The Curse of Tamerlane

On 16 June 1941, a group of scientists – led by anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov – began excavating the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Their expedition had horrible consequences for Russia and the whole world… So goes the infamous legend of Timur’s curse.

Gur-e-Amir was the resting place of Tamerlane, a Turko-Mongol war commander and the founder of the Timurid Empire. Tamerlane is one of history’s most feared conquerors, whose death toll is said to be as high as 17 million.

Forensic Recreation of Tamerlane by Mikhail Gerasimov (1941).

Timurid’s empire stretched from Russia to India, from the Mediterranean to Mongolia. On his final days of glory, he was set to conquer China’s Ming Empire. His campaign came to an abrupt halt, due to one of history’s most severe winters. In 1405, Tamerlane died of influenza in Otrar, Kazakhstan. He was 69 and had 35 successful years of constant campaigning behind him.

Gur-e-Amin in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo by Wiggum (2006).

Curse of Tamerlane

During excavations, Mikhail Gerasimov and his team were unaware of the curse of Tamerlane, which was issued as a warning on his tombstone:

“When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble”
“Whosoever disturbs my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I am”

– Tamerlane

Knowing the excavation team was there, there was panic among local Uzbeks. They feared a war would commence three days after Timur’s tomb opened, as prophesied in several Islamic books. In fact, some of the local Uzbeks tried to warn the expedition’s cameraman, but to no avail.

Opening of the Tomb

The leaders of the expedition – Tashmuhammed Kari-NiyazovMikhail Gerasimov; a poet Sadriddin Aini; and an orientalist, Semyonov – first opened the tombs of Ulugh Begh’s and Timur’s sons, Miranshah and Shahrukh. After they were positively identified, their bones were placed in a box for further investigation.

On 18 June the tomb of Ulugh Begh – Tamerlane’s grandson and a the famous astronomer – was opened.

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Finally, on 19 June the time had come to focus on Timur’s tomb. Because Joseph Stalin had personally commissioned the expedition, it was impossible to not proceed.

First, the team had to remove the cover stone from the grave. They discovered that the stone was broken, which corresponded with the legend from the 17th century that the Persian King, Nader Shah – who idolized Timur – had taken his tombstone as a trophy. It is said that, immediately after taking Timur’s stone, Shah experienced great misfortune. In an effort to restore his fate, Shah attempted to return the stone to Samarkand, and accidently broke it along the way.

On 20 June, the team opened the coffin and found Tamerlane’s skeleton inside.

Great Patriotic War

On 22 June 1941 – two days later – Nazi Germany attacked Russia. History’s most horrifying war followed, seeing Russia lose a total of 26.6 million men and women.

And Timur’s curse came to being: Hitler was a more terrible invader than himself.

Fortunately, the course of the war began to change in November 1942. The Soviet Union managed to stop the Germans at Stalingrad, and Operation Uranus was a success that turned the tables for the Allies.


Mikhail Gerasimov With the Forensic Recreation of Ivan the Terrible

It was later learned that, in November 1942, Stalin had ordered the remains of Tameralne to be returned to Samarkand and reburied with full honor, according to Islamic tradition.


Tamerlane’s tomb (black) today



All stills from the Russian documentary “Strange Affairs. The Curse of Tamerlane.” (Странное Дело.Проклятие Тамерлана.)

Wikimedia Commons

Catherine the Great Risked Her Life For Science

Smallpox is one of the worst killers in history. During the 18th century, it killed nearly 400,000 people every year – 60 million in all. Catherine the Great has been rightly written in medical history along with Edward Jenner, helping kickstart a method that created smallpox immunity.


Peter II and Peter III

In Europe, six reigning monarchs were sent to the grave by smallpox. In Russia, one of the victims was Peter the Great‘s grandson, 15-year-old Peter II who died of smallpox on his wedding day.

