|Mon, 21 Feb 2000|
Tom Morgan email@example.com
Sandman (Lucien): Kuropaty
Please send any comments to Tom Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org, I know he'd love to hear readers' reactions.
6 April 1999
Rain poured down on the dilapidated apartment building at the end of Lomonosov Street in the city of Irkutsk, Russia. Nothing but a single light peering out from a third floor window challenged the darkness of the late hour. Inside a man in his late thirties with sandy hair and wire-rimmed glasses sat at a desk in a small one-bedroom apartment littered with stacks of books, newspapers, and folders of various sizes with official-looking documents protruding from them. In his hands he held a newspaper clipping that had been sent to him along with a letter from a friend in Moscow.
The clipping was apparently a wedding announcement. It read "Irina Alexevna Pavlova, 34, of Moscow married Fedor Boriseivitch Kozlov, 41, of St. Petersburg, on September 17th..." There were some other details in the announcement, but they were partially covered over by a note written over part of the newsprint which saidsimply: "Kostya - I'm sorry. Your friend, Ivan Andreivitch."
The man stared at the clipping for a long time. Occasionally, he would shake his head or run his fingers through his hair, and once he muttered to himself "All these years...and for what?" Finally, he put the clipping down, fed a piece of paper into the typewriter on his desk, and began typing furiously. Very soon he had produced a letter which said the following:
To the Director, Project Vigilance, Irkutsk State University: (1)
I hearby resign my position on the Project Vigilance Executive Committee and associated positions, responsibilities, and obligations.
Constantine Sergeivitch Sobchak (2)
Constantine, who was known as Kostya to his friends, paused for a moment to proofread the letter, then wandered over to the small stove in his kitchen to start some water boiling for tea. He had just poured himself a cup when he heard a knock at his door.
It was unusual, but not unheard of, for someone to call at this hour. It could have been a neighbor trying to trace the source of a plumbing leak, or a restless colleague from the university come to deliver more papers.
Kostya opened his door to find a rather odd-looking stranger. He was extremely tall and lanky. He wore an old fashioned suit and thick horned-rimmed glasses and had wiry brown hair that stuck out at odd angles. In short, he looked a bit like a human stork.(3)
"You are Constantine Sergeivitch, are you not?" the strange man inquired.
"Yes, I am...but, if you don't mind me asking, who are you? I don't recognize you. Are you from the university? Is this a business matter?"
"My name is Lucien, and indeed, I am here to discuss business with you. May I come in?"
Kostya wouldn't normally have admitted a stranger to his home at such a late hour, but this man Lucien, while a bit odd-looking, didn't appear at all dangerous. He ushered the tall spindly caller inside.
"Do you mind if I sit down?" asked Lucien.
"Eh...no, go right ahead."
Lucien sat down on Kostya's couch. Kostya sat opposite him in the chair at his desk.
"Um, look, if you've come here about Project Vigilance, there's something you ought to know..."
"Oh yes, I'm aware. You're quitting."
A combination of surprise and disbelief gripped Kostya. "...No, that's impossible. I haven't told anyone! I've never even discussed the possibility of leaving with anyone associated with the project. Why, I just wrote my letter of resignation not ten minutes ago!"
"That's true, but you've been considering it for a while now, haven't you?"
"Yes...but how could you possibly know that? Who are you?"
"Allow me to explain. I am not from the university. But I take a great interest in what you do and, even though we have never met, I do know a great deal about you. Now, explaining exactly who I am and how I know these things would be tricky and I'm not sure you would believe me. So I propose I bargain. I wager that I know things about you that nobody else could possibly know. If I can demonstrate this to you to your satisfaction, you in return will forgo questions about who I am and allow me to get straight to discussing my business with you."
Kostya paused to consider whether the strange-looking man sitting on his couch could have some kind of connection to one of Russia's police or intelligence services. That was one way in which this man could have gotten information about him and his connection to Project Vigilance. During the late 1980s and into 1990 and 1991, when Project Vigilance was still just a fledgling organization, the KGB monitored and regularly harassed the project's members. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there had been cases where ad-hoc groups of hardline Communists used former KGB officers to get information on individual project members in order to stalk, harass, and threaten them. But Kostya felt no sense of menace or hostility about this man. If Kostya had to guess, he would have said that Lucien was a music teacher, or a professor of Latin or some other long dead language, or perhaps a librarian. In addition, he was intrigued by Lucien's idea of a wager.
