‘This is an attempt to erase my memory’ In their own words, the descendants of Soviet terror victims recount how Memorial helped uncover their relatives’ fates
Russia’s oldest human rights organization, Memorial International, is under threat. Last week, prosecutors filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court seeking to shut down Memorial over “systematic violations” of Russia’s legislation on “foreign agents.” One of Memorial’s greatest projects is a database of victims of the USSR’s political terror, a resource that has connected countless people with information about their relatives lost to the purges. In their own words, the descendants of Soviet terror victims recount how Memorial helped them uncover their family histories and share their thoughts on the authorities going after the rights group.
Poet, literary critic
My great-grandfather Vasily Pavlovich Oborin was in the leftist opposition. He and his wife were put on trial as Trotskyists, since they were quite the revolutionaries, they opposed Stalin.
His wife, my great-grandmother, got 20 years in Kolyma [a Gulag camp]. My great-grandfather was shot, but we didn’t know the exact date, or the place of death and burial. The details of his early biography weren’t known [to us] either, but thanks to Memorial we learned that my great-grandfather was from the city of Mologa. It also had a distinctive fate — this is one of the cities in the Yaroslavl region that was flooded for the Rybinsk reservoir.
It was very important for us to learn about our great-grandfather. When we heard that the Attorney General’s Office had filed a lawsuit to liquidate Memorial International our first feeling was, of course, outrage. But besides that, [there was] the feeling of the endless fatigue caused by such news.
There’s a tremendous variety of people whom Memorial has helped to learn about [their] repressed relatives, people for whom it’s important not to forget about the victims of the terror. It’s enough to look at the “Returning the Names” event: every year there’s a queue at the Solovetsky Stone, and yet there’s not enough time to read the names of even a small portion of those who were shot.
My great-grandfather was Mikhail Nikolaevich Malama. He was arrested in 1937. At one point, his daughter, my grandmother, brought him a parcel, but she was told he no longer had the right to correspondence. Thus, the family understood that my great-grandfather had been shot. Nothing else was known, and that’s how they lived.
Two years ago [in 2019] we found his last name on the lists of victims of political repressions on Memorial’s website. It turned out that my great-grandfather was shot on December 9, 1937. I reached out to Memorial for help — I wanted to know more. There, they gave me detailed instructions on what to do, they explained what rights I have as a relative, and where I needed to write.
I sent letters to several archives and to Lubyanka [the former headquarters of the Soviet secret police]. A few months later, a parcel arrived with copies of the arrest warrant, the interrogation, the sentence, and the order for rehabilitation. And, most importantly, a photograph of my great-grandfather: the only one, since nothing survived in the family archive. It seems to me that I even look a little bit like him.
We learned that before the revolution, Mikhail Nikolaevich served as an officer in the gendarme corps, then as a staff captain, and an adjutant to Nicholas II. He provided security to the Imperial Stavka in Mogilev. After the revolution, he worked as a graphic designer and an architect. He was sentenced to be shot for participating in a terrorist organization and preparing a terrorist attack against the leadership of the VKP(b) [All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)]: Stalin, Voroshilov, and Molotov. I read the copy of the interrogation shedding tears, and wondered what he would have thought, knowing his great-granddaughter would read all this.
The documents didn’t say where my great-grandfather was shot. So I wrote to Memorial again. They replied that my great-grandfather was shot at Kommunarka [an NKVD execution site on the outskirts of Moscow]. I went there and found my great-grandfather’s surname on the memorial wall.
In 2021, after the “Returning the Names” event, we started looking for new information about our great-grandfather. It turned out that the witness whose testimony was the basis for the conviction was arrested with my great-grandfather on the same day and shot alongside him at Kommunarka on December 9. In all likelihood, he was the same kind of victim of the regime.
If it weren’t for Memorial, we might never have known anything. When I read about the liquidation lawsuit, I felt that it hurts me personally — after all, this is an attempt to erase my memory. I thought, how lucky I was that I managed to find out everything. Though I believe that their work will continue, and I wish for this nightmare to be over as soon as possible.
User interface researcher
A few years ago I was looking for information about my grandfather’s brother — Rostislav Veniaminovich Smyslov, an instructor at the Stavropol Pedagogical Institute. There was no information about him in Memorial’s database. A short note appeared there only a year or two later, by then I had already obtained information from other sources. But this was probably my most amazing experience — seeing firsthand that the databases are still being updated. This means that for many people there’s still hope of finding something about their lost relatives.
Rostislav’s name wasn’t even remembered in our family — he left Russia with his father as a teenager in 1919. They only knew that one of our ancestors seemed to have left during the Civil War and perhaps, somewhere someday, it would be possible to find his descendants, who our family had been separated from for a century. But unfortunately, there was no use in searching for relatives — in 1942, Rostislav was taken away as a spy and he died in transit, while awaiting a court decision. His name would have been forgotten, if not for Memorial’s work.
That said, there was information in Memorial’s database about the case of my other great-uncle — Lev Vasilyevich Krylov. My relatives said little about what happened to my grandmother’s family, I have only patchy memories. It turned out that he spent three years in prison and in exile. My great-uncle was later fully rehabilitated. We still have his records and notes — I plan to digitize them and give them to Prozhito.
The majority of my ancestors and their relatives were dekulakized and repressed. In 1931, the family of Terenty Kuzmich Potapov — the elder brother of my great-great-grandmother — was dekulakized. He had at least five sons and ten grandchildren — and this entire, large family was exiled to the West Siberian Territory, the present-day the territory of the Kemerovo and Novosibirsk regions, where they all had various misadventures. In 1938, one of his sons, Pimen Terentyevich Potapov, was shot. A photo was taken before the execution.
In the Memorial database, I found records about three people who could be the grandchildren of Terenty Kuzmich. Then, online, I found a database of residents of the Kemerovo region, where there were two people with the full names and dates of birth of these grandchildren.
There were no phone numbers, but there were addresses, so I decided to write them letters on paper. I wrote about what I knew, attached photographs, and a month later, in October, they phoned me. The youngest grandson was on the line, he’s now more than 70 years old. I was the first relative from his father’s side, the son of Terenty Kuzmich, with whom he had ever spoken. If it weren’t for Memorial, we wouldn’t have found each other. Now, I’m continuing to search for other relatives.
When I saw the news about the lawsuit against Memorial I was astonished. This organization is in whose way?
Translation by Eilish Hart