A thick, dusty file records the progress from life to death of my grandfather Boris Bibikov, an official of the Communist Party of Ukraine, at the hands of the Soviet secret police. The file documents his arrest at an exclusive Party sanatorium in Gagry in July 1937, and records what happened to him until his execution near Kiev, in October of the same year.
I read it on my first visit to Kiev in 1995, in the old headquarters of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, the secret police on Volodymyrska Street near the Kiev Opera House. By then the building was the headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service.
“Your grandfather believed,” said a young officer who had sat with me reading the file as we took a cigarette break in the gathering gloom. “But don’t you think that his killers believed also?”
The answer is yes, of course, they all believed—in a better world, in a bright future.
“In order to do evil a man has to believe that he is doing good,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. “If my life had turned out differently, might I, myself, not have become just such an executioner?”
While much of the world condemns Russia as an aggressor against Ukraine, those of us who are descendants of their fraught relationship understand how curiously history and geography shape the morality of nation states. Extending nearly 2,300 miles from the Black Sea to Belarus, the modern Russian–Ukrainian border, drawn in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR, is a boundary that my progenitors—witnesses to empire, descendants of Russian nobility, faithful Soviet colonizers turned anti-Stalinists, enemies of the Soviet state and finally refugees—would not have recognized or understood.
Like eight generations of Bibikovs before him, Bibikov believed Moscow’s enlightened rule would bring prosperity, equality and happiness to Ukraine. Like them, he reaped the benefits of being a loyal servant of the Russian empire. My 18th-century ancestors were granted estates by a grateful Catherine II, including 25,000 serfs. Bibikov’s rewards were more modest but still giddyingly privileged by Soviet standards. As one of the Russian builders of the Kharkov Tractor Plant, he had a four-room apartment, a peasant maidservant who slept in a closet, a gleaming Packard, luxury holidays, and even as hunger stalked Ukraine under Joseph Stalin’s collectivist dream, food to feed his family.
Undoubtedly, my grandfather bore witness to the horrors unfolding around Kharkov during the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine that starved millions of Ukrainians. He must have known of the daily patrols sent out to collect the emaciated bodies of peasants, the ruthless Red Army units sent out to seize the last kernels of grain from starving people. Bibikov must have struggled to rationalize his place in that nightmare. Perhaps he believed his great tractor factory was going to help grow enough food to feed the shining cities Stalin promised—but maybe just a little too late to help the dying millions around him. Which is why, even Bibikov, until then a loyal viceroy in service to the Soviet empire, made a fateful, fatal choice to push back against Stalin.
My grandfather’s NKVD file sat heavily in my lap, a swollen tumor of paper. It weighed around 3 pounds, and smelled of slightly acidic musk. Most of the pages were flimsy official onion-skin forms, punched through in places by typewriter strikers. Toward the end were several sheets of plain writing paper covered in a thin, blotted handwriting: my grandfather’s confessions to being an “enemy of the people” and sabotaging the factory to which he had devoted his career.
Turning to the end of the NKVD file I found a receipt confirming Bibikov had read and understood the death sentence passed on him by a closed court in Kiev. A scribbled signature was my grandfather’s last recorded act.
My grandmother Martha Platonovna Shcherbak was arrested soon after her husband and sent to the Gulag in Kazakhstan for the crime of being the wife of an “enemy of the people.” She spent 15 years there and went insane.
The Bibikovs’ children, my mother Lyudmila and her elder sister, Lenina (named for Lenin), were sent first to children’s prison, and then to an orphanage in Verkhnodniprovsk. When the German army advanced in 1941, the older children, including Lenina, then 16, were compelled to dig anti-tank trenches. The last remaining staff commandeered two barges on the Dnieper, carried Lyudmila and about 40 of the younger children aboard, and set them adrift. The group then took horse carts and rail cars past Zaporizhia, eastward into the steppes and across the Volga River as the German Sixth Army descended upon Stalingrad (now Volgograd).