"That sounds like an interesting challenge. I accept. Now, what is it that you know about me that no one else knows?"
"Quite a bit, actually, but I'll stick with these three thoughts. When you were eight years old, having been influenced no doubt by your grandmother's stories about Old Russia, you came to believe that there was a domovoi (4) living in a burrow under your family's house. Once you even left a saucer of milk out for it. But a few days after you first found the burrow you saw that it was only a muskrat. You fell in love for the first time when you were twelve years old when you developed a schoolboy crush on your teacher, Larisa Nikolaievna Shavrova. And though you hate to admit it, even to yourself, you love the smell of lilacs."
Stunned silence followed.
"Lucien, those are all true. But how could you know that?"
"Hmmm, my dear Kostya, I do believe it's my turn to be asking the questions," said Lucien with a smile.
Kostya decided to let the matter drop and play along with Lucien, thinking that perhaps he could get around to questioning his guest later.
"Well, a bargain is a bargain. So, what can I do for you?"
"I would like you to tell me why you are quitting Project Vigilance."
"All right. But if you know so much about me, shouldn't you know that already?"
"I can guess. But I would rather hear you say it for yourself."
"Very well." Kostya paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. "I think it would be easier if I started at the beginning."
"By all means. Go right ahead."
Kostya leaned back in his chair. "It began when I was a graduate student at the university. I became friends with people who were critics of the Communist Party. We would get together and discuss the Party's restrictions on speech and debate, its failure to improve the people's standard of living, its support of the war in Afghanistan, things like that. We heaped criticism on the Party. But we kept it locked away in a closet. We were too afraid to react publicly or establish a formal organization. We were too afraid. Glasnost was just in its infancy then, and there were still limits on what people like us could say.
"Then we discovered a newspaper article written by an archaeologist named Ivan Andreivitch Plyushkin, who had written openly of horrible excesses committed by the Stalinist system. He wrote about how, after a long political struggle, he received permission to excavate a site that was suspected of containing bodies of people who had been executed during the Great Terror.(5) He told of how they found thousands of bodies were he had expected to find no more than a few hundred. He told of how in spite of the overwhelming evidence they gathered, many Party officials tried to discredit him and his work. Perhaps even more unbelievably, he told of people who accepted his evidence and yet still continued to defend Stalin, saying things like the Terror wasn't really his fault, or that it wasn't really as bad as Ivan Andreivitch and others made it out to be.
"That article was enough to finally motivate us to take action. We joined the ragtag group that Ivan Andreivitch had put together to support researching and informing the public about the crimes of the Great Terror. We didn't have official political or legal recognition from the government or the Party. We didn't even have a back account. But we had a name - Project Vigilance - and we had an unshakable belief that what we were doing was right and was absolutely necessary.
"I wasn't an archaeologist like Ivan Andreivitch, so I wouldn't have been of much help doing excavations of grave sites or things of that sort. I wasn't very good at public relations things either - I was never very comfortable with soliciting donations or the like. But as it turned out, I was very good at searching historical archives. Delving through arrest records and court papers, security files, gravesite excavation reports, taking names of those who had disappeared and searching for clues of what became of them..I was good at that. Not everyone can stand to do that sort of thing. It's dull, it's tedious, and more often than not, especially in the days before 1991 when our access to information was limited, it was most often fruitless. But it's an important part of what Project Vigilance does.
"My association with the project introduced me to two people who had a profound impact on my life. One of them was Ivan Andreivitch Plyushkin.
"Ivan Andreivitch is an amazing man. To me he is courage personified. I remember the first time I met him. You could see the determination blazing in his eyes. He had been a critic of the Soviet state going all the way back to Khrushchev's day. He tested the limits of glasnost when it was brand new by becoming the first person in the Soviet Union to discuss in detail the mass executions committed during the Terror. He has given himself totally to the cause of exposing the evils of the past and the present. He worked around the clock, day after day. Even to this day he hasn't married; he's never had the time, you see. He is always doing something to advance the cause of Project Vigilance. He is my hero."
"I see. And I assume the second person to whom you referred is the woman who is the subject of that newspaper clipping you received today."
"Yes. That is Irina. She and I met while we were both working for Project Vigilance in Moscow. I fell in love with her right away. Her eyes and her smile were positively enchanting. When she smiled her whole face would light up in the most incredible way. And I loved her laugh, and the way she would make me laugh. I could tell her anything. I've never met anyone like her."
