1934: Leonid Nikolaev, Kirov’s assassin

3 comments December 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Leonid Nikolaev was convicted and (an hour later) shot for the murder of Leningrad communist leader Sergei Kirov.

Nikolaev was a disaffected young man who’d come of age during the Revolution and latterly been expelled from the Party for his bad attitude. He took his frustration out on December 1, 1934, when he stalked into the (suspiciously unguarded) office of Kirov and shot him dead.

The victim was much the more consequential figure in this transaction — both in life, and in death. Kirov’s murder would stand as a Reichstag fire moment unleashing the darkest years of Stalinist purges.

Kirov was an old Bolshevik agitator from way back. Widely respected, he’d been the party boss of Leningrad for nearly a decade, and a few months before his murder was overwhelmingly elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the party Congress.

He was also, perhaps, seen by anti-Stalin factions within the party as a potential pole of resistance to Stalin* — though his weight as an “opposition” figure has also grown with the hindsight knowledge of what came next.

Kirov’s assassination was a double gift to the Kremlin, for not only did it remove the impediment himself, it licensed a furious security crackdown against the “terrorists” who orchestrated it. Said terrorists conveniently turned out to be dozens upon dozens (and indirectly, thousands upon thousands) of officials whom Stalin found convenient to destroy. “Kirov was killed in Leningrad,” Bukharin remarked upon hearing the news. “Now Koba [Stalin] will shoot us all.”

Within weeks of the murder, the exiled Trotsky was coming to the same conclusion, and charged that the Kirov investigation’s purposes was

to terrorize completely all critics and oppositionists, and this time not by expulsion from the party, nor by depriving them of their daily bread, nor even by imprisonment or exile, but by the firing squad. To the terrorist act of Nikolaev, Stalin replies by redoubling the terror against the party.

Stalin personally oversaw the investigation, even personally interrogated Nikolaev. And no surprise: the investigation’s casualties multiplied with alacrity.

The first commissar who made it to the murder scene “fell out of a truck” the very next day. Nikolaev’s mother, wife, siblings, and other associates were all disappeared and executed. 104 prisoners already under lock and key at the time of Kirov’s murder were judged guilty of conspiring with the assassin and shot out of hand. (Source)

In January 1935, Stalin had his long-neutered old rivals Zinoviev and Kamenev** preposterously convicted for “moral responsibility” for Kirov’s murder. Though they weren’t death-sentenced directly for this “responsibility” their condemnation set them up for their fatal show trial the following year. (Which included public confessions of involvement in the Kirov affair.) Guilt in Kirov’s death would be routinely bolted onto the show trials of political opponents for the remainder of the 1930s.

Stalin mined this terrorism panic so nakedly and purged so widely that the belief that Stalin himself ordered Kirov’s murder has long predominated. This theory of Stalin’s master orchestration also happened to be very convenient (pdf) for the post-Stalin party; Khrushchev directly hinted at his predecessor’s complicity in the secret speech.

That theory remains highly contestable. Matthew Lenoe in particular has vigorously disputed the idea that Stalin ordered everything in his acclaimed The Kirov Murder and Soviet History; there’s an informative Q&A with Lenoe on the invaluable Sean’s Russia Blog here, and a podcast interview on the New Books Network here. For a bit of background on Lenoe’s research, click here.

* Foreshadowing the unwelcome independence Leningraders enjoyed post-World War II … until Stalin smashed it.

** Nikolaev, the disaffected party member, was a Leningrader himself. That meant that when he was still in the party, it was in Zinoviev’s Leningrad party, since that city happened to be Zinoviev’s base and stomping-ground. And that meant that he must ipso facto have been part of the “Zinovievite Opposition”.

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1955: Six Beria men

Add comment November 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1955, eight former officials of the Georgia — the country Georgia — secret police were tried publicly in Tbilisi, and six* of them convicted and promptly shot.

Officially, they were in the dock post-Stalin for their various depredations during the late ascendancy of the notorious Lavrentiy Beria. (Both Beria and Stalin himself were native Georgians.)

