This is the story of the Soviet Union’s most famous informer, one of the great hero-monsters of the century, and of the pressures which made it possible for a young boy in the North Urals to denounce his father to the secret services and to become an icon for doing so. Crucially, too, it is the story of the dramatic transition in the early Thirties from the relatively relaxed period of the New Economic Policy to the strenuous years of the Five-Year Plan. The NEP had made it clear – or at any rate made it plausible to claim – that independent-minded peasants and tradesmen, self-enriching and assertive, would shortly undermine all the Bolsheviks stood for. Plans were laid against the impending counter-revolution: hideous, impossible goals were set. Within five years, agriculture was to be collectivised and a massive industrial base made ready for action. To this end, Party members and the secret services were to terrorise the population into acquiescence.
Kulaks were an old class enemy, momentarily reprieved by the NEP. But how to make war on them now? They were the most active and often the most prominent individuals in the rural communities – and the Party and secret police were relatively few in number. One tactic – a most effective one – was to divide communities from within. If the kulaks were to be eliminated as a class, it would be most effectively done by those who resented them – and who could hope to gain from their imprisonment or death. Denunciation – secret, without the need for evidence – was the means by which the secret services and the Party could zero in on the ‘bloodsuckers’, sowing conflict and making it possible for collectivisation to be rammed through without fear of a united resistance.
The myth of Pavlik Morozov is straightforward enough. In 1932, finding out that his father, Trofim, head of the Gerasimovka village council (or soviet), was giving assistance to kulaks resisting collectivisation, Pavlik boldly denounced him to the local OGPU representative. Trofim was arrested, tried – Pavlik’s evidence was decisive – and sentenced to ten years in a camp. A few weeks later, counter-revolution wreaked its revenge: Pavlik and his brother were slain in the forest. Five people, including Pavlik’s grandfather and uncle, were accused of planning and executing the murder; four of them were found guilty and shot.
The way in which this myth in particular, and Soviet myths in general, were made and disseminated, is the subject of Informer 001. Yuri Druzhnikov, a former dissident, now teaches Russian literature at the University of California. He has done a great deal of hard work, finding and interviewing remaining witnesses and scouring documents – including the OGPU account of the affair. He was already working on the project in the early Eighties, before the Gorbachev thaw and, despite many obstacles, was able to gather a surprising amount of oral evidence from a variety of sources – the village schoolteacher, Pavlik’s schoolmates, former OGPU agents and Tatyana Morozova, Pavlik’s ‘hero mother’. Set beside the seamless narratives of contemporary investigative journalism, Informer 001 can seem jerky – and its substantial revelations are juxtaposed with frank speculation. Yet it is more transparent than many accounts which might be regarded as ‘better journalism’: it eschews the relentless recitation of facts, the slickness and the covert politicking which can characterise the genre. The careless way in which it has been put together means that one has to re-read a good deal to get the gist, but the price is worth paying for Druzhnikov’s commitment to telling the story and his ability to set it in context.
Druzhnikov is old enough to have savoured the fag-end of the Pavlik myth. By the late Sixties and early Seventies, the regime had become embarrassed by this extreme manifestation of the founding ideology, but was too much in its thrall to renounce it. Komsomol sections were still called after Pavlik Morozov, and the patriotic writer Alexander Prokhanov – a major influence on the present leadership of the Russian Communist Party – invoked his exemplary character in his famous novel of the Afghan campaign, A Tree in the Centre of Kabul, published in the early Eighties.
This was the time when Druzhnikov was researching Informer 001, moving about that part of the North Urals where the village of Gerasimovka is situated. He mentions almost casually that the area was still the site of a network of prison camps, and that soldiers roamed the forests shooting escapees. It was in these hellish wastes that the last political prisoners were released at the end of the Eighties, from special camps outside Perm, where for centuries detainees had been trudging off to die.
The truth of the Pavlik affair, as Druzhnikov pieces it together, is miserable. The Morozovs were an unhappy family: the father whom Pavlik betrayed had walked out on his mother but continued to live in the same village with a younger woman, whose reputation among the other village women was poor. Pavlik was a slow, introverted child, close to his mother, who nursed fantasies of revenge against her husband. She was an envious character, not above informing on other villagers. Gerasimovka was under increasing pressure to join the collective farm being organised in the area. Its remoteness had long protected it from forced collectivisation, but now Moscow’s eye was on it, and results were demanded.
