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Tortured Past: On Russian Memorial, Victims And Perpetrators Of Stalin's Purges Stand Side By Side

On October 1, 1937, as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's brutal purge raged, a brilliant, one-handed Russian linguist penned a complaint from Moscow's notorious Butyrka prison about his treatment by the NKVD secret police.

"I request a halt to the severe interrogation methods (physical violence), as these methods compel me to lie and only serve to confuse the investigation. Furthermore, I am close to losing my mind," Yevgeny Polivanov wrote, according to the Soviet prosecutor-general seeking the scholar's rehabilitation 25 years later.

A 46-year-old specialist in Asian languages considered a genius by his peers, Polivanov had already made important contributions in his field -- including his Japanese-to-Russian transcription system that remains widely used to this day.

On orders from Moscow, he had been arrested six weeks earlier in Bishkek -- called Frunze at the time -- the capital of Soviet Kyrgyzstan. Polivanov had been working as a professor there and continuing his research on the languages of Central Asia -- as well translating the Kyrgyz national epic poem, Manas, into Russian.

"Polivanov was one of the first world-class scholars to turn his attention to the history of the Kyrgyz people," prominent Kyrgyz historian Vladimir Ploskikh told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

Polivanov, who said he knew 18 languages, was known at the time to improvise the Manas "for hundreds of lines in a row, imitating the manner of the local Manas singers," a group of Soviet linguists would later write.

In our history, it is frequently difficult to separate the victim from the persecutor."
-- Yan Rachinsky, chairman of the Memorial rights group

Nearly four months after his desperate plea to end the abuse he endured, Polivanov was executed on the unsubstantiated charge of spying for Japan. He was buried at an NKVD shooting ground on Moscow's southern outskirts known as Kommunarka -- the final resting place of thousands executed by the Soviet secret police between 1937 and 1941.

Polivanov's name is one of the 6,609 listed on a memorial wall unveiled in late October at Kommunarka -- a wooded area that the NKVD's successor agency, the Federal Security Service, transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1999.

On a recent snowy day at the memorial, a wicker basket with wilted red roses drooping over the edges and a crimson ribbon festooned to the handle rested on the ground near the section featuring Polivanov's name.

Embossed on another section 20 meters to the left, just on the other side of a barren oak tree, is the name of the NKVD interrogator who helped put Polivanov in the ground.

'Everyone Has A Right To A Grave'

Kommunarka was one of three areas in Moscow used by the NKVD for mass executions and burials during the Great Terror, in which some 700,000 people perished.

Efforts to erect a memorial to victims there had stalled for years due to a lack of state funding. Civic activists and relatives of victims ultimately settled on a relatively inexpensive design consisting of panels featuring the names of everyone known to have been executed and/or buried at the site.
But a sticky matter quickly emerged: Should members of the Soviet secret police who later perished themselves in the purges be commemorated alongside victims of the bloodletting they helped carry out?

"In our history, it is frequently difficult to separate the victim from the persecutor," Yan Rachinsky, chairman of the Russian rights group and historical society Memorial, said in an open letter in November.

"Former prisoners sometimes transformed into executioners, and the executioners became victims," Rachinsky added. "The history of the Holocaust is much simpler: The victims and the executioners didn't swap places."

Memorial, which has conducted extensive archival research on Stalin's purges, worked with Moscow's Gulag History State Museum, the Russian Orthodox Church, victims' relatives, and activists to bring the Kommunarka project to life.

The key question was whether to divide the victims and persecutors into two separate lists.

"Everyone has a right to a grave," Rachinsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It was the Soviet government that destroyed people it considered enemies in such a way that not a trace of them remained: no grave, no mention in reference books. The same way they completely erased [Soviet revolutionary Leon] Trotsky. "

Ultimately, the decision was made to put the names of all of those buried at Kommunarka together in an alphabetical list -- with nothing more than their names and date of death.

Defending the decision, Rachinsky cited, among other reasons, the difficulty in establishing criteria to determine one's complicity in the purges, adding that inclusion on the memorial is not tantamount to "canonization or rehabilitation."

"Do we deem those who denounced their colleagues at various meetings for links to 'enemies of the people' to be butchers? These declarations often became, if not the reason, then the grounds for arrest. Do we consider those who published rabble-rousing articles and demands for arrests and executions to be butchers?" Rachinsky wrote in the open letter.

The decision triggered fiery criticism from some observers.

"As with the names of Nazi executioners, these names should only be on exhibit stands and in books that tell about their crimes," the prominent Russian historian Andrei Zubov wrote in November.

Yury Samodurov, an activist and former head of the Sakharov Center museum, accused Memorial of "helping the Kremlin and the FSB hide the names of those who carried out political repressions."

