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Russia and the Truth About My Grandfather

The NKVD also claimed that he had had suspicious contacts with German businessmen and scientists in Russia in the 1920s and '30s. During the inter-war years, Russia and Germany, both outcast nations, engaged in technical, military and scientific cooperation. Once war broke out, those exchanges aroused mistrust.

The interrogation record is short and perfunctory.

"Question: 'Tell us, did you ever serve in our army or any other army?'

"Answer: 'I served in the czarist army from October 1916 until June 1917.'

"Question: 'Did any of your relatives serve in the White Army?'

"Answer: 'No.' "

Relatives, no. But Mark Nikolaevich did not mention that in addition to serving in the czarist army in World War I, he himself had been in the White Army, which fought the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 revolution. At the end of the Civil War, in 1921, he fell seriously ill in the Crimea and missed the last boat out. He survived a bout of typhoid, stayed in Soviet Russia and married his nurse. Together they built a life. Their only child, my father, was born in 1924.

The NKVD said that Mark Nikolaevich had "propagandized about the inevitability of the collapse of Soviet power" after the Germans invaded in 1941. They accused him of being "an active participant in an anti-Soviet group of the old reactionary part of the intelligentsia" and of preparing "to join the German invaders for the purpose of administering the region."

Under Stalin's criminal code, the 64-year-old plant biologist was deemed a counter-revolutionary and an enemy of the people. In reality, he was just another victim of the Red Terror that started soon after the Revolution and consumed Russian society for decades.

I've tried to create a picture of my grandfather from family accounts. It seems he was a Russian patriot. Like many intellectuals, he was a modernizer and Westernizer of the sort Russia still both welcomes and mistrusts. He returned to Russia in 1914 after more than 10 years of study in Europe to defend Russia against the Kaiser's armies. He may have welcomed the fall of the czar, but not the rise of the Communists.

The Soviet euphemism for what happened to Mark Nikolaevich was "prophylactic arrest." Arrest them first, ask questions later, if at all.

In retrospect, my grandfather fit the NKVD's paranoid profile of a traitor. His three sins -- class, ethnicity and profession -- were all but a death sentence.

Mark Nikolaevich was a scion of Russia's hereditary nobility, with mixed European blood. His father descended from South Slavs who migrated to the Russian empire in the 18th century. They settled in the Ukrainian provinces and produced several czarist military officers, including heroes of the Napoleonic wars. His mother was a Baltic German baroness. Mark Nikolaevich's wife -- the White Army nurse -- hailed from another line of Russian German blue bloods.

Under Soviet rule with its supposedly classless society, this sort of family history -- records, photos and mementos -- was best hidden or destroyed.

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