All their frightening offices for the NKVD had been re-branded, post-Stalin, as counterrevolutionary and terroristic, the same sort of chilling police-state lingo they used to turn against enemies back in their day.

A.N. Rapava, for instance

… was Deputy Head of the NKVD in Georgia. In July 1945, he received the rank of Lt. General. From late 1938 until 1948, he was the Head of NKVD/NKGB/MGB** in Georgia when he was removed under a cloud. (Source)

Georgia’s Stalin-era apparatchiks had vicious infighting, aggravated by a growing rift between Stalin and Beria late in Stalin’s life. (Indeed, if you like some hypotheses, this was why it was late in Stalin’s life: Beria might have poisoned off Uncle Joe to protect himself from purging.)

Rapava was a Beria man, but when Stalin swept his own people into place† in the late 1940s to early 1950s, a Stalin guy named N.M. Rukhadze arrested and replaced Rapava.

A few weeks before Stalin died, when the biography of Beria is thick with curious maneuverings, Beria got Rukhadze replaced; once Stalin kicked off, Beria was free to flat-out arrest Rukhadze.

It was a bit of an irony that when the post-Stalin Bolsheviks came round to mop up in Georgia, the rivals Rapava and Rukhadze had to stand in the dock together, both allegedly part of Beria’s organization. It would have been a bit inconvenient to detail how it was Beria himself who ordered Rukhadze’s arrest.

The others who shared their fate:

  • A.S. Khazani, NKVD political department officer who wrote a book with the title The Moral Outlook of a Soviet Man
  • N.A. Krimian, who served in the NKVD in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where he orchestrated the execution of political prisoners ahead of the invading Germans in World War II
  • K.S. Savitsky, NKVD Georgia official
  • Sh.O. Tsereteli, a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik and a Beria ally dating back to the early 1920s

All were shot for the victims of the Georgian purges they had conducted. A translator and a bodyguard were also convicted at the same trial, drawing prison sentences.

* Evidently, the official press initially reported only five executions.

** NKVD, NKGB and MGB is for our thumbnail essentially the same state security entity under various names and reorganizations from the 1930s to the 1950s. It became in the last analysis the KGB.

† See, for example, the Mingrelian Affair.

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1937: Martemyan Ryutin, for his affair

1 comment January 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Martemyan Ryutin was condemned to death and immediately executed in Stalinist USSR.

Ryutin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | another Russian bio) was a revolutionary from the Far East who by the late 1920s was in the Bolsheviks’ heretical right wing; his affiliation with Bukharin and Rykov got him temporarily booted out of the Communist party in 1930.

Not content to keep his head safely down as Stalin’s star ascended, Ryutin typed out an anti-Stalin pamphlet and the 200-page “Ryutin Platform” denouncing Josef Djugashvili as “the gravedigger of the Revolution” and urging that he be removed — even by force.*

Weeks after Ryutin began circulating this incendiary samizdat the secret police busted him.

Though open discussion of the so-called Ryutin Affair was nonexistent in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, it was a matter of dire importance for the Politburo in 1932; indeed, fleeting as it was, it’s one of the few organized elite attempts to thwart Stalin discernible during the 1930s. Stalin wanted Ryutin executed, but he was outvoted; this is a small milepost on the way to the Yezhovschina indicating that Stalin’s power still had its limits … and Bolsheviks still recoiled at the prospect of killing other party members.** These constraints were not very long for the scene.

Even so, Ryutin got a 10-year prison sentence and anyone else who had read the Ryutin platform without informing on it to the Party was in seriously hot water. Twenty-four were expelled from the party in October 1932 for this reason, including once-proud and soon-doomed Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Ryutin, for his part, had only a few years to wait before the deteriorating political climate dispensed with those taboos about internecine bloodletting. The Supreme Court signed off on his execution this day with just a few minutes’ hearing, and it was immediately carried out.

Ryutin’s two sons were also executed in 1937, and his wife died in a labor camp. Only his daughter Lyubov survived the Ryutin Affair — which convictions were posthumously reversed in 1988.

* Bukharin’s widow later wrote that Stalin’s agents later added the most inflammatory material — like that violent overthrow stuff.