Rachinsky hit back at what he called "conspiracy theorists," saying the government had no input on the matter. He said the project received financing from a government-backed foundation that collects donations to commemorate victims of repressions, but that the Russian government did not fund the initiative.
The debate comes amid a gradual softening of Stalin's reputation in Russia during President Vladimir Putin's 18 years in power. Putin, himself a KGB veteran, has criticized Stalin's crimes while also saying that "excessive demonization" of the dictator is a way "of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia."

An April 2017 poll by Russia's independent Levada Center found that 25 percent of Russians believe Stalin's repressions were "historically justified" -- up from 9 percent in 2007. Forty-seven percent of respondents in the April 2017 poll agreed that "it is better to speak less about the repressions and not to dig up the past," up from 37 percent in August 2012.

In a March 2018 survey by the pollster, 20 percent of respondents "fully agreed" that Stalin was a "wise leader who led the Soviet Union to might and prosperity," up from 13 percent in 2008.

Putin has yet to make a public visit to the new Kommunarka memorial. But he did make a 2007 visit to another of the NKVD execution sites, the Butovo Firing Range, where he said that "such tragedies have occurred more than once in the history of mankind."
He added that "the most capable people, the pride of the nation," were killed in the repressions.

“We are feeling the consequences of this tragedy to this day,” Putin said. “We have much to do to ensure that this is never forgotten, and to remember this tragedy.”

False Confession

On August 4, 1937 -- three days after Polivanov's arrest in Soviet Kyrgyzstan -- an archivist with the Soviet Foreign Ministry named Nikolai Kuznetsov claimed in an NKVD interrogation that the linguist had ties to Japanese intelligence, according to documents published by Russian gulag historian Sergei Prudovsky. Kuznetsov's official testimony stated that he had crossed paths with Polivanov in Tokyo in 1916 and that the scholar was prone to drunken escapades and a "debauched lifestyle."

"He acted in such a way that the Japanese could only forgive him if he was their man," the transcript of Kuznetsov's testimony, which misstated Polivanov's patronymic, reads.

The document identifies one of Kuznetsov's NKVD interrogators by his last name -- Grigoryev. A cross-reference of the interrogator's name and title with Memorial's database of NKVD officials shows this man to be Valentin Filatovich Grigoryev, a department head at the NKVD's central headquarters in Moscow -- and the man whose name is listed 20 meters away from Polivanov's on the Kommunarka memorial wall.

Grigoryev was also the listed interrogator in Polivanov's purported confession on October 15, 1937, that he was a Japanese spy. According to the document, unearthed in FSB archives by the Russian linguists Fyodor Ashnin and Vladimir Alpatov, Polivanov said he was recruited by a Japanese agent in Vladivostok in 1916 and tasked with infiltrating Imperial Russia's intelligence apparatus. He admitted to feeding intelligence to his Japanese handlers over the next two decades, including during his time in Central Asia, according to the transcript.

"I fully admit my guilt," Polivanov is quoted as telling Grigoryev and a fellow interrogator.

Polivanov's file in the FSB archives contained transcripts of just two of his interrogations by the NKVD -- on August 22, 1937, and his "confession" on October 15, 1937, according to Ashnin and Alpatov.

It's fine to put them on this wall, but you at least have to put an asterisk next to the people who directly participated."
-- Andrei Shalayev, Russian activist

The scholar's signature is on every page of each of the documents, and the deterioration of his handwriting during his detention suggests Polivanov -- as claimed in his letter from Butyrka – indeed suffered abuse at the hands of his captors, they write.

"Even a layman can see the difference in his handwriting in [the first] transcript that was signed, most likely prior to the torture, and the transcript from October 15 after a month and a half of being worked over," Ashnin and Alpatov state in their 1997 article.

While Polivanov may have -- officially, at least -- confessed to spying for Japan in his interrogation, he changed his tune at his trial three months later. The official record of his trial shows that he rejected his earlier testimony as "false."

Polivanov said during the trial that "he always worked honestly and was never a spy," his verdict reads.

While Polivanov worked briefly under Trotsky at the Soviet foreign affairs commissariat following the Bolshevik Revolution -- and his arrest warrant linked the scholar to "counterrevolutionary Trotskyite activities" -- the verdict makes no mention of Trotsky, whom Stalin had assassinated in Mexico in 1940.

Polivanov was convicted and sentenced to death on January 25, 1938, by the military collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court. He was executed the same day and buried at Kommunarka. Three years, six months, and two days later, Grigoryev -- the NKVD interrogator who extracted the confession that Polivanov later rejected -- was himself convicted and shot.

'At Least Put An Asterisk'

At least 254 NKVD officers -- including Grigoryev -- were executed and buried at Kommunarka during Stalin's purges, according to the website of the Russian Orthodox cathedral that currently stands on the territory. Two weeks after the new monument was unveiled, a Russian activist named Andrei Shalayev made his way to the grounds of the site with two small plastic signs bearing, in fine print, the names of what he calls 88 of the most "odious" perpetrators of Stalin's death machine listed on the memorial wall.

