Digging Up My Grandfather’s Killers—A Journey Through the Stalinist Archives

Carnegie Moscow Center
Andrei Kolesnikov

The full article can also be found here.

I was able to read the secret police files of my grandfather, who died in the Russian gulag in 1946, and then cross-reference the names of the men who persecuted him in the new database published by Memorial. Russia’s grandsons need to confront the truth about what their grandfathers did—but the Russian state would prefer its people to live with historical amnesia.

Russia cannot agree on the legacy of Stalinism. This is the main watershed that divides those who want an authoritarian path for our country and those who wish for democracy—the issue of how they relate to the arrests and killings of the Stalin era.

The issue is again fresh in our minds over the last month, since Memorial, the organization that fights for human rights and historical memory, published a database that names almost 40,000 officers of the NKVD, the Stalinist secret police. These are men who conducted interrogations, passed sentences, and authorized hundreds of thousands of executions in the era of the “Great Terror” at the end of the 1930s.

I used Memorial’s database to find out about the men who were responsible for the detention, interrogation, and sentencing of my grandfather, David Traub, who was arrested in 1938 and died in broken health in the gulag in 1946 at the age of 53.

Russia’s current rulers were not pleased by Memorial’s action. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the publication of the database was “a very sensitive topic. It’s obvious that many people have very different opinions; there are diametrically opposite points of view. We should note that both sides make very good arguments.”

Reading this, I wondered: what on earth are the “good arguments” of the Stalinists? How do they still justify a plan to commit mass murder on the basis of false charges? There can be no moral argument for suppressing this information, only a political one: to protect the legitimacy of the current ruling elite, which requires Russia to have lived a glorious history without any dark pages. In this version of the past, the executions and the gulag of the Stalin era are just an important footnote in the history of a great epoch.

The ignorance of Russia’s younger generation allows the state to pull off this trick of imposing national amnesia. In a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in 2016, 26 percent of respondents said that Stalin’s repression could be justified on the grounds of political necessity, compared to a figure of 9 percent in 2007. In a 2016 poll, 19 percent of young respondents said they knew nothing about Stalin’s repression, and 26 percent said they found it difficult to characterize it.

Russia has undergone two waves of de-Stalinization: under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s and under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. It needs a third wave. The dictator was taken out of Lenin’s mausoleum in 1961, but he still lies buried in Red Square under the Kremlin wall. As long as he does, he still keeps his hand on the throats of the descendants of his bureaucratic lackeys, and he freezes the minds and souls of post-Soviet citizens, young and old.

Memorial’s outing of the Stalin-era killers is of course in part a political story, but it also reveals a multitude of deeply personal ones. For some, an NKVD sergeant was a bloody executioner who shot people in the back of the head without a second thought. For others, that same man was “Great-Grandfather,” the man whose portrait hangs on the wall in full uniform and medals. For some, that lieutenant from the 1930s was the sadist who beat prisoners in an interrogation-room, but for members of his family he may have been the revered veteran who wore the ribbon of St. George to denote his courage in the Second World War.

Of course we can understand people who defend their grandparents even if they were killers. But this does not change the essential truth of their lives.

And some descendants take a braver line. Thousands have recently been following the powerful story of how a young man in Tomsk, Denis Karagodin, unmasked the identity of the executioners of his grandfather, Stepan Karagodin, a Cossack farmer who was shot in detention in 1938. After the younger Karagodin published his research, he received a moving letter from a woman named Yulia. She said she had been shaken by the revelation that her grandfather, Nikolai Zyryanov, had been Karagodin’s executioner and asked for forgiveness. She also said that her mother’s grandfather had been killed in the purges.

“I haven’t slept for several days,” Yulia wrote. “Mentally, I understand that I am not responsible for what happened, but I cannot put into words the emotions I feel. So it turns out that the same family can hold both victims and executioners… But I will never disown the history of my family, however bad it was.”

The Traub Family. In the center – David Traub with his wifeAt the height of the Great Terror in 1938, my grandfather, David Traub, was arrested for being a “Menshevik who had not disarmed.” He died in 1946 in a hospital in Vozhael, a small town in Ustvymlag, the large series of camps in Russia’s Far North. In 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, he was posthumously rehabilitated. Documents from that year, declassified only in 1999, show that the prosecutors had found two of the three people who had denounced him. These two said they did so under the severest pressure from the investigator. Traub himself wrote to Stalin’s leading henchman Lavrenty Beria saying he had also signed his statement of guilt under severe pressure.

With the help of Memorial’s chairman Arseny Roginsky, I was given access to my grandfather’s files in the Russian State Archive and deciphered the names of the NKVD officers who decided his fate. And now, using the Memorial database, I was able to track the various fates of these men themselves.

I could find out little about the biography of the investigator, Sergei Pilshchikov, except his official position. The criminal case files show that he depicted my grandfather as a Jewish petit bourgeois who “dealt in trade,” even though he was in fact an architect.

