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1937: Mikhail Ivanovich Romanov's archival file.

IN THE PUBLIC consciousness of Russian citizens and those residing in other parts of the former USSR, the year 1937 is associated with a peak of political persecution. Given the massive scope of arrests for political crimes during that year, this is unsurprising. As various scholars have demonstrated, people from all walks of life were arrested in prohibitive numbers by the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). (1) Since about 1988, much documentary evidence has come to light and a great number of archival documents have been published about this tragedy, in Russian, and to a lesser degree, in English. (2)

From 23 February to 5 March 1937, a notorious Plenary session of the highest decision-making body of the Soviet Union's All-Union Communist Party, its Central Committee, took place in Moscow, which set the tone for the witch-hunt unfolding in the following months. On March 3, I.V. Stalin (1878-1953), the Party's General Secretary and uncontested leader of the Soviet Union, read a key report to this meeting. (3) After some editing, it was published under the title "On the Shortcomings of the Party's Work in Ridding Itself of Trotskyites and Other Traitors." (4) Stalin reiterated here his thesis about the aggravation of the class struggle on the eve of the completion of a socialist society in the USSR. He declared:
   The further forward we advance, the greater successes we achieve,
   the greater will be the fury of the remnants of the defeated
   exploiting classes, the more ready they will be to resort to
   sharper forms of class struggle, the more will they seek to harm
   the Soviet state, and the more will they clutch at the most
   desperate means of struggle as the last resort of the doomed. (5)

He urged to apply in this struggle "not the old methods, the methods of discussion, but the new methods, uprooting and smashing methods." (6) Concrete instructions of what was required were soon relayed to the NKVD. The time had arrived to engage in the annihilation of "enemies of the people," of whom there were apparently scores. NKVD departments at local levels throughout the USSR received unlimited powers in their efforts to "expose and defeat Trotskyites and other agents of fascism." (7) They were ordered to "to suppress definitively the slightest displays of their anti-Soviet activity." (8) After the February-March 1937 Plenum, fulsome planning began for the execution of Stalin's guidelines regarding mass arrests. By July and August 1937, the NKVD minister Nikolai Ivanovich Ezhov (1895-1940) implemented a comprehensive set of plans that aimed at the rounding up of 100,000s of alleged enemies. (9) According to NKVD statistics, of the arrested in 1937 and 1938, 681,692 were sentenced to be shot, while at least as many were given jail sentences to be served in the Soviet penitentiary system, better known as the Gulag Archipelago. (10) Among the latter was the protagonist of this essay, Mikhail Ivanovich Romanov (1886-1956). His fate may serve as a telling example of the immeasurable human suffering that engulfed the Soviet Union under Stalin.

ALTHOUGH He WAS not a Soviet celebrity by any means, Mikhail Ivanovich Romanov's life and career are fascinating. Mikhail Romanov's life unfolded during the epochal changes affecting Russia in the twentieth century. The son of a famous member of Russia's 1870s Populists (Narodniki), Ivan Mikhailovich Romanov (1851-1918), Mikhail Ivanovich was born in a small settlement in European Russia's northernmost parts. (11) He was an active participant of all three of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, fought in the First World War (in a detachment of volunteers in the Serbian Army), became a prisoner-of-war in Austrian captivity, after which he joined the Reds in the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). He then settled in his native region as a schoolteacher, distinguishing himself as an inquisitive researcher of his region's past, and was the author of several memoirs, a dictionary of northern Russian dialects, as well as numerous articles on history, language, and pedagogy. (12) But this scholarly life was interrupted by his arrest in 1937, and his sentence in the Gulag. As a prisoner, he headed for a while an early version of one of the Soviet penal system's "sharashki" (secret research institutes, in which highly skilled and educated prisoners worked). (13) It may have saved his life, for conditions in these camps were more bearable than the camps designated to engage in the lumber industry to which he had been dispatched at first.

