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NKVD Case No. 2870

Russia and the Truth About My Grandfather

By Mark C. Medish
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page B02

The 18th of July, 1942, was a hot summer day in Krasnodar, a city in the Russian Caucasus, near the Black Sea. On that day, as my grandfather Mark Nikolaevich Medish was taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along Proletarskaya Street in the center of town not far from home, he was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

With that, he became NKVD case No. 2870 -- and disappeared.

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I have often wondered what was on my grandfather's mind just before the secret police accosted him. I imagine that, at age 64, he still strode with a stoical Prussian gait, as my father does today. A microbiologist, he was, perhaps, mulling over a plant experiment that he was conducting in his laboratory at the Krasnodar Vinicultural Institute. Or he might have been preoccupied with the war. Hitler's armored divisions were beginning their drive into the Caucasus. The Crimea had just been taken, and the Red Army was falling back in disarray. Indeed, Krasnodar would be occupied by Nazi troops by mid-August.

His family knew he had been arrested because shortly afterwards, NKVD agents searched the apartment. They confiscated 870 loose-leaf pages, 6 notebooks and 33 business cards. My father, then 17, was one of three witnesses to sign the search protocol. The other two were neighbors.

Over the years, our family has tried to piece together what happened to my grandfather and why. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many archives were unlocked for scholars and families looking for information about the millions who died during the repressive rule of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Russia needs to confront these ghosts if it wants to become a more open, democratic country -- and avoid new abuses of power. Yet the country's new openness has come with a certain reluctance to face the past, and it has taken years for our family to obtain even a portion of my grandfather's case file.

Recently, in response to a request to the secret police archives, I obtained a redacted photocopy of his file -- 20 of the 37 pages. It includes a summary of the charges and evidence, a record of his arrest and interrogation, photos, a fingerprint, a medical report and the later case history -- all secret until now.

Like those of Stalin's other victims, my grandfather's story is deeply personal. It is about one man's end and a family's struggle to survive the tumult of revolution, terror and war. But it is worth telling because it is also part of a broader story about Russia's evolving national identity and its neglected hidden past.

The front cover of my grandfather's file bears the stamp "Khranit' Vechno," meaning "Preserve for Eternity." This was a special classification developed by the NKVD in the 1930s.

The notes of the NKVD officers reflect what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. The Soviet authorities generally kept meticulous records, even about political repression. The fastidious paperwork was probably intended to create the appearance of efficiency, if not the rule of law, at least among those implementing the repression.

My grandfather was jailed at NKVD headquarters, only a block from his apartment. The building still stands. It has housed the NKVD's successors, first the KGB and now the FSB. Despite his proximity to home, his family's requests to visit him were turned down. They would never see him again.

The most striking elements of file 2870 are the photographs. Through the ghostly green-yellow tint, the NKVD mug shots reveal a look of defiance from a man who probably knew that his luck had run out.

The file also contains a medical report noting that Mark Nikolaevich was "zdorov k fiztrudu," meaning "fit for physical labor" in the gulag. It described my grandfather as a Ukrainian. His ethnicity was more complicated, but this mistake wasn't consequential.

Other errors were more fateful. The file stated, incorrectly, that he was a former Social Revolutionary, referring to the anti-czarist faction that rivaled the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. True, as a young man in Kharkov in 1901, Mark Nikolaevich had been arrested by the czarist police for taking part in a student demonstration. He had acquaintances who were Social Revolutionaries, but he belonged to no party.


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