A new historical project is the first comprehensive effort to identify every single one of the 40,000 NKVD secret police officers responsible for one of the darkest periods in the history of the Soviet Union.


A women holds a portrait of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, during a communists rally in Moscow. Photo: AP

The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network, which includes Russia Direct. The New East network is a collaboration between the Guardian and a series of specialist sites writing about the 15 countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

For two decades, starting in 1993, Andrei Zhukov went down into a Moscow archive at least three days a week, spending hour after hour leafing through thousands of orders issued by the NKVD, Joseph Stalin’s secret police, searching for the names and ranks of the organisation’s officers.

The result is the first comprehensive survey of the NKVD men responsible for carrying out Stalin’s “Great Terror” of 1937 and 1938, in which about 1.5 million people were arrested and 700,000 shot. While it is not the first study into the senior leadership of the NKVD, this is the first time that everyone – from the investigators to the executioners – has been identified. There are just over 40,000 names on the list.

Zhukov, a jovial eccentric who lives in the countryside outside Moscow, said that although he was no fan of Stalin, there was no real political motivation to his work. Now 64, he has always enjoyed collecting things and was an avid stamp collector during the Soviet period.

“I’ve always been interested in things that were secret, or hard to find. I started this off purely from a collector’s instinct,” he said.

Historians, however, soon realized the importance of Zhukov’s work. The Memorial organisation, which documents Stalin-era crimes, released a CD last summer containing his database of names. In November, the database was released online.

“This is the sort of work that would usually be done by a group of researchers, or by a whole institute, but he’s done it all on his own,” said Yan Rachinsky, co-chairman of Memorial.

It is not permitted to take photographs of the archive documents, so Zhukov copied the names and details from the papers into large ledgers and then recopied them on to a series of filing cards he kept at home, adding information to the cards when he discovered details about NKVD officers he had already logged.

Also read: "Russia honors the victims of Stalin's repressions"

It took years of meticulous work. Because the NKVD was responsible for a range of functions in addition to arrests and executions, Zhukov limited his search to those involved in state security.

“Not everyone in this list is a butcher: There are a few who were killed for not carrying out their orders. But the vast majority were in some way linked to the terror,” said Rachinsky.

Nikita Petrov, another Memorial historian, said: “There were enthusiasts and there were careerists among these men. Working in the NKVD was prestigious. At the start of the 1930s, when there was poverty and famine, you got a nice uniform and were fed well. People didn’t know that within five years they’d be sentencing thousands of people to death.”

Memorial has previously focused more on documenting the victims of the Soviet-era repressions than the perpetrators. Their database of the victims contains about 2,700,000 names and a further 600,000 should be added this year.

Rachinsky said this was about a quarter of the approximately 12 million who should make up the full list – those who were internally deported or sentenced for political reasons. In some regions, the local security services have never published lists of the victims; in many places, the archives remain closed.

Another project, Final Address, was launched in 2013 to commemorate victims of the terror. Relatives or other interested parties can apply to have a plaque installed at houses where victims lived.

Sergey Parkhomenko, a journalist and activist who set up the project, said there had been 1,500 applications and 300 plaques installed.

While there have been some cautious attempts to pay tribute to the victims of Soviet-era repression, less attention has been paid to the perpetrators until now.

Of the 40,000 names on Zhukov’s list, about 10 percent were either executed or jailed, though some of those who were sent to the gulags were given an amnesty before the USSR joined the second world war, and went on to win medals.

Zhukov recounted his discussion on an online history forum with a man who proudly recounted how his grandfather had won prestigious medals during the war. It turned out, said Zhukov, that the grandfather had run firing squads during the Terror. He was sent to the gulag, but was later released and again organized executions during the war.

Stories such as this reveal the complexity of the Stalin era, something largely glossed over in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where victory in the World War II has become a national rallying point.

While there have been some attempts to talk about the dark pages of the 1930s, and a gulag museum opened in Moscow last year, the official narrative tends to sideline the purges and killings. Petrov said there was not one Russian school textbook that referred to “crimes” during the Stalin period, only “mistakes”. So while there are plans to build a memorial to the victims of political repression in Moscow in the near future, they are treated as if they were victims of a tsunami or an earthquake – a narrative of victims but no crime or criminals.

Recommended: "The real reason why a resurgence of conservatism in Russia is dangerous"

“The problem is not that Putin supports Stalin: He doesn’t. He’s even condemned the crimes on occasion,” said Rachinsky. “The problem is Putin can’t admit that the state could be a criminal state.”

Although there is a chance that a few people from Zhukov’s list could be alive and approaching 100 years old, the point is not to open criminal cases or blame individuals.

“We don’t need to call them all criminals but we need to recognize the criminal nature of the organization and the criminal nature of the state at that time,” said Petrov.

Not everyone is impressed with Zhukov’s work. In November, some of the descendants of those featured in the database appealed to Russian authorities to take the lists offline. A nationalist member of parliament has asked prosecutors to verify whether the publication of the names violated a law against provoking social enmity.

The article is first published at The Guardian's The New East network, which includes Russia Direct. The New East network is a collaboration between the Guardian and a series of specialist sites writing about the 15 countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.