Today, the file of the 1937 case against Michael Ivanovich Romanov is stored in the FSB archive in Russia's Arkhangel'sk region. (14) It shows that he was accused of, and convicted for, the then fairly standard crime of engaging in counterrevolutionary activity. As was customary, the first document in his file specifies the basis for M.I. Romanov's arrest in the town of Vel'sk on 21 December 1937. It states:
   ROMANOV M. I. in 1921 was arrested by the OGPU for participation in
   a counterrevolutionary SR revolt .... Working as a German-language
   teacher in the Vels'k Agricultural-Technical school, he conducted
   among teachers and students counterrevolutionary activity, uttering
   fabrications of a slanderous character about the leaders of the
   Soviet government. For the reasons stated above, ROMANOV Michael
   Ivanovich is subject to arrest and is to be brought to criminal
   justice. (15)

In 1921, as in many parts of the Soviet Union, a peasant (or "green") revolt had indeed erupted in the Ust'iansko-Bestuzhevskii district. Here as elsewhere, the rebels sympathized with SR ideas about participatory democracy, while demanding an end to the Reds' crop requisitions in the villages. But Mikhail Romanov cannot have participated in this particular uprising, for he was then living much further south. Nonetheless, he does appear to have taken after his father in terms of his political ideas. Father and son championed the peasants against the authorities, whether tsarist or Soviet. Mikhail was in favor of individual farmsteads and against the introduction of collective farms, declaring them unproductive and inefficient. Initially, Mikhail Romanov joined one of the collective farms during the collectivization of agriculture in the winter of 19291930, but soon denounced the forcible entry of peasants into the farms. (16) This led to his suspension as schoolteacher, and he was living under a cloud until his arrest in 1937 in the town of Vel'sk, to which he relocated from the countryside after he had been stigmatized a saboteur of the collective-farm movement. As a fair and decent person, Romanov never tolerated injustice and openly expressed his opinions. This made him enemies, who used the opportunity when it arose in 1937 to settle scores with this truth-lover. (17)

In the files of his case, testimony by three witnesses is cited. But their statements indicate that only one of witnesses was personally present during M. I. Romanov's alleged conversation with colleagues in the technical school's teacher's room; the two others merely got the information about this conversation from her words. Meanwhile, all three witnesses were confused about the date of this discussion: Citizen B. stated that the conversation happened somewhere in 1937, citizen L. named a very precise date (15 September 1937), while citizen Z. did not know the date the conversation occurred. (18)

The particular utterance which incriminated M. I. Romanov as engaging in counterrevolutionary propaganda was allegedly made when discussing the topic of the upcoming elections for the Supreme Soviet (that were held in December ]937).19 As the file notes:

Romanov declared: "These discussions of [the candidates'] nominations are so strict, that nobody can pass muster. Perhaps even the writer Gorky wouldn't pass, because he would have to answer too many questions [about his past]. And Lenin was a former nobleman too." (20)

Witnesses in support of Romanov's innocence were not called during the investigation or trial, as they hardly ever were in 1937, when cases were processed in a system that resembled a judicial version of the conveyor belt. Romanov was to claim at this trial he had never been acquainted with the official accusation in his case. The report on his interrogation indeed indicates that he merely was asked one question, whether he considered himself guilty of counterrevolutionary activity. (21) To this he answered: "I do not recognize myself guilty of counterrevolutionary activity, nor did I state anything of counterrevolutionary character." (22)

From conversations with his investigators, Romanov concluded that the following charges had actually been brought against him:

1. Being the son of a merchant

2. Serving in the White Army in the Russian Civil War

3. Participating in the "counterrevolutionary revolt" of March 1921

4. Conducting counterrevolutionary activity within the town of Vel'sk

5. Anarchism

6. Agitation against collectivization. (23)

Similar to others apprehended by the NKVD, Michael Ivanovich awaited for his day in court, where he could prove the groundlessness of all charges: "But instead of any trial in court, the prison warden came and conveyed to several prisoners the terms which had been given by an NKVD troika." (24) These troikas had been organized throughout the Soviet Union to deal swiftly with the vast number of cases of political crime that had been unearthed at the instigation of Ezhov (behind whom stood Stalin and his cronies in the Communist Party's leadership). On 29 December 1937, this special court decided that "Romanov, Michael Ivanovich, is to be placed in a corrective labour camp for a period of TEN years, minus the days completed in confinement since 21 December 1937." (25)

At first, M.I. Romanov was sent to a prison in Arkhangel'sk, from which he was transported to the Onega camp system at Puksa. On the first of April 1936, the Onega camps contained 13,352 prisoners, one of whom was Mikhail Romanov. (26) The zakliuchennye (zeks or prisoners) were deployed in timber cutting and in building a fairly basic type of cellulose factory.