** Had Stalin had his way in 1932, Ryutin would have had the distinction of being the first Central Committee member to be executed, according to Suzi Weissman.

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1946: Andrei Vlasov, turncoat Soviet general

6 comments August 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Soviet Gen. Andrei Vlasov and 11 fellow members of the Russian Liberation Army were condemned to death in Moscow for German collaboration, and immediately hanged.*

Vlasov was at the peak of his career at the outset of World War II, and earned a decoration for his part in defending Moscow against the Nazi invasion.

So far fortunate, the Red Army ran him out at the head of an army mounting an ill-fated attempt to lift the withering Siege of Leningrad.

Vlasov was encircled and captured.

And then, as a German prisoner, he switched sides.

The conversion of a top Soviet general, who now professed anti-bolshevism, was a stupefying propaganda coup for Germany, and the recent hero of Moscow was quickly employed authoring anti-Soviet leaflets and persuading POWs of the virtues of working for Berlin.

Somewhat more guarded were the Germans when it came to forming up the military unit our defector was supposed to be head of, the Russian Liberation Army, a phantom force of patriotic anti-communist Russians fighting for their country’s self-determination free of Uncle Joe.


By hanging other Russians from trees.

In reality, this “army” didn’t exist beyond the patches slapped onto the various anti-Soviet Russians who signed up to fight against the motherland. And it’s not too hard to reckon why.

Though Russian nationalism might be an expedient club to beat the Red Army with, it was just as liable to boomerang on a Reich itself bent on eastward expansion. A German interrogator of Vlasov in 1942 writing of the captive officer’s notions of national renewal concluded his report editorially (Russian link), “Russia for hundreds of years has constantly threatened Germany, regardless of whether it was the tsarist or the Bolshevik regime. Germany is not interested in reviving the Russian state.”

Besides, given the Nazis’ racial ideology, could these Slavs be trusted in a pinch? Enough to hand them their own command structure? The thousands of eastern front POWs who volunteered to serve Berlin could be suspected of having made the devil’s choice due less to principled anti-Stalinism than the fearful privations of a German camp. (Vlasov himself is often accused of changing teams for some venal reason of cowardice or greed.)

Only late in 1944, when the prospective long-term problems of Russian nationalism had been rendered academic to Berlin by the progress of the war, did the scattered collaborator units get organized into an actual army under Vlasov’s command.

The ineffectual ROA only got into one real scrap with the Red Army, and confirmed German suspicions about Slavic reliability in the last days of the war by turning its German guns against the SS in support of the Czechs’ Prague Uprising.

But surely nobody counted on returning to Stalin’s good graces with this last-second conversion.

From that successful engagement, Vlasov’s men fled out of Prague towards the American occupation zone, desperate not to be taken by the Red Army.

They made it. But after just a few days in American hands, Vlasov was turned over at a Russian checkpoint.

Though structured by the Allied powers’ Yalta accords, which stipulated repatriation into Stalin’s hands of any Soviet citizens held in the West, Vlasov’s handover might at the moment have been part of what must have been innumerable quid pro quo arrangements to sort out command and control in the disaster area late dignified as the Third Reich.

Historian Patricia Wadley has hypothesized that Vlasov’s detention by the Soviets conditioned the landing just an hour later of an airlift to evacuate the airman’s POW camp Stalag Luft I from behind Soviet lines.

However they got their hands on him, the Soviets made no mistake once they had him. Most of Vlasov’s junior officers were executed, and his rank and file dispatched to Siberia. The brass got a three-day trial — in camera, not a show trial; they were still defiant — from July 30 to August 1, with the inescapable result.

Vlasov’s legacy after the fact remains debatable. In the official Soviet story, of course, he’s a Nazi collaborator and that’s that. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attempted to vindicate Vlasov in The Gulag Archipelago, and one can find pro-Vlasov posts and tributes — but post-Communist Russia has shown no interest in overturning the verdicts against the ROA.

One might allow him sincerity in his convictions, but only at the cost of allowing that his movement had no independent force in the war save what Germany breathed into it for Germany’s own reasons. Something like that holds true for nearly every human being caught up in the eastern front in those terrible years.