"But something happened."
Kostya nodded. "Five years ago Ivan Andreivitch told me that some people at the university here in Irkutsk were attempting to establish a branch chapter of Project Vigilance. They needed help to get themselves organized and also to head the archive-search operation; through good fortune they had discovered a huge archive of state records going all the way back to the 1920s. Ivan Andreivitch told me that he wanted me to go head up the new project.
"I was excited. It seemed like such a tremendous opportunity. I couldn't wait to get here. But when I discussed it with Irina, she didn't want to go. She didn't want to leave behind her friends and her family in Moscow. She'd lived in Moscow all her life. She didn't want to just pick and leave because I wanted to, even if it was for a good cause. And so we fought, and in the end, neither of us gave in. Finally, I told her that maybe I wouldn't be gone for long. Maybe I would just go for a year. Or maybe two. And then I could come back and we could be together again. She told me she didn't know if she wanted to wait that long. And that was how things stood when I left Moscow to come here."
"What did Ivan think of your decision to go without Irina?"
"He didn't know. Not until much later. Irina and I had decided to keep our relationship a secret from the rest of the Project Vigilance staff."
Kostya let out a sigh before continuing. "I wrote letters to her regularly after I first came to Irkutsk. She wrote back faithfully, at first. But then her letters became less and less frequent. At the time, I didn't dwell on that much because I was doing so much work on the project. Eventually I stopped writing back. I vaguely remember thinking to myself that I could always just go back to Moscow and the two of us could just start again where we had left off. But there never came a time when I really wanted to go back. There was always so much work to be done, right here, and I was in the middle of it. And that was always enough. Until..."
There was a long silence. At last Lucien prompted Kostya: "Until what?"
Kostya sighed again. "Lately, it just seems like it's finally getting to me. Working long, long days...and often nights, and weekends. Mind-numbingly dull shuffling of papers and records and files and going to committee meetings and writing letters to and filling out forms for faceless bureaucrats who seem to exist for the sole purpose of making other people's lives as unpleasant as possible. And what do I have to show for it? A tiny apartment full of papers thousands of miles away from the one woman who I really cared for."
Kostya ran the fingers of both his hands, something he often did when he was frustrated. The look on Lucien's face changed from one of interest to one of concern.
"It sounds like you no longer in what you've been doing."
Kostya took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "It was different in the beginning. Back in the days before the August coup, when glasnost was still new. At that point, every day was a struggle. Back then, we were an inspiration for everyone who wanted to speak out against the injustices committed by the Soviet state, even if they had nothing to do with Stalin or the Terror. It was exuberant. Even in the first few years after 1991 it felt that way, because we were helping build the new democratic Russia. "Lately, though, it seems like there is less and less interest in dwelling on the past. Most people are worried about whether they will have a job, or if they have one, if they will get paid, and even if they get paid, they may still have to struggle just to feed their family. Things that happened 60 years ago just aren't relevant to them. I just suddenly feel like maybe what I've been doing isn't all that important anymore."
"Do you really believe that? That the things you have done to expose the Terror, to help people find out what happened to friends and relatives years ago, to spark the debate that Russia needs to confront its past so its people can heal? You think there is no work that needs to be done now, while idiots like Stalin's grandson (6) holds rallies in Georgia and Russia and saying things like Stalin had nothing to do with the executions and purges committed during his rule? A man who says that even today almost everyone loves Stalin and the only ones that don't are cheats and swindlers?"
"You have a point. But...maybe it's time for the struggle to go on without me. I've been involved in it for so long. Maybe it's time for me to move on."
"I see. Well, if you don't mind, let me share my opinion. I think perhaps you have put a little too much of yourself in what you do. Working yourself too hard will get to anyone in the end. As a result, bad news, like that which arrived from Moscow today, has a harder impact than it otherwise might.
"But an even bigger problem is that you don't really understand how what you have done with Project Vigilance has really changed people's lives. You've spent too much of your time in meetings and searching archives and battling with the government
"That's all well and good. How do you propose I do that?"
Lucien stood up and motioned toward the door to the apartment. "Come with me. I would like to show you something."
"Come with you? Where? At this hour? It's so late..."
"Young man, I promise that all will be made clear to you soon. For now, I must ask you to trust me." And with that, Lucien strode through the apartment door.
Kostya thought it over for a moment and then, coming to the conclusion that he had nothing to lose, shrugged his shoulders and followed Lucien. Kostya stepped through the doorway and found himself standing not, as he expected, in the hallway of his apartment building, but in what appeared to be a grove of pine trees.
