Death Of a Party Man

My mother's earliest memory is of a December night in 1937 when she, aged 3 1/2, and her 12-year-old sister, Lenina, were woken by the sound of their mother bursting into the room screaming. Her mother, Martha, snatched her out of bed. Armed men in uniform pushed them both to the ground, wrestled the child away from her, and dragged her into the hall. As Lyudmila, my mother, ran out after them, she was knocked down by a soldier's rifle butt. Martha and her children were carried down to the street and put in separate police cars. As their mother was driven away, Lenina and Lyudmila struggled free and vainly ran after the departing car. The soldiers caught them and drove them to the Simferopol children's prison.

They were not to see their mother again for 11 years. Their father, unknown to them, had already been executed in Stalin's Great Purge, and buried in a mass grave somewhere near Kiev. Lenina and Lyudmila were to spend their childhood years in children's prisons and orphanages. It was only in 1956, when their father was officially rehabilitated, that they were informed of his death; they had been told his sentence had been "10 years without the right of correspondence." The files are still classified as Top Secret. Only in 1990 did the authorities issue a genuine death certificate. And it was only in December 1995 that the Ukrainian Security Service finally allowed me access to the secret files. The truth, or at least as much of it as survives in the NKVD files, has come to light at last; whatever now remains unknown has died with the eyewitnesses.

It had been five tense months since my grandfather, Boris Lvovich Bibikov, party secretary of the Chernigov region of Ukraine, had been arrested on July 27, 1937, while on holiday. It was a dangerous time to be a party official. Ever since the assassination of senior Politburo member Sergei Kirov in 1934 on the secret orders of Stalin, a growing hysteria of internal subversion and sabotage had been whipped up by the NKVD, the KGB's predecessor, to consolidate Stalin's grip on power. By August 1936 it had engulfed old Bolsheviks such as Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, both executed on trumped-up charges. By the beginning of 1937, Stalin's appointee, the ruthless People's Commissar for Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov, had spread the purge to all levels of the Party.

Until the second half of1937, Ukraine had held out as a relative sanctuary from the purge that was decimating the army, intelligentsia and government. Yet it was Ukraine, perceived in Stalin's already paranoid mind to be a den of Trotskyism and potential opposition because of its lack of zeal in hounding out "enemies of the people," that was to feel the full brunt of his wrath. By the beginning of 1938 the whole Ukrainian Politburo, (with one exception), Orgburo (a subsidiary of the politburo), and the Secretariat had been shot or put in labor camps. Only three of the 102 members of the Ukrainian Party's Central Committee survived, 80 percent of the Writers' Union was killed, as well as every one of the provincial secretaries. Including Boris Bibikov.

The day after his arrest in July 1937, the NKVD came in the middle of the night to search his four-room flat in Chernigov. His wife, Martha, had been warned by a stranger in the marketplace the day before, but stayed in the apartment, convinced there had been some mistake. After the search, all the rooms except for the kitchen and bathroom were sealed, and she and the children were left with nothing but the clothes which had been drying over the bathtub. The next morning Martha wrung out a wet dress and ran to the NKVD office to find out what was going on. She was told that her husband was under arrest for anti-Soviet activities, and that she would be informed of the progress of the investigation. Shocked, she sent her elder daughter Lenina to Boris' relatives in Moscow to find out more.

Lenina stayed with her father's brother, Ivan, then aged 23. He worked as an engineer at the Dynamo aircraft engine factory, and, also sure there had been a mistake, reported his brother's arrest to an NKVD friend at the factory's political bureau. The friend had previously been on the staff of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, then a general in the NKVD, a close confidant of Stalin who was to go on to mastermind a later wave of purges. He arranged an interview with Beria in the Lubyanka for Ivan Bibikov and his 12-year-old niece.

"We waited for a long time, watched by soldiers, in a reception room on the second floor of the Lubyanka," recalled Lenina, now 70. "Eventually we were led into a giant, darkened study. There was one light burning on a large oak desk, behind which I could see a small man with a bald head and small round glasses. I was frightened because he looked like a gnome. He asked my uncle what we wanted; he said his brother had been arrested. Beria pressed a button under his desk and called for the file. He looked at it for a moment, said 'Razberemsya' ('We'll sort it out'), and sent us away."

The file, the all-important file. By the time Beria saw it, it was swelling like a tumor with its fatal contents, which within eight weeks were to bring about the death of its subject. When I opened its brown cardboard cover, disintegrating with age, more than 57 years later on a gray December morning in a dingy office in the KGB building in Kiev, it had lost none of its chilling potency.

