A Soviet Legend Dies Hard
The story was a fairy tale of sorts, told to generations of Soviet schoolchildren. Once upon a time, it began, a boy went into the woods to pick berries.
He was a good boy. He understood right and wrong. When his father did something wrong, the boy told the authorities. The boy’s name was Pavlik Morozov.
There were bad people in Pavlik’s village, including members of his own family. They did not understand right and wrong. When the boy went into the woods, the bad people were waiting. And the boy was never seen alive again.
Pavlik’s story wasn’t really a fairy tale, though. A real 13-year-old boy named Pavel Morozov was killed along with his little brother on the outskirts of this Siberian village on Sept. 3, 1932. Four members of his family -- his grandfather, grandmother, cousin and godfather -- were convicted of the murders in a show trial two months later and shot.
Within weeks of his death, Pavlik became a powerful icon in the new pantheon of Communist saints, a child-martyr worshiped for his feat of heroism: informing on his father.
Just as American schoolchildren learn the parable of George Washington and the cherry tree, Soviet students for decades were taught the morality tale of Pavlik Morozov. For them, the story drove home the lesson that loyalty to the state should supersede loyalty to one’s family.
The cult of Pavlik Morozov fed a culture of informants, the lifeblood of a police state. Pavlik became a favorite of the Soviet propaganda machine, which described him as chairman of the village’s troop of Communist Young Pioneers and officially dubbed him “Pioneer-Hero #1.” Poems, books and even an opera were written about him.
To this day, Pavlik Morozov is a household name.
“Be like Pavlik, children were told from the moment they took the oath as pioneers,” the Tribuna newspaper wrote this year on the anniversary of his death. “Study hard, love your motherland, expose the enemies of Soviet power, and be merciless with traitors.”
For most of Soviet history, few questioned the accuracy of the legend of Pavlik. After all, in the Soviet Union, propaganda was truth.
Privately, those who permitted themselves to doubt assumed the story was exaggerated. But for most of Soviet history, it didn’t matter if it was true or not.
Eventually, though, a few people -- a writer and an engineer among them -- started asking questions.
Their search for answers would uncover unpleasant truths not just about Russia’s past but about its unsettled present. It would reveal how the machinery of terror once operated and how its culture of fear lingers still.
This is the story of the tale of Pavlik Morozov, who was a real boy after all. And whose death still haunts a country not yet at peace with its past.
Once upon a time, there lived a Soviet writer named Yuri Druzhnikov. In 1974, he attended a conference of playwrights in the southern Russian city of Rostov. One session discussed the importance of “positive heroes of Soviet culture.” One of those heroes was Pavlik Morozov.
“How can we create a strong morality of people in our country on the basis of someone who betrayed his father?” Druzhnikov, now 69, recalled asking. “No one answered.”
When he was back home in Moscow days later, his telephone rang. A voice “invited” him to KGB headquarters. When he arrived, two KGB officers were waiting.
“They said to me: ‘Why did you ask about this official hero? He is still a hero, and it’s none of your business,’ ” Druzhnikov said. “ ‘You may write your books,’ they said, ‘But do not touch this subject.’ ”
The KGB warning only whetted Druzhnikov’s curiosity. He started at libraries and archives but turned up next to nothing -- no artifacts from Pavlik’s life, no school records, no legal documents connected to the case -- just newspaper stories that, more often than not, contradicted one another.
Druzhnikov found something else puzzling. All the photos of Pavlik looked different.
“I quickly concluded that all the material was falsified,” he said.
Posing as a journalist, Druzhnikov began to track down and interview Pavlik’s now-elderly schoolmates and neighbors, his teachers and local officials. He traveled to 13 cities around the Soviet Union. He visited Gerasimovka, the village where Pavlik lived and died.
At first, villagers recited the official version of the story.
Pavlik was a model student and head of the Young Pioneers. His father was head of the village’s governing council, or soviet. Pavlik caught his father falsifying safe conduct passes for dispossessed peasants. He told authorities, and his father was taken away.