Another victim thirty years later was also named Peter. It was the future Emperor Peter III, the husband of future Catherine the Great. He suffered from a rather severe case of smallpox that left him with ugly scars and very little hair. The episode made the future Emperor quite hideous and destroyed his self-confidence.

Catherine herself was spared but she saw the horrors of smallpox first hand and probably decided to make efforts to spare her people from the kind of suffering she saw when ascending the throne.


In 1762, Catherine invited the greatest expert of the day, Dr. Thomas Dimsdale of Scotland to perform inoculation (variolation) on herself, her 14-year old son Paul and her court. She wanted to set a personal example to the people of Russia and demonstrate them that the procedure was safe.

Inoculation was a method of immunizing a person with material taken from smallpox (Variola) patients with mild infection. The method is not used anymore and has been replaced by vaccination that is an injection of a sample taken from a cow (Vacca) suffering from cowpox. The procedure was all but risk-free! Sometimes patients developed a severe case of smallpox and died after inoculation.

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My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger.

– Catherine the Great

Thomas Dimsdale

When Dr. Dimsdale arrived in Saint Petersburg together with his son Nathaniel Dimsdale in 1768, he tried to persuade the Empress to try first with some of the commoners. Dimsdale was not entirely sure if the smallpox of Russia would behave similarly to the one in Western Europe. The Empress stuck to her decision to be the first. So on 12 October 1768, she and her son Paul and several other members of the court were inoculated. Catherine developed a mild case of smallpox that was gone by the 28 October.

V0011075 Jenner and his two colleagues seeing off three anti-vaccinat
Edward Jenner, Thomas Dimsdale and George Rose seeing off three anti-vaccination opponents, the dead are littered at their feet. Coloured etching by Isaac Cruikshank (20 June 1808). Creative Commons license CC BY 4.0.

While Thomas Dimsdale was in Russia, there were relays of extra fast horses set ready for him by the orders of Catherine to guarantee him and his son a safe passage out of Russia in case something went wrong with the procedure. Everything went just fine and Thomas Dimsdale and his son were created barons and rewarded with £10,000.

Dimsdale’s work had a positive effect. He visited Russia again in 1781. By that time already over 20,000 Russians had been inoculated. By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations were administered.



Listen: Ivan the Terrible was a Composer

Ivan the Terrible was a composer. Yes, he did not only kill his son in a fit of rage and have his two best architects blinded after creating Saint Basil’s Cathedral – Ivan Gozny also composed beautiful music.


Well, was he a terrible composer? Not at all.

Ivan Grozny was a capable man. He consolidated power under his rule, squeezed the boyars, established the Oprichnina and conquered Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates as well as the vast territories of Siberia.

Meanwhile, Ivan the Terrible was also open to new ideas and foreign trade. He promoted culture and art. Ivan, being a deeply religious man, enjoyed rhyming poems and singing in a church choir. He also composed new chants himself.

Here we have two examples, two sticherons that were found and recorded in 1989 under the conduct of Igor Voronov. This came to be the very first compact disc, issued in the Soviet Union. And what is a sticheron again? It is a liturgical hymn that is sung during the morning and evening services in the Orthodox church.

Sticheron No 1: For the Death of Pyotr, Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia (30:47)

It tells the story of Metropolitan Pyotr who lived in the 13th-14th centuries.

Sticheron No 2: To the Meeting of the Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (38:15)

It tells a detailed story in a very poetic language about a renown event from 1395, when Tamerlane was approaching Moscow with his large army and the great Vladimir icon of the Mother of God was taken near him that eventually helped and made Tamerlane turn back and leave the land of Russians alone. Performed in this video by the choir of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, conducted by Anatoly Grindenko.

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Stalin’s Favourite Films

This is our third and last post in the three-part series about Stalin. This time we take a closer look at his Netflix favorites list. What are some of the best films to relax with after a long day at the Kremlin office. Light your pipe and grab a glass of Georgian wine. Here we go!

