Personal experience: Sergey Prudovsky

Natalya Nikulenkova
15 July 2014

Сергей Борисович Прудовский уже пятый год занимается поиском документов и сведений о репрессиях с помощью архивов по всей стране. Он ведет несколько страниц в Интернете, куда выкладывает результаты своих поисков и дает советы тем, кто также пытается прояснить прошлое своих репрессированных родственников. Но все началось с истории деда Сергея Борисовича, выжившего в ГУЛАГе. 

Sergey Borisovich Prudovsky has been looking for documents and evidence on repressions using archives in the whole country for five years already. He maintains a few sites on the internet, where he uploads the results of his research and advices those who also try to clarify the past of their repressed relatives. But it all began with the history of Sergey Borisovich’s grandfather, who survived Gulag. 

– Sergey Borisovich, tell me in short the history of your grandfather please.

– My grandfather, Stepan Ivanovich Kuznetsov, was born in a province of Nizhny Novgorod on the 24th of July 1889. His family was very poor. My grandfather finished two classes of parochial school, after this his work life began. At first he was working as a painter’s trainee and after this as a painter at different brigades in Nizhny Novgorod. Then he got a placement at the Sormovsky factory where he was surprised by the revolution in 1905. He was dismissed from the factory a few times for freethinking and different utterances, but nonetheless he came back and continued working. In 1907 my grandfather was called in to the Imperial Army and got to serve in the Kremlin of Moscow arsenal, in the ordnance artificer shop. Then there was the revolution in 1917. He joined the bolsheviks, was elected for the Moscow council of workers’ and soldiers’ representatives and went to two convocations as a representative. In 1918 he got to join the bolshevik party, and in 1919 he was admitted to the Petrovsky worker’s faculty to get an education, which he didn’t have at that time. He finished the worker’s faculty and was then admitted to the Timiryazev agricultural academy after which he got a job at the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture. In 1929 he was sent on an official trip to Harbin, in China. There was a lack of groceries then and there were big hopes on soy. My grandfather, Stepan Ivanovich, got the task to buy soy beans. As he writes in his memoirs, he was interested in the cultivation of this growth and the details and particularities of its processing and wanted to learn everything about this, and therefor asked for permission to remain there. As a result of this he stayed at the Chinese Eastern Railways in Harbin and served at the land department there. In 1930 his family came there, his wife Elizaveta Andreevna and my mom. My grandfather served at the Chinese Eastern Railways until 1935, when the railway was sold. His last duty position was being the head of the land department of the Chinese Eastern Railways. When he returned to the Soviet Union he started working at the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture again.

In the end of 1940 Stepan Ivanovich quit his job at the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture and went to work at the Zagorsky bird state farm as a simple agronom – probably he could feel the arrest coming. Even though the main part of the ”Harbinians” were arrested in 1937-38, this didn’t concern my grandfather then. But on the 25th of April 1941 agents from NKVD came to his work, to the state farm, and arrested him. They took him to Lubyanka in Moscow. At first interrogations, finger prints, forms and photographing. Then the case was transferred to the Lefortovo prison. My grandfather survived the prison camp and left two notebooks filled with memories. Thanks to these notebooks and the archival criminal file, that is kept in the Central Archive of FSB, I was able to reconstruct everything that happened to him both in NKVD:s prisons and at the prison camps. In the Lefortovo prison there were interrogations every single day: they accused him of espionage, of counterrevolutionary activity. He didn’t confess anything and didn’t admit his guilt. And then, on the 25th of May, my grandfather was transferred to the Sukhanovo prison. As the investigator said: ”You aren’t giving us any testimony, so come on, go to the cottage for a while, and there, at the cottage, your brain will get enlightened, and you will tell us everything”. They called the Sukhanovo prison the cottage – this was a special-regime prison, Stepan Ivanovich spent one month there, and there he was surprised by the beginning of the war. In his memoirs there was an interesting description of this event. He was brought from an interrogation, and his cellmate asked him: ”You didn’t happen to hear anything? Has a war begun with England or Germany?” That was the public sentiments back then – people didn’t even know with whom the war would be: ”We could have acted like that, or like that”. Literally four days after the war started they moved him back to the Lefortovo prison again. All of the previous interrogations took place without any beating, but now they beat him with a rubber hose. Again he didn’t confess anything and after a day, when he was having a rest, they handed him a letter of accusation, and the case was transferred to the court. Stephan Ivanovich was moved to the Butyrka prison. At the Butyrka prison the trial took place: he was sentenced to 15 years in prison camps and, as they called it, ”five years of muzzle”, that is, deprivation of civil rights.