Some months later, Pavlik went into the forest to pick cranberries with his 8-year-old brother, Fedya. They didn’t come home. On the third day, villagers found their bodies.
Pavlik had been stabbed near his heart, his berries spilled on the forest floor. Fedya was lying a short distance away. He also had knife wounds, and his skull was shattered.
A few days later, an investigator from the OGPU, the forerunner of the KGB, arrived in the village. He arrested Pavlik’s grandparents, 19-year-old cousin and godfather, who was married to Pavlik’s aunt. He accused them of being kulaks, or “rich peasants,” and of opposing plans to form a collective farm in the village. He said he found a bloodied knife in the grandparents’ cottage.
The four were brought to the regional capital, Tavda, and sentenced to death after a trial that consisted mostly of workers and party activists calling for their executions. Their crime was among the most serious on the Soviet books: Article 58.8, terrorism against the state.
Eventually, as the villagers continued to talk to Druzhnikov, the story began to change.
Pavlik was actually called “Pashka” by his family and friends, they said, a different diminutive of the name Pavel. He wasn’t really a model student. He was a mischief-maker who could barely read.
His father had abandoned his mother and their four boys for another woman in the village. The fatherless family was poor and often without food, and Pashka and Fedya, the two oldest, were picking berries because they were hungry. The mother was slovenly and consumed by bitterness. It was she who urged Pashka to denounce his father, perhaps in revenge, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to shame the older man into returning to the family.
The villagers told Druzhnikov that Pashka was never a Young Pioneer. In fact, there was no Pioneer troop in Gerasimovka before the murders.
“No, Pavlik Morozov had never been a Pioneer,” schoolteacher Yelena Pozdnina told Druzhnikov. “But you must understand one thing: It was necessary to believe that he was.”
Once upon a time, there lived an engineer named Innokenty Khlebnikov. He worked in an electric power station in Kurgan, a down-at-the-heels industrial city in western Siberia.
His great-grandfather had been a Cossack who fought his way across Siberia in the 19th century, helping claim and hold that vast territory for Russia. Khlebnikov, 68, was born in one of the empire’s farther-flung outposts, the former gold-mining region of Chita. His parents were simple collective-farm workers.
Khlebnikov studied at a military institute and, when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died in 1953, served in an honor guard beside a bust draped in mourning. Standing vigil, he began to recall the stories his mother had told him about their many relatives who had died in Stalin’s crackdowns.
“As I stood there, an inner protest began,” he recalled.
Years later, as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, a new law gave Russians the right to seek justice for those who had disappeared or been repressed during the brutal years of Stalinism. Family members could apply for them to be officially “rehabilitated” -- posthumously acquitted of the false charges for which they’d been punished. Khlebnikov spent several years getting his forebears rehabilitated.
His success emboldened him.
The central street in Kurgan is named for a slain Young Pioneer named Kolya Myagotin. According to Soviet legend, Kolya told authorities where kulaks were hiding grain. He became “Pioneer-Hero #2" -- the first of dozens of successors to Pavlik Morozov.
Kolya was killed, allegedly by the kulaks, on Oct. 25, 1932 -- seven weeks after the death of Pavlik. Twelve people were punished under the same statute as Pavlik’s alleged murderers: terrorism against the state. Three were executed, and the others were sent into the gulag.
When Khlebnikov inquired years later, local villagers acknowledged that the story of Kolya Myagotin was untrue. The boy had been stealing sunflower seeds in a field when a soldier shot at something moving in the dark, they told a colleague of Khlebnikov’s.
When the body was found in the morning, the myth-making began. It was easy, because Pavlik Morozov was all the rage. The pattern had been set.
In various legal petitions, Khlebnikov applied to local authorities for the rehabilitation of Kolya Myagotin’s alleged murderers. In 1996, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the murder had not been an act of state terrorism after all.