This was the climate in the village when the denunciations were made. By this time, Druzhnikov writes, ‘the secret police were so deeply involved in the collectivisation project that even agricultural plans were printed in OGPU print shops.’ He also claims, in one of his vaguer passages, that Mikhail Suslov was appointed a representative of the Rabkrin, or Worker-Peasant Inspectorate, for the North Urals just before the affair and that it was his demand for tighter discipline that produced the need for a Pavlik. (Suslov later became the chief ideologue of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods.)
The book goes further, however, and argues that OGPU agents were probably responsible for the murder of Pavlik and his brother, either directly or through intermediaries. Druzhnikov introduces the awful figure of Spiridon Kartashov, a retired killer, who confesses in an interview that he was ‘full of hatred’, and had learned to vent it by killing Whites and Red Army deserters when he served in a Special Action Squad during the Civil War. He was skilled at shooting people ‘quietly’, without a silencer – by sticking the barrel of his pistol far down their throat before firing. (He evidently didn’t mind being splashed with blood ‘like eau de cologne’.) Posted to the North Urals as an OGPU assistant commissioner in 1932, he was given a target number of kulaks to force into collectivisation. If anyone was recalcitrant, he put his carbine to their head.
According to Kartashov’s testimony, all of the accused were on a list he and his superiors had drawn up, indicating that ‘T’ (terror) should be used against them. The police investigation – by a lone, illiterate officer – of the bodies of the two boys was farcically casual. The man who found them was an OGPU informant. The children were buried immediately, by a special OGPU detachment sent from the regional centre; later, they were exhumed and re-interred outside the local administration office to prevent any independent examination. No forensic work was done. A series of people connected to the accused were then arrested. Pavlik’s house burned down. The accused were whisked out of the village, taken to the regional centre and two weeks later they confessed. The trial was delayed so that a campaign could be started around it; the slogan adopted by the Pioneers and schoolchildren was ‘Execute the kulak murderers.’
There is no conclusive proof of OGPU guilt. Druzhnikov imagines how they would have staged the crime, and the account he gives is more plausible than that given at the trial – insofar as details were deemed necessary by a court which failed to observe the simplest formalities. A ‘defence lawyer’ assigned to the accused withdrew soon after the trial began, saying he was too revolted by his clients’ crimes to continue. Druzhnikov writes that
the basic proof of the defendants’ guilt consisted largely of quotations from Stalin, and his subordinates’ official statements on how the class struggle was intensifying in certain areas, and of demonstrating how the accused illustrated the truth of these pronouncements. The prosecutor talked about impending economic changes, through which a classless society would be built and for which all remnants of the enemy classes (here he pointed at the accused) had to be destroyed. The public prosecutors did not, on the whole, need to demonstrate guilt. Nor did they try: they simply waved above their heads fat bundles of letters and telegrams from the proletariat of the Urals, from Pioneers, readers of newspapers and others demanding that the defendants be shot.
On the day the trial opened, the central committee of the Komsomol convened a special session dedicated to instilling devotion in the young and preparing them to serve the Party. Pavlik was pronounced a shining example to all children, and a ‘master plan’ was prepared to spread the word in every medium.
One of Druzhnikov’s discoveries is the extent to which the memories of interviewees have been overlaid by the official version. They refer, for instance, to the young informer as ‘Pavlik’, though he had never been called that when he was alive. The villagers called him ‘Pavel’, the proper form of his Christian name, or ‘Pasha’, a diminutive. ‘Pavlik’, another diminutive, was never used until the Komsomol press took it up. When Druzhnikov pointed out obvious contradictions between what they had experienced and the official version, interviewees often said that their own memory must be at fault. Pavlik’s mother, who was still alive in the early Eighties and living in the house which Stalin had provided for her in a Crimean resort, kept the myth alive because she was complicit in the reality. She was honoured in her day, but proved a poor propaganda tool, and could only mumble ‘Just be like my Pavlik’ at Komsomol rallies where she was paraded; she was illiterate and the texts prepared for her to read were useless.
