Searching for My Uncles' Soviet Killers

Two of my uncles were killed by the Soviets and I’d like to know who the perpetrators were. The first, my aunt’s husband, Bohdan, was killed exactly 72 years ago, on June 30, 1941, when the Soviet secret police shot somewhere between 9,000 and 20–25,000 (or possibly even more) mostly Ukrainian political prisoners in western Ukraine in the course of a week. The second, my father’s kid brother, Teodozii, was arrested sometime in 1947, sent to a prison camp in Siberia, and never returned.

Bohdan was a member of the nationalist underground. In the 1930s, he spent five to six years in Polish prisons, where he was systematically beaten and tortured. When Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland in September 1939, he was freed. He married my aunt in 1940 and then, on June 22, 1941, the day Hitler turned on his former collaborationist pal Stalin, Bohdan was arrested and placed in a provincial jail. Just before the Soviets withdrew, they massacred the inmates. Bohdan was mutilated and shot. He and the other prisoners were then dumped into a pit behind the jail, only to be discovered after the Soviets withdrew. My mother was there when the bodies were exhumed. Some 20 corpses had been found and he wasn’t among them. Hoping that he might have survived, she took one last look into the pit and saw the outlines of another body. It was Bohdan. Evidently, he had been shot and dumped first.

Teodozii apparently had no political connections: he was an aspiring young actor who worked for a theater in Lviv. One weekend, he came home to his village at precisely the time that the nationalist underground had distributed some leaflets. Suspicion fell on him and he was arrested. In those days, it didn’t take much for the Soviet secret police to imprison you. They placed Teodozii in a Lviv jail for a few months and then shipped him out to Siberia. He never came back. Did he fall ill? Did he starve to death? Was he shot? No one knows.

Neither my father nor my aunt ever spoke about their personal tragedies. I vaguely knew of their losses and learned of the details much later in life, when I began researching the history of Ukraine. I can’t say that I have sleepless nights, but I am a tad angry. I’m angry at the Soviet Union, which killed two uncles. I’m angry at the Soviet secret policemen who tortured and shot Bohdan and maltreated Teodozii. And I’m angry at the reigning Western indifference to all Soviet deaths—and, by extension, to these two Ukrainian deaths.

I’d actually like to know who pulled the triggers and wielded the knives. I know there’s virtually no chance of finding out—the documentation probably doesn’t exist and, even if it does, it’s certainly under lock and key—but finding out isn’t the point, after all. Caring is, and the bottom line is that no one cares about the crimes committed by the KGB and its predecessor secret-police organizations. It was they who implemented the millions of deaths imposed by Stalin on the Soviet Union. It was they who incarcerated, tortured, and killed hundreds of thousands of their political opponents. It was they who deported entire peoples. Surely their crimes are at least roughly comparable to those of the SS and Gestapo. Or are victims of Soviet crimes less worthy of compassion than victims of Nazi crimes? And if we grant that all victims of violence deserve a smidgeon of our compassion, it surely follows that our outrage at the SS and Gestapo must extend to the KGB.

Except that it doesn’t. A bar in New York is named after the KGB and it features readings by liberal-minded avant-garde writers and poets. Former KGB officers write memoirs and give lectures in the United States and Canada. Their affiliation with a criminal organization appears not to matter. They aren’t even asked to say “oops” for their sins.

Consider the most egregious such example: Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Putin resolved to join the secret police in the 1970s, a few years after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, and during one of the largest KGB crackdowns on Soviet dissent. This kind of past should raise eyebrows. Instead, policymakers, scholars, and journalists accept Putin’s choice as if it were merely a career move. They shake his hand at summits; they gladly let themselves be photographed in his presence; they attend elaborate meetings with him in Valdai. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder went so far as to call Putin a “flawless democrat” at the height of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in late 2004. French President Jacques Chirac even bestowed his country’s prestigious Grand-Croix de la Légion d’Honneur on Putin on September 23, 2006.

When I’m feeling bitter, I imagine how my uncles died. I see Bohdan getting a bullet in the back of his head. I see Teodozii starving in some barracks. And when I’m feeling cynical, I see Vladimir, Gerhard, and Jacques smoking cigars and drinking vodka in the KGB Bar.

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