The case, the court said, had been fabricated. Kolya Myagotin had never been a Pioneer. There was no evidence that he had informed on anybody. The court posthumously rehabilitated all but two of those convicted, and their convictions were downgraded.
The ruling convinced Khlebnikov to look at the story of Pavlik Morozov. If Kolya Myagotin’s story was untrue, why not Pavlik’s?
In February 1997, Khlebnikov took a half-sheet of paper and wrote out a petition to the regional court with jurisdiction over Gerasimovka. He asked it to rehabilitate Pavlik’s family.
Two years and two months later, he got an answer, not from the regional court but the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.
“We consider [the defendants] properly convicted in this case and undeserving of rehabilitation,” the court wrote in its decision.
Khlebnikov was flabbergasted.
“The way the case was structured in 1932, that’s exactly the way the court upheld it,” Khlebnikov said. “They can’t reconsider the case. They can’t destroy the ‘truth.’ ”
The Old Woman
Once upon a time, there lived an old woman named Matryona Shatrakova. She had a secret.
“If I tell the truth, they’ll take me away,” she used to tell her children.
Matryona grew up in Gerasimovka. Her father was among the wealthier peasants in the village. Her younger cousin was a scamp named Pashka Morozov. He was always hanging around looking for mischief, or a bite to eat.
“We would feed those boys, clothe them,” she recalled decades later. “We felt sorry for them.”
In 1932, Matryona was 19. Dmitri Shatrakov, a boy in the village, was in love with her.
One morning, Dmitri stopped by while Matryona was making pancake batter. He decided to do some hunting while breakfast was cooking and headed into the woods. Suddenly, his dog started barking wildly. He followed the sound and saw the bodies of Pashka and his brother.
Dmitri ran back to the village and told the boys’ grandmother. A group of villagers carried the bodies from the woods. The next day, Matryona’s father, who was Pashka’s godfather, presided over their funerals.
A few days later, authorities arrested Dmitri and his brother on suspicion of murder. They were locked in a stock house for two weeks before suddenly being freed.
Authorities then took away Pashka’s grandparents and cousin and Matryona’s father. The Shatrakovs were too poor to be kulaks, their neighbors said. But the others weren’t.
Fear engulfed the village. Matryona remembers that her mother wouldn’t even leave the house. But worse was still to come.
Several weeks later, villagers learned that the four had been executed. Then authorities took away Matryona’s mother. They seized the house and the livestock, saying they were now property of the collective farm. Matryona and her younger brother had nowhere to go.
“They threw us into the street like cats,” she said.
People began calling her cousin Pavlik, not Pashka. And everyone was saying strange things, untrue things. They were saying Pavlik had been a Pioneer. They were saying that Pavlik’s family had resented his work for the Communists, that Matryona’s father and his grandfather had threatened to kill him unless he stopped. They were saying that her father had paid 30 rubles for the murder -- a sum oddly reminiscent of Judas Iscariot’s 30 pieces of silver.
“No one in the village had any gold. What gold could there be?” Matryona said. “We all wore lapti” -- shoes made of woven reeds.
To save herself, she married Dmitri, son of a poor peasant, who was politically correct under Bolshevik ideology. Still, because Matryona’s father had been labeled a kulak, the village’s new collective farm excluded the young couple.
In 1935, Matryona and Dmitri walked away from Gerasimovka carrying their new baby. They walked 30 miles to the next town, where they found work in a lumber mill.
They remained there for the rest of their lives. And they kept quiet about Pavlik.
Occasionally, a Pioneer troop would invite Dmitri to talk about how he found the murdered body of “Pioneer-Hero No. 1.” He would go -- refusal was unwise -- but would say as little as possible. Until he died in 1977, Dmitri could never forget how close he had come to being blamed for the crime.
In 1999, when Matryona was 86, a group of strangers knocked on her door. She lived alone; her children had families of their own. She opened the door.
