Of murder and memory: an unfinished story from post-war Ukraine

Tanya Zaharchenko
March 9, 2018
"CA_20131126_001" by Costică Acsinte Archive is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1953. Alexander Maĭboroda. The attack

He knocked gently. The last thing he wanted was to startle his loved  ones. It was late in the night, and his wife and three children were  fast asleep behind that door. They all shared one of the seven rooms of a  large communal apartment that housed five other families in the very  centre of the city of Kharkiv in east Ukraine. At the time, of course,  it was the USSR.

The youngest daughter, fourteen-year-old Zina, was the one who heard  the knocking. She jumped up and opened the door to see her father  standing before her, covered in blood, his skull split open by an axe.  He recognized her, and his face contorted into what he thought was a  smile. Then he collapsed into her arms. It was the night of September  17, 1953. Prosecutor Alexander Maĭboroda had just been attacked in a  high-profile crime that would never be solved.

Zina does not remember much more about that dismal night, other than  running along Rymarskaia Street with her older sister, Rita, in search  of a public phone to call for help. They rushed down the middle of the  empty road — which today is perpetually flooded with downtown traffic —  and didn’t meet a single person along the way.

That same morning, only hours after her father was attacked, Zina had  to join the queues for milk, as usual. And as usual, the city’s  residents already knew the latest news: all the talk was about the  slaughtered state attorney. She stood among them, holding back tears,  and listened silently.

As a child, at this point of the story I would usually interrupt my  grandmother: “But why didn’t you tell them, Zina? Why didn’t you say he  was your father?! Surely they would have let you skip the queue!”. And  in response, she would straighten her back: “I am a prosecutor’s  daughter. I could await my turn”. And so she waited.

The prosecutor survived the night. Forsaken and ailing, he suffered  from his grave head injury for another six years before succumbing to a  brain abscess in 1959 at the age of 52. He collapsed and died alone on  the street, on his way to buy a pair of tiny shoes right after Zina’s  little daughter, my mother, took her first steps.

As my mother grew up in the same crowded kommunalka at 6  Rymarskaia Street, her grandfather’s name lingered within Kharkiv  folklore. But gradually, as time moved on, the legend faded. Today, not  many remember it.

Echoes and shadows of this story reached me as I was growing up.  Softened and blurred by the years that had accumulated between me and my  great-grandfather, they were filed away among the many things we tend  to inherit as part of our family histories. These echoes and shadows  included a dark name: Sergeĭ Trofimenko, a gang leader and notorious  criminal whom prosecutor Maĭboroda had opposed in court. The family  story pointed to him: he must have been the vengeful attacker. He was,  after all, a blood-thirsty killer, described in several contemporary  books on the history of Kharkiv’s law enforcement as nothing short of a  cannibal.

It wasn’t until recently that I took a closer look at this dramatic  post-war narrative. At first, I wanted to know more about my  great-grandfather. But research kept pointing me instead to the presumed  arch-villain, Trofimenko. Before long, I knew that there was more to  his story — and that it, too, deserved to be told. This is an attempt to  do justice to both sides of the brutal events that unfolded nearly  seventy years ago.

By 2014 I had spent four years examining cultural memory and  frontiers in Kharkiv’s vibrant contemporary literature. I was working on  a doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge, studying how  historical narratives weave themselves into fiction in this diverse and  dynamic borderland city. Located a mere forty kilometres from the border  with Russia, Kharkiv is not just my hometown — it is also one of  Ukraine’s chief cultural hotbeds.

But as I explored the role of Ukrainian writers in charting their  nation’s past, my thoughts kept returning to Rymarskaia Street — a place  that stood outside my doctoral work, a place where my family history  lay buried. And so, after defending the dissertation, I applied for the  Albert Einstein fellowship, a unique German initiative designed to aid  scholars in undertaking projects beyond their field of specialization.  The following year, I was the 2015 Einstein Fellow, facing the task of  unpacking a narrative that had accompanied me since childhood — with no  training as a historian or archival experience.

