Tamara Grechukhina was 15 years old in 1938 when her father was locked up by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's secret police. Soon afterward, her mother died of tuberculosis. The family's property was confiscated.
Nearly three decades later, under Nikita Khrushchev's partial de-Stalinization known as The Thaw, an adult Grechukhina wrote to Soviet authorities from her home in Poland to request rehabilitation for her father and information about his fate.
In response, she learned only that Dmitry Grechukhin had been executed in February 1939 for what the government described tersely as "violating socialist legality" while working as an officer in the secret police, then known as the NKVD.
A generation later, at the peak of the perestroika initiative in 1988 of yet another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Grechukhina inquired again for details -- and again, her request was refused.
'Who Was My Great-Grandfather?'
After Grechukhina died, her granddaughter, Agatha Opyrchal, quietly hoped someday to learn the truth about her great-grandfather.
"My grandmother died when I was 12," Opyrchal tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "She never knew what her father did or why he was arrested. She didn't know why he was executed. I never doubted that sooner or later I would get to the bottom of what happened with my great-grandfather."
Her family, she says, knew that Dmitry Grechukhin worked for the NKVD, but they rarely talked about him or his fate.
Opyrchal was born in Poland, but has lived for many years in Britain. She doesn't speak Russian and has lost contact with her Russian relatives. But in November, she read an article in The Guardian by RFE/RL journalists that told the story of Denis Karagodin, a resident of the Siberian city of Tomsk who successfully investigated the 1938 execution of his great-grandfather and even found out the names of the NKVD officers who shot him.
So Opyrchal decided to write to Karagodin to ask if he had any information about Dmitry Grechukhin. Karagodin's answer was painful for her to read.
"Your great-grandfather was a mass murderer," he wrote. In fact, Grechukhin appears in a database of Stalinist secret-police agents that was put online last year by the Memorial human rights group.
A Celebrated Killer
In the shadowy world of the NKVD, which is still concealed by closed archives, Grechukhin's name and brutality stand out. He was born to a peasant family in 1903 and completed just four years of school. Before his arrest, he worked in "the organs" for 15 years.
Things moved fast for him toward the end. In 1937, he became head of the NKVD's branch in the Krasnoyarsk region. Under his watch, the local NKVD sent a letter to Moscow asking that its quota for executions of enemies of the state be raised from 750 to 6,600, a request that was approved.
As a reward for his diligence, Grechukhin was given an Order of the Red Star and transferred to head the NKVD branch in Ukraine's Odesa region and then to serve as acting deputy head of Ukraine's NKVD section in Kyiv.
"Just a few months after his arrival in Odesa, Dmitry Grechukhin reported to Kyiv about his successes in removing some 7,691 representatives of 'unwelcome elements' from the border regions to Kazakhstan," Ukrainian historian Oleh Bazhan, who is researching NKVD executioners who were active in Ukraine, tells RFE/RL.
At the time, Bazhan explains, Stalin was interested in repressing ethnic groups associated with territories of the Russian Empire that had been lost after World War I, including Romanians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Finns.
Grechukhin was a member of the Odesa region's so-called "troika," a panel of three officials that served as a rubber-stamp court for Stalin's repressions.
"The Odesa troika of the NKVD in the first half of 1930 authorized more than 3,000 executions," Bazhan says. "On Grechukhin's personal order [after he had been transferred to Kyiv], a wave of mass arrests of former Red Army soldiers swept over the entire republic in July and August 1938."
A Persecution Too Far
In September 1938, Grechukhin was transferred to the Rostov region, a move that marked the beginning of the end for him. For unknown reasons, he launched a drive to implicate famed novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, who won the 1965 Nobel Prize for literature largely for works he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, in a supposed Cossack plot to overthrow the Soviet Union. Much of Grechukhin's story is known now because of his involvement in this ill-fated intrigue.
Grechukhin sent a former security agent named Ivan Pogorelov to infiltrate Sholokhov's inner circle and develop "evidence" of the plot. Pogorelov, however, betrayed Grechukhin and revealed his mission to Sholokhov. Sholokhov complained to Stalin directly, who took the legendary writer's side.
Grechukhin, like many of the NKVD killers who rose to prominence under NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov, who was himself arrested in 1938 and executed in 1940, was arrested in December 1938, and executed less than three months later.
Closing The Past
"I was shaken when I read that he was guilty of so much evil," Agatha Opyrchal tells RFE/RL. "But I want to know everything down to the last detail. I want to find my relatives in Russia."
"I think it is time for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the victims and of the organizers of the Great Terror to begin to speak about the past," she adds.
Karagodin, the man from Tomsk who has investigated the execution of his great-grandfather, tells RFE/RL that he gets many comments from descendants of NKVD agents on his website, which aggregates documents about his investigation.
"They generally use swear words and say things like 'this is all a lie' or 'this guy was really a good guy and you shouldn't write about him here,'" he adds.
He says that correspondence such as his exchange with Opyrchal is practically unique -- "humanitarian exceptions," he calls them.
Karagodin adds that he does not believe Opyrchal will be granted access to her great-grandfather's file. The state does not release such information on people who were rejected for rehabilitation, a policy that helps conceal the crimes of Soviet government agents to this day.
"Dmitry Grechukhin is a mass murderer -- that is an established fact," Karagodin says. "It has been confirmed repeatedly by the government itself, the same government that in fact hired him to carry out that work. Therefore, access to Grechukhin's execution file will likely be refused for this formal reason. That's the law."
This year, Russia is marking the 80th anniversary of Stalin's Great Terror and the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik coup. President Vladimir Putin, himself a former communist and KGB agent, has stressed the importance of not allowing these events to increase divisions or dissension in society.
Robert Coalson contributed to this report