One of her visitors was an archivist from Tavda. About six months earlier, Matryona had asked for her help in learning where her father was buried. Another was Innokenty Khlebnikov, who had heard of Matryona from the archivist.
“When I submitted my petition, I didn’t know about you,” Khlebnikov said, shaking his head. “I would have included you as a witness. But I thought everyone was already dead.”
Matryona was frightened. Her tiny house was suddenly full of people, including a reporter. Her heart began to palpitate. But she took some medicine, listened for a while and then began to speak.
“What do I care now?” she said. “I’ll die all the same.”
For the first time, she told her story to strangers.
“Pavlik wasn’t a Pioneer,” she said. “He was no Pioneer. I can tell you that precisely. They trapped [my father]. It was this Ivan, some sort of relative. He was the one who trapped him.”
Then the name came floating back into her memory. “Potupchik,” she said. “He’s the one who trapped my father.”
Khlebnikov took out a sheet of paper and began to write. He would use the information to send a new petition to the Supreme Court.
“I hereby declare that in our family there was no gold, that my father was a simple peasant, and he did not organize the murder of Pavel Morozov,” he wrote on her behalf. “I beseech you to carefully reconsider the case of the murder of Pavel Morozov.”
He handed the pen to Matryona.
“I’m still illiterate,” she said. “But I can sign my name.”
With the tentativeness of a child and the unsteadiness of an old woman, she scratched out one barely legible word: “Shatrakova.”
Nearly two years later, in February 2001, Matryona Shatrakova’s heart gave out and she died.
The following May, nearly three years after Matryona had signed her appeal, a postman arrived with a certified letter from the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. Her daughter told the postman her mother was dead. He refused to deliver the letter.
The Secret Agent
Once upon a time, there lived an OGPU agent named Spiridon Kartashov, who was called in by the secret police to take charge of the Pavlik Morozov case. In 1982, Druzhnikov, the curious writer, found him living in a squalid apartment 120 miles from Gerasimovka.
The onetime agent told Druzhnikov that after the Bolshevik Revolution, he had served in a “special action” squad that executed Red Army deserters during the civil war. By 1932, the revolution begun by the Bolsheviks in the cities had finally engulfed the countryside, and Kartashov had a new assignment.
Stalin had ordered a massive drive to force peasants onto collective farms. Those who resisted were labeled kulaks and stripped of their livestock and other property. Millions of them were shipped to Siberia in cattle cars.
“We have switched to a policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class,” Stalin decreed.
Collectivization was a holocaust for the Russian peasantry. At least 6 million died during the drive to form collective farms, and at least 5 million more perished in the famine that followed.
Some kulaks forced out of European Russia wound up near Gerasimovka -- an inhospitable village surrounded by equal parts forest and swamp. Some villagers helped the new arrivals, perhaps out of sympathy, perhaps to keep them out. One of those who helped was Pavlik’s father, who as chairman of the village council provided them with transit papers that allowed them to settle elsewhere or seek jobs in forestry or construction. Presumably, he collected a “fee” for the service.
The villagers, meanwhile, were balking at efforts to form a collective farm. Pavlik’s grandfather was among the village elders who vociferously resisted joining the collective. In fact, there was only one Communist sympathizer in Gerasimovka, Pavlik’s 20-year-old cousin, Ivan Potupchik.
Potupchik, who was also an informant for the OGPU, led the group of villagers who recovered the bodies of the boys in the woods, and he hosted Kartashov when he arrived to handle the investigation.
Kartashov told Druzhnikov that he had been given a quota for how many peasants to “de-kulakize” in the region. Gerasimovka, he said, was of special interest because resistance there was so fierce. In the months before the murders, with Potupchik’s help, he had already prepared a list of villagers who were anti-Soviet.
Kartashov said no real investigation of the murders was warranted.
“Persons of an anti-Soviet persuasion already on the lists ... it was they who killed the children,” he said. “I never went to the murder site because everything was already clear.”
