On November 20, Denis Karagodin received a unique letter -- an expression of gratitude from the granddaughter of one of the three agents of Josef Stalin’s secret police who executed Karagodin's great-grandfather in the Siberian city of Tomsk on January 21, 1938.
The letter opened a conversation, Karagodin says, that Russia avoided having in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union underwent partial de-Stalinization, and again in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness.
"I haven’t slept for several days," the letter from the woman, identified publicly only as Yulya, reads. "I simply can't. I studied all the materials and documents on your website. I have thought everything over again and again, remembering what I could. My mind understands that I am not guilty for what happened. But I cannot convey in words the feelings that I am experiencing.
"Thank you for the enormous work you have done for the sake of these difficult truths," Yulya continues. "It gives us hope that society will finally come to its senses thanks to people like you. Thank you once again, and forgive me!"
Yulya's letter is the latest striking result in a remarkable story that began on the night of December 1, 1937, when Karagodin's great-grandfather, Stepan Karagodin, was arrested for the third time since the 1917 Bolshevik coup. He was never seen again.
Earlier this month, Denis Karagodin received another envelope in the mail, possibly even more remarkable. In answer to one of Karagodin's innumerable requests to the Federal Security Service (FSB), an archivist sent him a copy of the original document in which his great-grandfather's executioners reported to the court -- in the dry language of Soviet bureaucracy -- that its verdict "has been carried out."
The typewritten, stamped document featured the names and scrawled signatures of the three secret-police agents who took responsibility for shooting Stepan Karagodin.
The document clearly shows that Karagodin and six others were shot on January 21, 1938, by Nikolai Ivanovich Zyryanov, Sergei Timofeyevich Denisov, and Yekaterina Mikhailovna Noskova.
It was a "stunning" discovery, Denis Karagodin said.
"The historians and specialists I have spoken with cannot believe that I managed this," he told RFE/RL. "Some of them were simply in shock that such documents even exist and that you can access them. This might be the first time in the history of Russia that a citizen was given such a document."
'The Names Of The Murderers'
Karagodin has no idea why the document was not stamped "secret."
"Maybe the papers were so secret that it never even occurred to bother stamping them," he says. "Or maybe there was a 'secret' seal on a cover page or a folder."
In June, Karagodin told RFE/RL about his yearslong search to find out what happened to his great-grandfather and to learn the names of the people who murdered him.
"The state security services are doing everything they can to make this impossible," the 34-year-old designer said at the time.
Karagodin began his work in earnest in 2012, creating a website on which he painstakingly collected every document and every shred of evidence that he could find about the case. The result is a detailed account of the fate of Stepan Karagodin, a Cossack farmer and father of nine, who was executed on the trumped-up accusation that he was a Japanese spy.
With the stunning new document, Denis Karagodin says his investigation is complete. He says he has established a direct chain of responsibility from Stalin, to secret police head Nikolai Yezhov, to the local security officials in Tomsk, to the members of the tribunal who rubber-stamped the verdict, to the three executioners who pulled the trigger and, presumably, dumped Stepan Karagodin's body into a mass grave on the edge of the city.
Denis Karagodin, who lives in the same city where his grandfather was executed, has even identified the drivers who staffed the secret-police garage and drove the black vans that shuttled the condemned around Tomsk.
"Our investigation is concluded," Karagodin told RFE/RL. "That is the main thing. We found out what several generations of my family have wanted to know -- the names of the murderers. And we did it. Everyone contributed what they could. I began in 2012 and it ended on November 12, 2016."
But it isn't the end of Karagodin's story. He intends to seek to prosecute "the entire criminal conspiracy" that led to the death of his great-grandfather and the other six people named on the crucial document.
When people tell him that the authorities would never allow such a case to go forward, Karagodin has a simple answer.
"Have you ever tried?" he asks. "We have worked out several scenarios for a legal procedure. It would be simply criminal not to try to use this opportunity. Who else has managed to get this far? With such a document and such a mound of evidence? Can you think of anyone? I can't."
"We’ll try and even if it is unsuccessful. At least it will go down in history as an attempt," he says. "And a precedent can be a powerful thing."
'A Particular Hell'
In a broader sense, Karagodin believes his work is producing a much-needed discussion in a society that has long downplayed the communist state's crimes against its own people and has done little to hold perpetrators to account. He has received dozens of letters from people thanking him for his work or seeking advice on how they can find out more about the deaths of their own relatives.
"I give them advice, but it is really hard for me," Karagodin says. "It is really hard. Each story is a particular hell and you have to delve into it and talk about these events without, at the same time, escaping from the particular hell of the Russian bureaucracy."
The letter from Yulya, the granddaughter of one of Karagodin's great-grandfather's executioners, is a crucial part of the discussion Karagodin seeks to ignite.
"Nothing in our society will ever change if we do not know the entire truth," Yulya wrote. "And this is difficult now because once again the Stalinists have come to the fore, monuments to Stalin [are being erected]. I can't get it into my head that anyone could think of that."
Karagodin wrote back to Yulya immediately, thanking her for her "very sincere and penetrating letter."
"Live with a calm soul," Karagodin wrote to her, "and, most importantly, a clear conscience. Neither I nor any of my relatives or friends will ever accuse you of anything. You are a beautiful person -- I want you to know that. I am sincerely grateful to you. I am glad that now I know there is one more beautiful person in my life -- you."
Yulya’s letter is a rare instance of a Russian coming to terms with an ancestor who committed crimes under Stalin. In October, blogger Vladimir Yakovlev wrote a heartfelt post about his grandfather, whom Yakovlev describes as "a murderer, a bloody executioner" among whose many victims were even some of his own relatives.
"My happiest childhood memories are connected with a spacious old apartment on Novokuznetskaya Street [in Moscow] that our family was very proud of," he wrote. "That apartment, as I learned later, was not purchased or built, but confiscated. It was taken by force from a merchant family."
"The couch on which I listened to fairy tales and the armchairs and the buffet and all the other furniture in the apartment -- none of it was purchased by my grandfather and grandmother," he wrote. "They just picked what they wanted from a special warehouse where the property taken from the apartments of executed Muscovites was stored."
Yakovlev writes movingly about the psychological wounds of Stalinism that fester in the present.
"When considering the scope of the tragedies of the Russian past, we usually count the dead," he wrote. "But in order to assess the scope of the influence of these tragedies on the psyches of future generations, we need to count, not the dead, but the survivors. The dead died. But the survivors became our parents and the parents of our parents.
"It took me years to understand the history of my family," he concludes. "But now I have a better idea of the origins of my deep-seated, unmotivated fear. Or my exaggerated secretiveness. Or my absolute inability to trust and to form close relations. Or the constant feeling of guilt that has haunted me since childhood."