1764: Lt. Vasily Mirovich, for attempting to topple Catherine the Great

3 comments September 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1764, one of history’s greatest monarchs cemented her still-uncertain hold on power by beheading a rebellious lieutenant.

Ivan VI: Born under a bad tsar.

Succession in the Russian Empire had been disputatious ever since Peter the Great went and killed off his last male son, eventually putting far-flung branches of the family into a contest for power.

To skip over much regal jockeying, Peter’s vicious niece Anna, who reigned in the 1730s, had installed her infant nephew Ivan VI as successor just before her own death.

The little Tsar of All the Russias was displaced before his second birthday by Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, who clapped the former emperor in a dungeon in Schlusselburg fortress to grow up ignorant and alone, isolated from the parties who might scheme to bid for power in his name. Two Caesars are too many.

Into this dangerous scene stepped Sophia Augusta Frederica, better known to posterity by the name she took upon her politically savvy conversion to Orthodoxy: Catherine.

This Catherine immigrated to wed Elizabeth’s simpleminded heir, then overthrew him a few months into his reign.

Catherine had ultimate power, but she wasn’t yet “Catherine the Great”: as a foreigner with the late Romanov’s blood on her hands (if only indirectly), it was nowhere written that she would rule Russia for 34 brilliant years. And with the throne came its rival claimants … like Ivan, now an adult and potentially more “legitimate” than this imported German princess.

Ivan was held in Man in the Iron Mask-like secrecy, known only as “Nameless Prisoner Number One”; his warders had strict orders to murder him on the spot were any attempt made to liberate him.

Two years into Catherine’s reign, Lt. Vasily Mirovich, “a tormented young officer … with dreams of restoring his family’s fortunes,” attempted just that. As commanded, the guards put an end to Ivan’s troubles.

Those guards got cash rewards and promotions for their diligence. Mirovich got death. (Other soldiers whom he had rallied to his cause were condemned to run the gauntlet; I have been unable to ascertain if any were killed by this punishment.)

Mirovich was executed in St. Petersburg. When his head was held up to the crowd, it had a terrifying impact, the death penalty not actually having been exercised in Russia for 22 years.** Mirovich himself faced his execution calmly, convincing some of the bystanders that he was expecting to be pardoned at the last minute. His remains were left on public display until the evening, when they were burnt along with the gallows.

And so the first two years of the reign of Catherine II, who set so much store by reason and enlightened principles, had included two assassinations and an execution.

The woman of letters, the correspondent of philosophers, the Semiramis of the North … like the age’s other great enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, Catherine had to rule. She had not the luxury to dispense with statecraft’s cruel necessities.

Her admirers would have to be content with making her excuses. Fortunately, admirers always are.

“These are family matters with which I do not meddle,” wrote Voltaire. “Besides, it is not a bad thing to have a fault to repair; this engages her to make great efforts in order to force the public to esteem and admiration”

* September 26 (pdf) was the date on the Gregorian calendar then prevalent in Europe; it was September 15 by the older Julian calendar still used in Russia at the time.

** Not carrying out the death penalty had been a signature policy of Ivan’s usurper Elizabeth. The elimination of capital punishment in “backwards” Russia for an entire generation during the Age of Absolutism surely urges caution against any assumption that death penalty repeal is a one-way street.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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1842: Francisco Morazan, Central American statesman

Add comment September 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1842, church bells throughout Central America tolled in celebration of the death by firing squad of the great liberal statesman Francisco Morazan.

Morazan monuments litter Central America. Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once claimed (he later backed away from it) that this equestrian job in Tegucigalpa, Honduras was actually a remaindered statue of Napoleonic general Michel Ney.

The self-educated soldier and politician rose to helm the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America after it broke free of Spain (and a brief hitch with Mexico) but before it splintered into Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

After beating conservative forces in the field, Morazan forced upon them a slate of liberal reforms that had the knives out for him for a decade-plus: free speech, civil equality, separation of church and state guaranteed by the expulsion of clergy. As this patronizingly favorable biography from the late 19th century wrote,

His ambition was for the advancement and development of Central America; and while the means he used cannot be entirely approved, his purpose should be applauded. His crusade was quite as important in the civilization of this continent as the bloody work England attempted to accomplish in Egypt and the Soudan. He was better than his race, was far in advance of his generation …

Thanks, racist uncle.

Anyway, the Federal Republic fell apart in the late 1830s as its constituent statelets broke apart and the familiar conservatives-landowners-priests coalition started getting the upper hand on Morazan. After an 1842 landing that briefly established him as ruler of Costa Rica (he had also had shifts as the head of state of El Salvador and of Honduras), he overreached with an announcement for universal conscription to form an army that would reunite the Central American state.

