The Executioners Defended

By | January 25, 2018

FSB Director Bortnikov

In December 1985, Professor Vladimir Efroimson, a prominent geneticist, gave a short and extremely emotional speech at Moscow Polytechnic Museum after the screening of a documentary about another famous geneticist, Academician Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), arrested in 1940 and sentenced to death as a “spy.” The death sentence was commuted to a 20-year imprisonment, and in August 1943 Vavilov died of dystrophy in the prison of the city of Saratov. Efroimson literally cried out into the audience:

I came here to tell the truth. We watched this film. […] I do not blame the authors of the film […], but this film is not true. […] The film […] does not say that Vavilov […] is one of many tens of millions of victims of the most unscrupulous, most cruel system. A system that destroyed, by the most approximate calculation, fifty, but rather seventy million innocent people. And this system is Stalinism. This system is socialism. Socialism, which reigned as the supreme power in our country, and which to this day has not been accused of its crimes. Until the leadership of the country is not replaced by people responsible for every act, for every word of it, our country will be a country of slaves, a country that represents a monstrous lesson to the whole world […]

I do not blame the film’s authors for failing to tell the truth about Vavilov’s death. […] He did not perish. He croaked like a homeless dog! He died from pellagra, a disease that is caused by absolute exhaustion. It is from this disease that homeless dogs die […] So: the great scientist, genius of world rank, the pride of Russian science, Academician Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov croaked like a dog in Saratov prison […] And it is necessary that everyone who gathered here knew and remembered that […]

I’m an old man. I’ve suffered two heart attacks. I spent more than twenty years in the labor camps, exile, at the front [during WWII]. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll die […] and, possibly, no one will ever tell the truth. And the truth is that […] there are two or three people [in the audience] who, being in the KGB dungeons, subjected to the inhuman and savage abuse that millions of our compatriots suffered, and to which [some] people of our country continue to be exposed to, it is unlikely that there will be among you at least two people who would not break down, would not give up any of their thoughts, would not renounce any of their beliefs […] This is a real fear of real danger […]

I remember the audience of a few hundred Moscow intelligentsia people completely froze, nobody had ever heard such words said publicly. And the Polytechnic Museum is located across a square from the KGB building. Prof. Efroimson finished his speech:

The executioners who ruled our country are not punished. As long as the executioners are not punished for the death of Vavilov, the death of millions of prisoners, the death of millions of peasants who died of starvation like dogs, hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, none of us is insured against repeating the past. […]

And while the country is ruled by the nomenclature punks guarded by the political police called the KGB, while people are thrown out before our eyes in prisons and [labor] camps for daring to say the word of truth, because they dare to preserve even small crumbs of their dignity, until the names of the perpetrators of this fear are named, you can’t, you must not sleep peacefully. Over each of you and over your children hangs this fear. And do not tell me that you are not afraid […] Even I’m afraid now, although my life is at the end […]

I appeal to you, remember what I just told you! Remember!

In 1989, the 80-year-old Efroimson died. But the speech he gave 32 years ago is still relevant, and it seems that Putin’s FSB is determined to completely return to the KGB’s methods of control of the Russian society.

On December 20, 2017, the Day of the Workers of the Security Services of Russia, at the meeting of secret services officers, President Vladimir Putin gave a speech. This year this was an unusual meeting, it was in commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the infamous All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (VCheKa). Putin praised his old colleagues, the Chekists:

And no matter how the epochs were changing, the absolute majority of people choosing this difficult profession were always real statesmen and patriots who fulfilled their duty with dignity and honesty, first of all they served the Fatherland and their people.

It seems he completely forgot what he said on October 30, less than two months ago, at the unveiling of the monument to the victims of Soviet repressions:

For all of us, for the future generations, which is very important, it is important to know and remember this tragic period of our history, when whole classes, whole nations were subjected to cruel persecution: workers and peasants, engineers and military leaders, priests and civil servants, scientists and cultural figures.