They sent him by stages to the north, to Ukhtizhemlag, where he stayed until 1949. The camps varied as well as the departments. He was doing timber harvesting, exterminated bugs in the barracks, worked at the cultural and educational departments, and then started doing timber harvesting again, but then he was just under 60 years old already. The hunger was constant, and in his memoirs he writes about it like this: once, during the night, where they were harvesting the trees, they found a gaunt horse. They teared it up in the dark, roasted it over a bonfire and ate it, but part of it they buried. When they came there the next day to dig it up again they saw that a lot of worms were crawling on the meat. It’s not hard to imagine what they felt. His wife came to the camp three times for appointments. After this he was sent to Karaganda. Many people started exchanging their warm stuff for food, which later cost them their life. When they came to Karaganda, they had to walk thirty kilometers by foot: night, snowstorm, windstorm, frost – many people did not make it. But my grandfather made it to the prairie prison camp. There he was working in the farm sector, his speciality. They were growing potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes. It was a battle for survival there. In his memoirs Stepan Ivanovich describes many things: how they were working, how they planted the sprouts, took care of them, and how they tried to organize the watering. The supervisors who didn’t understand anything about farming and agriculture tried to teach them how to do it although there were, except for my grandfather, also other graduates from the Timiryazev agricultural academy. My grandfather introduced a new kind of tomatoes there, and in our archive at home we still have the order from the supervisor of the camp, that the new kind of tomatoes is ”Spasskaya krasavitsa” (A Beauty of Our Savior), for which a cash bonus should be handed out. This name of the tomatoes is obviously not to the honor of the Spasskaya Tower, but to the honor of a small place called Spasskoe.

Stalin died, and things started loosening up a little bit. In 1955 my grandfather was conditionally released beforehand and they determined a place of residence for him – Voskresensk. Moscow was naturally forbidden, as well as all big cities. He began to make arrangements for his rehabilitation, and in 1956 he was rehabilitated and taken back to the party.

All-in-all my grandfather was locked up for fourteen and a half years. After he returned he had a few heart attacks, but what happened there nobody knows. When he died I was still very young, and to me he didn’t tell anything about his life in prison. I only remember how he was sitting by the table, writing or typing on a typewriter. In his memoirs he described all of these years. He has two types of memoirs: the first type is about the revolutions 1905 and 1917, about the happenings in Moscow during that time, while the other type is about Gulag. The revolutionary memoirs were typed on a typewriter, about 30-40 pages of memories, but his memoirs about Gulag he didn’t even have time to finish. The memoirs end with how he began to make arrangements for his rehabilitation. The recovery process itself is not described, which is very interesting. He had been sentenced by the Supreme Board of the Supreme Court, and a certain Chiptsov was a member of this Board. When my grandfather got his certificate of rehabilitation it was signed by the same Chiptsov. He both sentenced me grandfather, and declared him not to be guilty. 


– What do you think, why did the roles change that drastically?

– The roles didn’t change – they were slaughter men and remained so. They were just told ”today we shoot” – and so they shot, ”today we have mercy” – and so they had mercy. If Chiptsov two days later would have been told that my grandfather has to be arrested, he would have been locked up without any further discussion – that’s how the system works. And this system is still not completely condemned.

Based upon what the Investigation Committee of FSB investigates I don’t think that the methods have changed a lot. Back then people were sentenced because of other people’s statements, for having the guts to criticize the transition from an eight-hour work day to a twelve-hour one, or for saying something critical about the kolkhoz system – for this you got 10-15 years, as for anti-Soviet agitation. Now the regime isn’t that bloodthirsty of course, but it didn’t completely get rid of this. Is it only a few cases of the police beating up people that we know about? That’s the exact same thing as back then.

During interrogations with investigators of that time they tell about how they put people on a so called stand, when people were kept standing for days, not letting them sit down. Their legs swelled up from this torture and their mind got cloudy, and then they would confess anything. Unfortunately we don’t have access to documents about the conviction of the investigators who weren’t repressed, that’s a secret. From there you could get a lot of interesting information about the methods of their work, who gave the instructions, how the instructions were given, and how these torments were used. Such documents occur very rarely. At this moment I know 325 files in different archives, and I have a list of 1137 persons whose names occur in different files. I got acquainted with the files of 119 people from this list. It’s possible to get copies at some places, at others only archival letters of certification, and the geographic locations go form Moscow to the very outskirts, Odessa and Vladivostok.