“Posterity,” he said before the bullets felled him, “shall do us justice.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers

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1973: Victor Jara, among thousands in Chile’s September 11

8 comments September 15th, 2008 Headsman

At an unknown time on this evening in 1973, or else the early hours of the following day, Chilean putschists ushering in the Pinochet dictatorship machine-gunned folk singer Victor Jara near the Santiago stadium that today bears his name.

“I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” said Henry Kissinger of Allende’s election. Victor Jara had another idea.

Four days before, Chile’s September 11 had seen General Augusto Pinochet topple the elected leftist government of Salvador Allende, murdering the president in his palace. (Or, go some accounts, Allende committed suicide — “pausing only twice to reload.”)

A long pall of evil settled over the country, with all the accustomed chilling familiars: “disappeared” people, mirrored shades, Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The day after the CIA-backed coup, popular folk singer and activist Victor Jara, a pioneer of the Nueva Cancion (“New Song” movement) then teaching at Santiago’s Technical University, was among thousands of undesirables rounded up and packed off to a makeshift prison camp at the city’s Chile Stadium — a stadium Jara had performed at.*

Left there to the tender mercies of a thuggish Chilean officer, Jara was beaten and tortured over the intervening days — evocative but possibly undependable tradition holds that the guitarist’s hands were cut off, shattered or otherwise destroyed. According to the U.S.-based United States Institute of Peace,

[t]he the last day Víctor Jara was seen alive was September 15. During the afternoon he was taken out of a line of prisoners who were being transferred to the National Stadium. In the early morning of the next day, September 16, shantytown dwellers found his body, along with five others, including that of Littré Quiroga Carvajal, near the Metropolitan Cemetery. As the autopsy report states, Víctor Jara died as a result of multiple bullet wounds (44 entry wounds and 32 exit wounds).

The Commission came to the conviction that he was executed without due process of law by government agents, and hence in violation of his fundamental human rights.

To say the least.

And as the text implies, Jara was only the most recognizable name among unknown hundreds killed as the military cemented its control of the country.

Jara remains larger-than-life martyr figure in Latin America and liberation movements worldwide, but he’s almost unknown north of the Rio Grande. Pinochet was our bastard; in the weird way history writes its own geography, Jara became a political emblem behind the Iron Curtain for the perfidy of the capitalist powers: obscure in Peoria, but a household name in Potsdam, as the credit roll from this 1978 East German film suggests.**

That’s Jara himself on the soundtrack, of course. The pat conclusion for such a figure is that his art is his legacy, and that Jara’s body of work as against Pinochet’s will be a walkover in posterity. Is that enough? Pinochet died in his bed at age 91; earlier this year, the Jara case was closed in underwhelming fashion. Thirty-five years down the road, most authors of Pinochet’s human rights depredations are dead or lost or decrepit. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Victor’s widow, Joan Jara — today director of the Fundacion Victor Jara (it’s a Spanish-only site); you can hear her interviewed on Democracy Now! for the 25th anniversary of her husband’s death in 1998 — managed to leave the country with some of his works.

Her publication of a poem he wrote while imprisoned, an untitled, unfinished work generally known as “Estadio Chile,” made it a signature cry of hope amid desperation. Here it is in the Spanish rough-hewn under the shadow of death; there’s an English translation here.

Somos cinco mil
en esta pequena parte de la ciudad.
Somos cinco mil
¿Cuantos seremos en total
en las ciudades de todo el pais?
Solo aqui, diez mil manos que sembran
y hacen andar las fabricas.

¡Cuanta humanidad
con hambre, frio, panico, dolor
presion moral, terror y locura!

…¡Y Mexico, Cuba y el mundo?
¡Que gritan esta ignomonia!

Somos diez mil manos menos
que no producen.
¿Cuanto somos en toda la Patria?
La sangre del companero Presidente
golpea mas fuerte que bombas y metrallas.
Asi golpeara nuestro puno nuevamente.

¡Canto que mal me sales
cuando tengo que cantar espanto!
Espanto como el que vivo
como el que muero, espanto.

De verme entre tanto y tantos
momentos de infinito
en que el silencio y el grito
son las metas de este canto.
Lo que veo nunca vi,
lo que he sentido y lo que siento
hara brotar el momento…

Whether or not it’s enough, his work is his legacy after all.

* Some 7,000 people were held at Chile Stadium in the days after the coup, most later moved in with other detainees at the larger Estadio Nacional. The USIP excerpt alludes to Jara being pulled out for execution during such a move.

** In a similar vein, Stanford has a small online exhibit of Jara-themed East German propaganda art. Not to be outdone, there’s a Soviet rock opera about Jara, and an asteroid discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named in Jara’s honor within a week of his execution.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Torture

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