ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- "It wasn't easy," artist Kirill Gorodetsky wrote on Facebook on December 20: It took years for him to gain access to the documents of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, and finally "read the story of the destruction of my great-grandfather's family."
"Someone really doesn't want me to know my family's history," he added.
December 20, a date on which Russia each year marks a professional holiday celebrating the "organs of state security," is the anniversary of the 1917 founding of the Soviet secret police by Bolshevik official Feliks Dzerzhinsky. Gorodetsky noted that in the corridor of the building where he read the file of his family's case there hung a banner celebrating decades of "protecting law and order."
Until this month, Gorodetsky had almost no idea what had happened to his family.
"I knew that my great-grandfather, Mikhail Bart, was an interesting and successful and talented man," the artist told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "At home we had some nice old furniture that once belonged to him. But what happened to him personally, no one knew."
"His granddaughter -- my mother -- always said that most likely during the blockade [of Leningrad during World War II] he went somewhere and froze to death," he added.
Gorodetsky fingers a pile of photographs and copies of old documents on a table in his studio in the center of St. Petersburg, which was called Petrograd in 1914-24 and Leningrad in the Soviet era. In September, Gorodetsky published on Facebook a series of photographs showing a small bookshelf from his great-grandfather's home that formed the backdrop of family photos going back at least to 1926. The artist has painstakingly restored the piece, which now hangs in his own apartment.
Gorodetsky knew that his grandfather secretly sent money to his own mother, Mikhail Bart's wife, who had been sent to exile "somewhere far away." He also knew that his grandfather's brother had been drafted early in the war but had never returned home and had died somewhere in Stalin's labor camps.
Gorodetsky's own maternal grandfather's story was even more gripping. Shortly before his death in 1979, he told Gorodetsky that, as a secondary-school student when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, he and a group of his friends joined a White Army unit to fight against the Reds. During one particularly bloody engagement, he was captured, Gorodetsky said.
"But the Red Army soldiers who had been assigned to execute him took pity on him," he said. "Either they were from the same region or they just felt sorry for this skinny 18-year-old -- I don't know. There were the bodies of killed Red Army soldiers all around, so they told him to take the documents off one and run away. Which he did. A few kilometers later, he came across another Red Army unit and they were happy to take him in. They fed him and gave him a uniform. They took a photograph of him that I still have."
Gorodetsky's grandfather returned home several years later with a new last name, Popovsky.
"I have his Red Army service booklet from which it is clear he ended up in the air corps for a few years," Gorodetsky said. "Then he returned home to Petrograd…healthy and strong, but with a new surname…. He later studied at the printing institute -- the same one where I later studied. Before the revolution, his father, my great-grandfather, had owned a printing company."
"My grandfather also told me that his mother had been exiled, but he said he did not know what had happened to his father," Gorodetsky continued. "No one said the word 'arrest,' but I have read a lot and I understand that if the wife is exiled and the youngest son is arrested, then most likely my great-grandfather wasn't relaxing in a resort during this time. But his name is not on the lists of those who were repressed."
Gorodetsky turned to the human rights group Memorial, which told him that he could try to compel the government to release information about his family, but only if he could prove that he was related to them. This proved a problem because Gorodetsky has one surname, while his mother has another, her father had a third, and Gorodetsky's great-grandfather had a fourth.
"They told me at Memorial and various online groups that I'd never get anywhere," he said. "But for some reason I never gave up. So this is really a story of how, if you keep knocking, the door will open. I have to admit that the FSB (Federal Security Service) works effectively as soon as it is convinced you are indeed a relative."
'He Understood Everything'
Gorodetsky pushed his case for more than three years without success when a friend convinced him to try one more time.
"It seemed like all my letters had disappeared into the cosmos," he told RFE/RL. "But suddenly I was told: 'You can come and read the case file.'"
"I felt like a miracle had happened to me," he recalled. "Sitting in front of me was the file of my great-grandfather, Mikhail Bart, born in 1873. I opened it and was overcome by a powerful feeling that literally divided my life into 'before' and 'after.' I saw the last photograph of my great-grandfather. Taken in prison, one profile and one face-on."
"The expression on his face was appropriate," Gorodetsky added. "You can see that he understood everything."
Mikhail Bart was arrested at home on September 17, 1941, about one week after the official beginning of the blockade of Leningrad, although some communication between the beleaguered city and the rest of the Soviet Union across Lake Ladoga continued.
"There was the report from his sole interrogation, dated September 21," Gorodetsky said, referring to notes that he took during his sessions with the file. "He was accused under Article 58.13, anti-Soviet propaganda."
The file also contained a questionnaire that Bart had filled out himself which, among other things, included the surname of his oldest son as Popovsky and that of his youngest son as Bart. Gorodetsky believes this document was the key that opened the door he'd been knocking at for so long.
