MOSCOW -- Denis Karagodin has spent almost a decade compiling a meticulous record of evidence about the murder of his great-grandfather by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's secret police, running a website that lists, by name, every individual he deems complicit.
The Siberia-based designer has been tipped for prestigious human rights prizes, and leading Western publications have spotlighted his work and the website he runs.
The people he ties to the killing of Stepan Karagodin, a peasant swept up in Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s, have passed away. But their relatives are now making sure Karagodin's accusations don't go unchallenged.
Karagodin was interrogated this week by police in Tomsk, the city where he lives and where his great-grandfather's murder took place on January 21, 1938. "Buckle your seatbelts, dear friends!" he wrote on Facebook after his questioning. "They've filed a police complaint against me."
Sergei Mityushov, the son of a deceased local employee of the NKVD secret police force that dispatched millions of Soviet citizens to frigid labor camps and the firing squad, confirmed that he had pressed charges against the amateur researcher for publishing what he says is inaccurate and defamatory information about his father, Aleksei Alekseyevich Mityushov.
Karagodin published a document citing the execution and bearing Mityushov's signature. But his son told the independent Belarusian news site Belsat that he had visited historical archives, retrieved documents relating to his father, and concluded that "half the facts on [Karagodin's] website are plucked out of the air." He didn't deny his father's complicity, but said "I don't like it when people pry into my life without permission."
It's unclear what specific charges Karagodin faces, but his work has courted controversy from the outset. The 38-year-old began the research in 2012, publishing on his website each document and every shred of evidence he could find about the case. The result is a detailed account of the fate of his great-grandfather, a Cossack farmer and father of nine who was executed on the trumped-up accusation that he was a Japanese spy.
Karagodin achieved a breakthrough in November 2016, when he received an envelope in the mail from the archives of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the NKVD and KGB. Inside was an original document in which his great-grandfather's executioners reported to a Soviet court that its verdict "has been carried out." The typewritten, stamped document featured the names and signatures of three NKVD agents.
Armed with the evidence, Karagodin announced his investigation complete. He claimed to have established a direct chain of responsibility that included the three executioners, members of the tribunal that rubber-stamped the verdict, local officials in Siberia including Aleksei Mityushov, secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov, and Stalin himself. He even identified the men who allegedly drove the black vans that shuttled the condemned around the city.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Russia never organized its own version of the Nuremberg trials, the military tribunals in postwar Germany that convicted almost two dozen senior Nazi officers. But Karagodin said he planned to prosecute "the entire criminal conspiracy" that led to his great-grandfather's death.
"We found out what several generations of my family have wanted to know: the names of the murderers," Karagodin told RFE/RL at the time. "I began in 2012, and it ended on November 12, 2016."
Eight days later, he was stunned by a letter of gratitude from the granddaughter of one of the three secret police agents who executed Stepan Karagodin. "Thank you for the enormous work you have done for the sake of these difficult truths," the woman wrote. "It gives us hope that society will finally come to its senses thanks to people like you."
But in a country where digging up dark pages of the past is a fraught activity -- and where Stalin, who oversaw show trials of his opponents and jailed or executed hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, is officially neither vilified nor excused -- not everyone is happy with Karagodin's work.
In a December 2019 interview on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Karagodin said many relatives of people named in his investigation have contacted him to complain. He was defiant.
"What can they criticize me for? That I published official documents from the FSB saying their relatives took part in mass murders?" he said. "How am I guilty?"
He is also a controversial figure among professional historians and long-time researchers of Stalin-era repressions, some of whom say he lacks the training to draw accurate conclusions from the archival documents that come into his possession.
A section on Karagodin's website titled "Executioners" lists more than 150 names of people he says were tied to his great-grandfather's murder. A hyperlink with Aleksei Mityushov's name redirects to a page showing a signed statement listing the date of Stepan Karagodin's death sentence and the date his execution took place.
Yan Rachinsky of human rights NGO Memorial, which was founded in 1989 to document Soviet-era crimes, says written statements of this sort -- known in Russian as vypiski -- were often produced years after the crime and offer no proof that those who signed them took part in it.
"Such vypiski were folded into case files two years after the Great Terror, in 1939, when they were simply getting documents in order. And that process was carried out by people who had nothing to do with the executions," Rachinsky told RFE/RL. "These are standard pieces of paper. I've seen hundreds of them."
"I can't unequivocally say this person did not take part," Rachinsky said of Aleksei Mityushov. "But it's wrong to claim on the basis of this document that he did." He added that Mityushov, who joined the NKVD in 1932 and would have been 25 years old at the time of Karagodin's death, was most likely an ordinary clerk doing simple administrative work.
Sergei Mityushov said the "final straw" -- the development that prompted him to file charges -- was a phone call he alleges was from Karagodin or one of his associates, announcing that researchers had found his father's grave and posted video and images of it online. (Karagodin, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told RFE/RL he has never communicated with Mityushov.)
In the Belsat interview, Mityushov voiced general criticism about efforts to dig into Russia's past, citing the Defense Ministry's TV channel Zvezda, which often broadcasts propagandistic reports about wartime events and the country's armed forces, as a useful guide for learning about Russian history.
"We must acknowledge that we fell into this historical current," he said of the Stalin-era repressions, which some Russians justify as a necessary evil. "We need a great deal of time to find out what really happened."
But Karagodin, Mityushov said, "is staging his own private Nuremberg."