Stalin’s Great Terror: The forgotten Harbin operation | Russia

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Moscow, Russia – Viktor Didenko was born in Harbin in 1935, where his family lived while his father worked on the construction of the China Eastern Railway. This alone led him, at the age of 15, to flee from the NKVD [Soviet secret police] as a defacto “enemy of the people”. If he hadn’t had fled, his fate would have been imprisonment or execution.

Soviet workers, often called Harbiners, were employed on the construction of the China Eastern Railway until it was sold in 1935 to the Manchukuo, a Manchurian state set up by the Japanese.They then returned home to the Soviet Union, welcomed by cheering crowds at train stations throughout Russia. However, sentiment changed in 1937.

That September the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, issued order number 00593, which along with other “national operations” against minorities, instructed agents to begin “a broad operation to arrest and eliminate” all the Harbiners and their families, which accounted for up to 25,000 people.

From then on, they were considered spies or foreign agents of the Japanese or Germans.

The official start of the operation was October 1, 1937, and set to last until December. However, it was extended several times, ending in November 1938.

One of the bloodiest operations

The Harbin operation is considered the third bloodiest among all “national operations” undertaken by the NKVD.

Returning home from Harbin, the Didenkos settled in Murom – a small provincial town where Viktor’s father started work as a factory driver.

On August 5, 1937, Pavel Didenko went to work and was never seen again.

Pavel Didenko, pictured in Harbin [Courtesy: Viktor Didenko]

Viktor’s mother never told him that his father was taken away by the NKVD, instead telling her little boy that he was sent to fight in the Second World War.

“I didn’t realise what it was about,” says Viktor Didenko. “I was too young and my mother never told me anything. When I grew older my mother had to send me to [Russia’s] Far East because there was a coming threat under me.” 

She was referring to the wave of arrests, when the children of “enemies of the people” were considered guilty of their parent’s alleged crimes.

Viktor’s mother arranged an exile for her son, and so on a freezing December night in 1950, Viktor Didenko stood on an overcrowded platform in Yaroslavsky station in Moscow, waiting for a train that would take him across the country to Russia’s Far East and hopefully, to safety.

Had he stayed, his fate would have been imprisonment and possibly, execution.

This is what happened to thousands of other people whose relatives were deemed criminals at the peak of the Great Terror. “My mother was threatened throughout her life,” he said.

After three years of exile, during which time he worked as a judge’s assistant, Didenko received news of Joseph Stalin’s death. “I was able to go home on the first ferry,” he concludes.

The Communarka, an execution ground and location of mass graves in Moscow [Andrew Kovalenko/Al Jazeera]

It wasn’t until 1958 that he learned the whole truth of his exile and his father’s disappearance, when he received the first version of his father’s death certificate and 90 rubles ($1.52) accounting for two months of his father’s salary.

The first death certificate stated that his father had died of cancer in 1943, but in 1991 he received another official paper informing him that in fact, his father had been executed by firing squad in 1937. He had been posthumously acquitted.

It’s sad that so many innocent people suffered, it was completely unjustified

Elena Rudiy, granddaughter of Harbin victims

Yuliy Rudiy was the head of the China Eastern Railway in Harbin.

His entire family moved there in 1929, when he first started working on the railway. When they returned home in 1937, Yuliy was arrested and then convicted for “participation in prolific anti-Soviet activities”, as well as for being a member of a Trotskyist group.

Yuliy’s wife, Anna, was left alone to raise their family.

Elena Rudiy, the granddaughter of Yuliy and Anna, says: “I heard that she tried to go to the prison but was never allowed to see or send anything to him. I remember her as a very tough woman. She never mentioned what happened to my grandfather, nor discussed it with me. She took great care of me and my mother.”

Elena Rudiy is the granddaughter of Yuliy Rudiy, head of China Eastern Railway in Harbin until 1935 [Nikolay Korzhov/Al Jazeera]

In Yuliy’s file, there are two interrogation reports each dated a month apart. In the first, Yuliy Rudiy pleads guilty, confirming his anti-Soviet actions and disclosing several affiliates who were also involved. In the second, he denies all allegations and claims his arrest is a mistake on the part of the NKVD. He was imprisoned for fewer than six months before he was executed by firing squad in February 1938.

After his death, the family was evicted from their apartment in Moscow and sent to Kirov, in central Russia.

“Our house in Kirov was more of a summer cottage than a proper house. I remember always being cold, and scared of the rats,” she adds. “It’s sad that so many innocent people suffered, it was completely unjustified.”

In 1956, all the charges were dropped and Yuliy Rudiy was officially acquitted.

‘Creeping re-Stalinisation’

Sergey Prudovsky began researching the Harbin operation when he found the memoirs of his grandfather, a Harbiner who spent 15 years in Gulag.

In the account, his grandfather Stepan Kuznetsov described his life in the camp. Alongside the vivid recollections, Prudovsky found a list of people who his grandfather knew while working on the China Eastern Railway.

Prudovsky sought further information in the Federal Security Service archives, or FSB, and was granted access to his grandfather’s case file. He then went on to locate all the people mentioned in his grandfather’s memoir.

The more he investigated, the more victims he found.

Impunity breeds atrocities, and we need to remember and learn from them. Here in Russia, only a few people want to know about the problems in our country

Sergey Prudovsky, researcher and grandson of Harbin victim

Throughout his endeavour, he had numerous legal disputes with the FSB over their refusal to disclose archive documents on both victims and former NKVD operatives.

“Impunity breeds atrocities, and we need to remember and learn from them. Here [in Russia] only a few people want to know about the problems in our country,” says Prudovsky. “There are difficult, dark pages of history that we need to know about,” he adds, regarding the mass purges of the Great Terror.

At the time of the Harbin operation, Stalin’s unbridled use of the NKVD to eliminate his enemies became the norm. These days, the atrocities committed under his command are acknowledged, through memorials and campaigns dedicated to the victims of political violence.

Yet still in modern-day Russia, Stalin is a controversial figure at best.

Boxes of case files at the Memorial organisation, an NGO that focuses on recording and publicising past Soviet political repressions [Andrew Kovalenko/Al Jazeera]

According to a recent survey by the All-Russian Public Opinion Centre (VTSIOM), only 53 percent of respondents believe that innocent people suffered from political repressions.

A prominent Russian political scientist, Ekaterina Schulmann, draws a parallel between the acceptance of Stalin’s image and the rise of state propaganda.

“State propaganda sets a certain norm. It tells society what is right, what is normal, what is possible at all. It creates an atmosphere in which people feel that it’s safe to walk around with a poster of Stalin, if not entirely commendable.

“Concerning Stalin’s rehabilitation and his reappearance in public spaces we can see that in each case, it’s directly or indirectly due to state initiative,” explains Schulmann.

“In order to control society using non-democratic methods, of course, [the government] has to present society itself in a false way. They need to put an image of Stalin in the minds of each member of society, to be able to point at them and say how backward and bloodthirsty they are, how little able to choose for themselves without state surveillance.

“Considering the government’s actions, events, and public displays, they can all be seen as signs of creeping re-Stalinisation,” she wraps up.

A bronze bust of Joseph Stalin, recently unveiled in Moscow in the ‘Alley of Rulers’ under the patronage of the Russian Military History Society [Andrey Kovalenko/Al Jazeera]

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