During his confinement, Romanov wrote letters to the authorities requesting a review of his case. At first they were dispatched to the regional public prosecutor, who replied that "this case does not need to be reviewed, given the contents of its file." (27) Romanov then wrote to Ezhov's successor, the NKVD minister Lavrentii Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953). (28) Beria (or Beria's assistants) ordered a review of Romanov's case. This led to the witnesses questioned in the Romanov case to be interrogated again. All of them declared, however, that they stood by their testimony of 1937. As a result, the decision of March 1940 about the review of the Romanov case reads as follows: "The petition by the convict Romanov, Michael Ivanovich, to review the NKVD troika decision of 29 December 1937 is REJECTED." (29)

In prison, the resilient Romanov turned to space exploration and the inventions of his youth. In May 1940 he wrote to the People's Commissar of Defence, Marshal S.K. Timoshenko (1895-1970), offering his services as an inventor. (30) By then, Romanov had developed three projects of potential defensive value: One involving the use atomic energy, one that intended to enable tanks to go through dense forests, and a design for a mechanical hand for disabled veterans. The answer to this letter was the transfer of prisoner Romanov, who previously spun bast shoes and worked a carpenter, to work in a technical branch of the camp system, a predecessor of future sharashki. (31)

Meanwhile, Romanov did not give up his study of the humanities: On scraps of a tissue paper which then he managed to smuggle out of the camp, he wrote down the prisoners' versions of the folklore legends of the people of the North. Evidently not suffering from any broken spirit, Michael Ivanovich Romanov was released from camp on 21 December 1947, having completed all of his term.

After his release, Romanov began a struggle for his rehabilitation, sending inquiries and documents to various institutions of the Communist party, the Soviet government, and the judiciary. He lived barely long enough to receive news of a decision in his favor. In 1956, he was informed that "the NKVD troika of Arkhangel'sk region's decision of 29 December 1937 concerning ROMANOV, Michael Ivanovich, has been dismissed in the light of any evidence of crimes committed by him." (32) Justice thus was served, even if Romanov barely survived for half a year after this verdict.

Romanov told his family that his character was not that of the rebel, but that of a doer, of a homo faber, who wanted to see through the projects that he undertook in his life. Only this gave his existence meaning. He was zealous of completing those things that he undertook, uninterested in personal gain, and unfazed by danger. (33) But his unwillingness to compromise made him pay a very high price. In 1937, 100,000s of people became prisoners of the Gulag Archipelago like M. I. Romanov. Accused of counterrevolutionary activity and other often imaginary crimes, they filled up the Soviet camps and mass graves. Of those serving time in camps, many were broken. But Mikhail Ivanovich Romanov was not among the latter. He persisted in claiming his innocence from 1937 onward, until he was vindicated in 1956.

Finally, it is an interesting albeit altogether rather difficult exercise to try to suggest why Romanov had fallen foul of the Soviet authorities. A number of reasons may have been involved. (34) Although fairly sympathetic to the Soviet project, Romanov was never a Communist Party member, and his allegiance seems to have been to the revolutionary movement in which his father had been active, that of the pro-peasant Populists and their heirs, the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR). His father was depicted as a merchant or meshchanin (petty bourgeois) in the accusation against Romanov in 1937, which reflected Ivan Romanov's work on behalf of hunters' cooperatives in marketing their prey. This was a perversion of the truth, however, for Ivan Romanov remained a revolutionary first and foremost, a champion of the downtrodden throughout his life. It was cynical to depict Mikhail Romanov as the son of a businessman, but those were indeed cynical times. The accusation of anarchism, too, seems to have been rooted in the activities of his father, who was close to the followers of Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) and Pyotr Kropotkin ( 1842-1921). Nonetheless, Mikhail Romanov himself was not inclined to be led by others either, and such stubborness was not a quality much appreciated in 1937. And his protests against collectivization, a sacred cow of Stalin's regime, were unforgivable in the eyes of the authorities. Why he was accused of fighting in the White Army or participating in the 1921 revolt remains unclear, but these points, even though blatantly false, may have been added for good measure to seal his fate.

