Portraits of October Revolution leaders: (L-R, above) Vladimir Lenin, Andrei Bubnov, Feliks Dzerzhinskiy; (L-R, below), Yakov Sverdlov, Joseph Stalin, Moisei Uritsky (Getty Images)
Have you ever seen a real chekist ID? This belonged to my grandfather and I still have it.
(The term “chekist” comes from the Russian abbreviation ChK, or Extraordinary Commission (Cheka), which was the original secret police organization set up under Lenin by the sadistic Feliks Dzerzhinsky-Ed.)
I was named after my grandfather. My grandfather, Vladimir Yakovlev, was a murderer, a bloody butcher, and a security officer (chekist). Among his victims were his own parents. My grandfather arrested his own father for speculation and had him shot. His mother, my great-grandmother found out about it, and hanged herself.
My happiest childhood memories are associated with our old, spacious apartment on Novokuznetskaya Street. Our family was very proud of it. I learned later that this apartment was not bought or built, but requisitioned by the authorities, seized from a wealthy merchant family.
I remember the old carved cupboard that I used to climb into, searching for a jar of jam. I remember the large comfortable sofa, where my grandmother, wrapped a warm blanket, read me fairy tales in the evening. I remember two large leather armchairs, which were traditionally used only for important conversations.
As I learned later on, my grandmother, whom I loved very much, worked for most of her life as a professional agent provocateur. Born a noblewoman, she used her family background to build good and trusting relationships with her friends and acquaintances. She then drew up official reports and submitted them to the authorities.
Grandmother and grandfather did not buy the sofa, chairs, cupboard and other pieces of furniture in our apartment. They chose them at a special warehouse that stored possessions belonging to executed Muscovites. Chekists were authorized to visit this warehouse and select furniture and other equipment to decorate their apartments.
As a child, I was totally ignorant of what was going on around me, but my happy childhood memories are imbued with the smell of robbery, murder, violence and betrayal… soaked in blood.
Yes, but am I the only one?
We, who grew up in the Soviet Union/Russia are the grandchildren of victims or executioners. All of us, without exception… There were no victims in your family? So, there must have been executioners. There were no executioners in your family? So, there must have been victims. There were no victims or executioners? So, there are secrets…
I believe we underestimate the strong influence of Russia’s tragic past on the psyche of today’s generations. Assessing the scale of Russia’s past, we usually think of the victims. But, in order to assess the impact of these tragedies on the psyche of future generations, we need to think more of the survivors.
The dead are no longer with us. The survivors were our parents and our parents’ parents.
Survivors were the widowed, orphaned, those who lost their loved ones, the exiled and dispossessed, the humiliated and murdered, those who killed to survive or for the sake of an ideal or victory, the dedicated and betrayed, those who were broken and destroyed, those who sold their souls and became executioners, those who were raped, mutilated, robbed, forced to inform and snitch on others, those who buried their sorrow, guilt and lost faith in drink, and those who lived through famines, captivity, the occupation, and gulags.
The dead number tens of millions, the survivors – hundreds of millions. Hundreds of millions of people who transmitted their fear, their pain, and their sense of suspicion to their children who, in turn, adding their own pain to such suffering, transmitted that fear to us.
Today, there isn’t a single family that doesn’t bear the scars and consequences of atrocities committed in Russia throughout the centuries.
Have you ever wondered just how much the life experience of three successive generations of your direct ancestors influences your personal perception of the world? Your wife? Your children?
If not, think about it!
It took me years to understand my family history. Now I know where my constant irrational fear comes from? Or my tendency to absolute secrecy. Or my absolute inability to trust another person and build a relationship. Or a constant feeling of guilt that has haunted me since childhood… for as long as I can remember.
In school, we read about atrocities perpetrated by the German fascists. In university, we studied the crimes committed by the Chinese Red Guards and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. But, our teachers forgot to tell as that the largest acts of genocide, unprecedented in scale and duration, were implemented not by Germany, not by China, not by Cambodia, but by our own country.
And it is namely us, three consecutive generations of OUR FAMILIES that have survived this horror, the worst genocides in the history of mankind. We often think that the best way to protect ourselves from the past is not to bother about history, ignore our family history and the horrors and brutalities endured by family members.
We think it’s better not to know. In fact, it just makes it worse. What we ignore continues to pursue us through childhood memories, through our relations with our parents. We don’t feel this influence, we aren’t aware of its effect and therefore, we’re powerless to resist.
The worst consequence of our inherited fear is our inability to recognize it, which makes us unable to realize the extent to which this trauma distorts our perception of reality today.
It’s not important whether the ultimate personification of our darkest fear is America, the Kremlin, Ukraine, Türkiye, homosexuals, “decadent” Europe, the fifth column or simply our boss or a policeman on duty.
What is important is whether we are aware of the extent to which our personal fears, our personal sense of external threat are, in reality, only ghosts of the past whose existence we are so afraid to admit.
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Tags: Cheka, Crimes against humanity, Crimes of the Soviet communist regime, FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service), GULAG, History, International, KGB, NKVD (Soviet People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), past atrocities, Russia, Russian history, Russian special services, Soviet state terrorism, Soviet times