Thursday, January 17, 2019

October 28, 1941: Soviet Executions

Tuesday 28 October 1941

Polish Air Force 28 October 1941
"Flight Lieutenant Wojciech Kołaczkowski of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, being kissed by his girlfriend after a decoration ceremony at RAF Northolt, 28 October 1941. Flying Officer Jan "Donald Duck" Zumbach, also decorated on that day, can be seen in the left background." © IWM (HU 128152).
Soviet Government: It is no secret that Joseph Stalin is a very hard man. No matter how you phrase that description, it can't quite capture the reality, so let's just leave it at that and let some of the facts speak for themselves. On 28 October 1941, Stalin demonstrates once again just how severe his methods can be. As usual, Stalin uses his chief henchman, Lavrentiy Beria, to rid him of underlings who have failed at their tasks. Whether these tasks were ever achievable in the first place is not the issue - men have failed, and they must die. That is how it is in the Soviet Union, and everybody knows it. Or, Stalin may just not like someone. That's how it rolls.

Monkey mascot on HMS Bangor, 28 October 1941
"A member of the ship's company of HMS BANGOR gets a warm welcome from the ship's mascot "Bebe." Portsmouth, 28 October 1941. © IWM (A 6068).
Six (former) top Soviets leaders perish at the hands of Beria's NKVD (actually, Beria also executes about 15 others, but most of them are simply nondescript minions). Their names are Smuschkevich, Shtern, Rychagov, Loktionov, Savchenko, and Proskurov, and the one thing that they have in common is that they are accused of treason. Now, treason in the Soviet Union is sort of a catch-all crime. It is not like in the West, where "treason" is understood to be an attempt to overthrow the legitimate government. In fact, none of the six men appear to have done anything of the sort. What exactly they did varies, but the only common denominator seems to be that it displeased Stalin. That is sufficient for execution in the Soviet Union in 1941.

Polish Air Force 28 October 1941
"General Władysław Sikorski, the C-in-C of the Polish Armed Forces, addressing pilots and ground crew of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron after decorating them with Crosses of Valour at RAF Northolt, 28 October 1941." © IWM (HU 128083).
For instance - and there is no point going through an endless series of names and stories, for they all are basically the same - General Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich earned the title Hero of the Soviet Union during the Spanish Civil War. That is the highest award in the USSR, akin to the United States Medal of Honor. Smushkevich followed up his Spanish Civil War heroics with the successful command of aviation for the 1st Army Corps at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, one of the most significant military victories of the 20th Century (it convinced the Japanese to attack south instead of north into the Soviet Union). For this, Smushkevich earned the award of Hero of the Soviet Union - again. This guy, this Smushkevich, is like Audie Murphy and Sergeant York rolled into one man.

Yakov Smushkevich, died 28 October 1941
Yakov Smushkevich.
Due to his past success, Smushkevich has been promoted to commander of the entire Soviet Air Force from 1939 to 1940, and then Deputy Chief of the General Staff (Stavka) from 1940 to 1941. However, for unknown reasons, Stalin has Beria arrest Smushkevich on 8 June 1941, two weeks before the outbreak of Operation Barbarossa. The reason that Smushkevich's "crime" is unknown is that there is no trial - not even a show trial, as was common practice in the 1930s. It appears that Smushkevich was found guilty due to a Politburo inquiry in April-May 1941 into a high accident rate in the Red Air Force. In addition, a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 52 lands in Moscow in May, undetected by the Soviet air defenses (ADF). Beria has his men execute Smushkevich on 28 October 1941 at Kuybyshev. Yakov Smushkevich is only 39.

Lieutenant General Rychagov, executed on 28 October 1941
Lieutenant General Rychagov.
Pavel Rychagov suffers a similar fate. He is arrested on 24 June 1941. Rychagov is another hero of the Spanish Civil War, a biplane fighter ace, who in 1940 is appointed to Head of the Red Army Air Force Administration and the Red Army Chief Military Council (predecessor to the Stavka). He follows Smushkevich into command of the Soviet Air Forces (VVS) on 28 August 1940, a position he holds until Operation Barbarossa. As with Smushkevich, it is unclear what Rychagov's crime is aside from the same general problems with the Red Air Force. In any event, Rychagov not only is arrested and held without trial, but he also is tortured - which is not particularly significant, because Stalin sometimes does that to his friends, too, who often are later restored to high ranks. However, Lieutenant General Rychagov does not earn a reprieve, and he is executed alongside Smushkevich. However, Rychagov does not die alone - his wife is executed alongside him. Yes, that Stalin, nice guy.

An F4F-3 Wildcat on USS Enterprise, 28 October 1941
An F4F-3 Wildcat undergoing maintenance in USS Enterprise's hangar deck, 28 October 1941 (US National Archives).
Amidst the tens of millions of lives lost during World War II, it is easy to dismiss a relative handful of deaths at the hands of a dictator, names of people you will never know and never personally care about. However, some did not forget. Rychagov was exonerated posthumously in 1954, during the general cleansing of some of the sins of the Stalinist era. A fat lot of good that did him, and others have been rehabilitated as well, but it just shows the sheer arbitrariness of life and death in the Soviet Union during the chaotic days of 1941.

HMS Victorious, 28 October 1941
HMS Victorious underway at Scapa Flow, 28 October 1941. Coote, R.G.G. (Lt.), © IWM (A 6154).

October 1941

October 1, 1941: Germans and Finns Advance in USSR
October 2, 1941: Operation Typhoon Broadens
October 3, 1941: Air Battles Near Moscow
October 4, 1941: Stalin Contemplates Defeat
October 5, 1941: Hoth Goes South
October 6, 1941: First Snowfall After Dark
October 7, 1941: Stalin Gets Religion
October 8, 1941: FDR Promises Stalin Aid 
October 9, 1941: FDR Orders Atomic Bomb Research
October 10, 1941: Reichenau's Severity Order
October 11, 1941: Tank Panic in Moscow
October 12, 1941: Spanish Blue Division at the Front
October 13, 1941: Attack on Moscow
October 14, 1941: Germans Take Kalinin
October 15, 1941: Soviets Evacuate Odessa
October 16, 1941: Romanians Occupy Odessa
October 17, 1941: U-568 Torpedoes USS Kearny
October 18, 1941: Tojo Takes Tokyo
October 19, 1941: Germans Take Mozhaysk
October 20, 1941: Germans Attack Toward Tikhvin
October 21, 1941: Rasputitsa Hits Russia
October 22, 1941: Germans Into Moscow's Second Defensive Line
October 23, 1941: The Odessa Massacre
October 24, 1941: Guderian's Desperate Drive North
October 25, 1941: FDR Warns Hitler About Massacres
October 26, 1941: Guderian Drives Toward Tula
October 27, 1941: Manstein Busts Loose
October 28, 1941: Soviet Executions
October 29, 1941: Guderian Reaches Tula
October 30, 1941: Guderian Stopped at Tula
October 31, 1941: USS Reuben James Sunk


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