The repressions spared no talent, no merit to the Motherland, no sincere devotion to it, everyone could be presented with far-fetched and absolutely absurd accusations. Millions of people were declared “enemies of the people”, were shot or maimed, went through the tortures of prisons, camps and exiles.

This terrible past cannot be erased from national memory and, moreover, it is impossible to justify anything, by higher so-called benefits of the people.

It seems he simply said the “correct” words for the event, while at the Chekist meeting he expressed his real feelings.

The Board of the International Society Memorial (Moscow) called the celebration of the Chekist Day “the mockery of the memory of millions of victims” of Russia on December 20.

In Memorial’s opinion, the CheKa and its successors “do not have a lot of competitors in the history of the world in the scale of crimes against citizens of their own country,” and the celebration of the Day of the Security Officers is “a sign for the whole world that the Bolshevik regime is not a thing of the past.”  The defense of the interests of the state in Russia was practiced even before 1917, the Bolshevik Coup, but “from the centuries-old history the date of creation of the bloodiest special services of all times and peoples was chosen.”

“The preservation of the Chekist Day under any name makes it difficult to believe in the sincerity of the speeches at the opening of the monument to the victims of repression,” – said the statement, meaning Putin’s words at the unveiling event.

On the morning of December 20, the Chekist Day, Maria Alyokhina, one of the Pussy Riot performant artists, and a political activist Olga Borisova, exposed a banner in front of the Lubyanka building, the headquarters of the FSB and all its Soviet security predecessors. The phrase on the banner, written in red letters, like with blood, on a white background, said: “Happy birthday, EXECUTIONERS.” Almost immediately Alyokhina and the photographer Denis Bochkaryov were arrested and spent a night at a police station. Next morning, a Moscow court ordered Aloykhina to perform 40 hours of community-service work as punishment for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration that hampers “citizens’ access to living space, transportation facilities, or social infrastructure.”

But the interview given by Aleksandr Bortnikov, FSB Director, to the government newspaper “Rossiiskaya gazeta” (“Russian Newspaper”), on December 19, became the main issue of discussion in connection with the 100-year CheKa anniversary in the press. His glorification of Soviet security services, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and Lavrenty Beria, NKVD Commissar from 1938 to 1945, shocked many Russians. Bortnikov completely ignored the fact that since the 20th Congress of Communist Party in 1956, these persons and organizations had been officially named guilty of mass repressions and executions.

Army General Bortnikov enthusiastically described everything that was done by the punitive organs of the Bolsheviks for “protecting the young Soviet republic.” According to Bortnikov, the murders and repressions were necessary because otherwise it would have been impossible to survive “in the conditions of the outbreak of the Civil War and foreign intervention, paralysis of the economy, rampant banditry and terrorism, an increase in sabotage, increased separatism.” This is not true, because the CheKa that unleashed its first Red Terror was created before the Civil War outbreak and foreign intervention.

Bortnikov has an excuse for the mass repressions of the 1930s: “The threat of an impending war demanded from the Soviet state the concentration of all resources and the utmost strain of forces, the speediest implementation of industrialization and collectivization.” And not all residents of the country were ready to accept the rules of mobilization. So, the use of force was necessary. At the same time, the Chekists themselves suffered, “from 1933 to 1939, 22,618 of Chekists were repressed.” But “even when they themselves fell under the repressions, for the most part they did not lose faith in the Party and personally Stalin.” Therefore, in the eyes of Bortnikov, the dictator-leader Stalin deserves all respect. And the mistakes were fixed: “Under L. Beria, part of [the repressed Chekists] returned to security organs.”

According to Bortnikov, many NKVD arrests in the 1930s were reasonable:

Although for many, this period is associated with mass fabrication of charges, the archival materials indicate the existence of an objective side in a large number of criminal cases, including those that formed the basis for known open processes. The plans of the supporters of L. Trotsky for the removal or even liquidation of I. Stalin and his associates in the leadership of the CPSU (b) are by no means an invention, as are the ties of the conspirators with the foreign service departments. In addition, a large number of persons involved in these cases are representatives of the party nomenclature and the leadership of law enforcement bodies, who are mired in corruption, and have abolished arbitrariness and lynching.

