The brother of Adi Rukun, who is featured in the documentary “The Look of Silence” (2014), was brutally killed in the 1960s while the hunt for communists and those who looked like communists was raging in Indonesia. Dictator Suharto came to power and have kept it for 30 years. The army and paramilitary groups killed at least half a million people during a period of just two years.
Adi searches for his brother’s killers. The murderers, who have become old, do not show any remorse, they are respectable people now. One of them quite willingly tells how exactly they had cut Adi’s brother into pieces and threw them into the river. Adi politely asks another one of those: “Tell me, if I came to you like this in those days and began to ask questions, what would you do to me?” – “You can’t even imagine”, replies the flabby, self-confident old man. A third one tells the story of how he threw a woman’s severed head into a Chinese shop. – “Tell me why?” Adi asks politely. – “Well, to scare the Chinese. And then I threw this head into the trash”.
The old man also tells how he took a glass with him to fill it with the blood of those he killed and drank it. “Where did you get the blood from?” – Adi, an optometrist by trade, asks. “Out of the throat, of course”, the old man says and shows it on himself. – “Tell me,” Adi asks the old man’s daughter, who is sitting right there very calmly, “your father killed people. How do you feel about it?” – “What can I say?” says the old man’s daughter and her face changes (just before she had said she was proud that her father had killed so many communists). “It’s sadism… This is the first time I’ve heard about it, I didn’t know anything”. – “My brother was killed, too” Adi tells her sadly. At the end of the conversation, the old man’s daughter says: “Your brother was killed, but forgive my father. He is old, he is no longer in his own mind, he does not even recognize me sometimes. Consider us your family”. – “It’s not your fault. And whoever he was, he is your father. Well, I have to go now”, Adi says. He hugs the old man’s daughter. Then he hugs the old man. – “Consider us your family. Forgive my father”, the old man’s daughter repeats at parting.
The chorus about “blue skies” and “slanting rains” from a song by Alexander Bashlachev suddenly comes to my mind and I can’t get rid of it… Denis Karagodin, who investigates the murder of his great-grandfather during the Great Terror, received a letter from the granddaughter of an NKVD officer, who had been involved in this crime. She did not know who her grandfather really was and was shocked. “I understand it with my mind that I am not to blame for what had happened, but the feelings that I feel cannot be expressed in words”, she wrote. “The task of the next generations is simply not to hush this up, all the things and events should be called by their proper names. And the purpose of my letter to you is just to tell you that I now know about such a shameful page in the history of my family and I’m completely on your side”.
The descendants of the victims of the Great Terror and other crimes of the Soviet regime cannot come, like Adi Rukun, and pose questions to the executioners and “mere cogs” of the system: the executioners themselves had been either shot by their own colleagues or they died as respectable people. The children of those repressed, as a rule, are very old people now. It is the great-grandson, who now presents his charges against the long-dead killers of his great-grandfather – the events of 1937-1938 are farther and farther from the present each day. “The ashes of Claes” somehow do not beat upon people’s hearts en masse, time is lost, and if children study history, as the editor of newly approved school textbooks Vladimir Medinsky says, “taking into account the interests of our state”, the topic of political repression for the younger generation will become less and less relevant.
Our Nuremberg trial did not take place in its due time, but Denis Karagodin hopes that everyone involved in the murder of the peasant Stepan Karagodin, from Stalin to his “technical specialists”, will be recognized as criminals. “The fact that they are not alive does not matter in the legal sense”, he says. “I just wanted people to admit what they had done and admit that they were wrong, so that we can somehow forgive each other”, Adi Rukun told reporters at the premiere of the documentary featuring him in Venice. “We live in a society divided by mutual suspicions and fears. I really want this to end”. Karagodin writes to the granddaughter of an NKVD officer: “You will not find an enemy or an offender in me, only a person who wants to end all this endless Russian bloodbath, once and for all. This must be done away with, for good. And I think that it is in our powers to do this. I reach out my hand of reconciliation to you, no matter how hard it was for me to do it now (remembering and knowing everything that I know now)”.
The idea of reconciliation through properly naming things, events – and executioners, too! – and recognizing the complexity of Russian history, however, meets with persistent opposition in our society: some Orthodox activists believe that Karagodin calls for revenge, and this is not good; he is reproached for the lack of legal grounds (is it even possible to present charges against the dead?). The son of one of the NKVD officers accused Karagodin of discrediting his father. Karagodin is also charged with unauthorized publishing personal data. Historian Yuri Dmitriev, who had excavated domestic “death fields” and helped to preserve the names of tens of thousands of the executed, has been persecuted since 2016.
The system keeps its defense, protects the personal data of its informers, secret agents and executioners, even now, more than 80 years after, and spares the feelings of their relatives. The picture has not changed much since the 1950s, when Anna Akhmatova told Lydia Chukovskaya: “It is easy to understand that if there were millions of victims, then there were no less of those who were responsible for their deaths. Now they tremble for their names, their positions, apartments and dachas. They counted that there was no return from there. But to face with what they had done?! Never in their lives”.
The debate about whether to name the executioners (and the related issue of free access to archival files) is not new. But the argument that the relatives of the victims will take revenge on someone decades later does not stand. Most likely, the descendants of the NKVD servicemen will find enough strength to survive the knowledge of unworthy deeds of the distant past. It is less often discussed that it’s necessary to remove the suspicions against innocent people, who had been denounced, and other crimes by simply telling the truth.
No one is immune against unpleasant revelations about the “personal data” of their relatives: there are many examples of how people courageously accepted the truth about their ancestors and shared this experience with others. Sylvia Foti’s book “The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather was a War Criminal” and Martin Davidson’s “The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Secret Past” are just two examples, but there are others.
In our country, where everything is so twisted and mixed, where victims and executioners, “the Reds” and “the Whites” were often part of the same families, where people were afraid to talk about the war, about repressions and about their biographies in general, to tell these things even to their loved ones, where the archives slightly opened only in the 1990s, and then were completely closed again, one must be ready for surprises. But what if it turns out that the investigator showed mercy, saved someone, released someone, regretted what he had done? What if the accomplice did not betray another person? And there were such cases, and not only in fiction books…
First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda
The illustration from the CARAGODIN Investigation website