One can wonder why he was not accused (as many were) of espionage on behalf of foreign intelligence, given his spell in Austrian captivity during the First World War. Perhaps Austria, a minion after 1918 situated rather far away from Soviet territory, could hardly be portrayed as a country running a network of spies, in the manner Poland, Germany, Britain, Finland, Estonia, or Japan were in the accusations leveled at so many of those who fell victim to the Great Terror.

Here, then, was an independent-minded intellectual, a potential troublemaker, for whom Stalin's regime had little use. It is perhaps more difficult to explain why Mikhail Romanov's life was spared in 1937. Most people who resembled him in their outlook on life did not avoid the firing squad.

(1.) NKVD: Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennykh del (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). See for example Rolf Binner, Bernd Bonwetsch, Marc Junge, Massenmord und Lagerhafi: Die andere Geschichte des grossen Terrors, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2009; O. Khlevniuk, Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle, New Haven, CT; Yale UP, 2009; H. Kuromiya, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s, New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007; Pavel Polian, Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR, New York: Central European UP, 2004.

(2.) A.I. Kokurin, N.V. Petrov, eds, GULAG: Glavnoe upravlenie lageri, 1918-1960, Moscow: Demokratiia, 2000; A.I. Kokurin, N.V. Petrov, Lubianka: VChK-OGPU-NKVD-NKGBMGB-MVD-KGB, 1917-1960, Moscow: Demokratiia, 1997; V. Danilov et al., eds, Tragediia Sovetskoi derevni: Kollektivizatsiia i raskulachivanie, 5 vols, Moscow: Rosspen, 1999-2006; Iu. N. Afanas'ev et al., eds., Istoriia Stalinskogo Gulaga, 7 vols, Moscow: Rosspen, 2004-2005: A.Ia. Razumov et al., eds, Leningradskii martyrolog, St. Petersburg: Rossiiskaia natsional'naia biblioteka, 1996; J. Arch Getty, O. V. Naumov, Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, rev.ed., New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009; Lynne Viola et al., eds, The War Against the Soviet Peasantry, vol. 1, New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005: Matthew E. Lenoe, The Kirov Murder and Soviet History, New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2010.

(3.) See J.V. Stalin, "Defects in Party Work and Measures For Liquidating Trotskiye and Other Double-Dealers," in J.V. Stalin, Works, vol. 14 (1934-1940), London: Red Star Press, 1978, 241-73.

(4.) These were published in English in a separate pamphlet as Joseph Stalin, Defects in Party Work and Measures For Liquidating Trotskyite and Other Double Dealers, Moscow: Cooperative Publishing of Foreign Workers, 1937. This version was, however, heavily censored.

(5.) Stalin, Works, vol. 14, 261. Stalin proposed this idea at least already in 1928, on the eve of collectivization (see Erik van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin, London: Routledge-Curzon, 2002, 114).

(6.) Stalin, Sochineniia, vol. 14, 264.

(7.) V.N. Khaustov, V.P. Naumov, N.S. Plomikova, eds, Lubianka. Stalin i Glavnoe upravlenie gosbezopasnosti NKVD, 1937-1938, Moscow: Materik, 2004, 112.

(8.) Ibid., 112.

(9.) Binner, Bonwetsch, Junge, Massenmord, 29-123.

(10.) See Khlevniuk, Master, 184.

(11.) For more on I.M. Romanov, see his biography at the website of the Rumiantsev Museum, V.I. Shchipin, "Narodnik Ivan Romanov," available at 896, accessed 26 September 2011.