"Where are we?" Kostya inquired of his companion.
"Don't you recognize this place? Look around you."
Kostya stepped through the trees and studied their surroundings more intently. They seemed to be in a forest thinly populated by pine trees. But under the trees he could see something else - a number of holes in the ground. And they were not animal burrows or dried-up streambed s, but long, huge gaping holes with weatherworn edges, like giant pockmarks in the earth.
Kostya shrugged. "It doesn't look familiar."
Lucien looked thoughtful for a moment. "Ah, I nearly forgot. You've never actually been here before. This," he said, gesturing to the trees around them and the trenches in the earth, "is Kuropaty."
Kuropaty. A name Kostya knew well. Kuropaty, a small town on the outskirts of Minsk, Belarus, was the scene of the murder and burial of thousands of people who fell victim to Stalin's purges of the 1930s. (7)
Kostya's mind reeled with the implication of Lucien's words.
"But...how did we get hear?"
"Well, that's a bit complicated. We can discuss that another time. Right now, let's go for a walk. This way." (8)
Lucien led Kosta through row after row of the mass graves, passing by flowers and other small tokens of affection left behind by mourners.
"I would have expected something...more dramatic. If it wasn't for these," said Kostya, pointing to one of the great scars in the earth, this one large enough to hold as many as one hundred victims or perhaps more, "one might think this place was just another forest."
"Yes, on the surface it's hard to believe that this place was the site of so much death. You can't tell just by looking around that for four and a half years, truckload after truckload of 'enemies of the state' were brought here to be eliminated. Every day. As many as sixteen truckloads in one day. Even after the Germans started bombing Minsk, just a few miles from here, NKVD (9) officers were still shooting people here. (10)
"The trucks would drive right up to the grave pits, because those had been already dug, you see. The people were taken out of the trucks and their hands were untied. Then one pair at a time, the NKVD would lead them up to the pits and shoot them in the back of the head, many of them without ever being told what crime they had been charged with.
"Only when you consider that can you realize why it has been said: 'At Kuropaty, even the trees cry.'" (11)
"A number of them ended up here as well. The NKVD officers, I mean. The Great Terror was a voracious and fickle beast. It wouldn't take much. Perhaps one would not have arrested enough 'enemies of the people' to meet the quota set by an NKVD superior. Maybe one would have been denounced by a secret informer, who were paid one hundred fifty rubles for each 'traitor' they exposed. That would be enough to place even an NKVD officer in the back of one of the trucks that arrived here every day. "I think even the NKVD officials themselves, towards the end, were stunned when they finally realized the scale of the atrocities committed during the Terror. After the war, they came back here and carried away many of the bodies to rebury them in places that would be harder to find. That's why these graves aren't level. They were tampered with."
Lucien paused for a moment. "I'm sorry, I think I let the novelty of actually being here carry me away. You already know this, don't you? After all, you've been studying the Great Terror for years."
Kostya nodded. "I've read the accounts of witnesses. I've read old NKVD files on this place. I've talked to the human rights agitators and archaeologists who did the first excavations at this site that proved that people were executed here in horrific numbers. But you sound as if you witnessed these things personally."
Lucien gave him a wry smile. "Oh no. I just read a good deal. Ah good, here we are."
Kostya saw that Lucien had led him to the edge of a particular grave. Someone had erected a crude wooden frame bearing a wreath and a handwritten note. The note was faded, probably from rain, but Kostya could still make out the words:
Mother and Father
I have searched for you since your disappearance in 1937. At last, after 52 years, I have found you.
Even Constantine Sergeivitch Sobchak, who knew the history of this place, who had an appreciation greater than almost anyone else in the world for the scale and barbarity of the crimes committed in the name of Stalin during the Great Terror, who had read countless accounts of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters who had fallen into the meat grinder that had been the war against the 'enemies of the state', felt his heart wrench upon reading this simple message. (12) There was silence between the two of them for a long moment before Lucien spoke up:
You said earlier that you felt like your work didn't have much meaning anymore. Well, let me tell you about Galya Sergeivena Yazov.
"Galya was only eight years old when her parents were abducted from their home in the middle of the night with no official explanation. She was sent to live with an aunt and uncle who treated her decently, and in time she got married and started a family of her own. But she was haunted by a nagging desire to know what happened to her mother and father. Sometimes, even fifty years after their disappearance, she would wake up screaming after having dreams about strange men coming to take her away. Sometimes she would wake up crying in the middle of the night and not know why.
