The Russian historian giving Stalin's victims back their identity


Saint Petersburg (AFP)

He has shone a light on the lives and deaths of tens of thousands of Joseph Stalin's victims, but Russian historian Anatoly Razumov says his work is greeted with "indifference" in a country that still struggles to acknowledge the enormity of the bloody purges.

For the last three decades, Razumov has worked through archives to make public the names of those executed during Stalin's purges in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, which targeted suspected "counter-revolutionaries" or so-called "enemies of the people" in the late 1930s.

"I haven't discovered any logic to it. It was inhumane and inexplicable," the historian told AFP of his findings, which he regrets now prompt little reaction.

Commemorating the victims remains a vexed question in Russia, more than 80 years after the height of the Great Terror, which saw millions executed and sent to Gulag prison camps or into exile in remote regions.

Under President Vladimir Putin, authorities have downplayed these darkest pages of Soviet history in the name of national unity and are sometimes even overtly hostile to such research.

Since the late 1980s, Razumov has compiled 13 volumes of what he calls a "Leningrad Martyrology," using an ancient term for books listing Christian martyrs, with the dates of birth, arrest and death of the victims.

They also list the names, jobs and addresses of the people who lived in Leningrad before they were disappeared.

At best, relatives would have been told their loved ones had been "convicted without the right to written correspondence," without ever learning what had actually happened to them.

"I launched my research in 1987 in the era of Perestroika reforms, as soon as it became possible," Razumov said.

The son of a Soviet army officer, Razumov does not come from a family that was touched by the repressions.

But he chose to take on this mission to pay final respects to the men and women executed in the purges, from all walks of life including engineers, workers, tailors and shop assistants.

- 'Liquidation' plan -

The 62-year-old works in a room in the giant Russian National Library, right in the centre of Saint Petersburg.

Razumov's study is lined with hundreds of files he has collected, often from the archives of the Stalin-era secret police, the NKVD, but also sent to him by relatives of victims.

He opens up one of them: it has a transcript of the interrogation and verdict issued against a 28-year-old woman called Nina Dubrovskaya, who was a student of Polish origin. She was accused of being a Polish spy and executed on December 11, 1937.

"The executions were on a mass scale -- they would be killing people every night," Razumov said, of the year and a half leading up to autumn 1938.

"There were no courts. Those accused appeared in front of tribunals of two or three people -- that is one or two NKVD officers and a prosecutor who read out the verdict.

"It was really a machine churning out punishments."

The "liquidation" plan drawn up by Stalin and his associates led to 40,000 people dying in Leningrad alone during this period, the historian said.

- Researcher arrested -

Razumov admits his work has not received much support from the state, saying he senses "indifference" to the Stalin purges among officials.

He has recently returned from the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk where he went to show support for his colleague Yury Dmitriyev, a member of Russia's human rights group Memorial, known for its research into those who were disappeared during Stalin-era repressions.

Dmitriyev has spent more than a year in prison on child pornography charges that Memorial has condemned as fabricated and motivated by his professional activities.

The court has now ruled to release him from detention at the end of January but he still faces restrictions on his movements.

The Russian leadership rarely mentions the Terror and Putin does not attend annual commemorative events held by Memorial.

In this official environment, many relatives still do not know where victims are buried or even what the charges were that led to their arrest.

But Razumov said he will carry on no matter what the attitude of the authorities to his research.

"I feel that I am working for people who later will want to understand. I am doing this and I will continue doing what I have to do, despite everything."