The Youth of Maxim

“Юность Максима”
Lenfilm (1935)

Directed by: Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg
Starring: Boris Chirkov
This conventional Soviet story about a factory worker Maxim turning into a Bolshevik was Stalin’s favorite movie of all time. The events take place in 1910. Maxim is young and sees the cruelty of the tsarist police, loses a friend and becomes a Bolshevik. Music was composed by Dmitry Shostakovich. Stalin praised the beating scene for its accuracy and ordered some corrections made to the scene where the proclamation is being dictated to the typist.


Mosfilm (1938)

Directed by: Grigory Alexandrov
Starring: Lyubov Orlova, Igor Ilyinsky
Another Stalin’s all time favorite. It belonged to the series of escapist Soviet jazz comedies of the 1930s that were meant to paint a more colorful picture of Soviet life to its people. Stalin’s  message “Life has become better and more fun” had to be delivered to the public. The public was already driven to exhaustion by the extent of collectivization and Gulags. The movie title was jokingly suggested to Grigory Alexandrov by Charlie Chaplin. And Stalin, having seen the movie first, ordered a long scene depicting a French kiss be cut out.

Boys’ Town

Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (1938)

Directed by: Norman Taurog
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney
This very famous Hollywood movie starring Spencer Tracy was surely his favorite non-Soviet film. Stalin saw it 25 times! The movie tells the biography of a real-life person Catholic priest Edward J. Flanagan, who established a sort of centre for troubled youth called the “Boys Town”. In a sequence where the boys are fighting, Stalin would grab the arm of the person sitting next to him, he would squeeze and say: “..Look at that, look at that!”

Jolly Fellows

“Весёлые ребята”
Mosfilm (1934)

Directed by: Grigory Alexandrov
Starring: Leonid Utyosov, Lyubov Orlova
One of the most popular Soviet Movies of the 1930s. Another one of the famous jazz-comedies with the depiction of carefree life, laughter and most outstanding pop melodies by Isaak Dunayevsky. The two main characters of the movie, Grigory Alexandrov’s wife Lyubov Orlova and the singer Leonid Utyosov both rocketed to lifelong stardom after the film. Stalin famously said after finishing the movie: “It feels like having been on a month’s vacation”.
jolly fellows


Lenfilm (1934)

Directed by: Grigori Vasilyev, Sergei Vasilyev
Starring: Boris Babochkin

This war movie that depicts the life of the Russian Civil War commander Vasily Chapayev, is undoubtedly one of the most popular Soviet movies ever made. On the very first year of screening, it was watched in cinema by 30 million people. Many generations of children have grown up watching the adventures of Chapayev and his assistants Petka and Anka. Stalin absolutely loved the film. It has been written down that between the years 1934-37 Stalin watched “Chapayev” 38 times!

Each Dawn I Die

Warner Bros. (1939)

Directed by: William Keighley
Starring: James Cagney, George Raft
Stalin liked gangster movies and he loved westerns. He probably could identify himself with the lone ranger type of characters. This movie here was a box office smash hit from 1939. It is a story about a reporter who is unjustly thrown in jail and befriends there with a gangster.

In Old Chicago

20th Century Fox (1937)

Directed by: Henry King
Starring: Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche
Stalin also had a softer side. “In Old Chicago” was a drama based on the Niven Busch story “We the O’Learys”. It was a story about the Great Chicago Fire of 1891, one of the most expensive movies ever made to that day.

It Happened One Night

Columbia Pictures (1934)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert
Stalin also liked the romantic comedy “It Happened One Night” that featured a young socialite woman who wants to break free from his father and falls in love with a reporter. The film was the first to win the Academy Awards in all major categories.


Joseph Stalin Was Such a Movie Buff

Who would Joseph Stalin be when not busy being a dictator? Most certainly a filmmaker! That’s because Stalin was a complete movie buff in his spare time.

