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Cat And Mouse: Russian Lawyer Uses 'Rehabilitation' Laws To Confront Horrors Of Stalinism

Reverse psychology -- telling someone not to do the very thing you want them to do -- is a tactic often used to control truculent children.

But when Russian lawyer and historian Aleksandr Busarov tried to trick President Vladimir Putin's government into openly condemning the crimes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, the results were beyond bizarre.

For the last seven years, Busarov has been quietly waging his campaign, using Russia's laws on the rehabilitation of politically repressed people to bring closed archival materials out into the light and pushing Russia's authoritarian government, against its will, to formulate a coherent condemnation of Stalin, whom Putin himself has praised as a "successful manager."

Stalin's reputation has surged steadily under Putin, himself a former officer of the Soviet KGB. Monuments to the dictator -- who was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens through manmade famines, mass deportations, summary executions, and brutal labor camps -- have begun to reappear across Russia. Hundreds of Russians line up each year on the anniversary of Stalin's death to place flowers on his grave on Red Square.

Aleksandr Busarov
Aleksandr Busarov

A poll in March found that more than half of Russians feel "respect" or "sympathy" for Stalin, while another poll last year found that only 47 percent of Russians aged 18-24 had even heard of Stalin's crimes.

Busarov's interest in the Stalin era, however, is personal and intense. His grandfather was an officer in the dictator's dreaded secret police, known as the NKVD, who was himself caught up in the Great Terror and executed in 1939. Studying his grandfather's life, Busarov came to the conclusion that he and his fellow officers were, as a rule, not sadistic monsters by nature but were instead transformed into murderers by the criminal organization they served.

This line of thought led Busarov to the idea that the Russian government must condemn the Stalinist system, whether it wanted to or not.

And that is how he launched what he calls Project Nemesis, after the Greek goddess of divine retribution.

Rehabilitation, Or Retribution?

Busarov, 44, now lives in Europe. His desk is covered with dozens of folders containing documents he has received from the military prosecutor's office, the presidential administration, and the archives of the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- many of them stamped "secret." He agreed to tell the story of his quixotic project to RFE/RL.

Under Russian law, anyone can apply to have a convicted or repressed individual "rehabilitated" by the government -- a symbolic official statement that the individual was wrongly prosecuted and punished. Busarov's idea was to apply for the rehabilitation of Stalinist perpetrators like his grandfather, who were themselves convicted on spurious charges such as belonging to a Trotskyist conspiracy or spying on behalf of Japan.

The government, Busarov reasoned, would be forced to deny his request to rehabilitate them because of their true crimes under Stalin. They would, in fact, be judged for a second time and convicted for things they actually did.

At least, that was the idea.

Busarov also figured that to be successful, he needed to be stealthy. He avoided all publicity and submitted applications for rehabilitation in a somewhat random way in order to avoid the impression that there was method to his madness. He hoped the authorities would simply take him for a diehard Stalinist aimed at establishing a peculiar form of historical justice for the dictator's henchmen.

"I attended various functions and I spoke with military prosecutors informally," Busarov told RFE/RL recently. "I told them that the good officers needed to be separated from the bad ones. They didn't take me for a dissident."

The lawyer began his research, eventually assembling several hundred names of people who fit the profile.

In 2012, Busarov submitted his first applications for rehabilitation. His first candidates were a notorious bunch, including the former director of operational technology of the NKVD, Mikhail Alyokhin; a deputy to former NKVD head Lavrenty Beria, Stepan Mamulov; and Major Dmitry Grechukhin, who was personally responsible for thousands of executions.

Much to his surprise, however, he began receiving letters from the military prosecutor's office informing him that his rehabilitation applications had been approved. One by one, the Russian government "rehabilitated" people personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, many of whom had also been rehabilitated over the post-Stalin period.

For instance, he received a letter dated January 22, 2013, informing him that Yakov Agranov had been rehabilitated. Agranov was one of the most notorious perpetrators of the Great Terror. He was in charge of the investigation into the 1934 murder of Soviet official Sergei Kirov, a crime almost certainly ordered by Stalin and subsequently used as a pretext to arrest and execute hundreds of people. Agranov also played a major role in many of the high-profile show trials of the 1930s, including the prosecutions of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev.