Given this start, one might assume that what follows is the customary  story of the triumph of discovery. After all, that’s what we’ve been  trained to expect, not least through the tales narrated to us by the  entertainment industry. Indeed, if I were making a film about it (we’ve  all seen the kind), I’d speed up some impressive action cuts, such as  pages flipping in archival darkness under the heroine’s determined hand,  and drape them enthusiastically in spirited music before  fast-forwarding to the moment of accomplishment: the truth emerges, the  battle has been won.

Unfortunately, real life rarely allows for such neat narratives. No  one sticks around to film the hours you spend shaking about in crowded  public transport, traveling from one archive to another, or the  perpetual wait for information, often in vain. You don’t get a rousing  soundtrack, and there isn’t anyone to capture you nodding off on a heap  of anticlimactic rejection letters:

“You are hereby  informed that according to the laws of Ukraine ‘On information’ and ‘On  protection of personal data’, information on criminal responsibility is  confidential and cannot be shared without permission of the person to  whom it pertains.”  

Of course, the person to whom it pertains — Sergeĭ Trofimenko, the  notorious gangster presumed to have organized the attack on my  great-grandfather — most likely died in the 1950s, so his permission is  hard to come by. But despite such dense layers of bureaucracy,  eventually I did get a hold of his hefty case file at the Security  Services of Ukraine. That’s when I learned that he is unlikely to have  been the culprit. His execution sentence, passed for killing an entirely  different person, was issued on July 13, 1951 — two years and two  months before an axe-wielding assassin entered apartment #8 at 6  Rymarskaia Street.

Granted, I was prepared for the story that emerges to differ from the  memories that had been passed down to me. As a student of memory  studies, I knew how fluid recollection (and forgetting) can be. But it  is one thing to work with theory, and quite another to excavate one’s  own past. In fact, I realized over those months that familiar metaphors  along the lines of “excavating” lack both accuracy and utility: they  assume the existence of an original lucid narrative, which merely needs  to be glued back together. Though our minds may work that way, reality  often doesn’t. Around that time I wrote in a forthcoming book: “The idea  of recovering or excavating memory can and should be interrogated, for  it presumes that what has allegedly been buried remains largely  unchanged when it re-emerges. This is a daring assumption.”1

But let’s set theory aside for now. This story is about trying to  make sense of history as an ordinary person, not as a trained historian  or a film heroine. This ordinary person started with libraries. The  logic seemed sturdy: a high-profile case — a prosecutor attacked with an  axe in the middle of the night in his own home — surely local  newspapers would have covered it, in some shape or form?

Two main daily papers were published in Kharkiv at the time: Sotsіalіstychna Kharkіvshchyna in Ukrainian and Krasnoe Znamia  in Russian. I got hold of them, and spent hours studying every day of  1953. I found nothing. The old, yellowed pages, which offered plenty of  details on “The joyless fate of the American worker” or “The price of  bread rising in West Berlin”, did not contain a word on the brutal  assault next door. In fact, there were no crime reports for 1953 at all,  with some rare exceptions toward the final months of the year. If  citizens met their end, it was only following “a prolonged illness”.

So I shifted gears and turned to books dedicated to the history of  Kharkiv’s law enforcement. But the tone of such volumes is almost  unceasingly heroic, as exemplified by the iconic 1979 film Mesto vstrechi izmenit’ nel’zia  (released in the West as “The Age of Mercy”) with the renowned Vladimir  Vysotsky as one of its dedicated, masculine police protagonists. One  book, for instance, is called Zhizni svoeĭ ne shchadia —  “Without sparing their own lives”. This is not surprising: despite what  newspapers might have us believe, there was plenty of crime in the USSR  in the harsh post-war era.

But prosecutor Alexander Maĭboroda had no place in any of these  publications. Leafing through the pages, I struggled with the  bewildering impression that he had been expunged from official history.  As it turned out, this was not far from the truth.