The cousin, Potupchik, was honored for his work on the Morozov case but eventually ran into trouble. He was convicted of raping a teenage girl in 1961, was imprisoned for a time and eventually settled in the Siberian city of Magnitogorsk, where Druzhnikov met with him in the early 1980s.
Potupchik, too, said there was no real investigation -- no formal examination of the murder scene, no autopsies. Potupchik simply told the OGPU whom to arrest.
“A group of investigators ... came and immediately announced that ‘a terrorist act took place here,’ ” Potupchik told Druzhnikov. “They took those I pointed out. No sort of experts were needed. It was that clear.”
Druzhnikov was now convinced that Kartashov, with Potupchik’s help, had organized the boys’ murders to try to frighten the village into joining the collective farm. He believes they had the blessing of Stalin’s personal secret police.
“In the Urals, collectivization was going particularly badly,” Druzhnikov said. “So [OGPU agents] went to the village and wanted to do something. The idea was to frighten people.”
If that was their plan, it worked.
Both Kartashov and Potupchik are dead now. But near the end of his life, apparently as part of an appeal to raise his pension, Kartashov penned a description of his role in the case. The document, now in the archives of the historical museum in Tavda, suggests the collective farm was formed just after the murders. Kartashov says he called the fearful villagers together the same day Pavlik’s family was sent away for trial.
“I recounted for them the murder of the Pioneer Pavlik Morozov by the kulaks of the village of Gerasimovka -- who killed him, where, how and why,” Kartashov wrote. “I said that in honor of the murdered Pioneer Pavlik Morozov, a collective farm should be organized and named in Pavlik Morozov’s honor. Those who were there signed up.”
Once upon a time, there lived a prosecutor named Nikolai Vlasenko. He is deputy director of the Rehabilitations Department of the Russian general prosecutor’s office in Moscow. His department has considered more than 500,000 requests for rehabilitation since 1991, and the vast majority of them have been granted.
It was his job to review the Pavlik Morozov case.
“It was the most savage and extreme crime possible,” Vlasenko said late this summer. “To take your own grandchildren and slice them open? That’s what we know, and that’s all we need to know.”
Vlasenko said that, unlike many other cases from the period, the Pavlik Morozov file is crammed with documents -- interrogation reports and other court papers, letters and telegrams of outrage from workers, Pioneers and ordinary citizens across the Soviet Union calling for the death of Pavlik’s murderers.
In Vlasenko’s view, all the documents support the conclusion that the boy was murdered by his relatives in a terrorist act against the state.
“There are interrogations, residents, witnesses, participants. Direct evidence,” he said. “Don’t drag politics into this. It was a terrorist act.”
Vlasenko acknowledged that he and his colleagues accepted the documents at face value. In their deliberations, they didn’t ask if OGPU investigators might have falsified anything. They didn’t consider new information, including the evidence compiled by Druzhnikov. Although they have done so in other cases, they didn’t take into consideration the political atmosphere of the early 1930s, the pressure on local officials and the OGPU to succeed at collectivization.
No, he said. His only job was to consider the documents in the file.
“We cannot conclude that the investigators at that time were not honest and upright,” Vlasenko insisted. “I’ll go further. The majority were very decent people carrying out their duties.”
Vlasenko conceded that Pavlik was probably never a Pioneer but said it matters little. Indeed, Vlasenko insisted it is still correct to consider Pavlik a “representative of state authority” and his murder a “terrorist act against the state.”
“He was a social activist, even though he was just a teenager,” Vlasenko said. “He was the only one of his family worthy of imitation, the only upright person.”
Vlasenko dismissed the suggestion that new evidence could justify reopening the case.
“The court has made its judgment,” he said. “This is my position. There’s no wiggle room.”
The Unhappy Ending
Fairy tales are supposed to end “happily ever after.” But Gerasimovka is not a happy place.