Secret police officials of that era had the habit of signing themselves with their surnames only. So I don’t know which of the two men named Fomushkin in the Memorial database was the one who arrested my grandfather, and who managed to get almost all of his personal details wrong in his report: his surname, his nationality, and even his address. It may be the Fomushkin who was later decorated for service in the Red Army’s wartime counterintelligence unit, Smersh.

Fomushkin did not sign the guilty verdict. Many others did, generally in handwriting that is as sketchy as a doctor’s name on a prescription note. This mass of barely legible signatures looks like an act of shared responsibility or, to be more precise, of mutually tainting each other with blood. With their almost impersonal scribbles, these men seemed to want to prove that no individual was guilty, only the whole system. Or did they guess that decades later their names would end up in a database?

Here in the archives is the signature in pencil of Captain Papivin, who had a brilliant career and was awarded a medal for war service in 1985. Here is Grigory Yakubovich, who approved my father’s verdict and only a few months later was himself arrested, and then shot.

And here is a very senior official, Soviet deputy commissar for internal affairs Leonid Zakovsky. He was born with the Latvian name Genrikh Shtubis in the same year as my grandfather and in the same Baltic province. Zakovsky was a legendary figure who collectivized Siberia with an iron hand and deported kulaks. He led the official investigation into the notorious murder of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov in 1934—even as many suspected that Kirov’s real killer was Stalin. Maybe my grandfather was arrested under Zakovsky’s plan to have one thousand “national elements” arrested. In any case, the commissar himself was arrested and shot not long afterwards.

Here are the men who signed the guilty verdict, Yakov Nikitin and Mikhail Persits. You get the impression that these are the signatures of robots, pieces of machinery that could not be stopped.

The signature of Ivan Borovkov lies on one of many documents refusing to review the case and have my grandfather released on health grounds. For years, Borovkov was the deputy head of the notorious “Special Council,” the extrajudicial organ of the NKVD that was authorized to dispense justice without trial. No word on its deliberations was given to the prisoner himself. The decision was merely communicated to the appropriate NKVD department and then the Ustvymlag camp.

In 1938, at the height of the Great Terror, the Special Council passed a record number of guilty verdicts: 45,768. That number was exceeded only in 1942. Not many fewer were sentenced in 1949, when the aging Stalin exhibited post-war paranoia. In 1952, the number dropped to “only” 958.

After Stalin’s death, Borovkov was stripped of all responsibilities. In 1967, he committed suicide.

These officials determined the fate of a man who was dying in the gulag and who was only a few months away from the official end of his eight-year sentence—and whose life could have been saved by an early reprieve. Yet I read in the files, “in response to the recent complaint, no necessity is conceded in reviewing the decision of the case of Traub.”

We can imagine a surly bureaucrat writing this statement out by hand, handing it through a window to be typed out, then taking the typed document for a signature. A tired Borovkov signs his way through a whole pile of documents without really looking, feeling only the pleasant soft green baize of the desk under his pen. But this is the death sentence for a man who is spending more and more time in the prison hospital and will soon die there. That death will be reported only in a document entitled “Notification of loss to the camp colony.”

This is a very human and personal story of my family. But it is of course one of millions.

Reading through the archive files of my dead grandfather, David Traub, I could forgive them almost anything—but not one thing. That is their rejection of the plea my grandmother sent to secret police chief Lavrenty Beria in 1945. It is one of many requests to review the case and release a sick man who had lost the capacity to work.

This plea is different from the others because it is written in the unmistakable handwriting of a tenth-grader—my mother. My grandmother could still dictate and sign the statement. But somewhere in the middle of the war, after losing her son near Kursk and her nephews in the siege of Leningrad, while still missing her husband, she had lost the power to write legibly.

When I came across these pages in the reading room of the Russian state archive, I was too upset to carry on. And I still feel the same shock.

All of which is why I give a deep bow to Memorial, an organization now being accused by the Russian state of being a “foreign agent.” I thank Memorial for publishing its database of NKVD executioners so that we can at least know their names. And I personally thank Arseny Roginsky, who found my grandfather’s case for me in the archive.

Our history has no closure because there is still no repentance. Because the Russian state protects and glorifies those who committed these mass killings, while persecuting those who preserve the memory of the victims of the gulag.

In Repentance, the famous film of the perestroika era released in 1987, the body of the Stalin-era henchman Varlam Aravidze, is dug up from its grave by the grief-stricken relative of one of his victims. Then the teenager Tornike Aravidze, the grandson of the monster, takes a stand and refuses to accept the family’s assurances that his grandfather was really a hero. So long as other grandchildren do not agree, even mentally, to see their grandfathers dug up from their snug Soviet graves, Russia will stay imprisoned by its past.

The text was originally published in Russian in Gazeta.ru.