It appears that only Nikolai Yezhov, NKVD Commissar from 1936 to 1938, and his cronies were guilty of repressions of the 1930s:

I do not want to whitewash anyone. Specific executors of criminal acts among the Chekists are by name known, most of them suffered a well-deserved punishment after the displacement and execution of Yezhov. The court of history also took place over them: during the mass rehabilitation of the 1950s and the late 1980s, the verdicts on their cases were found final and not subject to revision.

Lavrenty Beria, according to Bortnikov, was not involved in mass repressions:

Mass political repression ended after the adoption of the resolution of the Central Committee of the VKP (b) and SNK of the USSR “On Arrests, Prosecutorial Supervision and Investigation” of November 17, 1938. Appointed to the post of People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs L. Beria restored the GUGB of the NKVD and conducted personnel “purges”, expelling the careerists of previous appeals. Requirements to the quality of investigative work increased, which contributed to a reduction in sentences to the death penalty.

And in general Beria’s role was positive since he was in charge of the Soviet Atomic Project: “In August 1945, a special committee was established under the State Defense Committee to organize accelerated work on the creation of an atomic warhead (Problem No. 1), led by the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs L. Beria. […] Intelligence and counterintelligence services regularly supplied valuable information on foreign achievements in the nuclear field to the scientific teams, as well as samples of relevant equipment. So, with the active assistance of security agencies, the Soviet ‘nuclear shield’ was forged.”

In Bortnikov’s opinion, the activity of “SMERSH” (Soviet military counterintelligence during WWII) had also only positive effect, for instance: “Thanks to the brilliant counter-intelligence operations of the “smershevtsy” [SMERSH officers], not a single strategic plan of the Soviet command became known to the enemy.” The same way the other security services that followed, the MGB and KGB were great.

Bortnikov said a few critical words about Leonid Brezhnev, Communist Party and Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982:

After the interrogation of the first secretary of the Kuibyshev District Party Committee of Moscow, who had been arrested for a 1.5-million-dollar bribe, in the presence of the KGB Chairman [Yuri Andropov], Leonid Brezhnev personally chided Yu. Andropov. The Secretary General pointed out that the Committee’s task was to protect the party nomenclature, and not to collect compromising materials on it.

But Mikhail Gorbachev was criticized by Bortnikov the most:

The team of reformers, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power, despite the proclamation of Perestroika, openness and publicity, retained the ban on the operational development of representatives of the party elite. The Central Committee of the CPSU did not react even to counterintelligence information about the acquisition by foreign special services of “agents of influence” in the allied bodies of power.

This term was first used by Yu. Andropov in 1977 in a report to the Politburo “On the hostile activity of the CIA of the United States in the disintegration of Soviet society and the disorganization of the socialist economy through agents of influence.”

The operational and analytical materials sent to the Central Committee on a whole series of problems remained without attention. And the problems grew steadily: against the background of the deepening economic crisis, social and political discontent among the population was growing, interethnic and interreligious contradictions were aggravated, separatist tendencies were gaining strength. Mass riots and pogroms broke out in various regions of the country… The central government did not want to take responsibility for the suppression of conflicts, gave conflicting orders [to the KGB] and eventually threw [the KGB] employees to the mercy of fate. This led to the erosion of the confidence of the “siloviks” in the country’s leadership. We can say that the last stronghold of the defense of a single state collapsed.

By that time, the KGB of the USSR had already been dismantled. In the struggle for power, the party elites of the union republics, sweeping local security agencies, expected to strengthen their own positions and weaken the influence of the Center. In May 1991, it was decided to create the KGB of the Russian Federation…  

A series of transformations and reassignments began…  Embracing the entire complexity of the country’s situation, the [former KGB] staff made every effort to solve the problems facing them […] At the same time, the Russian leadership, confronted with the uncontrollable growth of centrifugal tendencies in the country, which threatened civil war and the collapse of the Federation, also concluded that it was necessary to restore a full-fledged security system.

