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Son Of A Stalinist Executioner: One Man's Lifelong Struggle To Understand Why

NKVD torturer and executioner Boris Rodos with his wife, Rebekkai Ratner. He was executed one day after being denounced by Nikita Khruschev in his secret de-Stalinization speech of 1956.

Valery Rodos has spent most of his 74 years coming to grips with a father he barely knew.

"I would give my arm, my leg, my life if only my father had become a tailor like his father," Rodos told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Instead, Boris Rodos built an extraordinary career as a torturer and executioner in Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's dreaded secret police, the NKVD.

Recruited as a junior lieutenant in December 1936, within two years the elder Rodos was the assistant to the head of the notorious political division in Moscow. He personally tortured the great Russian writer Isaac Babel and the legendary theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as members of Stalin's Politburo and other senior Soviet officials.

"They put me facedown on the floor and beat my feet and back with a rubber strap," the 65-year-old Meyerhold wrote in a letter before he was executed in February 1940. "Over the next days, when those parts of my legs were covered with bruises, they would beat me over and over with the strap so that it felt like boiling water was being poured on the wounds.... When I fell asleep after 18 hours of interrogation, I woke myself up with my own groans, jerking about like a patient in the last stages of a typhoid delirium."

"My clearest memories [of my father] are connected with soccer," Valery Rodos told RFE/RL. "He really loved football and, it seemed to me, he personally knew the entire Dynamo Moscow team. We would go to the matches with some enormous old guy; only later did I find out it was Interior Minister [Vsevolod] Merkulov."

Momentous Year

2017 is a momentous year for Russia, one in which the country will mark the centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik coup and the 80th anniversary of 1937, the darkest and most horrific year of Stalin's Great Terror. Historian Richard Pipes has calculated that more than 1,000 people each day were executed over the course of 1937 and 1938.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has presided over a significant rehabilitation of Stalin's image in recent years, remarked on the anniversaries in his December state-of-the-nation address to parliament.

Putin said that "it is impermissible to drag the divisions, enmities, insults, and cruelty of the past into our present life" and that "these tragedies touched practically every family in Russia, no matter which side of the barricades our ancestors were on."

In November 2016, the Memorial human-rights organization published a database of biographical information about some 40,000 agents of Stalin's secret police. Within days, descendants of the people listed issued an open appeal to Putin seeking to close the project down on the grounds that "the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren [of the agents] might be the targets of revenge for the sake of repressed ancestors."

'Devilish Legion'

Valery Rodos has spent his life thinking about the way those tragedies "touched" Soviet families. In 2008, he wrote a unique memoir called I Am An Executioner's Son.

"I am not a writer and I never wanted to be one," he said. "But my father's life pained me my entire life. I got used to it; I tried to put myself in his shoes; I justified him, condemned him, sentenced him; and carried out the sentence. I wrote that book -- and I became healthy. I tried my best, but it doesn't really matter to me if the book turned out well. I freed myself. I won't write again."

Rodos's book is less about his father than about himself and the shadow of his father that hangs over his entire life. At one point, he asks readers to put themselves in his place.

"Have you done it?" he wrote. "Now look in the mirror. That is how I have been my entire life, looking with loathing into the mirror of my own soul. Searching for parallels, similarities."

Valery Rodos today with his own sons
Valery Rodos today with his own sons

A philosophy professor who taught at Tomsk State University in Siberia, Rodos sees his father as an energetic go-getter who was sincere in his belief in what he did. He rose up through the Komsomol communist youth movement and answered the perceived call of his country at the time.

"He shouldn't have answered that call, joined that devilish legion," Rodos said. "But all my life I have agonized over the question of whether I would have had enough -- I don't even know what word to use -- but enough something to withstand and not join myself. I don't know. But I am quite certain that 95 percent of Russia's current citizens would happily and voluntarily join up.

"There was a song that said, 'When your motherland calls on you to be a hero, everyone becomes a hero.' The motherland called on us to be informers and millions of informers appeared.... The motherland called on us to be executioners. And volunteers appeared -- as many as were necessary and maybe more.... If there hadn't been the demand, my father -- being a smart guy with the practical talents of a Jew, could have become something good, useful."

'Blind Weapon'

Boris Rodos, a member of the inner circle of the notorious secret-police head Lavrenty Beria, was arrested in October 1953, a few months after Stalin's death. He was sentenced to death on February 26, 1956, just one day after Nikita Khrushchev's secret de-Stalinization speech, in which Rodos was mentioned by name.

On February 28, the elder Rodos wrote a clemency appeal in which he claimed he was a "blind weapon" in Beria's hands and asked for mercy "for the sake of my innocent children, elderly mother, and wife." He was executed on April 20, 1956, as an "enemy of the people." He was buried in Moscow's Donskoi Cemetery, near the mass graves of many of his victims.

Valery Rodos's life took a different turn. He first learned the truth about his father when he got hold of a copy of Khrushchev's speech. In the late 1960s, under the influence of the liberalizing Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, he joined an underground political party aimed at "overthrowing the regime and building true communism." He was arrested and served "a short time" in a Soviet prison.

Valery Rodos in his student days
Valery Rodos in his student days

After he got out, he was able to secure new documents and enroll at Moscow State University to study philosophy.

"It was a totalitarian system," he said, "but it had many holes in it. Thousands of people destroyed their documents."

He became a professor and then immigrated with his wife and two sons to the United States shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the while secretly wrestling with his father's ghost. And he said he believes all of Russia, in a sense, is doing the same.

"Where there is no job for an executioner, there are no executioners," Rodos told RFE/RL. "But if you announce a vacancy, they will come running. No, repentance won't help at all. If now, for instance, Putin decided to completely restore the old regime, he'd find as many executioners as he needed. We don't need to destroy the Bastille. We need to stop building it."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.