Lazar Kaganovich, Joseph Stalin, Pavel Postyshev and Kliment Voroshilov. Unknown author (January 1934)

Lenin once famously said: “For us, cinema is the most important of all the arts”. Stalin took it way further: he was completely obsessed with cinema, executing tight and active control of the whole Soviet film industry from start to finish. No Soviet movie could be released without his consent.

Stalin’s Home Parties 

There was a cinema hall in every Stalin’s home. He invited members of his inner circle to dine and watch films together. These were tense meetings where Molotov, Zhdanov, Beria, Voroshilov, Kaganovich and others drank wine, dined, discussed state matters and made some of the most important decisions.

Stalin and Voroshilov at a Kremlin reception. Unknown author (1936).

Stalin’s Cinema

The most important cinema hall was of course in the Great Kremlin Palace. This 130 m² hall, a former winter garden, was rebuilt into cinema in the 1930s and dismantled again during Perestroika. There were 20 armchairs covered with green leatherette with small tables to serve Georgian wines, mineral water, and snacks. The hall had hi-tech lighting system as well as the best equipment and a crew of top cinema mechanics.

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Politburo meeting sessions were held every Thursday. Stalin would then suggest a movie after the long and exhausting meeting. Stalin would go first, fix himself a drink of wine with mineral water and go sit in the first row. His place was in the middle and he almost always said the same words: “What will Comrade Bolshakov show us today?”

Ivan Bolshakov

Ivan Grigorievich Bolshakov was the minister of cinema in the Soviet Union. He was the guy who personally picked films for Stalin. And what a dangerous job it was! Bolshakov had to read Stalin’s mind. When his master was in good mood, Bolshakov would take the risk and show a new Soviet movie.

Sometimes Stalin would say jokingly:

“If this is no good, we’ll sign his death sentence”

-Joseph Stalin about the author of the new Soviet movie

Stalin was very interested in all aspects of movie production. “Where have we seen that actor before?” Bolshakov always had to have the answers and he also had to be ready to interpret every film that he had brought. The Politburo members Beria and Zhdanov would sometimes laugh at his too descriptive translations. When Stalin was in bad mood, a foreign film or an old classic would be the right choice by Bolshakov.

Ivan Bolshakov

The humble cinema minister was lucky to survive Stalin’s purges and remained at his post for an unprecedented 15 years! So uncommon was his long career that people began calling it the “Bolshakov phenomenon”. The previous head of Soviet cinema, Boris Shumyatsky had been accused of sabotaging the film industry and shot by firing squad in 1938.

Boris Shumyatsky around the time of his interrogation in 1938

Stalin as the Supreme Filmmaker

Every movie had to be approved by Stalin. He was truly obsessed with cinematography. Stalin tended to think of himself as some multitalented screenwriter, director, and producer – all in one person. He would intervene heavily into the production process, controlling everything. He suggested ideas, ordered re-shoots and cuts. “You don’t have to listen to me. This is just a suggestion from an ordinary viewer. Take it or leave”, he said.

So big was the fear of Stalin that no-one dared not to follow his suggestions. Even Sergei Eisenstein listened prudently to how Stalin lectured him on how to direct movies.

The following true story from Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s book “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” says a lot about Stalin’s power.

Bolshakov once authorized a movie for national release without asking Stalin, who was on holiday. At the next showing, Stalin asked him: “On whose authority did you release the movie?”
Bolshakov froze: “I consulted and decided.” “You consulted and decided, you decided and consulted,” intoned Stalin. “You decided.” He then left the room in a doomladen silence. Eventually, his head popped round the door: “You decided right.”

stalin, molotov, voroshilov
Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov, Georgy Malenkov, Lavrenty Beria in Moscow. Unknown author (2 January 1941).

