WWI Centennial: Lenin is Shot; Bolsheviks Unleash Red Terror

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

AUGUST 30-SEPTEMBER 5, 1918: LENIN IS SHOT; BOLSHEVIKS UNLEASH RED TERROR

Following the Bolshevik coup in November 1917 and Lenin’s agreement to the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, in spring 1918 Russia plunged into the anarchy of civil war, pitting Lenin’s “Reds” against a loose coalition of “White” anticommunist forces. By the late summer, the Bolsheviks were increasingly isolated. They required support from the hated German victors to stay in power and were unable to rely on even their closest allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SR), who assassinated the German ambassador Count Mirbach and launched an ill-fated uprising in July in a failed bid to force the Bolsheviks to renounce the peace with Germany.

Map of Russian Civil War September 1918
Erik Sass

Although the Left SR coup was suppressed, the Bolsheviks’ position continued to be incredibly precarious (as reflected in their lenience towards the Left SR leaders, who still commanded a sizeable political following). Without an army to speak of, threatened by the Czech Legion and the growing hostility of the Allies, by August 1918 many observers concluded that the Bolsheviks were finished. White forces had snuffed out the last remaining outposts of Bolshevik control across Siberia and Central Asia and closed in on their core Russian territories from all sides. However, even top Bolshevik apparatchiks underestimated Lenin’s determination to cling to power, matched only by the ruthlessness of his henchman Felix Dzerzhinsky (below), the psychopathic Polish aristocrat who was appointed head of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, in December 1917.

Felix Dzerzhinsky
RIA Novosti archive, RIA Novosti, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Following a horrifying preview with the summary execution of the former royal family in July, the true extent of their proclivity for extreme violence was finally revealed in the aftermath of a failed assassination attempt against Lenin on August 30, 1918—the same day as a successful assassination attempt against the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Moisei Uritsky.

Hyperactive as always, on the evening of August 30 Lenin left the heavily guarded Kremlin without a bodyguard, accompanied only by his driver Stepan Gil, to deliver two rousing speeches at the Moscow Corn Exchange and the Mikhelson Armaments Factory. After the second speech, in which he urged an audience of factory workers to reject false democratic ideals, Lenin was returning to his car when he was waylaid by a delegation of peasant women, protesting Bolshevik guard detachments who prevented peasants from entering cities to sell food. Lenin promised to look into their complaint and turned to get in the car, at which point at least one assassin armed with a Browning pistol stepped forward and fired three shots from just a few paces away, hitting Lenin twice in the left shoulder and neck.

Panicked Red Guards, soldiers, and workers immediately formed a cordon around the injured Bolshevik leader, who was bleeding profusely. Gil shoved him in the car and raced back to the Kremlin, where doctors and surgeons were summoned (security precautions meant there were no physicians on duty inside the heavily fortified leadership compound). Lenin was convinced that he was dying, but his condition soon stabilized and the doctors assured his wife, Nadezha Krupskaya, that he would live. Lenin himself took several more days of convincing.

Meanwhile the Cheka apprehended Fanya Kaplan, real name Feiga Haimnova Roytblat, a 28-year-old Jewish woman who was apparently deranged (“hysterical”) as well as a member of the now-banned Left SR. Under interrogation, Kaplan explained that she considered Lenin a traitor to the revolution for dissolving the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, which had been dominated by the Socialist Revolutionaries, and then outlawing her party. Kaplan refused to name any accomplices and on September 3, 1918 she was executed by the Cheka. Her body was doused with gasoline and burned in a barrel.

Subsequent historians have speculated that Kaplan had at least one accomplice: possibly another woman, Zinaida Ivanova Legonkaya, who had previously worked for the Bolsheviks as an intelligence agent. This in turn gave rise to not-implausible conspiracy theories in which dissident members of the Cheka itself were somehow involved in the assassination attempt. On that note, Alexander Protopopov, a former leader of the Left SR who had held a high-ranking position in the Cheka, was swiftly executed on the evening August 30, 1918, fueling suspicions the attempt was indeed an inside job. Some even speculate that top-ranking Bolsheviks, including Soviet central committee chairman Yakov Sverdlov and Dzerzhinsky himself, were also involved; their possible implication in the failed attempt on Lenin’s life may explain the zeal with which they carried out what came next.

The executions of Kaplan and Protopopov were only the beginning of an officially sanctioned wave of violence known as the Red Terror, decreed on September 5, 1918 and obviously modeled on the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, in which radicals led by Maximilien Robespierre executed around 17,000 alleged counter-revolutionaries. Justifying the Red Terror as a necessary measure to secure the revolution and communist government, the Bolsheviks consciously rejected prevailing notions of morality, justice, and individual rights. “We represent in ourselves organized terror—this must be said very clearly,” Dzerzhinsky said, explaining that it consisted of “the terrorization, arrests, and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles.”