– From what did your initiative to look for files of different people begin?

– After having read the file of my grandfather I got involved in the files of his work mates from the Chinese Eastern Railways, and then just any people from the Chinese Eastern Railways. People were arrested in a row there. If you had been in Manchuria you could expect an arrest.

The Chinese Eastern Railways was built already during the Tsardom of Russia. There were really big Russian colonies in Harbin and Manchuria.

There were workers who came there on official trips from the Soviet Union, and also many people who had stayed there after the Japanese war, who had ran away there after the revolution with the retreated Kolchak. When the Soviet regime sold the railway it was in its interest that people would accept the Soviet citizenship and move to the Soviet Union. People went to the Soviet Union to study, hoping that life is good there, because the propaganda had done its job. Oleg Lundström writes about this in his memoirs – he was also a ”Harbinian”. His father had decided to move to the Soviet Union, and when he left he said like this: ”I will go to the Union, settle down, and then I’ll get you there – wife and children”. He settled down in Rostov-on-Don, but in 1938 the letters came to an abrupt end. The Harbinians also knew that the Gulag-system existed, but went there anyway, since they couldn’t believe that such a lawlessness was possible.

The main part of the Harbinians moved to the Soviet Union in 1935, and in 1937 order № 593 by NKVD was issued, which began with the words ”All ’Harbinians’ are subjects to arrest”. What’s interesting is that this order was declassified during our days, but the attached letter of this order is still classified. I turned to FSB with a plea to declassify this letter but got a denial. Then I turned to the Moscow City Court. The Moscow City Court supported the opinion of FSB. The Supreme Court also decided against my appeal.

I was interested in reading this letter, I wanted to know what was in there, so I read it.

Two days after I wrote on Facebook about how the Moscow City Court had turned me down, Kiev stepped forward. People from the state archive of the Security Service of Ukraine uploaded the letter online, since it was declassified in Ukraine already in 2011. After reading the letter I took an appeal to the Supreme Court. I put forward evidence showing that the letter was based on false data. In the letter there is a list of last names of people, and their crimes. It is reported that they were Japanese agents, and specified what they did exactly by order of the Japanese Intelligence Agency. I managed to establish that the overwhelming majority of these people was later rehabilitated, and that they hadn’t committed any crimes. Overall everything in this letter refers to the activities of the Japanese Intelligence Agency, without any descriptions of the actions of the Intelligence Agency of the Soviet Union NKVD. But still, in the today’s Russia, this letter is still considered a state secret.


– What do you think, why is the government today not interested in declassifying such documents?

– I’m not going to talk about the government, but about FSB, and about how I understand this.

I think it’s about the fact that they are the successors of the Cheka-organs, and that they don’t want to abandon this legacy. They are afraid that the people will find out the truth. And the truth is, that they are criminals, and that the whole system is criminal. I haven’t heard about any penance from FSB’s side for the crimes that their predecessors committed. I haven’t heard about a single penance from the public prosecution office, that allegedly oversaw the consequences of the crimes that had been committed. I haven’t heard any penance from the Supreme Court, from the court that tolerated unjust death sentences. They are all predecessors of KGB, they keep their secrets safe. It’s not at all enough that the regime said: ”We condemn this terror”. De facto they didn’t condemn it. And this all continues – unjust sentences are still carried out, right now ”Bolotnaya prisoners” are lockup up, also based on speculative accusations.

Sometimes interrogations with investigators dated to 1939 turn up in the files – they are the ones who had to face the firing squad during the cleaning within NKVD. And in 1956, during the rehabilitations, some investigators told about how they got the evidence, how they formed so called espionage and sabotage centers. There is very few of these documents, but they do occur, and a great deal of documents are still classified. During the  court proceedings at the Moscow City Court I managed to find out that the inter-ministerial Commission for the Protection of State Secrets had prolonged the time of classification for a great deal of documents with another 30 years – these are documents from 1917 to 1991. How can the documents from 1917 hurt today’s Russia?

Before the classification period of documents is prolonged by the the inter-ministerial Commission they undergo an expertise evaluation by a commission from the FSB. The FSB-experts declassified a part of the documents – very good. But no one has access to these documents, because the documents are declassified, but the list of these documents has the label ”For official use only” on it. No one can find out which documents there are in there. And this is called declassification? This is how they are all successors of Felix Dzerzhinsky and others like him – Yagoda, Ezhov, Beria.