Meanwhile, every volume featured Sergeĭ Trofimenko. His story is  among our history’s “resonant criminal cases”, mentioned in nearly every  serious discussion on crime in the USSR in the 1940s-50s. For a long  while, his case was part of the criminology course at the highly  regarded Kharkiv Law Institute (now the National Law University). It was  in these pages that I discovered the name of the man Trofimenko did  kill: one Ivan Karpenko.

1947. Sergeĭ Trofimenko. The retaliation

Sergeĭ Trofimenko was born around 1914 in a village called Trofimovka  in the Kharkiv region. His father, Ageĭ Trofimenko, was a kulak (an  affluent peasant) and a white officer. The White movement opposed the  communist Red movement; the title of Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard,  has the same roots. Ageĭ Trofimenko (b. 1878) was executed for  counter-revolutionary activity in December 1937, according to a small  note inserted into his son’s seven-volume criminal file in the Security  Services archive. He had resisted collectivization, and papers place him  among the organizers of an anti-Soviet kulak uprising in 1920:

Sergeĭ, who received six grades of basic education, carried this  stamp like a verdict through his life. Nearly every mention of his name  on paper includes his kulak past. By the time his death sentence was  passed in 1951, he had faced the courts a whooping seventeen times —  including three instances of the infamous NKVD troikas in the 1930s —  and had successfully escaped places of detention sixteen times. The year  1951 saw his final trial, as far as we know. It began as follows.

In early December 1947, three armed men walked into the Kharkiv  region post office, which traditionally housed a type of savings bank  called a sberkassa. They were Sergeĭ Trofimenko, his younger  brother Alexander Trofimenko, and their partner Piotr Miziak. They came  as robbers. But the assistant manager of the post office, Ivan Karpenko,  was armed as well. He resisted the intruders, and in the resulting  shoot-out he fatally wounded Alexander.

Sergeĭ went on trial for this robbery attempt in 1948, with  prosecutor Maĭboroda opposing him in court. Karpenko was one of the  witnesses. During the trial, the defendant made no secret of his fury,  and openly promised to avenge his little brother by killing Karpenko. He  received 25 years of corrective labour in July 1948. By October 1950,  the experienced convict was a successful escapee once again. He made his  way back from the north-eastern Russian region of Kolyma, burglarized  some houses, reached Kharkiv in December 1950, and started watching his  nemesis Karpenko’s every move. According to the law enforcement history  books, it was on that long transcontinental journey that he killed and  ate his companions — two younger fellow escapees — in order to stay  alive. I did not see this information in his case file.

The year 1951 came around. On January 6, Trofimenko walked into Ivan  Karpenko’s office, asked the staff to remain seated, and fired two shots  from the two guns he carried. One of the bullets lightly wounded  Karpenko. According to Trofimenko’s later statements, both guns had  misfired. To lie low for a while after this failed attack, he fled to  Sochi, where he wrote a letter to one of his sisters, Lida:

Give my greetings  to those who deserve it, or even simpler — to those who want to receive  them from me. […] I know that my last act is not to everyone’s taste.  […] Yes, they call me a thug. But I am not a thug; I am the people’s  avenger. There are too few of those like me. It would be good if we were  more.

He dated the letter February 12, 1951, and included a recent photograph of himself. He signed it on the back:

To my sisters. If  we don’t see each other again. Because my fate is cruel… May, then, my  motionless persona from this photograph stay in your memory. Let  everyone judge as best they can. But alas, I am not a bandit, but a  noble person. It’s the authorities who are ban…

He  didn’t finish the last word, leaving only the first syllable. This  correspondence from Sochi was eventually confiscated and stored in a  small blue envelope in his case file, tagged succinctly: “Letter and  photograph with hostile anti-Soviet inscriptions”.

Soon Sergeĭ was back in Kharkiv to continue trying to avenge  Sashen’ka, as he tenderly called his late little brother. On March 16,  1951, as the recovered Karpenko left his home on Sadovaia Street for  work at 8:45 am, Trofimenko met him on the staircase and finally killed  him with six shots from a Walther gun.