Some have characterized Vlasov a vile collaborator; others have seen him as a Russian national hero. Neither description quite fits. Andrei Andreevich Vlasov, given to drink and fits of fatalism and inertia in captivity, lacked the sterling character deemed essential for a martyr. On the other hand, the ROA chief was anything but a Nazi — he caused his German supporters discomfort with his strong Russian nationalism and his personal refusal to lend his voice to the prevailing, official anti-semitism. He possessed neither a Quisling‘s moral blindness to questions of patriotism nor a Joan of Arc‘s penchant for self-immolation. He came closer to the mean of most humans, aptly personifying the nightmarish predicament which confronted millions of the Eastern Front’s victims. Vlasov, like multitudes of other helpless Soviet citizens, was cruelly pulverized between the enormous and unfeeling millstones of Nazism and Communism. Shuffled about Europe’s wargame board, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, Vlasov was a pawn in the epic struggle just like the lowliest POW or forced laborer. He fantasized a Russia minus Marx, and though his failure was complete, he still came closer than any other Russian since the Civil War to fulfilling that dream.

-Mark Elliott, “Andrei Vlasov: Red Army General in Hitler’s Service,” Military Affairs, Apr. 1982

* Vlasov’s execution was announced in Pravda on Aug. 2, but with no reference to the precise time. (The sentence was certainly issued in the very early morning of Aug. 1.) Though some sources continue to list Aug. 2 as Vlasov’s execution date, Aug. 1 seems much better attested.

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1937: Jan Sten, Stalin’s tutor

1 comment June 19th, 2011 Headsman

Anyone who has ever had an unedifying experience of pedagogy ought to be able to sympathize with Jan Sten, the Marxist philosopher once hired to tune up Joseph Stalin’s intellectual credentials and who on this date in 1937 was purged by his former pupil.

This account of Sten’s unfortunate (though hardly atypical) fate comes from the archive of Sten’s personal friend, one Yevgeny Frolov and is printed in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.

Hardly anyone knew Stalin better than Sten. Stalin, as we know, received no systematic education. Without success Stalin struggled to understand philosophical questions. And then, in 1925, he called in Jan Sten, one of the leading Marxist philosophers of that time, to direct his study of Hegelian dialectics. Sten drew up a program of study for Stalin and conscientiously, twice a week, dinned Hegelian wisdom into his illustrious pupil. (In those years dialectics was studied by a system that Pokrovsky had worked out at the Institute of Red Professors, a parallel study of Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.) Often Sten told me in confidence about these lessons, about the difficulties he as the teacher, was having because of his student’s inability to master Hegelian dialectics. Jan often dropped in to see me after a lesson with Stalin, in a depressed and gloomy state, and despite his naturally cheerful disposition, he found it difficult to regain his equilibrium. Sten was not only a leading philosopher but also a political activist, an outstanding member of the Leninist cohort of old Bolsheviks. The meetings with Stalin, the conversations with him on philosophical matters, during which Jan would always bring up contemporary political problems, opened his eyes more and more to Stalin’s true nature, his striving for one-man rule, his craft schemes and methods for putting them into effect … As early as 1928, in a small circle of his personal friends, Sten said: “Koba will do things that will put the trials of Dreyfus and of Beilis in the shade.”This was his answer to his comrades’ request for a prognosis of Stalin’s leadership over ten years’ time. Thus, Sten was not wrong either in his characterization of Stalin’s rule or in the time schedule for the realization of his bloody schemes.


Komar and Melamid‘s ironic 1981-1982 Stalin and the Muses travesties sycophantic Socialist Realism exaltations of Uncle Joe, like these. (More by K&M)

Sten’s lessons with Stalin ended in 1928. Several years later he was expelled from the party for a year and exiled to Akmolinsk. In 1937 he was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists.* At the time the printer had just finished a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that contained a major article by Sten, “Dialectical Materialism.” The ordinary solution — and such problems were ordinary in those years — was to destroy the entire printing. But in this case the editors of the encyclopedia found a cheaper solution. Only one page of the whole printing was changed, the one with the signature of Jan Sten. “Dialectical Materialism” appeared over the name of M.B. Mitin, the future academician and editor in chief of Problems of Philosophy, thus adding to his list the one publication that is really interesting. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.

