MOSCOW — Andrei Kolesnikov laid out the letters his grandfather sent home from the Stalinist labor camp where he eventually died after eight years as a political prisoner.
“It was an everyday case, so common for that period,” political analyst Kolesnikov told AFP in his Moscow flat.
“My grandfather David Traub was caught up under the wheel of history.”
It has been eight decades since the start of the Great Terror that saw countless innocent victims across the Soviet Union executed or sent to the Gulag camps — and 25 years since the USSR itself finally ceased to exist.
But a fight over the historical truth — and memory — of the crimes of the Soviet regime still drags on in Russia as the current authorities under President Vladimir Putin stand accused of trying to minimize the dark chapters of the past in a bid to bolster their own grip on power.
Earlier this month leading human rights group Memorial — which has been battling for decades to shine a light on Soviet abuses — released a database with the names and some biographical details of around 40,000 people who served in the Stalin-era NKVD secret police from 1935-39.
Kolesnikov was able to find out more about the NKVD agent he had already tracked down in state archives as responsible for the 1938 arrest of his architect grandfather.
Some agents, it turned out, ended up being consumed by the very purges they had helped to conduct, arrested and executed along with their victims. Others went on to become decorated heroes in World War II.
“These people all had different fates,” Kolesnikov, who works for the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said.
Kolesnikov’s grandfather was accused of being a political opponent of the Bolsheviks — his grandson guesses either to fulfill an arrest quota or due to a private vendetta. He died in the sick ward of his labor camp, leaving his wife and children.
‘Diametrically opposed views’
“Unity” is the current buzzword among Russia’s elite — uttered repeatedly by Putin as he tries to forge a sense of national identity that instills loyalty to the Kremlin and smothers dissent.
The strongman leader — and many of those who surround him — served in the NKVD’s successor organization, the KGB, and headed its post-Soviet incarnation the FSB.
Central to their push is shaping a vision of the past that emphasizes the USSR’s victory in World War II and Stalin’s role in achieving it while downplaying the Soviet crimes and repression.
When Memorial released its list of NKVD agents it provoked a level of interest — both positive and negative — that few at the organization had expected.
In the first few days after the list was launched the website crashed as hundreds of thousands of people flooded on to search it.
“It turned out that for an awful lot of people it was terribly interesting — for the descendants of victims and, however strange it might sound, for the descendants of those who worked in the NKVD,” the group’s board chairman Arseny Roginsky told AFP.
The veteran rights activist said that all these years after the repressions there was still an “empty space” in Russia’s collective memory over the perpetrators.