Shalayev, editor of an online database about Soviet political repressions called Immortal Barracks, affixed the signs to two trees opposite the memorial.

"There aren't any other signs here indicating that these people themselves directly participated in executions," Shalayev, 30, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on a recent visit to Kommunarka.
Grigoryev is among the 88 NKVD officers that Shalayev decided to include on his list. But he is certainly not the most famous.

That dubious honor likely belongs to Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin's secret-police chief, who was an instrumental figure in show trials and purges in the military, as well as a founder of the gulag prison-camp system. Kommunarka had previously been part of a dacha compound used by Yagoda, who was arrested in March 1937 and executed the following year.

Also included on Shalayev's list is Leonid Zakovsky, who headed the NKVD in Soviet Belarus and Leningrad, and later served as a deputy to Yagoda's ruthless successor, Nikolai Yezhov. Zakovsky, whom Memorial calls "one of the more proactive organizers of the Great Terror," was executed in 1938 on charges of spying for Germany, Poland, and England.

"It's fine to put them on this wall, but you at least have to put an asterisk next to the people who directly participated," Shalayev says.

Shalayev supports separating the victims of Stalin's repressions from NKVD persecutors at Kommunarka and says he plans to continue working to highlight the fact that many featured on the memorial were complicit in Stalin's terror.

"These are direct participants of mass repressions -- the people who unleashed this. And for what? For fear. To instill fear, that, in my opinion, lurks in our society to this day. It hasn't gone anywhere," he says.

Divergent Legacies

In the eight years following Stalin's death in 1953, the Soviet government formally rehabilitated -- based on complaints filed by victims or surviving relatives -- nearly 270,000 people who perished in his purges or faced other forms of repression, a top Russian military prosecutor said in 2016.

Polivanov and his Estonian wife, Brigitta, did not have children, and she died in a penal camp in 1946 after being convicted as a Polish spy eight years earlier. But in 1962, a prominent Soviet linguist sent a letter to Soviet prosecutors that would serve as the basis for the scholar's rehabilitation. Several of Polivanov's former colleagues and acquaintances would proceed to advocate on his behalf as well.In a letter to prosecutors, the Russian writer and literary critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote that Polivanov was a committed Marxist despite his aristocratic background and called his scholarly abilities "phenomenal."

"He was considered to be on the cutting edge of international linguistics," Shklovsky, who felt obliged to mention Polivanov's well-known heroin addiction, wrote. (Ashnin wrote that Polivanov moved to Soviet Kyrgyzstan after the local leadership agreed to his one condition -- "the regular provision of quality drugs."

Bolstering Polivanov's Marxist bona fides, Shklovsky cited conversations the two men had together with the famous Soviet revolutionary and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. He also said he witnessed how Polivanov, despite having only one hand (the result of a childhood accident), helped overturn a tram car in central Petrograd -- now St. Petersburg -- to use as a barricade during the February Revolution that ousted Tsar Nicholas II in 1917.

On April 3, 1963, the plenum of the Soviet Supreme Court formally rehabilitated Polivanov, ruling that he was "unjustly" convicted based on the flimsy testimony of Kuznetsov -- the witness who told of Polivanov's carousing in Tokyo and who was also later executed.Before his death at age 46, Polivanov authored 140 publications, including more than 20 books and brochures, according to Ashnin and Alpatov. They added, however, that an even greater number of his works remained only as handwritten manuscripts or were simply lost.

Polivanov's work and influence have been revisited by scholars and widely discussed in the decades since his rehabilitation.

Public information about the life and fate of his NKVD interrogator with whom he shares space on the Kommunarka memorial is comparatively sparse.

According to the Russian researchers Nikita Petrov and Konstantin Skorkin, the interrogator, Grigoryev, was born in the Tula region to a peasant family in 1902 and began working with the Soviet secret police there in 1919. He went on to lead departments in NKVD branches in Russian regions before landing a posting in Moscow in 1937 -- exactly six months before obtaining Polivanov's "confession."

Archival material that has been made public by researchers and journalists show that Grigoryev was involved in the persecution of several other people listed on the Kommunarka memorial, including Sergei Kaminer, a noted chess composer, and Aleksandr Samoilovich, a prominent Turkologist executed as a Japanese spy two weeks after Polivanov. Both Kaminer and Samoilovich were later rehabilitated posthumously by the Soviet government.

The lone publicly available photograph of Grigoryev is a grainy head shot showing a bespectacled, full-faced man with a receding hairline. According to researchers at Memorial, Grigoryev had a brother and two sisters who all worked in the Soviet secret police.

Precisely what led to his arrest on April 25, 1939, is not clear. But he was convicted two years later and executed on July 27, 1941. The government falsely told Grigoryev's family that he died in a prison camp in April 1942, according to Memorial.

A petition for Grigoryev's posthumous rehabilitation was rejected by Russia's Supreme Court in 2013, Memorial said.

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