Seen in that light, a hostile review on RateMyProfessors.com doesn’t sound so bad at all.

* Menshevizing idealism — here’s an official Soviet definition from the 1970’s — was among Stalin-era “polemical by-words for philosophical heresy.” (Robert Tucker, “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult,” The American Historical Review, Apr. 1979)

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1949: Koci Xoxe, Titoist

6 comments June 11th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Albania’s former defense minister was purged.

One of the first purge victims in the Soviet satellites — though scarcely the last — Xoxe was induced to admit having labored “against the Party and the people.”

The ethnic Macedonian’s real offense had been a pro-Yugoslav orientation.

That put Xoxe on the wrong side of the emerging rift in the Communist bloc, between Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and independent-minded Yugoslav strongman Josip Tito.

After Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, Moscow froze the naughty Yugoslavs out of the international communist club and began suppressing “Titoist” elements whose national political or economic orientation augured potential annoyance for Soviet supremacy.

Albanian chief Enver Hoxha in later years would become somewhat notorious as the last unabashed Stalinist leader in Europe. (Hoxha took an “anti-revisionist” stance on Khrushchev’s later denunciation of Stalin.) So you can see the bind Koci Xoxe was about to be in.

Hoxha’s own pro-Soviet orientation was akin in its way to Tito’s anti-Soviet orientation: for Tito, Moscow meant domination, but for Hoxha, Yugoslavia was the resented aspiring regional hegemon. Albanian economic ministers complained that trade links disproportionately benefited Belgrade, and Yugoslavia once high-handedly marched troops into Albania to contain a conflict in neighboring Greece.

At any rate, Hoxha went energetically along with Uncle Joe on the Tito question … whose answer, on this date, was a bullet for Hoxha’s former Defense Minister.

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1940: Robert Indrikovich Eikhe, “believing in the truth of Party policy as I have believed in it during my whole life”

1 comment February 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the former Soviet People’s Commissar for Agriculture was shot for treason.

The 1930’s were a scary time in the USSR, but the agricultural posts — forced collectivizations, production quotas, and screw-ups that starved thousands — were particularly fraught.

R.I. Eikhe inherited the job from a fellow purged in the trial of the 21. And, unsurprisingly, he went the same way.

It was another former agricultural commissar (of Ukraine), Nikita Khrushchev, who managed to succeed Stalin.

When, in 1956, Khrushchev made his “secret speech” denouncing the savagery of his predecessor, the fate of his old comrade Eikhe was lamented in detail.

Excerpted below is the relevant portion of Khrushchev’s report, as cited here.


The great modesty of the genius of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, is known. Lenin had always stressed the role of the people as the creator of history, the directing and organizational role of the party as a living and creative organism, and also the role of the central committee.

Lenin never imposed by force his views upon his coworkers. He tried to convince; he patiently explained his opinions to others. Lenin always diligently observed that the norms of party life were realized, that the party statute was enforced, that the party congresses and the plenary sessions of the central committee took place at the proper intervals.

In addition to the great accomplishments of V. I. Lenin for the victory of the working class and of the working peasants, for the victory of our party and for the application of the ideas of scientific communism to life, his acute mind expressed itself also in this that lie detected in Stalin in time those negative characteristics which resulted later in grave consequences. Fearing the future fate of the party and of the Soviet nation, V.I. Lenin made a completely correct characterization of Stalin, pointing out that it was necessary to consider the question of transferring Stalin from the position of Secretary General because of the fact that Stalin is excessively rude, that he does not have a proper attitude toward his comrades, that lie is capricious, and abuses his power. . . .