In April 1995, the Federal Security Service of Russia was created… Only in 199596, the counterintelligence units identified and took under operational control 400 personnel officers of Western special services, including from the states of the former socialist camp, and 39 of their agents.

Of course, Bortnikov praised Putin:

A significant contribution to the strengthening of security agencies was made by V.V. Putin, appointed Director of the Federal Security Service of Russia in July 1998. During the period of his leadership, the structure of the Office was optimized, funding was increased and the basis for deep modernization of the material and technical base was laid, which allowed solving operational tasks more efficiently.

As the Russian historian Boris Sokolov put it, “Bortnikov is engaged in moral rehabilitation of the Chekists, either by hushing up their crimes, or by justifying them by the prevailing extraordinary circumstances, above all by an external threat.”

On December 22, 32 members and corresponding members of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) published an open letter. The letter was given to the newspaper “Kommersant” by Academician Sergei Stishov, a prominent physicist and head of the Troitsky Scientific Center of RAN:

Apparently, for the first time since the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956, one of the highest officials of our country justifies the mass repressions of the 1930s and 40s, accompanied by unjust sentences, torture and executions of hundreds of thousands of innocent people of our compatriots.

These repressions also affected the scientific community, thousands of scientists and engineers were killed or killed in the camps, which brought irreparable damage to domestic science and technology. Let us recall Academician N. I. Vavilov, Professor L. V. Shubnikov, Professor S. P. Shubin, and many others. Miraculously survived L. D. Landau, S. P. Korolev, V. P. Glushko, who later made so much for the country. These names are generally known to the public. Unfortunately, only few specialists know how many remarkable scientists who had advanced science in various fields, were destroyed at the beginning of their activity. These were the brilliant theoretical physicist M. P. Bronshtein; Academician I. F. Grigoriev, a geologist accused of wrecking while searching for uranium deposits; Professor E. F. Egorov, a mathematician, one of the founders of modern functional analysis, perished in prison. L. K. Ramzin, professor of heat engineering, who invented a straight-through boiler, the linguist E. D. Polivanov, the agronomist N. M. Tulaikov, the geneticist I. I. Agol, the philosopher G. G. Shpet, the missile designer G. E. Langemak were repressed. The leaders of the Pulkovo Astronomic Observatory [located near Leningrad] were also repressed. The list [of the scientists-victims] is long.

Before the war [with Nazi Germany], the [Red] Army was destroyed. In 19371938, almost two-thirds of the top Red Army commandership were repressed, only few came out of imprisonment. The losses among the top commandership for the entire period of the Great Patriotic War were significantly smaller.

Millions of Soviet people found themselves in prisons and [labor] camps, many of them did not return, entire nations were sent to exile from places of historical residence.

We do not understand the purpose of Mr. Bortnikov’s lengthy interview. What is it, wishes addressed to the new President? Or nostalgia for old times, or propagation of a new doctrine?

In any case, we strongly protest the revision of the inhuman nature of repressions against own people and appeal to all sensible people who do not want their children to witness the horrors of the 1930s, to join our protest.

The Chekist celebration happened two weeks after on December 5, the exhibition “The Great Terror,” dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the beginning of mass repressions of 19371938, was opened In the Russian State Archives of Social and Political History (RGASPI). This exhibition presents the original documentation on the mechanism of the Great Terror: documents showing how decisions were made by Stalin and other leaders of the Communist Party about executions, how the number of executions grew with time, and how the repressive NKVD machine eventually partly destroyed itself.

On the last stand there was the protocol of an interrogation of Lavrenty Beria, the Decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet from 1953 on Beria’s criminal actions supposedly “in the interests of a foreign state,” and Beria’s last letter to the Presidium of the Party’s Central Committee, i.e. to his long-time Party pals. In the letter, full of grammar errors and misspelled words, Beria begged for mercy:

Dear comrades, they want to kill me without trial and investigation, after a 5-day imprisonment, without a single interrogation, I beg you all to prevent this, I ask you for your immediate intervention, otherwise it will be too late.