– So, in fact the law on access to archival files after 75 years has passed from the day they were created doesn’t always work?

– No, it isn’t quite like that. According to the law on state secrets the maximum amount of time a document can be classified is 30 years. After 30 years the documents should be declassified, or the classification should be prolonged. Criminal and inquisitional archival files have a time period of 75 years, since they may contain information about personal or family secrets, and such files can be looked at only by relatives or with an official consent of a relative. But 75 years after such a document was created anyone can go and look at these documents, and this is, more or less, observed.

This is observed in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, where a great deal of files from the administration of NKVD in Moscow and in Moscow oblast are kept, and as far as I know this is observed in the Central Archive of FSB as well as in regional archives, because they answer on requests and bring out the material you have asked for. But I socialize with people from different regions, and they say that all kinds of obstacles are being built up there. You just have to push for what’s yours, you have to read the laws a little bit, and know your rights. Demand a written answer for every denial.


– Do you keep in touch with the relatives of the people, whose history you find in the archives?

– No, I didn’t set looking for relatives as a goal. But people who start working in archives and look for their repressed relatives turn to me, especially after different publications, after I have studied a file to the fullest and published it on LiveJournal or Facebook. People turn to me for advice: How to search? Where to search? Whom to search for? I have looked through more than 100 files now, but in total in my range of vision more than one and a half thousand people appeared from these one hundred files.


– Sergey Borisovich, from where do you get strength and motivation to fight this whole system?

– I don’t have any especially strong desire to fight with KGB-FSB. It’s just that when I open a document and read it I take what’s written there literally, like a fool. If it says that copies of the documents should be granted, then they should be granted, and if they aren’t that’s against the law. If it says that I have the right to ask for documents to be declassified I do so. They tell me the motives of the classification, and I consider them to be made up. If they ask me to follow the law I do so, but why won’t they do so themselves?

If it would be possible I would write a letter to the Ministry of Finance right away: I would ask them to remove the part of taxes that I have payed that goes to the judiciary system of the Russian Federation, because it doesn’t perform its duties.

The closed letter about the Harbinians ends with the words: ”Use the real letter when carrying out operations according to an order like this or that”. This is in other words a straight out instruction to use the document for repressions, and therefor had to be declassified. But the court was more interested in why I needed this, what I am doing, where I got the document, and not the question itself. From there I also get strength.


– And how, exactly, is it possible to work with a file whose information isn’t accessible for a normal person?

– There are ”closed” pages in the files – these are documents that the FSB doesn’t allow you to work with. But you can understand what kind of documents it is in two different ways. The first way: from the list of contents of the file. For example, as in the file of Dyakonov: the envelope that covers pages 142-144 has the note ”Personal information about other people” on it. Then we look at that it says in the list of contents about these pages – there it says ”Extract from the testimony of Postel”. It is known that Postel, a former authority of the third department of the administration of NKVD, was arrested on the 9th of January 1939. He was sentenced to 15 years of labour camp, he wasn’t rehabilitated.

The second way: from the documents about the rehabilitations. For example: In a file the pages 159-176 are closed. We look at the summary of the file that was written during the time of rehabilitations. On page 177 there is references to pages of the file that are closed. Based on their description you can make a judgement about these ”closed” pages…


– Do you know how the protocols were formed?

– The investigators didn’t have time to type the protocols themselves, therefor the employees of the Register office often did this. They called this a correcting protocol: the investigator held the interrogation, wrote a protocol, showed it to his boss, the boss told him to ”fix it”, the investigator would rewrite the protocol as the boss of this investigator wanted to, then the protocol was given to the prisoner for him to sign it, which he did. Not long ago I got acquainted with the file of a woman: when she was taken away she had a three weeks old baby. She was kept in the Butyrka prison, and the baby at home. When she gave her testimony during the rehabilitations, it became clear that she had accused herself because the investigator had promised her that if she confesses her three weeks old baby would be brought to her in the prison.

We all remember the radio operator Kate – that’s the prototype. Yulian Semyonov didn’t come up with anything, he just delved, and in the archives of NKVD he found all of the scenes for his novel.

So, if the archival cases of the NKVD investigators, suppressors and prosecutors are opened we would find out a lot about our history, but that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.


– Sergey Borisovich, thank you for the interview!