Vladimir Ilyich said:

“Stalin is excessively rude, and this defect, which can be freely tolerated in our midst and in contacts among us Communists, becomes a defect which cannot be tolerated in one holding the position of the Secretary General. Because of this, I propose that the comrades consider the method by which Stalin would be removed from this position and by which another man would be selected for it, a man, who above all , would differ from Stalin in only one quality, namely, greater tolerance, greater loyalty, greater kindness, and more considerate attitude toward the comrades, a less capricious temper, etc.”

As later events have proven, Lenin’s anxiety was justified …

Stalin originated the concept enemy of the people. This term automatically rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven; this term made possible the usage of the most cruel repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent, against those who had bad reputations. This concept, enemy of the people, actually eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the making of one’s views known on this or that issue, even those of a practical character. In the main, and in actuality, the only proof of guilt used, against all norms of current legal science, was the confession of the accused himself, and, as subsequent probing proved, confessions were acquired through physical pressures against the accused. . . .

Lenin used severe methods only in the most necessary cases, when the exploiting classes were still in existence and were vigorously opposing the revolution, when the struggle for survival was decidedly assuming the sharpest forms, even including a civil war.

Stalin, on the other hand, used extreme methods and mass repressions at a time when the revolution was already victorious, when the Soviet state was strengthened, when the exploiting classes were already liquidated, and Socialist relations were rooted solidly in all phases of national economy, when our party was politically consolidated and had strengthened itself both numerically and ideologically. It is clear that here Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power.

Stalin’s willfulness vis-a-vis the party and its central committee became fully evident after the 17th party congress, which took place in 1934. . . .

It was determined that of the 139 members and candidates of the party’s Central Committee who were elected at the 17th congress, 98 persons, that is, 70 percent, were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-38). [Indignation in the hall.] . . .

The majority of the Central Committee members and candidates elected at the 17th congress and arrested in 1937-38 were expelled from the party illegally through the brutal abuse of the party statute, because the question of their expulsion was never studied at the Central Committee plenum.

Now when the cases of some of these so-called spies and saboteurs were examined it was found that all their cases were fabricated. Confessions of guilt of many- arrested and charged with enemy activity were gained with the help of cruel and inhuman tortures. . . .

An example of vile provocation of odious falsification and of criminal violation of revolutionary legality is the case of the former candidate for the central committee political bureau, one of the most eminent workers of the party and of the Soviet Government, Comrade Eikhe, who was a party member since 1905. [Commotion in the hall.]

Comrade Eikhe was arrested on April 29, 1938, on the basis of slanderous materials, without the sanction of the prosecutor of the USSR, which was finally received 15 months after the arrest.

Investigation of Eikhe’s case was made in a manner which most brutally violated Soviet legality and was accompanied by willfulness and falsification.

Eikhe was forced under torture to sign ahead of time a protocol of his confession prepared by the investigative judges, in which he and several other eminent party workers were accused of anti-Soviet activity.

On October 1, 1939, Eikhe sent his declaration to Stalin in which be categorically denied his guilt and asked for an examination of his case. In the declaration he wrote:

“There is no more bitter misery than to sit In the jail of a government for which I have always fought.”

On February 2, 1940, Eikhe was brought before the court. Here he did not confess any guilt and said as follows:

“In all the so-called confessions of mine there is not one letter written by me with the exception of my signatures under the protocols which were forced from me. I have made my confession under pressure from the investigative judge who from the time of my arrest tormented me. After that I began to write all this nonsense. The most important thing for me is to tell the court, the party and Stalin that I am not guilty. I have never been guilty of any conspiracy. I will die believing in the truth of party policy as I have believed in it during my whole life.”

On February 4 Eikhe was shot. [Indignation in the hall.] It has been definitely established now that Eikhe’s case was fabricated; he has been posthumously rehabilitated.

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1941: Twenty Red Army officers

Add comment October 28th, 2010 Headsman




Top to bottom: Proskurov, Rychagov, Shtern, and Smushkevich.

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

-Stalin

The aphoristic Uncle Joe doomed Soviet officers in both quantity and quality on this date in 1941, shooting 20 Soviet officers at the very moment when Mother Russia could have used them most.

This wouldn’t seem like the ideal time for a purge, but old habits are hard to break.