Here is another story:

Stalin and other members of his inner circle were watching a movie that Bolshakov had brought. Suddenly, without saying a word, Stalin stood up and left the room. There was big confusion and comrades, who had always aligned with their leader’s opinion, began blaming Bolshakov. “What utter crap have you brought us here, Comrade Bolshakov!” shouted Molotov. And continued: “The movie must be banned and all of those responsible, must be punished!” All others agreed. Suddenly the door opened and Stalin entered with his coat on as if nothing had happened. “Why did you stop the movie? Great film! Let’s continue!” Everyone was pale. “The film strip broke off”, mumbled Molotov and the cinema show continued.



All stills from the Russian documentary “Иван Большаков. Киномеханик Сталина” (“Ivan Bolshakov, Stalin’s Cinematographer”) (2008)

Stalin’s Vulgar Sense of Humor

We know that Joseph Stalin was a ruthless tyrant, deciding the fate of millions of people. We know he liked to torment his victims with fear, playing with them like cats play with mice.

He enjoyed briefly giving his victims some hope of life and then taking it away, to have them killed. We know that his favorite thing was revenge – thoroughly planned and carefully executed.

But what else do we know about him as a person? About his sense of humor? What made him laugh? What kind of jokes he himself would make?

Joseph Stalin and the heroine tractor operator Maria Demchenko at the Tenth Congress of the Young Communist League. Photo by Ivan Shagin (18 April 1936).

Stalin’s sense of humor

In 2009 a collection of old drawings surfaced. These were reproductions of sketches of male nudes drawn by the renown 19th-century Russian painters. Some of them were by Vasily Surikov, some by Valentin Serov – 19 altogether. These had probably been brought to Stalin’s desk in order to get approval for publishing.

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And what did Stalin do? Stalin, who did not like the drawings, grabbed his blue pencil and began jotting down his thoughts. These ranged from witty aphorisms to gross remarks on his comrades to crude sexual talk. The dictator was being funny.

Here are the drawings with Stalin’s comments on them. With unchanged language, where possible. They give us a great insight of what was going on in the dictator’s head and how he saw the world.



(Dirty talk in Georgian language). You need to work, not wank. Time for re-education. J. Stalin”

“Life model with right hand on his head (back view)” by Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858)



“Why are you so thin, Mikhail Ivanovich? Do some work. Onanism is no work. Try Marxism! Hehe! J. Stalin”

“Sitting life model” by Valentin Serov (1865-1911)

Stalin here is probably referring to Mikhail Kalinin, the formal President of the Soviet Union



“Idiot!!! You’ve completely forgotten what to do”

“Life models” by Valentin Serov (1865-1911)



“Don’t sit on stones with your naked ass! Go join Komsomol and Rabfak (Workers’ University). Someone give this guy underpants. J. Stalin Hehehe!”

“Sitting life model (juvenile)” by Valentin Serov (1865-1911)



“One thinking fool is worse than 10 enemies. J. Stalin”

Sketch of nude male by Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858)



“Radek, you ginger bastard, if you hadn’t pissed into the wind, if you hadn’t been so bad, you’d still be alive”

Stalin here refers to Karl Radek, a fellow revolutionary and the author of the Soviet constitution who was arrested, tortured and eventually shot by the orders of Stalin in 1939. Some experts believe that Stalin was somehow troubled by the guilt of having ordered the executions of his fellow comrades, some believe the sketches to be proof of Stalin’s homosexual impulses, but most probably they are wrong.


“Some people suggested this series might show Stalin had homosexual inclinations, but to me it emphasises how alone this man was. You get a real sense of how solitary and isolated he felt.”

– Viktor Turshchatov, a Russian journalist

True or not true, here we have a wonderful opportunity to look inside the great dictator’s mind and let us not forget that sense of humor says a lot about who the person really is.


Yuri Gagarin’s Final Moments on Earth

This photo has been taken from the video footage of the world’s first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) as he is being prepared for the launch of the world’s first manned space flight. The location is Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan just a few days before 12 April 1961.



