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'They Served The Cheka': Provincial Russian Billboards Honor Stalin's Executioners

The Vladimir billboard campaign features portraits and short, sanitized biographies of officers who served in the Soviet security services. 

VLADIMIR, Russia -- Anna Galinkina, the local coordinator of the liberal Parnas political movement in the central Russian city of Vladimir and an editor at Tomiks-TV, was appalled recently to see portraits of Stalin-era secret-police officers festooning celebratory billboards at local bus stops.

Her father, Zinovy Galinkin, was sent to the gulag shortly after World War II on flimsy accusations of "anti-Soviet propaganda," and she resents the rehabilitation of those who persecuted her family under the government of President Vladimir Putin.

"Today it is obvious that they've removed their masks," Galinkina tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "The ruling corporate elite of heirs of the Soviet chekists" -- a reference to the former secret police -- "are openly taking revenge on those who refuse to let society forget about the crimes of their predecessors."

Anna Galinkina
Anna Galinkina

Putin and many of his closest advisers are veterans of the Soviet KGB. Over the nearly two decades that Putin has been in power, Russia has seen the steady buffing of the image of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and efforts to downplay the significance of his crimes against his own people.

The Vladimir billboard campaign, created by the local museum of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organization to the KGB, features portraits and short, sanitized biographies of officers who served in the Soviet security services.

The campaign uses the slogan, "They served in the ChK," referring to the Russian abbreviation for the "extraordinary commission" that was set up in 1917 to combat "counterrevolution." That abbreviation -- pronounced "cheka" -- produced the word "chekist" to refer to anyone who served in security forces, including the notorious NKVD under Stalin and the KGB during the later Soviet period.

The annual campaign ended earlier this month, in the run-up to Russia's Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repressions on October 30, which is devoted to the millions of victims of the Soviet government.

The company that holds the municipal contract to service the bus-stop placards, Rus Autdor, "can place at the bus stops their own public-service projects under existing Russian law," according to Aleksandr Karpilovich, press spokesman for the Vladimir mayor's office. "Together with the archive and the local FSB museum in Vladimir Oblast, they prepared the project 'They served in the ChK,' which is dedicated to veterans of that service who at one time worked in the Vladimir branch of the KGB."

The museum has arranged the campaign under various slogans annually since 2013 without provoking significant controversy locally.

'Death To Spies'

The 2018 campaign focused on the activities of the security agencies during and immediately after World War II in a campaign called SMERSH, or "Death to Spies." The NKVD officers ruthlessly hunted down and punished purported traitors, deserters, and malingerers. SMERSH officers also had the task of "filtering" returning Red Army prisoners of war after the war, sending hundreds of thousands of them to Soviet labor camps.

One officer featured was Lieutenant General Yakov Yedurnov, whose truncated biography lauds his service fighting against Ukrainian nationalists during and after World War II. It does not mention that his career as a chekist began in 1919 and continued until 1953.

The focus on the wartime activity of the agents has produced conflicted opinions about the campaign among Vladimir residents and reflects the complicated issues of those turbulent times.

"SMERSH is a fairly notorious organization," local journalist Yevgeny Sklyarov says. "They said they were catching so-called traitors. Usually, they were repressing people who had fled abroad after the revolution. They repatriated emigres, which was illegal.... Probably they also caught some real spies, but their reputation among the people was very, very dubious."

Roman Yevtifeyev is a political scientist at a local university. "Various things happened in those years, both good and bad," he says. "So we can't just say categorically that everything needs to be crossed out and forgotten. There really were bands and those who had their own political goals. And the Soviet government fought against them."

"If we want to celebrate heroes, we need to investigate things no matter how difficult it is," he adds. "Of course, it is clear that no one wants to do that. But I think the lack of clarity has brought us a lot of harm. We need to clarify who Yedunov fought against and how he behaved."

Local historian Andrei Yershov says he believes it was necessary for the Soviet state to fight against the "hordes of armed nationalists that were loose in the forests" and that there is nothing improper about honoring the wartime work of SMERSH agents.

"But if they are celebrating the execution of prisoners during the Civil War or participation in the Terror and so on, well, nothing more needs to be said," Yershov adds. "It is true that a man could both participate in the Terror and die a hero's death during the war. We need to find a way to take notice of that."

"We need more complex views of the world," academic Yevstifeyev says. "There were events that are worthy of being remembered, and there were those that should be regretted. Some events need to be remembered so that they won't be repeated."

Journalist Sklyarov, however, says he is convinced that in the scales of history, the crimes of the chekists outweigh their services.

"These people are, first and foremost, the ones who imprisoned our grandfathers and great-grandfathers," he says. "Even the government itself has condemned that lawlessness."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Ilya Kosygin of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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