He quickly fled Kharkiv again, assuming one of his many aliases,  Viktor Naumov. A few weeks later, on March 30, he was found hiding in  the attic of the railway station in Lviv. Among the things discovered on  his person were seven bullets and a piece of paper torn from a standard  square-grid notebook. It featured handwritten text that began with  “Jesus Christ walked ahead” and ended with “amen, amen, amen”. This  piece of paper was deemed irrelevant to the case, and ordered destroyed  through burning. The Soviet Union was officially an atheist state.

Naumov-Trofimenko was promptly arrested by the Ministry of State  Security, as the former NKVD and future KGB was called at the time. On  April 9, he was officially accused of hostility to the Soviet regime.  Fuelled by his inherent kulak animosity toward communism, he had  committed a terrorist act against a member of the All-Union Communist  Party of Bolsheviks (as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was  known between 1925 and 1952). This crime was to be tried under article  54-8 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR. Equivalent to Russia’s  notorious article 58, this was Ukraine’s political article: it focused  on counter-revolutionary activity, betrayal of motherland, and  terrorism.

Sergeĭ Trofimenko pleaded guilty. That summer, a military tribunal  tried him as a terrorist for killing Ivan Karpenko. On July 13, 1951, he  was sentenced to death by firing squad. His younger sisters, Lida and  Nina, received 25 and 5 years of labour camps respectively for aiding  and abetting a terrorist (Lida) and failing to report him to the  authorities (Nina). All in all, nine people were sentenced along with  Trofimenko under sections of article 54. Most received 25 years of  corrective labour. Among them were family members, friends, and women  who hid Sergeĭ in their apartments on his quest for revenge.

The archives have preserved documentation for all of their subsequent  escorts to labour camps. Only Trofimenko’s execution confirmation is  nowhere to be found. Seeking advice, I turned to my historian friends:  does the absence of this paper tell us anything about the execution  itself? Can we still assume that it took place? They could not say for  certain. But Konstantin, the archivist at the Security Services, was  convinced: the gangster was dead days, if not hours, after a verdict  like that, his body dumped in a ditch somewhere. After all, this  established repeat offender never resurfaces again. When I inquired  about a grave, Konstantin broke the archival stillness with laughter: I  was clearly such a novice. A novice who should forget about finding any  traces of anyone executed as a terrorist in the USSR in the 1950s.

1947. Alexander Maĭboroda. The defiance

When I left the Security Services for the final time, one thing was  clear: the names of the military tribunal judges who sentenced  Trofimenko to death in 1951 did not include Alexander Maĭboroda. That  sentencing didn’t even take place in Kharkiv. The last time my  great-grandfather and the gangster met appears to have been in 1948,  during the robbery trial, when Trofimenko received one of his many  sentences. Of course, the prosecutor was probably not the convict’s  favourite person. But unless some vital information is missing from the  records, Maĭboroda does not appear to be near the top of the list of  people Trofimenko or his survivors might seek to exact revenge on. Using  an axe in a post-war country teeming with guns seems particularly odd.  Karpenko was the man Trofimenko publicly promised to kill, and did kill.  The story of his being the attacker on Rymarskaia Street in 1953 came  more and more into question as days turned into weeks in Kharkiv’s  archives.

A strange parallel emerged over those weeks. It turned out that just  as Trofimenko had struggled in the aftermath of collectivization and  fell against the regime he detested, so did Maĭboroda descend through  its ranks, losing ground, possibly losing his job, and finally losing  his life. His struggle is documented in his human resources file at the  Kharkiv Region Prosecutor’s Office, which proved particularly difficult  to get a hold of. This part of the story unfolded as follows.