In 1960 Yuri Gagarin was chosen among twenty candidates to be the test pilot in the Soviet space program. He and his fellow pilots Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov were the three strongest candidates. The final decision as to who will be the pilot was made only four days prior the flight by Nikolay Kamanin and “The Chief Designer” Sergey Korolev. One of the main reasons was that Gagarin was the shortest of the three and this was an advantage in the small space capsule.

11 April 1961

A day before the launch, the Vostok-K rocket, and the Vostok 3KA space capsule were transported to the launchpad in a horizontal position and lifted upwards at Site No 1.

At 10 AM final review of the flight plan was discussed with the pilots and Gagarin was confirmed as the primary pilot, Titov remained the backup pilot. Gagarin was very happy with the decision and Titov was, of course, disappointed. The launch was scheduled at 6:07 UTC (9:07 Moscow time) the next day and the cosmonauts were advised to relax and not discuss the forthcoming mission.

“The Sochi Six”. Standing, from left: cosmonauts P. Popovich, G. Nelyubov, G. Titov, V. Bykovsky. Sitting, from left: cosmonauts A. Nikolayev, Y. Gagarin, S. Korolev (head of the space program), Karpov (director for the education), N. Nikitin (parachute instructor). Group vacation in Sochi. Unknown author (May 1961).

So Gagarin and Titov spent the day playing pool, listening to music and having a relaxed chat about their childhood. In the evening both of the cosmonauts were offered sleeping pills, but both of them declined.

On the contrary, Korolev did not sleep the whole night due to anxiety. It was going to be the 24th space flight and so far only half of them had succeeded giving only 50% probability of success.

12 April 1961

On the next day at 2:30 UTC (5:30 Moscow time) both of the cosmonauts were woken up, given breakfast and assisted into their spacesuits. One of the assistants has later recalled that Gagarin looked more pale than usual. He only replied yes and no but seemed very focused.

One of the final decisions had been the painting of “CCCP” on the cosmonauts’ helmets. The idea was to clearly identify a Soviet cosmonaut once he lands on the ground in case uninformed local officials will find him first. It was only one year since the American U-2 spy plane with Francis Gary Powers had been shot down over Russia.


At 4:10 UTC Gagarin entered the spacecraft. There was some hassle with the hatch as the engineers tried to close it for another forty minutes. Meanwhile, Gagarin and Korolev chatted through the radio and some music was played to Gagarin. Finally, everything was ready and the launch took place at 6:07 UTC as planned.

Korolev said: “Preliminary stage….. intermediate….. main….. lift off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right

And Gagarin famously replied:

Poyekhali! (Let’s go!)
-Yuri Gagarin

The Flight

In ten minutes Gagarin already reached the orbit and in thirty minutes he crossed into the night at Hawaii. The whole spaceflight lasted one hour and 48 minutes. The spacecraft was on autopilot and Gagarin had plenty of time to gaze out of the small window. He was amazed by the beauty of planet Earth and was allegedly singing the patriotic tune “The Motherland Listens” while floating in the orbit.

At 7:25 the automatic systems began preparing for re-entry and at 7:55 Gagarin was ejected from the capsule as planned. After a ten-minute parachute flight, Gagarin landed on a field just 280 km to the west from the planned landing site. He told the two farmers, who were in shock after witnessing a strange pilot landing on their field “Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!



Today’s featured photo was brought to us by our special guest Hedieh from Iran who is one of our subscribers. She studied political science in New Jersey and currently lives in Canada.

Hedieh says about the Gagarin photo:
“Yuri Gagarin is a Pioneer, a human who goes to space for the first time with limited resources, it is only simple in words. His mission into space is both personal and universal; this is how I relate to him. His humble personality after his return to Earth made him even more merited to be the number one choice.”



All stills are from the Russian TV Documentary Он мог быть первым. Драма космонавта Нелюбова” (“He Could Be the First. The Drama of Cosmonaut Nelyubov”) (2007)