The Red Terror began with mass executions by Cheka officers of prisoners, hostages, and suspected counter-revolutionaries, including around 600 executions in Moscow and 500 in Petrograd in the first two days alone. Including earlier waves of repression beginning with their November coup, from 1917-1922 the Bolsheviks would execute around 200,000 people, most on vague charges of “counter-revolutionary” actions or sentiments. The precedent was later eagerly embraced by Stalin, who is generally blamed for the deaths of 10 to 20 million Soviet citizens, including countless Bolshevik revolutionary veterans, during his leadership from 1924-1953.

Implementation of the Red Terror fell to the Cheka, members of the Red Guard, and ordinary citizens, and featured wide application of summary capital punishment. Among other things, the return of executions for desertion or cowardice played a key role in Leon Trotsky’s building of a new Red Army, which eventually triumphed over White forces in the Russian Civil War by 1922. The Terror was coordinated from the Kremlin via telephone, telegraph, word of mouth, and couriers, and often carried out by mobile detachments traveling by train or in trucks.

For the victims, the Red Terror was exactly what it was intended to be—terrifying. Pitrim Sorokin, a Social Revolutionary on the run from the Bolsheviks in northern Russia, remembered finding refuge in a house owned by sympathizers:

“An absolutely noiseless life, the existence of a fleshless phantom, I lived in the place of refuge. Never laugh, never cough, never approach a window, never leave the house, be ready at the slightest warning to fly to the lumber room, then remain motionless and still as long as a chance visitor remained, to listen night and day for untoward sounds – these spelled the price of existence … I knew they were looking for me, knew that my presence in the village was suspected. Sooner or later they would get me.”

Finally apprehended, Sorokin joined others waiting to meet their fate in prison, never knowing when death might come. “Today seven victims. Today three. Today only one. Today nine. Death hovers over me but does not touch me yet. Today three more. My God! How long will this torture keep up?” he wrote. “I am remembering descriptions of the French Terror. This is quite like it. History repeats itself.”

He added:

“Every night the same summoning of victims to the slaughter. Our suspense grows almost unbearable. It would be easier to walk out to death than to die thus slowly from day to day. It is difficult to keep one’s outward calm for weeks together … It is very difficult even for the bravest. I try to take cold, to contract typhus, anything to hasten the end. All the others, I observe, do the same. There is actually competition among us to get nearest the typhus patients. Some of the men pick lice off the unconscious and dying and put them on their own skins.”

The list of victims included children of counter-revolutionaries, Sorokin noted:

“Sixty-seven new prisoners, among them five women and four children, have just come in. They are peasants of the Nicholsky District, who had the temerity to resist when the Communists came to ‘nationalize’ all their corn, cattle, and other possessions. Artillery and machine guns were sent to the village to put down the revolt. Three villages were razed and burned, many peasants were killed, and more than a hundred arrested. The 67 who joined us here are in horrible plight, arms broken, flesh lacerated, black bruises. The bitter weeping of little children is heard now in our prison. I wonder how long they can live in this hell. If they survive they will be, no doubt, good Communists in the future.”

It should be noted that the Bolsheviks’ opponents also employed mass executions in a widespread violence known as the “White Terror,” probably killing between 20,000 and 100,000 people before their final defeat in 1922. (There is disagreement among historians whether the White Terror was a coordinated, official policy like the Red Terror.) The foreign forces that occupied northern Russia and the Russian Far East during the Civil War—the former to protect Allied war supplies from falling into German hands, the latter to cover the retreat of the Czech Legion—also executed an unknown number of Bolsheviks. In November 1918, Donald Carey, a U.S. soldier in the Anglo-American force occupying northern Russia, witnessed the execution of six captured Bolsheviks accused of murder in a warehouse in the port city of Archangel. He wrote, “The Russians were smoking, laying their cigarettes aside while laughing and calmly shaking hands before being lined up and shot … I had underestimated their courage.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

When Germany Planned to Airdrop Fake Money to Take Down Great Britain in World War II

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Nothing looks particularly remarkable about the World War II-era printing plate at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. It displays the text and serial numbers you would expect to find on British banknotes from the time, but this artifact didn't come from the British government—as the video from Atlas Obscura below explains. The plate was a tool used by Nazi Germany in an attempt to delegitimize the economy of Great Britain.