"This was written in my great-grandfather's own hand," Gorodetsky said. "Earlier, they had asked me to bring in my mother's birth certificate, which included her maiden name as Popovsky. That is, [the FSB] actually investigated before giving me access to the file. They read my story and went into the archive and saw this questionnaire."
From the file, Gorodetsky learned for the first time that his great-grandfather had been an "honored citizen" of St. Petersburg and the head of the Petersburg Industrialists Union.
The file also contained four copies of Bart's prison mug shot, so Gorodetsky asked the woman from the FSB who sat across the table the entire time he was working with the documents if he could have one.
"The woman said: 'Calm down. Before you, [famous actor] Oleg Basilashvili sat on that same chair. And before that, [distinguished scholar and linguist] Dmitry Likhachyov sat there looking at his own file. And we didn't give them any pictures.'"
"At that point, you realize that you are in a different world," Gorodetsky added.
'Where Is My Husband?'
Bart's file also contained denunciations written by an informant who had been placed in Bart's cell.
"The informant tried his best," Gorodetsky said. "He wrote that my great-grandfather supposedly said that people in England are living very well and that they will come soon to liberate us -- but I think he made that up. He even begged them not to take him out of Bart's cell because he believed Bart would say more."
The file ended abruptly. There was a note saying that, because of the deteriorating military situation, it would be necessary to evacuate all prisoners to the rear. On October 8, Bart and others were loaded onto a freight train bound for the Siberian city of Tomsk by way of Novosibirsk.
Then there was a short note that Bart died during transport on November 14, 1941. And there was a brief, unanswered note on a scrap of paper written by his great-grandmother asking, "Where is my husband?" Gorodetsky's great-grandmother, Emma Bart, was sent into internal exile as an ethnic German in March 1943, shortly after the siege of Leningrad was lifted. He has not been able to find out where she was sent or where she is buried.
And, finally, there was a document showing that Bart's case had been reviewed posthumously in 1949 and the charges against him were dropped.
But Gorodetsky knew there was more to the story. A large portion of the file remained in a sealed envelope that he was not allowed to open. But he believes he has discovered at least part of what that envelope contains.
'A Cold, Hungry Death'
Through various groups on social media, Gorodetsky has made contact with the families of other prisoners who were transported from Leningrad on the same train as his great-grandfather. He has found a list of prisoners from the transport who were received at Tomsk prison No. 3, in Siberia, and Mikhail Bart's name is not on it.
Contacts in Tomsk have told him that this particular prison transport is notoriously well known. They sent him documents from other prisoner files that indicate that the prisoners on this train were not to be given blankets or warm clothes. They were given minimal rations and the train did not stop at any large stations where some soft-hearted passerby might slip them a crust of bread. In short, the entire train was "condemned to a cold, hungry death," Gorodetsky said.
In all, at least 798 prisoners on that train never reached Tomsk, according to a government commission that reported on the incident. According to prisoner files, 56 of them had the same date of death as Mikhail Bart -- November 14, 1941. Gorodetsky believes his great-grandfather is buried in a mass grave somewhere along the railway between Omsk and Tomsk.
Gorodetsky's grandfather, Boris Popovsky, was demobilized from the Soviet Army in the early 1950s as a decorated colonel. But he discovered that strangers were living in his family's apartment on Mokhovaya Street in the center of Leningrad. Gorodetsky said his mother told him that Popovsky was most likely never arrested because, while he was in the army, he was in charge of a printing unit that produced the Soviet Union's top secret military maps.
"My grandfather once told me that sometime in the 1970s a man with whom he'd served in the army came to see him," Gorodetsky recalled. "The man had written denunciations of him back then. Now, already as an old man, he came and said, 'Borya, forgive me for what I wrote.' God is his judge, but he did come a long way specially to ask for forgiveness. I remembered that incident -- I was in school at the time and I saw this man. Later, my grandfather told me who it was."
Despite the fact that the FSB resisted his efforts to find out his family's history for so long and even though the security agency still refuses to allow him access to the entire file, Gorodetsky has mixed feelings about the situation.
"To be honest, I am grateful to them for their precise work," he said. "I don't want to accuse or curse anyone. I learned less about this situation over my entire life from my relatives than I learned from this file. And I am grateful to the woman who worked directly with me, who sat with me the entire time that I was reading."
One day, he said, she pulled him aside, gave him a piece of paper, and told him to write a request that I be given the possessions that were on my great-grandfather when he was arrested.
"And after 80 years, they were given to me," he said, showing two job-record books, a trade union card, and a printer's handbook. "I consider this a humane act. They didn't have to do it, but from these documents I learned where my great-grandfather studied, where he worked. I learned a lot of specific addresses. It wouldn't have cost them anything to just throw them into the fire. But they gave them to me."
On the other hand, however, Gorodetsky says he doesn't understand why parts of the file remain closed to him.
"Why won't they just come out and say it was a crime? There are other countries where such documents can be accessed freely and where such deeds are flatly condemned," he told RFE/RL. "Why is that here someone is always hiding something from us?"