By now bloated to 260 pages, typed on flimsy forms or handwritten on scrap paper in cursive, archaic, script, it existed on that peculiarly Russian border between banal bureaucracy and painful poignancy. It was a compilation of the absurdly petty (confiscation of Komsomol card, confiscation of a Browning automatic and 23 rounds of ammunition, confiscation of Lenina's Komsomol holiday trip) and the starkly shocking: long confessions, written in microscopic, crabbed writing, covered in blotches and certainly written under torture, the formal accusation signed by Stalin's chief prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky, the badly mimeographed form with the scribbled signature verifying that the sentence of death had been carried out. Papers, forms, notes, receipts -- all the paraphernalia of a nightmarish, self-devouring bureaucracy. It sat heavily in the lap, dusty and eerily malignant: three pounds of paper that equalled one human life.

More than half consisted of the rehabilitation investigation, instigated in 1955, which overturned all the charges. The first 79 documents were the ironically named "Living File," which closed with the confirmation of the execution of the death sentence, passed by a closed session of the Military Collegium in Kiev on Oct. 13, 1937, and enacted the following morning. Bibikov was convicted under the infamous Article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code, which covered "any act designed to overthrow, undermine or weaken the authority of the workers' and peasants' Soviets." The cover of the file bore the title "Directorate of State Security. Top Secret. Investigation 123. Anti-Soviet Rightist-Trotskyite Organizations in the Ukraine," with his name entered in incongruously elaborate copperplate script. Still classified, it is only since a law was passed in 1993 by the Ukrainian Parliament that close relatives have been able to gain access to the files.

He had been a true communist. A party member since the age of 21, he had received the Order of Lenin (the Soviet Union's highest order) for his part in building the Kharkov Tractor Factory (KhTZ), one of the flagships of Stalin's industrialization drive. When his first daughter was born in 1925, he named her after his hero, Lenin. In 1934, when he heard that Kirov had been assassinated, Lenina remembers him running into the dining room and throwing himself on the leather sofa in tears. In the same year he had the honor of attending the XVII Party Congress (out of 1,966 delegates, 1,108 were to die in the purges). When Lenina went in 1956 to visit an ex-KhTZ colleague of her father's who survived the purges and was at the time Party secretary of Simferopol in the Crimea, he took one look at her and collapsed in shock.

"You are Boris Bibikov's daughter," he said. "Your father was such a great man, such a communist. He used to write 'Lads, let's fulfil the [five-year] plan' in chalk on the lavatory wall."

Yet he confessed. He confessed abjectly, in writing, to crimes against the Soviet Union: sabotage of the factory he helped to build, recruitment of Trotskyite agents, propaganda against the state. He admitted that he had betrayed the Party to which he had devoted his life. His closest colleagues implicated him, and he, in turn, implicated them. None of the 25 supposed members of his circle refused to confess.

The first confession is dated Aug. 14, 1937; 19 days after his arrest. It was a long time to hold out. Robert Conquest, in his book "The Great Terror," describes the infamous NKVD "conveyor," a method of interrogation which, unless the accused died, was almost guaranteed to secure a confession within one week. Prisoners would be continually interrogated by teams of investigators, deprived of food and sleep, harangued, beaten and humiliated until they signed or wrote their confessions. The ones who broke down first were confronted with the others to break their solidarity. They were told that resistance was useless; once one made a confession the rest could be shot on that basis alone. Their wives and children were threatened. The only flaw in the system was that the accused could later retract his confessions, as Bibikov did. The second confession is unsigned, as is the transcript of his "confrontation" on Aug. 27 with his supposed co-conspirator and ex-colleague Fedeyev, conducted by NKVD lieutenants Slavin and Chalkov. At his trial he also denied all charges.

"Question to Fedeyev," reads the stark officialese of the transcript of his confrontation. "Tell us what you know about Bibikov."

Fedeyev's reply: "... In the course of two conversations with Bibikov I confirmed that he was ready to take part in the organization of Trotskyite work. In our last conversation we agreed to set up a Trotskyite group at the KhTZ ..."

Bibikov's reply: "That is a lie. We never had such a conversation."

(Signed) Fedeyev. The accused Bibikov refused to sign."

But he broke in the end.