Many Ukrainians—survivors of Soviet collectivization and the Holodomor—saw the Germans as liberators. The Germans, in turn, enlisted Ukrainian nationalists, including the firebrand Stepan Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), to their cause. The UPA rounded up and murdered thousands of ethnic Poles and communist partisans. Some Ukrainians, who associated Jews with Bolshevism, enthusiastically handed over their Jewish neighbors to SS Einsatzgruppe extermination squads.
UPA units continued to fight the Soviet army into the early 1950s. Bandera himself would eventually be assassinated by the KGB in Munich, in 1959, poisoned with a cyanide gun. To this day, one’s take on the UPA is the ultimate political bellwether in modern Ukraine: Is Bandera a great patriot or a collaborating Nazi swine?
There’s not much middle ground. Young post-independence Ukrainians see him as a national hero, commemorated on billboards and flags. My mother, her family, and the vast majority of modern Russians came to see Bandera and the UPA, unequivocally, as fascist traitors. She remembers joining Russians and others fleeing the Ukrainian and German advance. She remembers crossing the Volga River as a young frightened girl on a steel barge, packed to the gunwales with refugees. It must have been shortly after August 23, 1942, when Red Army sappers blew the bridges at Stalingrad. She later recalled to me how their smashed girders tilted into the water.
After World War II, Germans were described as experiencing kollektivschuld, a “national shame,” for crimes committed by their countrymen. No such reckoning followed the Holomodor, the collapse of the Soviet Union or the birth of the modern Ukrainian state. Fatefully, millions of Russians continued to gaze upon Ukraine with the patronizing eye of empire. My mother remembered the victory parade of May 9, 1945 vividly. Tens of thousands of German prisoners of war—ragged, half-starved, but still in impressive marching order—were paraded around Moscow’s Garden Ring road. She recalled feeling sorry for them.
My mother met a young Welsh academic in Moscow in 1963 and eventually married and moved to London. Even after spending years among liberal, passionately anti-Soviet emigres in the West, she struggles to see Ukraine as a truly different country from Russia. She teaches Russian literature. Ukraine’s greatest writers—notably Nikolai Gogol—are an inalienable part of a shared heritage. For her, as for millions of Russians, the idea that Ukraine has broken the bounds of empire to form its own national identity is dissonant and alien.
Of course, most prominent among the Russians who refuse to accept the new reality is Vladimir Putin, who has claimed repeatedly that “Ukraine is not a real country.” Many Russians see Ukrainians as nashi lyudi–“our people” in Russian—in the familial, possessive, patronizing sense. And many citizens of Ukraine in the Russophone East of the country will tell you that they are “culturally Russian,” whatever that means.
Even with such rifts—historical, political, familial—the European-leaning West and Russian-leaning East of Ukraine somehow managed to rub along for 23 years of independence—chaotic, corrupt and dysfunctional independence, for sure. But a new generation of young Ukrainians, brought up to learn their country’s native language and revering its national heroes, placed their hopes for the future in another sort of postmodern empire—the European Union.
As Moscow Bureau Chief for Newsweek magazine, I traveled to Ukraine in 2014 to report on the war that began in 2014 shortly after Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected calls to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The decision rocked Kiev—resulting, ultimately, in 94 days of escalating street battles, Yanukovych fleeing as protesters flooded into his palace outside Kiev, Putin seizing Crimea, separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces in the Donbas seceding. That conflict was the first act of today’s full-scale war—a war fought over identity, the legacy of empire, and the right of former captive nations to break free from their old masters.
My brain writes the stories of the armed factions and proxies that are tearing Ukraine apart, after bursting into greater war in February this year. My blood thinks this about Ukraine: that among many other things, it has always been a place of new beginnings—for Ukraine, for Russia, for humanity. Ever, as now, Ukraine is where empires are tested, where history turns.
The final document of my grandfather’s file, dated October 14, 1937, was a clumsily mimeographed slip with a casual squiggle by his executioner. Since the careful bureaucrats who compiled the file neglected to record where he was buried, that stack of paper is the closest thing we have to Boris Bibikov’s earthly remains.