For a while, it was. After the death of Pavlik Morozov, authorities turned Gerasimovka into a model collective farm. They paved a road to the village -- a rarity in the region -- and tour buses of Pioneer pilgrims came to pay homage at the small Pavlik Morozov Museum and at what is supposed to be his grave site.
“I remember we used to stand on the side of the road and salute like this,” Marina Fokina, a 30-year-old villager said, snapping her hand to her forehead in the traditional palm-forward pioneer salute. “Of course, we’re sad it’s over.”
Fokina said she once had a job. But the Pavlik Morozov Collective Farm has fallen on hard times, slowly selling off most of its cows and laying off most workers. The town has no other businesses.
Fokina, like many of Gerasimovka’s unemployed, spends her day looking for something to drink. Her face and legs are dirty, her nose permanently bent from an untreated break.
“Before, no one used to drink at all. Now, I’ve been on a bender for a week,” she said. “What else am I supposed to do?”
The Pavlik Morozov Museum is closed. Animal droppings litter the lawn. But inside, the classroom where Pavlik is said to have studied still has portraits of Lenin and Stalin on the walls and a bust of Pavlik in the corner.
The museum’s caretaker, Tatiana Kuznetsova, is thinking of turning the building into a museum of collectivization. She is the keeper of Pavlik Morozov’s flame, but even she no longer knows why it burns.
“There are so many versions that my head has turned to mush,” she said. “But the version that his grandfather and grandmother killed him -- that’s just not possible.”
Still, few here hold out much hope that the truth will ever be discovered.
“No one will find the truth,” said 57-year-old resident Nadezhda Kortuzova. “Where would you look for it?”
Although many documents in the case have leaked out over the years, the entire KGB case file has never been made available to anyone outside the special services or the judiciary. The KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, denying a request for access, described the 70-year-old case as “still open.”
Those who would like to see the case reconsidered, like Druzhnikov, blame the security services for the official resistance. Russia experienced a few dizzy years of openness after the Soviet collapse, they note, but by the mid-1990s, the FSB was resurgent.
The FSB’s power has only grown under President Vladimir V. Putin, himself a former agency director who has openly praised the legacy of the secret police and appointed KGB veterans to top civilian posts outside the agency. Putin was head of the FSB when the Supreme Court decided to uphold the convictions in the Morozov case.
“Our current leader, he loves these myths,” said Arseny Roginsky, a historian and chairman of the human rights group Memorial. “He is a Soviet person.”
Still, Roginsky said, there may be a larger problem than FSB control.
Most Russians, he said, are preoccupied with the hardships of the current day and find questions of historical justice irrelevant. And most, he said, are still affected by a national “mania for secrecy.”
“In this country, you must understand that people lived through many decades in which everything was secret,” he said. “It will be many years before that changes.”
For now, Russians are left to draw their own conclusions about Pavlik Morozov.
Druzhnikov, now a professor of Russian and German at UC Davis, is convinced that the secret police murdered the brothers and constructed the myth of Pavlik Morozov to glorify informers.
Khlebnikov blames the KGB as well but believes the government hid the truth out of contempt for the peasantry and other poor folk.
And there are Russians like historian Lev Sonin, who believes it’s possible that Pavlik’s family killed him after all. To Sonin, the identity of the murderers is less important than the immoral way the Soviet system exploited the case.
“The entire point of the case of Pavlik Morozov was to drive a wedge into the family, to separate parents from their children,” Sonin said. “It’s inhuman to use the blood of children for this purpose.”
For his part, Roginsky believes truth will triumph in the end. He notes that it took postwar Germany at least 20 years to begin to wrestle with the Nazi legacy, and says Russia needs a period of stability at least that long before it will be ready to come to terms with Stalinism.
“Sooner or later, society will have to address this,” Roginsky said. “Slowly, slowly, Soviet history will return.”
In the meantime, Pavlik Morozov and his family are trapped in a kind of historical limbo -- neither heroes nor villains, both demons and saints.
Reynolds was recently on assignment in Gerasimovka.