"At the Kharkov Tractor Factory we decided to sabotage an expensive, complicated machine which was crucial to the production of wheeled tractors ..." he wrote in blotted, tiny writing in his third and last detailed confession. "We persuaded engineer Kozlov to leave a tool in the machine so that it would be broken for a long period. The machine alone cost 40,000 in gold and is one of only two in the whole country."

In the margin are inexplicable notes in his own writing, clearly written under dictation, saying "Who, What, When?", "More precise," "Which organization?" The manuscript has been carefully torn across half way down the page. Above the tear are signs of some kind of scribble, as though the writer had tried, in despair, to erase the death sentence he had just written for himself.

"Our evil counter-revolutionary act was averted only by the vigilance of senior engineer Ginzburg," the last confession concludes. "This is how I betrayed my party. Bibikov."

For the two days that I sat in Kiev examining the file, Alexander Panamaryev, a young officer of the Ukrainian Security Service (formerly the KGB) sat with me, reading out passages of barely legible cursive script and explaining legal terms. He seemed almost as moved as I was by the file's awful contents.

"God forbid that this should ever happen to us," he said quietly as we both took a cigarette break in the gathering dusk of Volodimirskaya street. "Those were terrible times. Your grandfather believed, but do you not think that his accusers believed also? Or the men who shot him? He knew that people had been shot before he was arrested, but did he speak out? How do we know what we would have done in that situation? May God forbid that we ever face the same test."

There was one part of the file that was closed to me. Thirty-odd pages of the rehabilitation part of the file were wrapped in paper and taped together. After much insistence on my part, Panamaryev finally opened the forbidden documents. They concerned the NKVD investigators who had dealt with the case; even now, the Ukrainian Security Service was trying to protect its own.

When the case was re-opened in 1955 on the orders of Khrushchev, dozens of witnesses who knew Boris Bibikov were questioned about his supposed anti-Soviet activities (all pronounced him a sincere and dedicated communist). But the investigators could not be questioned, because by the end of 1938 they had themselves all been shot.

"Former workers of the Ukrainian NKVD Teitel, Kornev and Gepler ... were tried for falsification of evidence and anti-Soviet activity," says one of the documents. "Investigators Samovski, Trushkin and Grigorenko ... faced criminal proceedings for counter-revolutionary activity," notes another. Almost everyone whose name appears in the file, from the accused and their NKVD accusers to local party secretary Markitan, who signed the order to expel Bibikov from the party two days after his arrest, was killed within a year. The purge, like its predecessor, the Jacobin terror after the French Revolution, consumed its own.

Amazingly, the climate of terror was so intense that until the Khrushchev era, no one dared to question what had happened to the millions who disappeared. Lenina even cried when Stalin died in 1953. Few who were directly involved in the purges lived to tell the tale. Only dry documents remain as a record of their existence, more evocative, perhaps, in their clinical terseness, than the most lyrically written tragedy.

Epilogue: Lenina Bibikova, who now prefers to be called Yelena, was mobilized to dig trenches at the outbreak of war in 1941. She lost contact with her sister, and only found her again, bloated with hunger and crippled by tuberculosis of the bones, by chance in an orphanage in the Urals town of Solikamsk in 1943. In the same year she got engaged after two weeks of courtship to Alexander Vasin, a young tank captain. On his way back to Moscow to get married, his car ran over a landmine and his left leg had to be amputated with a woodsaw. They were happily married for 36 years; Alexander became deputy Minister of Justice.

Lyudmila Bibikova, after 14 years in orphanages and nearly dying of oscular tuberculosis, won a place in Moscow University to study history after concealing the fact that her parents had been purged. In 1959 she met a young academic working at the British Embassy, William Matthews. They were separated when he was made persona non grata in 1964, and thrown out of the Soviet Union for espionage. Lyudmila lost her job at the Institute of Marxism and Leninism as a result. After corresponding daily for six years she was finally granted permission to leave the country to get married.

Martha Bibikova went partially insane in the labor camp of Karlager in Kazakhstan. She was released from the camp in 1948, but spent the next year in exile nearby. She married a fellow prisoner, a priest, and had a child by him, who died on the train as she was returning to Moscow. Until her death in 1983 in her native Crimea she called her children Lenina and Lyudmila "orphanage spawn." I met her as a small child when she visited London in 1976. I recall vividly that during a childish game of cops and robbers I put a pair of toy handcuffs on her wrists, and she wept. It is only now, having laid to rest whatever lingering ghosts of that terrible autumn of 1937 remained locked in their dusty filing cabinets, that I have come to really understand why.