In line with good old East European traditions — in which boundless  bureaucracy is designed to be navigated through contacts — I started  with unofficial channels and engaged an old family friend, a retired  Prosecutor General of the Kharkiv region. Could he please help with  access to my great-grandfather’s file? Yes, he said at first. But after  some time, he reported back that the file was nowhere to be found. It  was, inexplicably, missing. Dumbfounded, I filed an official request to  see it. About a month later, the phone rang in my grandmother Zina’s  apartment, where I usually stay in Kharkiv.

It was around 8 pm, and the call came from the Prosecutor’s Office.  In response to my request for access to Maĭboroda’s file, the caller  wished to “recommend strongly” that I let it go. “What you might learn…  it poisons families forever”, he warned in a kind, fatherly voice. And  so began a dark, long, and sleepless night of imagining the horrific  sins my great-grandfather’s records were hiding. This was the night I  learned: sometimes, history comes close; and sometimes, it begins to  devour you.

The next morning found me in the Prosecutor’s Office, dismayed and  determined. And, after some heated debate, I did get to see the file I  had come for. I glimpsed a note on its cover as it lay on the table just  beyond my reach: closed in 1951, scheduled for destruction 75 years  later. That’s only a decade away! This pending obliteration became my  ultimate argument. Last night’s caller gave in and sighed, “Fine. Here  you go. I refuse all further responsibility”. Then he tactfully  disappeared, leaving me with the worn folder pressed to my chest.

What I found in that folder was a story of an able young lawyer who  entered the prosecutorial field and rose through its ranks. As military  prosecutor, he took part in World War II from start to finish. His  wartime medals and orders of merit included the notoriously bloody  battle known as the Defence of Stalingrad. In 1945-46, he was deputy  military prosecutor of Brandenburg. By 1947, he was chief military  prosecutor of Königsberg.

But his professional achievements were matched by equally numerous  shortcomings. As an investigator, he was inconsistent about carrying out  orders from above, insolently following his own leads instead. He had a  nesting place where he liked to read, doing his very best to avoid  heading out to factories with political education initiatives, as was  expected from a man in his position. He failed to be “selective about  having the right friends”, and paid “too much attention to his private  life”. On top of everything, he allowed himself a drink. For these  misbehaviours and overall disobedience, it was eventually strongly  recommended that he be expelled from the Red Army and “immediately  demobilized”. The recommendation was carried out promptly.

Alexander Maĭboroda returned to Kharkiv in the rank of Major of Justice (gvardii maĭor iustitsii)  in 1948 — just in time to take on Trofimenko’s post office robbery —  and headed the department for supervision of police officers (prokuror otdela po nadzoru za militsieĭ).  There he is described as a skilled lawyer who is “highly qualified,  cultured, and measured”. But the defiant prosecutor continues to “allow  delays” in solving criminal cases — an accusation that, according to his  daughter Zina, stemmed from his habitual refusal to accuse and try  people in haste, without establishing sufficient reason.

Once again, Maĭboroda begins to gather negative feedback and  reprimands. Finally, despite raising the overall efficiency of his  department 40% as compared to 1949, he is sacked from his job entirely  in 1951. The date was June 18 — roughly one month before Trofimenko’s  final sentencing by the military tribunal that met in another city.

This — though much shortened — is the information the Prosecutor’s  Office had tried to protect me from. Perhaps this was because my family  roots qualified me for treatment as a remote member of the prosecutorial  kin group. In his contemporary colleagues’ opinion, Alexander Maĭboroda  was an epic failure.

The strange thing is, both of his surviving children, Zina and Rita,  positively remember that he was still employed when attacked in 1953.  They also remember an armed guard stationed at their door on Rymarskaia  at that time. The concluding 38th sheet of paper in his file  declares that it contains 37 pages, as re-numbered in 1957 — six years  after he was allegedly fired and four years after he was rendered  handicapped. These pages are not in order (1948 comes after 1951, for  instance) and include a sudden template for registering officially  eliminated documents. It is blank.