As the Wehrmacht closed in on Moscow, these prisoners had been evacuated to the Volga city of Kuybyshev (today, Samara). In this, they were already treated more courteously than some.

But any semblance of consideration for these fallen brass — to say nothing of bourgeois indulgences like due process — went out the window when an order arrived from Lavrenty Beria:

“Investigation to be stopped, all to be executed by firing squad without delay.”

They were.

Those “all” included:

Many of this day’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin fell.

Cold comfort, perhaps, but for their survivors there was bloodier satisfaction: the personal order Beria gave to execute them was in turn used against Beria when he was purged.

It’s a bit tangential, but here‘s an interesting interview with one of their contemporaries in Soviet combat aviation, who managed to survive those terrible years (despite being “taken out to be shot on three occasions” while a POW in Spain). There are some pictures of the planes these men would have used in this thread of a Spanish-language military forum.

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1950: The Leningrad Affair “culprits”

1 comment October 1st, 2010 Headsman

Fifty-nine minutes after midnight on this date in 1950, five Soviet cadres were condemned to death in a secret trial on trumped-up charges of treason in one of Stalin’s party purges. An hour later, they were shot.

The “Leningrad Affair” saw Uncle Joe — with the urging of other henchmen jockeying for the imminent post-Stalin succession — liquidate the excessively independent leaders of Russia’s other capital.

During the late World War, the “hero city” Leningrad withstood a withering 28-month Nazi siege stretching from the very first weeks of war into 1944.

In those days there was something in a man’s face which told you that he would die within the next twenty-four hours …

I shall always remember how I’d walk every day from my house near the Tauris Garden to my work in the centre of the city, a matter of two or three kilometres. I’d walk for a-while, and then sit down for a rest. Many a time I saw a man suddenly collapse on the snow. There was nothing I could do. One just walked on. And, on the way back, I would see a vague human form covered with snow on the spot where, in the morning, I had seen a man fall down.

One didn’t worry; what was the good? People didn’t wash for weeks; there were no bath houses and no fuel. But at least people were urged to shave. And during that winter I don’t think I ever saw a person smile. It was frightful. And yet there was a kind of inner discipline that made people carry on.

-A survivor of the siege

This horror cost the lives of a million Leningraders, and tour guides will be sure to point out the physical scars still to be seen.

But the city never fell, and its resistance wrote one of the 20th century’s awe-inspiring monuments to human perseverance. Dmitri Shostakovich, caught in the city himself, composed one of the Great Patriotic War’s most famous musical anthems, defiantly performed by the Leningrad symphony itself during the actual siege, and broadcast on Soviet radio and around the world.

One result of a city’s being carved away from its country — and of consequence to this date’s victims — was that it put Leningrad on increasingly autonomous footing.

Voznesensky, who literally wrote the (incautiously heterodox) book on The Economy of the USSR during World War II

And as the war receded, the men who administered Leningrad were left with an unusual scope of action … bolstered by their recent reputation for anti-fascist heroism. The so-called “Leningraders” had become an embryonic rival power center.

The Leningrad Affair corrected that unwelcome-to-Stalin development with a wholesale purge. While the Soviet judiciary harvested the most illustrious heads on this date — economist Nikolai Voznesensky, Party bigwig Aleksei Kuznetsov — Michael Parrish observes in The lesser terror: Soviet state security, 1939-1953 that

[t]he executions of October 1, 1950, were only the tip of the iceberg … The Leningrad Affair probably claimed more than 1,300 victims, including over 100 who were shot, nearly 2,000 people who were dismissed, and many arrseted.

This day’s victims (though not all those persecuted) were officially rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era; responsibility for the Leningrad Affair even served to condemn one of its authors, NKVD torturer Viktor Abakumov, to death in the 1950s.

But compared to the corpse motel of 1930s USSR, this purge was distinctly small potatoes. One of its survivors — a man who could easily have been condemned on the same evidence that doomed the likes of Kuznetsov — was politician Alexei Kosygin, later to emerge as one of the USSR’s leading liberalizers in the 1960s and (in the words of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) “the forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Shot,Theft,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Hungary,Infamous,Jews,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR

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