In the name of the memory of Lenin and Stalin, I beg you to intervene immediately, and all of you will find out that I’m your friend and comrade, absolutely clean, honest, loyal to you, and a faithful member of our party.

Despite his appeal, Beria was executed six months after writing the letter, in December 1953, after a trial.

The opening of the exposition was timed to coincide with the international conference “Lessons of October and the Practices of the Soviet System” within the series “History of Stalinism.” Surprisingly, an article about the opening of the “Great Terror” exhibition was published in the same governmental “Rossiiskaya gazeta”, as Bortnikov’s interview.

The same day, on December 5, 2017 the International “Memorial” Society launched the fifth edition of the electronic database “Victims of Political Terror in the USSR” simultaneously in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Petrozavodsk, Perm, Syktyvkar, and Tomsk. The first version of the database, created in 2001 contained 130,000 names from 26 different parts of the former Soviet Union. The fourth version put in 2007 on the Internet, contained more than 2,6 million names. The current 5th edition lists more than 3,1 million names. Until spring 2018, the database on the Internet will be working in test mode.

On December 20, 2017, the day of the 100-year Chekist anniversary, one more exhibition devoted to the 80-year anniversary of the Great Terror was opened at Moscow Multimedia Art Museum (MAMM), providing an adequate picture of the scale of crimes and not hiding the names of the executioners. The exhibits include real prison and labor camp doors provided by the Museum of the Gulag History (together with the House of Photography, the International “Memorial” Society, and the Memorial Fund, the Museum became one of the organizers of the project), a coil of barbed wire from one of the Magadan camps, and a homemade shoe found on the site of a former labor camp, reminding of the barracks filled in by shoes in Auschwitz. And, of course, numerous documents and photos, beginning from the hatred propaganda articles in the Soviet press of the time, NKVD and Communist Party orders, and finishing photos of and letters from prisoners to their relatives censored by NKVD officers. There are also drawings of three artist, who survived imprisonment in the camps, Lev Kropivnitsky, Boris Sveshnikov, and Yulo Soos. Despite it was forbidden to draw, they made drawings and secretly kept them.

In St. Petersburg, on December 20, 2017, a series of single pickets of political activists took place outside the FSB building. The activists held in their hands posters dedicated to the most outrageous cases of persecutions committed by the CheKa/KGB.

As Yevgenia Litvinova, one of the organizers of the action said, during the picketing “cheerful people with holiday packages” came out from the FSB building. A group of unknown people dressed in black attacked the protesters, one poster was torn, the rest were stolen in front of the police. The special rage of the attackers was caused by a poster with the inscription “1937-1938 — The Great Terror. More than 1 million people were convicted of anti-Soviet activity, more than 600 thousand of them were shot.” Two attackers were detained. An additional small protest meeting also took place in the evening.

On December 24, 2017, the protest action continued. 50 relatives of the victims of repressions had a meeting in front of the Memorial Solovetsky Stone in St. Petersburg. The participants held photos of perished relatives. Each participant told a story of the persecuted relative describing the arrests during WWII and after.

The Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov wrote about the Checkist anniversary:

The Chekists’ anniversary is not just an anniversary of a structure that regularly served and continues to serve the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes of Russia. It is a holiday of evil in its pure form. Without impurities, slogans and other unnecessary tinsel. Russia is perhaps the first country in the world in which evil triumphed not only over society, but also over ideology, over its creator.

On December 25, 2017, a demand for Bortnikov’s resignation was posted on the site of the Intelligentsia Congress:

We demand the immediate resignation of the Director of the Russian Federal Security Service, Army General A.V. Bortnikov, since we consider his public ideological and political position incompatible with his position.

