace so that you may live without peace.”

Eudoxia’s brother Avram was also put to death in December 1718. She herself was shut up in Shlisselburg fortress for the balance of Peter’s life, but she would survive to see her grandson (Alexei’s son) take the throne in 1727 as Peter II.

* Julian date: it was March 26 on the Gregorian calendar.

** Suzdal‘s Pokrovsky Monastery.

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1946: Gen. Leopold Okulicki murdered in Soviet prison

1 comment December 24th, 2015 Headsman

The fate of the last Commander in Chief of Home Army General Leopold Okulicki “Niedzwiadka”, imprisoned in Moscow and murdered there, symbolize the postwar fate of the Home Army and of Poland.

-2012 resolution of the Polish parliament

On this date in 1946, Polish Home Army General Leopold Okulicki was murdered by the NKVD in a Moscow prison.

Okulicki (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Polish) embarked his military career at the tender age of 16, when he ditched school in favor of an Austrian legion on the eastern front of World War I — then segued directly into newly independent Poland‘s subsequent war against the Soviets.

Already a veteran soldier, Okulicki proceeded to the Warsaw military academy and made soldiering his career. He had advanced to the brass by the time Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland in 1939. Okulicki had the tragic honor to maintain the hopeless defense of Warsaw, but went underground thereafter with the remains of the Polish state — hunted by Germans and Soviets alike.

The NKVD caught him in January 1941, but his residence in the discomfiting environs of Lubyanka prison was ended by the Soviet Union’s arrangement with Poland following Operation Barbarossa. Paroled back into the field, he played a leading part for the Polish Home Army for the balance of the war — finally becoming its supreme commander in the last weeks of the war.

Now that the Nazis were no longer knocking on the gates of Moscow, the Soviets renewed their interest in detaining Okulicki, which was again effected with relative ease. (Comparing German and Soviet secret police, Okulicki would say that the NKVD made the Gestapo look like child’s play.) Sentenced “only” to a 10-year prison term at the Russians’ postwar show trial of Polish leadership, Okulicki disappeared into Soviet detention and was never seen again.

In the Khrushchev era, the USSR revealed that Okulicki had died on Christmas eve of 1946 at Butyrka prison; subsequent revelations of the medical records there revealed that he had succumbed to organ damage suggestive of having been beaten to death — perhaps as punishment for hunger-striking.

The post-Communist Russian state has posthumously exonerated Okulicki of his show-trial conviction; he is, of course, an honored figure in post-Communist Poland where many streets and squares bear his name.


Plaque honoring Gen. Okulicki in Warsaw. (cc) image from Tadeusz Rudzki.

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1689: Fyodor Shaklovity, marking the arrival of Peter the Great

Add comment October 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date* in 1689, Fyodor Shaklovity was beheaded in Russia: a signal of the transfer of imperial power just days before to the young Peter the Great.

A commoner who rose to the apex of political power — or at least its orbit — Shaklovity (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was the “second favorite”** of Sophia Alekseyevna during her run as the Russian regent in the 1680s.

She was able to occupy this position because the last tsar had died without issue in 1682. The result was a shaky power-share split between two male tsars who could not rule: Ivan, who was mentally disabled, and Peter, who was 10 years old.

But the problem with 10-year-olds is that, seven years later, they become 17-year-olds.

By 1689, Peter was chafing at his sister’s power. As the regent, how much longer could she expect to rule the tsar now that he was no longer a boy?

A disturbance on the night of August 7, 1689 brought the matter to a head. Moscow’s Streltsy, a body of soldiers who had murderously run amok in the Kremlin in 1682, paraded or demonstrated near the Kremlin.

Shaklovity would claim that this was nothing but a bodyguard for the routine procession of Sophia, but Peter — either actually alarmed or simulating it — bolted to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius north of Moscow and “immediately threw himself upon a bed and fell a weeping bitterly.”†

Peter accused Shaklovity of attempting to incite another Streltsy rising to win power for Sophia, and maybe that’s exactly what happened. But it might also have been the case that Peter’s party cynically engineered the crisis to force a confrontation.