"In 1989, your work with Project Vigilance made public the fact that Galya's parents had been executed and buried here at Kuropaty. Galya was able to come here and do what she had wanted to do for 52 years: say goodbye to her parents. After that she slept peacefully for the first time since that horrible night in 1937."
"There are others like Galya who have been affected by your work. Ivan Petrovich Shavrov, for one. His best friend in the world was his brother, Boris. Boris was arrested and executed in 1939, which tore Ivan apart emotionally. For years, he tried to persuade the courts and the police to re-examine his brother's case but was turned down every time. Finally in 1993, after being provided with evidence that had been uncovered by you, the government ruled that the charges against Ivan's brother were false and that he had been wrongfully executed. Ivan Petrovich, who did not cry when his wife died of cancer, who did not cry when his grandson was killed in Afghanistan, sobbed like a child when he received a certificate from the government in the mail officially vindicating his brother after all those years.
"Anton Leonidevitch Pugo grew up very close to this place during the 1930s. He never saw what happened hear, never witnessed a single execution, but he and his family knew what was going on. They used to see the trucks roll in full of people and come back empty. Sometimes they would hear the gun shots. Once in a while, they could hear the echoes of the screams of victims. But he, his family, and his neighbors never talked about what happened at Kuropaty. They were too afraid of what would happen if they asked too many questions.
"As a consequence, Anton lived with fear all his life, the fear that some day they would come for him because he knew too much. He would do things like jump at shadows or lie awake late at night listening for sirens or footsteps that never came.
"Finally, nine years ago, Anton read an editorial you had written about how horrible the Great Terror had been and how important it was for people to confront the horrors of that period. That was the spark Anton needed. Anton was inspired to confront his fears and stand up to the Communists who were attempting to rehabilitate Stalin. He joined Project Vigilance and, as a witness, was able to provide important testimony about what happened here at Kuropaty.
"Anton died of a heart attack in 1996. But during those last few years of his life, he had something he hadn't known in years: peace of mind.
"There are many other people like Galya, Ivan, and Anton that I could tell you about, if you'd like..."
Kostya looked overwhelmed, but managed to give Lucien an answer.
"No. I'd rather...if you don't mind...I'd rather just look around for a while."
"Of course. Take all the time you wish. Simply let me know when you're ready to leave."
Kostya wandered from grave to grave for a time, stopping to admire various items left behind by mourners: bouquets of flowers, crosses made out of twigs and pebbles, wooden icons, and even handwritten notes and letters. He studied the graves and tried to estimate, based on their size, how many people could have been buried in them. Finally, he sat down on the ground in front of Galya's little sign and lost himself in thought. He sat there for several hours, not even getting up to take shelter under the trees after a drizzly rain began falling.
At length, he stood up and said to Lucien, simply, "I've seen enough."
In the blink of an eye they were back in Kostya's apartment. After a brief silence, Lucien spoke first.
"I really should leave before anyone notices that I've gone. I'm not here on sanctioned business and, while my master may not fault my reasons for wanting to come here, I think I'm supposed to get permission first.
"Before I go, I just want to say one last thing. Kostya, there are those who believe that everyone has their own story and that those stories should be honored. People like yourself who dedicate themselves to salvaging those stories that history's tyrants have attempted to erase are highly regarded in some circles, and will not be forgotten. I know at times it doesn't seem like that. I can only hope that you will take my word on it, and have faith."
An awkward silence followed. Lucien suddenly looked embarrassed. For the first time since he arrived at Kostya's door he looked unsure of himself. He seemed like an actor who realizes that he has run out of script and yet the play he is in hasn't quite ended.
"Well, enough of my prattling. It's probably time for me to leave you to your own devices, so...er...well...good night."
Kostya looked perplexed for a moment. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but didn't quite know how to express it. At last, he said simply "Lucien?"
Lucien smiled and then, very tentatively, extended his hand to Kostya, who shook it vigorously. Lucien's face positively beamed with delight. Then he gave Kostya a slight bow, turned, stepped out of the apartment and closed the door behind him.
Kostya took the letter he had typed earlier that evening from the typewriter, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it into a waste basket. He took a folder from his desk and removed a list of names of people who had vanished more than half a century ago.
And with that, Constantine Sergeivitch Sobchak went back to work.