Zoya Kabina, however, a schoolteacher who was little more than a teenager when she was sent to Gerasimovka to instruct the peasantry, remembered well enough, and was frank. ‘He was a weak, sickly child. What can you expect?’ – i.e. with his family background. A schoolmate, Matryona Korolkova, remembered him as ‘weak, he often fell sick. If the conditions of his life had been normal and his mother had been normal, he would have been normal, too.’ His mother was thought by the villagers to have been, or to have become, mentally unbalanced – she was certainly very unpopular – and both she and her son had spells of depression and anger alternating with bouts of euphoria. Somewhat overambitiously, given the sketchy nature of the evidence, Druzhnikov concludes that
he was a child from a dysfunctional family who displayed signs of mental retardation. Pavlik Morozov’s behaviour was a result of the conditions of his upbringing, a single-parent family with an unhealthy psychological climate, disorganised parent-child relations, lack of attention and a generally low cultural level ... there are characters for whom the hardships of others are a source of gratification. For such a person denunciation is the shortest route to gratification.
Pavlik, on this account, was clay for the moulding. His father gone, he yearned for substitutes; but his relatives and the village elders were set at a distance from him by his mother, who hated and schemed against most of them. The OGPU agents came from outside his community and were thus able to attract his devotion and command his services. There was a higher father-figure, too: the father of the nation, sometimes represented as father and mother, giving birth to little Stalins who – at least for a time – reproduced the patriarchal qualities while hymning the patriarch. Morozov, the dead, fatherless boy, was perfect Stalinist progeny.
Orchestration of the Pavlik myth was left mainly in the hands of the press and it is one of the virtues of this book that Druzhnikov took the trouble not just to quote from the press coverage of the day but to unearth details about the men who wrote it. Chief among them was Pavel Solomein, a reporter for a number of Urals newspapers and a correspondent at the trial, who was ordered by the Urals Regional Party Committee to write a book about Pavlik – in ten days. (It took him twice that.) In the Kulak’s Nest was translated into many of the ethnic languages of the Soviet Union, and serialised in a French CP journal. Solomein, himself the son of a kulak family from which he ran away after his mother remarried, joined the Party and from the beginning was detailed to enforce collectivisation: while working as a journalist, he remained an ‘agent responsible for dekulakisation’.
Surprisingly, he did some diligent research for his book, interviewing, making notes, investigating, reading what background material there was. According to Solomein, after Pavlik’s death, no other informer would come forward until one of the local drunkards was persuaded to do so in return for vodka: not perhaps the right note for a journalist to strike, but one which indicates a proper curiosity despite his devotion to the cause. Solomein seems to have been obsessed with the myth. He worked away at it throughout his life, and eventually published a revised version of his book called Pavka the Communist. He was an exemplary Soviet journalist, sticking closely to the Party line and writing morality tales to give it local application.
Some of the best known and most honoured creative artists of the Stalin period were also complicit in the making of the Pavlik myth. Eisenstein’s film Bezhin Meadow has the myth at its core. It was a wholly respectful work, but too frank about the horrors of collectivisation and too pessimistic. Pavlik died at the end of the film: the authorities wanted him to remain alive, but Eisenstein was unwilling to change the ending. He should have known – he came to know – that such a crucial figure could not be allowed to die on screen. Eisenstein, over-secure in his eminence, had neglected to follow the intricate change in the official line and tone. The film was denounced and production halted. Eisenstein had to recant both in public and in private to avoid the meat-grinder of the Purges. (Stalin continued to play cat-and-mouse with him throughout the war, until he died of a heart attack in 1945.) Isaac Babel, a man with a career as many-sided as his talent, was given the job of cleaning up the screenplay and apparently did so with due zeal. But by now, the project had the smell of death on it: Babel, less internationally known than Eisenstein, was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1941.
It was Gorky, the writer in residence of the Stalinist period, who was most deeply implicated in the mythologisation of Pavlik. Gorky got most of the facts of the case from Solomein’s reportage, though he excoriated his book, turning the poor man into a literary outcast for most of the rest of his days. Gorky began to write sonorous columns about Pavlik and received delegations of Pioneers asking for his assistance in the boy’s immortalisation. Gorky pressed for a monument to be erected in central Moscow and was, of course, successful. In this way Pavlik continued to contaminate those who had anything to do with him, even after his death. In the only known photograph, acquired by Druzhnikov and published for the first time in the Russian edition of this book, he stares out from among his schoolmates, his eyes hooded, an expression of permanent anxiety about his mouth. He was a pitiful boy in many ways, manipulated by ruthless adults throughout his life and after his death, until, in the wake of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev, a steel rope was slipped over the thin shoulders of the Pavlik statue, and he was hauled away to join the other monsters of the Soviet era in the Museum of the Revolution.