When they weren't combating troops on the battlefield, Germany was devising ways to bring down other European nations using spy tactics. One of these strategies was called Operation Bernhard. By printing 130 million pounds of fake British currency and slipping it into Britain via airdrop, Germany hoped to cripple the nation's economy.

To make the banknotes, Nazis relied on forced labor from artists, bankers, and known forgers being held captive in concentration camps. Details from the authentic bills—including watermarks, serial numbers, and the type of paper used to make them—were replicated in the forged documents.

Despite the effort put into the project, the fake banknotes never made it into British circulation. The Luftwaffe, the airfleet Germany had planned to use to drop the bills over Britain, had sustained too many losses by the time the plan was ready to be set in motion. Germany may have used some of the counterfeit cash to launder money and pay off spies working for the army, but by the end of World War II, any remaining evidence of the scheme was disposed of in a lake in Austria.

Years later, those artifacts were recovered, and the Spy Museum recently added the pound notes and a forged printing plate to its collection. According the museum, the plate is the only known surviving printing plate created by Nazi Germany for Operation Bernhard.

To see the artifacts and learn more about them, check out the video from Atlas Obscura below.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

The Quest to Find—and Save—the World's Most Famous Shipwreck

Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums
Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Anders Franzén lived for shipwrecks. An engineer and expert on the naval warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries, he was especially obsessed with the old Swedish men-of-war that had once menaced the Baltic Sea.

When he wasn’t busy at his day job with the Swedish Naval Administration, he’d spend hours combing through archives in search of maps and documents, hoping they might reveal the location of Sweden’s great sunken warships. And when he learned that one wreck might still be trapped, undiscovered, not far from his home in Stockholm, he was hungry to find it.

For five years, Franzén spent his spare time searching for the shipwreck. He had little luck. Trawling the waterways around Stockholm—what locals call the ström—with a grappling hook, Franzén's “booty consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees, and dead cats,” he’d later recall.

But on August 25, 1956, Franzén's grappling iron hooked something 100 feet below. And whatever it was, it was big.

Franzén gently lowered a core sampler—a tool used by oceanographers to get soil samples from the bottom of bodies of water—and retrieved a dark and soggy chunk of black oak. The following month, Franzén's friend Per Edvin Fälting dived into the ström and see what was down there.

Vasa Diver
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

Fälting had to work blind. Just 30 yards below the surface, the brackish waters were pitch black. The diver ran his hands over the mysterious object and tried to get a feel for what it might be.

“I can feel something big,” Fälting said to Franzén over a diver’s telephone, “the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s another.”

There was a pause.

“There are two rows,” Fälting said. “It must be the Vasa.”

 

The Vasa was the greatest warship to never go to war. Named after the Swedish royal family—the House of Vasa—the vessel was commissioned by King Gustavus II Adolphus in 1625 and was earmarked to become his navy’s flagship. Gustavus had big dreams for the Vasa: He wanted the most lethal warship in the Baltic Sea, one that was as beautiful as it was deadly.

For three years carpenters, sailmakers, painters, woodcarvers, ropemakers, and hundreds of other artisans and craftsmen rushed to build the king’s vessel. The Vasa would be a floridly crafted masterpiece with at least 700 delicately carved sculptures, figurines, and ornaments: Angels, devils, lions, emperors, warriors, musicians, mermaids, ghastly faces, heavenly facades—all painstakingly crafted from oak, pine, and lime wood.

The boat’s exterior would be a palpable rainbow (gilded in gold leaf for extra measure). “The hundreds of sculptures clinging and clambering about the Vasa were an orgy of pink naked flesh, of steel-blue armor, of sanguine reds, poisonous greens, and marine blues,” writes Erling Matz in The Vasa Catalog. As Lars-Åke Kvarning writes in Scientific American, these ornaments had many purposes: “To encourage friends, intimidate enemies, assert claims, and impress the world with this picture of power and glory.”

Vasa Stern
iStock.com/rusm

The ship itself was constructed from 1000 oak trees and had three decks, including a stack of two gundecks, which would hold 64 cannons. The design was unprecedented in its size and complexity.

King Gustavus, famous for his military prowess, demanded it. At the time, he controlled “Finland, Estonia, and [Latvia], and he had just won the small part of Russia that touches the Gulf of Finland,” Kvarning writes. “By thus excluding the czar from the Baltic, he had nearly made [the Baltic] sea into a Swedish lake.” He was also juggling multiple wars and was anxious to get his hands on a new warship that would help preserve his dominance. He told the builders to make haste.