"By a decision of the Main Military Prosecutor's Office on January 22, 2013, Agranov, Ya. S. is rehabilitated," the document laconically pronounced.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Over the next year, Busarov received nearly 30 such letters announcing these secret rehabilitations. He attributes the unexpected development to the political climate in Russia at the time. Putin's reelection to the presidency for a third term in 2012 was met with mass protests that were violently suppressed. Prosecutors went after the organizers of the so-called White Ribbon movement, conducting searches and making arrests. Dozens of people were prosecuted and imprisoned in the Bolotnaya case, and many opposition figures and opposition-minded Russians emigrated.

Busarov said he believes officials thought that "someone high up in the Kremlin" was behind the rehabilitation applications. As evidence, he noted that his applications were clearly treated with respect and expedited. As a rule, he received replies within 15 days of submission, which is practically unheard of.

Busarov was unsure of how to react to this unexpected development. "I couldn't just tell them: 'You misunderstood me. I applied for their rehabilitation because I wanted the exact opposite,'" he said. "I had to continue the ruse, but couldn't let them win."

So he decided to do exactly what an excited Stalinist would do in this situation. Since the executioners had been rehabilitated, it only made sense that he would apply to have their state ranks, medals, and honors restored.

But the agencies to which Busarov applied balked at this. In every case, they rejected his requests. Busarov sent their rejections to the military prosecutor's office, complaining that their decisions to rehabilitate the men were being ignored.

And that is when a weird situation took a turn for the weirder. The military prosecutor's office changed its mind.

"It was a completely unprecedented situation," Busarov recalled. "Such a flood of de-rehabilitations had never happened before in the history of the prosecutor's office."

Moreover, Busarov noted that many of the people who made the decisions to rehabilitate the Stalinist criminals were themselves removed from their posts. He is convinced they were punished for their zeal.

In the case of Agranov, to take one example, Busarov received another terse letter dated July 24, 2013.

The letter noted that "in connection with the presence in the archives of the organ of the Russian Federation of materials that could serve as the basis for a different legal evaluation of the actions of this person," the rehabilitation decision had been "overturned."

In August, that decision was upheld by the military collegium of the Russian Supreme Court. In December, Busarov received a letter from the Kremlin saying that Putin would not reinstate Agranov's state honors because of the court's ruling.

'Secret Nuremberg'

Nonetheless, several of the rehabilitations remain in force to the present day. Stepan Mamulov, NKVD lieutenant general and deputy to Lavrenty Beria, who oversaw many of the GULAG's infamous mining and forestry operations and who was known to have kept truncheons in his office to personally beat prisoners being interrogated, has been officially rehabilitated.

Busarov continued sending rehabilitation applications, but all of them were rejected. At the same time, he succeeded in having several additional rehabilitations rescinded.

In 2001, prosecutors rehabilitated Veniamin Agas, a top NKVD officer who participated in fabricated cases against leading Soviet military officers in the years just before World War II and the persecution of Orthodox priests and monks. He has been identified by numerous victims of Stalin's Terror as having personally beaten them during interrogations.

For more than a year, Busarov corresponded with officials, presenting evidence of Agas's crimes. On April 12, 2016, a closed session of the military collegium of the Supreme Court rescinded Agas's rehabilitation.

Busarov has also busied himself applying for the rehabilitation of Soviet figures who resisted Stalinism and Stalin's secret police. He unsuccessfully applied for the rehabilitation of Savely Dmitriyev, who in 1942 fired a shot at a car he believed to be Stalin's. He was also unsuccessful in securing the rehabilitation of KGB Captain Viktor Orekhov, who was prosecuted in 1978 for warning Soviet dissidents of impending searches and arrests and who now lives in the United States.

"The nearer the case is to the present time," Busarov said, "the harder it becomes to secure justice."

In 2015, he secured rehabilitation for prominent dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya, who was convicted repeatedly of anti-Soviet activity in the 1970s and 1980s. She never applied for rehabilitation herself before her death in 2014, so Busarov got it for her in 2015.

Over the years, Busarov assembled an impressive archive of documents attached to the cases he worked on. He became concerned that the security forces would realize what he was doing and would seize the valuable documents.

"So I simply threw the folders in with my stuff and left the country in a car," he told RFE/RL of his decision to emigrate in 2018.

"As a whole, these materials can confirm that this is a case of a criminal organization, just like the SS and the Gestapo were condemned during the Nuremberg trials," he said. "The materials touch on the central leadership, the leadership of regional organs, and lower-level officers. And this entire structure is revealed to have destroyed people who were known to be innocent."

"Russia will never have a Nuremberg trial," he said, "but it is possible to issue the legal opinion that this was a criminal organization. I call this a 'secret Nuremberg.' That is why this archive is very serious."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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