In either event, the two rivals were now holed up in their respective compounds (Sophia’s was the Kremlin). The standoff never came to blows, for it soon demonstrated that Sophia’s support was distinctly inferior to Peter’s, to whom the legitimate government apparatus increasingly gravitated.‡ Muscovite soldiers, foreign diplomats, and even the Streltsy began abandoning Moscow for Peter’s monastery.

Sophia’s regency ended in September, and the proof of her capitulation was acceding to Peter’s demand that she hand over the “blatant criminal” Shaklovity for condign punishment as a failed regicide. Despite the late hour (10 p.m.), a vast concourse of commoners and elites alike saw Shaklovity’s head axed off by torchlight on the main road near the Trinity-St. Sergius monastery.

Peter had arrived: and over the next two generations, he would bend all Russia to his will.

* Per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time.

** Per Peter the Great: A Biography, by Lindsey Hughes. The first favorite was Golitsyn, whom Peter exiled.

† Hughes, op. cit., quoting the diaries of the fascinating Scottish general Patrick Gordon, whose loyalty to Peter in 1689 helped to decide the conflict.

‡ The disastrous Russian performance in Crimean campaigns launched by Sophia did the regent no favors.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Treason

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1634: Mikhail Borisovich Shein, for failing to take Smolensk

Add comment April 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1634, the Russian general Mikhail Borisovich Shein was executed on Red Square for losing to the Poles.

Shein (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an accomplished boyar officer who had made his bones during Russia’s Time of Troubles.

During the Time of Troubles — 15 war-torn years following the end of Ivan the Terrible‘s dynasty — the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had eagerly exploited Russia’s chaos, invading Russia, backing an imposter who tried to claim the throne, and at last settling for tearing off a chunk of territory in war.

By the 1630s, Russia had her shit back together under the first Romanov tsar, and when the Polish king died in 1632 saw an opportunity to return stripe for stripe on its opportunistic neighbor.

This was the Smolensk War, so named because the recapture of that city was its primary objective. Shein, the respected elder military statesman who had lost Smolensk to a Polish siege twenty-odd years before, was just the man to lead the campaign.

The span of time tested by the 1632-1633 Russian siege was not merely that measured by the larder of Smolensk’s vastly outnumbered garrison — but that of Poland-Lithuania’s unwieldy succession process. Although the successor king was self-evident, the span required for his actual election left a six-month interregnum: nothing compared to the Time of Troubles, but perhaps enough for a frontier reversal.

But as it happened, Shein could not force Smolensk’s capitulation in 1633 and by the latter half of that year a superior Polish army was arriving. By October of 1633, a year after the Russians had begun hostilities, not only was the siege of Smolensk broken, but the Russian camp itself was encircled by the Poles. Having no prospect of a relief force such had just delivered his enemies, Shein could not hold out for even a single Friedman Unit and soon surrendered. He received liberal terms: the Russians had to abandon their artillery, but Shein’s army returned to Moscow unharmed, with its standards.


The Surrender of the Russian Garrison of Smolensk before Vladislaus IV Vasa of Poland, by an unknown Polish artist (c. 1634)

Having seen their jolly war of choice come to such a humilitating pass, the Moscow boyars received their defeated commander in a rage. A tribunal vengefully condemned Shein, his second-in-command Artemii Vasilevich Izmailov, and Izmailov’s son Vasili, to death for treason and incompetence in command.

(According to Nancy Kollmann, a German scholar present in Russia in 1634 recorded that the execution took the men by surprise, as they had been led to believe that they would receive a last-minute commutation.)

In even the most slightly longer term, the debacle proved to be only a minor strategic setback. Poland was unable to follow up its victory with any inroads on Russian soil. That June, the two belligerents came to a peace restoring the status quo ante bellum — and they managed to pass a whole generation before they fought again.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Nobility,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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