It was a foolish decision. In the early 17th century, constructing a functional ship was a matter of trial and error. (And according to Matz, there was a lot of error: In the 1620s, of the 15 naval ships Sweden lost, only two sank in the heat of battle.) There were no calculations to do or construction drawings to make. A new design was usually partially modeled on its predecessors—but the Vasa had none. The shipbuilders had to basically eyeball it. Worse yet, the Vasa’s master shipbuilder died mid-way through construction.

Vasa gundecks
iStock.com/pejft

Baffled by the ship’s giant dimensions, the Vasa’s architects were never able to confidently determine how much ballast the vessel needed. They filled the hull with approximately 121 tons of stone but believed it needed much more. But the king, who had personally approved the ship’s dimensions, effectively forbade any alterations—and anyway, adding more ballast would have brought the lowest gundeck dangerously close to the waterline.

When the nearly completed Vasa began floating in port, the ship’s skipper, Söfring Hansson, decided to test the boat’s stability. He asked a herd of 30 men to run back and forth across the deck; after just three runs, the ship began to teeter precariously. Some of the ship’s officers wanted to inform the king that the boat was on the verge of capsizing, but Gustavus wasn’t in town. The problem was ignored.

On August 10, 1628, crowds gathered at Stockholm’s waterfront to see the Vasa off. After attending a church service, the sailors—along with many women and children, who were invited to join the maiden voyage—boarded the boat. Four of the 10 sails were unfurled and, guided by a light breeze, the vessel lurched into Stockholm's ström just before 4 p.m. The crowd cheered.

And then it began to scream.

A slight gust caused the glimmering ship to tilt to its left. The Vasa briefly righted itself, only to return to its awkward, portside lean. The captain immediately demanded that all the gunports be closed, but it was too late—water had breached the openings. As one surviving crewmember recalled, “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”

Vasa Bow
Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Dozens of men, women, and children began jumping from the ship. Stockholm’s waters became peppered with helpless, flailing bodies. Sailors clambered up the ship’s sinking masts. Within minutes, the Vasa was underwater and 30 people were dead.

The world’s meanest warship had been felled by a gentle gust of wind. It had traveled barely 4000 feet.

Hearing that his prized warship was submerged, Gustavus—who was away in Prussia warring against Poland-Lithuania—demanded an inquest to find and punish the people responsible. The captain and a few shipbuilders were tossed into captivity and an investigation ensued. Some investigators claimed the cannons hadn’t been tied down and had rolled to one side, causing the boat to heel over. (Not true.) Others claimed the captain had been negligent. (He wasn’t.)

The truth was, the Vasa was just top-heavy: If anybody deserved blame, it was the man who demanded such clumsy dimensions—the king. But to implicate an infallible man who ruled by divine right was to implicate God himself. Like the Vasa, the case quickly sank from public view.

 

There is a secret swirling in Stockholm’s harbor: The water there is too brackish and deoxygenated to support the wood-munching shipworm Teredo navalis. In salty seas, this flat little bivalve will gorge itself on wooden piers, hulls, and shipwrecks—slowly destroying all signs of man’s handiwork.

But not in the Baltic. Wooden shipwrecks remain preserved in remarkable condition. (This is especially true in Stockholm, where, according to the Vasa Museum, “Centuries of raw sewage dumped into the harbor have created a dead zone at the bottom, where even bacteria cannot live.”)

Days after the Vasa sank, Sweden’s Council of the Realm sent a British man down to salvage the wreck, but the mission failed. In 1663, a Swede named Albrecht von Treileben plunged into the chilly ström under the protection of a diving bell and managed to retrieve more than 50 of the ship’s expensive bronze cannons.

Diving Bell
Vasa Museum // Public Domain

After that, the Vasa’s location was forgotten for 300 years. The closest thing to a salvage mission came in 1920, when two brothers requested permission from the Swedish government to find the ship and turn the vessel’s oak into Art Deco furniture. (The request was denied.)

Franzén, on the other hand, was determined to keep the Vasa in one piece. Problem was: Nobody knew how. Nobody had ever attempted to raise a shipwreck so big or so old.

Crackpot ideas swirled. “One idea was to freeze the Vasa in an immense block of ice and let her float to the surface,” Matz writes. “The idea was then to tow the iceberg to a suitable position and let it melt in the sun, whereupon the Vasa would emerge.” There was even talk of lifting the ship by filling the empty hull with ping pong balls.

