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  • Image: Murder Inc March 15, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    This picture is taken from David King’s brilliant The Commissar Vanishes (another post, another day) and shows the 228 men and women (this online version is cropped) who ran the prosecutor’s office of the Supreme Soviet. Their task was to break the ideological enemies of the regime, understood not, of course, as enemies of communism, but those unlucky citizens who Stalin decided to make into scapegoats for Russia’s failed experiments in collectivisation.

    The photo was taken, April 23 1934 in the courtyard of the death factory where they carried out their interrogations and tortures and killings. One of the peculiarities of the Soviet justice system at this time was that it was not enough to kill: the ‘criminals’ had to admit their guilt in signed confessions and preferably also in public trial.

    In his book DK picks out a couple of the most interesting figures, this being the non-hierarchical Soviet Union, languishing in the photo down in the front row.

    Seated second from left is Vasili Ulrikh (obit 1951), the trial judge responsible for the sentencing of Bukharin among many thousands of others. He was forced to resign in 1948 because, in his soft old age he exiled a group of peasants to Siberia rather than have them shot. Beachcombing is sad to report that he died of old age.

    Moving along the front row the second capped man is Nikolai Krylenko, a public prosecutor and ultimately people’s Commissar for Justice who was, allegedly, a brilliant draughts player (!). Stalin turned against him in 1938 when he was thrown out of his job: part of the accusation was that he had spent too much time mountain climbing. Retreating to his country house NK awaited terrified with his family, received a calming phone call from Stalin and then that very night was taken in for questioning. He was found guilty of espionage at a twenty minute trial and was executed immediately afterwards. A bit of predictable Soviet trivia: his executioner was in turn shot in 1939.

    Finally, sitting next to Krylenko and looking down is the loathsome Andrey Vyshinksy, head of all these merry men with their dead faces and dead eyes. The world being a just place he too died of old age in 1954 (in New York!). Beachcombing hopes he choked on an ice-cream sundae. However, in 1937, three years after the photo was taken, he became a flagellum Dei, purging his own department of dead wood, which in other countries would have meant redundancies but in the Soviet Union meant walking down to the cellar with a pistol trained at your nape.

    Saturn eats his own children…  

    Many of those in the picture then were not alive by the time Hitler turned on Russia. Honestly, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer group of people.

    Beachcombing is always looking out for striking historical pictures: drbeachcombing at yahoo dot com