The head of the federal service, especially of the law enforcement agency and its task of protecting the constitutional system, has no right to justify, directly or indirectly, what is recognized in our country as grave crimes and, moreover, to audit the normative legal acts of the highest level.

On that day, 170 of Russian intelligentsia representatives had signed the petition, and the signing continued.

The analysis of the current situation with the FSB by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Russian experts on secret services, is pessimistic:

The year 2017 was the year when it became finally clear that the old rules of Putin’s special services, worked out in the 2000s, came to an end. The rivalry of the uncontrolled enforcement agencies turned by their leaders into feudal fiefdoms, and the same way a medieval idea of the “new nobility” as the Russian elite, — all this ceased to be relevant. In 2017, Putin finally stopped playing with this postmodern project (and the very phrase “new nobility” got out of use) and decided to return to a scheme that he remembers well from the time of his youth – the scheme of work of the late Soviet KGB.

And this means, first of all, that the methods of state control have changed. The era when FSB officers, attached to state and commercial structures, from theaters to sports departments, had to play an important role in their management, is coming to an end. It was replaced by a new era, and now the Kremlin’s control is carried out through selective repression, and governors, officials, ministers and theatrical figures have already become the victims of which. In this case, what position the attached FSB has, does not matter much.

In 2017, it became apparent that the language of special services and their methods had changed.

Obviously, we are witnessing the return of Soviet concepts to the work of special services. […]

To inform everyone that in the new reality no one is guaranteed against reprisals, including the repressive bodies themselves, this is quite in the spirit of Soviet leaders. In 2017, there were cleansings both in the Investigative Committee […] and in the FSB. At the same time, repressions are very Soviet-the leadership first defines a “problem area”, and then work begins on its sweeping. […]

The striking interview by Aleksandr Bortnikov, FSB Director, on the centennial of the CheKa, with warm words addressed to Lavrenty Beria, is the best confirmation of the fact that the FSB has also fully realized its new, but in fact well-forgotten, old role in the new reality. The role of a key instrument in a system in which state controllability is guaranteed by fear.

On January 24, 2018, access to the Russian investigative website “Russiangate” was blocked a few hours after the appearance of the article entitled “Bortnikovka” about the undeclared real estates of FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov and his deputy Sergei Smirnov. The article, written by Svetlana Zobova, claims that the FSB head and his deputy hid the real estates in the city of Sestroretsk, the suburban region of St. Petersburg. It says:

Bortnikov owns a 28-hectare plot in the area of dachas [summer cottages – V. B.] in Sestroretsk […] since August 2011. The assessed value of the plot is more than 48.6 million rubles [approx. $870.000], while the annual salary of a silovik is from 5 to 11 million rubles [$89.000 -$197.000]; in his tax declarations the dacha in Sestroretsk was not mentioned. In 2017, when the Rosreestr was updated, this object was completely excluded from the database.

Smirnov’s dacha, acquired by him in the same August 2011, is next door. The area of ​​the plot is 26 acres, and its cost, together with the cost of buildings is approximately 27.3 million rubles [$488.000]. Like Bortnikov, Smirnov hides the fact that he owns a dacha in Sestroretsk.

Russiangate editor-in-chief Alexandrina Elagina was fired and a criminal case against her was opened. She noted that she still “has no documentary evidence” confirming the existence of the criminal case. Currently, the article “Bortnikovka” is available on another site.

It’s hard to say if exhibitions on Soviet state crimes and updating the database of the victims will be possible in the environment envisioned by FSB Director Bortnikov. Following the Russian academicians’ open letter, one can pose a rhetoric question: What was Bortnikov’s interview about, the propagation of a new FSB/old KGB doctrine?


Author: Vadim Birstein

Dr. Vadim J. Birstein is a historian and geneticist. He is the author of over 300 scientific papers and books and has written two scholarly historical works, "The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science" and "SMERSH, Stalin's Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII". He received the inaugural "St. Ermin's Intelligence Book Award" in 2012 for SMERSH.

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