(12.) Among his works we may note M.I. Romanov, Istoriia odnogo severnogo zakbolust'ia, Velikii Ustiug" Sovetskaia Mysl', 1925; M.I. Romanov, "Shkola i zhizn'," Narodnyi uchitel" 5, 1926, 31-6; M.I. Romanov, "Pamiamiki drevneishikh vremen v byvshoi krest'ianskoi Dmitrievskoi volosti Cherevkovskogo raiona Severno-Dvinskogo okruga," Zapiski Severno-Dvinskogo okruga 6, 1929, 107-23; M.I. Romanov, "Tvorchestvo rebenka severnoi derevni," Iskusstvo s shkole 7, 1928, 17-26; M.I. Romanov, "U Gor'kogo: vospominaniia," Sever 3, 193, 78-80. Note as well M.I. Romanov, "Istoriia Ust'ianskikh volosti," vol. 1: "Ust'ianskie volosti do smuty, xii-xvii vv." [unpublished manuscript completed in 1951 and located in M. I. Mil'chik's archive]. After completion of his sentence and his release from the Gulag, as a former prisoner (zek), Romanov was nonetheless barred from publishing his scholarly work. An appreciation of his scholarly activity can be found in G.A. Verevkina, M.I. Mil'chuk, Mikhail Ivanovich Romanov: Vydaiusshchii kraeved russkogo severa: strikhi k portretu, Bel'sk: n.p., 2006. He is also commemorated as one of the many victims of Stalin's policies in Arkhangel'sk region in a multi-volume work, see "Romanov Mikhail Ivanovich," in Iu. M. Shperling, ed., Pomorskii Memorial: Kniga pamiati zhertv politicheskoi repressii, vol. 2, Arkhangel'sk: n.p., 2001, 507.

(13.) The most evocative description of these institutes can be found in A.I. Solzhenitsyn, In The First Circle: The First Uncensored Edition, trans. Harry Willets, New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

(14.) The FSB (Federal'naia sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii or Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) is the Russian successor to the Soviet KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennyi bezopastnosti or Committee of State Security). Its archival holdings throughout the Russian Federation are not easily accessible to researchers; thus, those who have no personal (family) ties to the Soviet regime's victims are usually barred from looking at their archival case-files.

(15.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464. OGPU, the Ob'edinennoe gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie (United State Political Administration), was a forerunner of the NKVD. SR is an abbrevation for the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, a non-Marxist socialist party that stood in the tradition of the Populists in its support for a type of agrarian socialism made up of communal villages. It was highly popular in 1917, when it split into a left-wing and right-wing faction, with the former supporting Lenin's (and Stalin's) Bol'sheviks for a while.

(16.) See N.A. Mamonova, "Vydaiushchiisia kraeved Ruskkogo Severa," Vazhskii krai-Novyi Region, 7 July 2011, available at, accessed 27 September 2011.

(17.) M. I. Romanov, "Iamy," typewritten manuscript, Archive of the Ust'ianskii Kraevedcheskii Muzei (Ust'ianskii Museum of Local History Arkhangel'sk province), file (delo) KP 3929-3, 51.

(18.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464.

(19.) Officially, after the new constitution the USSR of 1936 created a new legislature called the Supreme Soviet, for which these elections were the first ever; while formally elected on the basis of the one-person-one-vote principle, voters could only vote for one candidate (carefully selected by the Communist Party's leadership) in each district. In practice this was a mere rubber-stamp parliament, in everything doing the bidding of the Communist Party's leaders.

(20.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464. Maksim Gor'kii (Gorky; 18681936) was a world famous writer, who for a long while had been critical of the Bolsheviks before his return to the USSR in 1929. Lenin was indeed of noble birth.

(21.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464.

(24.) Romanov, "Iamy," 58.

(25.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464.

(26.) Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiskoi Federatsii (The State Archive of the Russian Federation, Moscow), Fond (collection) 9414, opis' (inventory) 1, delo (file) 371, listy (sheets or pages) 3, 53.

(27.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464.

(28.) Beria succeeded Ezhov in late 1938.

(29.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464.

(30.) Romanov, "Iamy," 126.

(31.) Ibid., 136.

(32.) Archive of the FSB of Arkhangelsk region, file p-12464.

(33.) Verevkina, M.I. Mil'chuk, Mikhail Ivanovich Romanov: Vydaiusshchii kraeved russkogo severa: strikhi k portretu, Bel'sk, n.p., 2006, 7.

(34.) Compare Kuromiya's reflections (Kuromiya, Voices, 1-13).

Oksana Bitkova is a graduate student at the Northern Atlantic Arctic Federal University and a history teacher at school No. 13 in Severodvinsk, Russia. The author expresses her gratitude to her supervisor, Professor Mikhail Nikolaevich Suprun for his guidance, as well as moral support and understanding, which created the conditions for creative work. She would also like to thank the Director Ustyansky Museum (Arkhangelsk Oblast, a settlement October) Ipatovo Natalia Valentinovna for the warmth of relations, mindfulness, wisdom, and for her valuable professional advice.
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Author:Bitkova, Oksana Valerevna
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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