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Russia and the Truth About My Grandfather

Moving to Krasnodar in the remote Caucasus was self-exile. But my grandfather probably welcomed it because the fertile Black Sea region was perfect for agricultural experimentation.

Nonetheless, politics caught up with him. Many fields of science had gone mad in Stalin's Russia. In the 1930s, a Ukrainian peasant named Trofim Lysenko, who had a horticultural diploma, became Stalin's favorite quack in the field of biology.

In the early 1930s, forced collectivization had destroyed Soviet agriculture. Lysenko's scientific miracles were supposed to be cure that. Under his direction, modern genetics was dubbed counter-revolutionary. One of Lysenko's rivals was Nikolai Vavilov, one of the world's leading geneticists and a colleague of my grandfather's. Vavilov dared to challenge Lysenko's science. In 1939, Vavilov and his circle were accused of participating in a "Jewish-bourgeois conspiracy." My father recalls that Mark Nikolaevich was questioned by the authorities at his institute about this time. Vavilov was arrested in late 1940; he died in prison in 1943.

In my grandfather's file, a notation for Dec. 6, 1942, says his case was to be transferred to the NKVD's Uzbekistan branch, probably the destination of my grandfather's prison cohort. But he never got that far. In a sense, he cheated the gulag.

In early August 1942, days before the Germans reached Krasnodar, he was evacuated on a special night train with other political prisoners. About 75 miles from Krasnodar, the rail convoy came under German air attack and was stopped in its tracks.

In the ensuing chaos, many of the prisoners were killed. Some were summarily executed by the NKVD guards; others fled only to be recaptured. A handful made it home to Krasnodar on foot. My grandfather was not among them. We do not know exactly how he died or what happened to his remains.

Case 2870 remained open for many years after the war. In January 1955, the KGB reviewed the case and, noting his age and the lack of evidence, concluded that Mark Nikolaevich was no longer a "highly dangerous criminal." The case was closed.

In 1991, in the last weeks of the Soviet Union, the Soviet parliament passed a law: "On the rehabilitation of the victims of political repression." In 2002, the Krasnodar prosecutor's office determined that my grandfather had been "subjected to criminal responsibility for political reasons." Only this autumn did we receive an official statement that he had been "rehabilitated in full." No apologies were offered.

Stalin supposedly remarked that the death of a million people is a statistic, but the death of one man is a tragedy. This is not a surprising view for a mass murderer. According to Anne Applebaum's "Gulag: A History," NKVD records show that in 1942 the gulag population was 1,777,043. Of those, at least 352,560 died in captivity. Applebaum (now a Post editorial writer) notes that it is not clear whether these figures counted those who died in transport. The tally should include Mark Nikolaevich Medish, husband and father, scientist and patriot.

In our time, the spirit of freedom has received a new lease on life in Russia and progress has been made filling the blank pages of history. But truth and reconciliation are never easy. Germany and Japan have had mixed success confronting the Holocaust and World War II. The United States took decades to admit the injustice of the Japanese American internment camps.

The effort I've had to make to reconstruct my grandfather's story demonstrates how much Russia still needs to do to confront its many ghosts. There is still no national monument to the millions of victims of Stalin's secret police. Some influential people in Russia even want to re-erect the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Bolshevik secret police. Stalin remains popular in Russian opinion polls and the catchy tune of Stalin's national anthem has been restored.

To become a normal country -- as today's generation of Westernizers likes to imagine it -- post-Soviet Russia must come to terms with a Soviet past that was anything but normal. Not by forgetting, but by remembering.Only time will tell whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has the wisdom and courage to lead Russia to a brighter future by mastering the darkness of its past.

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Mark Medish, a Washington lawyer, was senior director for Russian and Ukrainian affairs at the National Security Council from 2000 to 2001.

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