Vasa blueprints
Illustration by Bertil Erkhammar, courtesy of the Vasa Museum

Thankfully, Franzén’s discovery generated so much interest in the Swedish media that the navy offered to supply boats and train divers, while the Neptune Salvaging Company generously offered to return the ship to the surface pro bono. Divers would use water jets to dig tunnels beneath the shipwreck. Heavy cables would be piped through these passages, creating a basket that could help lift the ship.

In 1957, the first divers plunged into the ström. Working in complete darkness, they carefully began the dangerous work of hollowing out six tunnels, ignoring the fact that tons of ballast could, at any moment, collapse onto their heads. It was a deadly workplace. “Girders, plans, and other paraphernalia meant that the air pipes and lines could easily get stuck,” Matz writes, “And they did.” (It didn’t help that, as the divers dug, they discovered at least 17 skeletons.)

After two relatively uneventful years, the tunnels were completed. The wires were piped through and strung to two pontoons (cheerfully named Oden and Frigg), which gently lifted the wreck 8 feet off the seabed. Starting in August 1959, crews slowly moved the Vasa to shallower waters and set her back down. They would repeat this motion—lift, move, lower—at least 18 times. After each successful drop, the crews would shorten the wires, ensuring the boat would inch closer to the surface with the next lift.


Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

But before the Vasa was allowed to surface, the hull had to be made watertight. The iron bolts that once held the ship together had rusted away, and the salvage crew had to patch and fill those cavities while still submerged. (They also installed new watertight hatches on each port.) This underwater handiwork took two years.

Finally, on April 24, 1961, three giant bilge pumps began purging water from the ship’s interior and the Vasa was, once again, kissed by sunshine. Within two weeks, the Vasa was not only above the surface—it was floating.

 

For years, the Vasa was housed in a misty, cave-like warehouse. It was there, in the Wasavarvet, that the ship took a rigorous shower in preservatives.

Vasa preserved in water
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

The Vasa's wood contained approximately 800 tons of water—and it all needed to be removed. Researchers, however, couldn’t simply let the ship sit out and dry, because the waterlogged wood would shrink and split. To prevent cracking, preservationists had to spray the Vasa with a mixture of water and polyethylene glycol (25 minutes on, 20 minutes off) for 24 hours. This process, which came to involve 500 automated spray nozzles, lasted 17 years.

Slowly, water dripped from the Vasa and strings of excess polyethylene glycol trickled down, hardening to form stalactites resembling fine white candles. When the PEG-shower had finished, the humidity in the storage facility had to be gradually cranked down over the course of 10 years.

By that point, archaeologists—who had to be vaccinated against diseases such as jaundice and typhus before touching the boat—had already sifted through tons of mud and sludge in search of artifacts. By spraying down the Vasa’s decks with garden hoses, they had uncovered more than 30,000 items, including clothes, personal effects, barrels of meat, candlesticks, coins, and a piece of glassware containing a 66-proof alcohol. (“I can testify, from personal experience, that the liquor was good,” Kvarning wrote.) Divers also combed the ship’s watery gravesite to recover thousands more objects.

Vasa in PEG Solution
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Of these, every wooden artifact was dunked into a vat of polyethylene glycol solution. Dozens of cast-iron cannonballs—which had rusted so much that they now weighed as much as a Styrofoam balls—were dried in hydrogen heated to more than 1900°F. Six of the Vasa’s crumbling sails, which could only be cleaned while submerged in liquid, were dried in a mixture of alcohol and the solvent xylene. (They took more than a decade to conserve.)

Meanwhile, the Vasa’s sterncastle—the elaborate perch protruding from the ship’s rear—had fallen into shambles. “[W]orkers had to identify and locate many thousands of structural components, ranging from heavy beams to tiny bits of wood—a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to be assembled without benefit of blueprints,” Kvarning writes.

Otherwise, the whole of the Vasa remained in fantastic condition. The fine ornamentations, although missing their brilliant colors, were still magnificent in their details.

Today, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In 2000, the humidity in Stockholm was so high that the presence of soggy museum visitors caused sulfur buried in the ship’s wood to produce corrosive acids. The ship is also shapeshifting. To monitor wood deformation, geodetic measuring devices are being used to map slight changes in the ship’s shape (which is currently settling 1 millimeter every year [PDF]). To combat a potential breakdown, carpenters have built a replica of the Vasa’s hull, which is undergoing a battery of stress tests that will hopefully teach preservationists how to improve the ship’s stability.


Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

That hard work, however, has already paid off. Today, the Vasa Museum is the most popular cultural institution in all of Scandinavia. Home to the world’s only preserved 17th-century ship, the place is more than a vital time capsule—it’s an homage to an ongoing rescue mission more than 300 years in the making.

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