The last numbered page in Maĭboroda’s personnel folder — page 37 — is  a concise confirmation that on September 17, 1953, he was attacked by  criminals in his apartment, wounded in the head, and became an invalid.  This was how I learned the date of the assault Zina had been telling me  about. To this day, I have been unable to find an explanation as to why  these papers indicate that he was unemployed at the time he was  attacked, while surviving witnesses insist otherwise. But there is one  reason I can think of: if a state can show that an assassination attempt  was made on a former prosecutor, rather than on an acting one, it can  wash its hands of any responsibility — both for the violence and for the  man’s subsequent fate.

One thing remains clear: if Sergeĭ Trofimenko was executed as  sentenced, he would have been dead two years by the time Alexander  Maĭboroda was attacked in 1953. In that same year Stalin died, and late  March 1953 saw the so-called Beria amnesty, which released over one  million non-political inmates around the country. Most of them flooded  to large cities like Kharkiv. Any one of them could have held a grudge.  At the same time, if someone in power needed to get rid of an  inconvenient prosecutor and blame it on a doomed gangster’s family, it  was all certainly working out.

2015. Rymarskaia Street. The place

It is possible that I visited our kommunalka on Rymarskaia  Street during the first few months of my life, before the family split  up to move into smaller private apartments, as did many people in those  years. Now I wandered longingly around Rymarskaia 6 during brief breaks  from libraries and archives. It remains a grand old building — high  ceilings, wall sculpture, dried-out fountains on the staircases, all  dating from the pre-revolutionary, tsarist times.

After a while, I managed to sneak in. No one answered the doorbell at  apartment number 8. I stood in front of it for a long time. Before  leaving, I slid a note into the door jamb.

It was a wild move: some girl from the street says her relative was  hacked to death in your living quarters; could you let her in, please?  But by the time I got home that night, the owner had already called. Of  course I could come see the apartment. She knows about the axe massacre;  she’d heard the story from the neighbours.

Iryna, owner of apartment 8 today, modestly calls herself an  oligarch: “Formerly number two in Ukraine’s business world”. In the  1990s she purchased private apartments for all families who were still  living in #8, so that she and her husband could have the giant kommunalka to  themselves. But the husband died shortly afterwards, and there she was:  alone on nearly 300 square meters of silenced history. For reasons none  of us may ever know, she filled every inch of this space with clutter.  Today, it is difficult to take a step there without tripping over  something.

After becoming the sole owner of the apartment, Iryna remodelled it  according to her taste: red wallpaper, heavy chandeliers—“the way things  were” before the revolution. She dismantled the wall that separated our  family room from the long corridor down which Alexander Maĭboroda had  stumbled with his injury. To illuminate the extent of her renovation  efforts, Iryna located the previous floor-plan of #8 among her papers.

As I studied it, Iryna spoke:

“You’ve come for the safe, haven’t you?”

It turned out that her construction workers found a safe hidden in  one of the walls. They swore that it was already empty when they came  upon it, and Iryna says she discarded it. It was discovered in an area  that used to consist of three storage closets (13-15 on the floor-plan),  located across the hall from the prosecutor’s small makeshift office.  One of the storage spaces had belonged to our family. But none of the  surviving relatives know anything about the safe.
One other detail is worth mentioning about the six families that shared  #8 in the 1950s. The room marked 20 on the diagram, directly to the  right of the main entrance, had belonged to a couple. My  great-grandmother Edya — Alexander’s wife and Zina’s mother — refused to  speak to them. She is long gone, and no one knows the actual cause of  that long-standing animosity. But Iryna insists that the husband was  head of MGB (later KGB) of the Kharkiv region: she had to fight off some  recent efforts to make a museum dedicated to him in that room. What a  KGB general was doing in a kommunalka remains a mystery.

Rymarskaia is hardly short on mysteries, of course. The only thing  the assailant took from Alexander after striking him with an axe that  September night was the blood-soaked uniform jacket, which the  prosecutor would wear while working on his papers. When the inhabitants  of the apartment retired for the night, he would don his uniform and sit  at his desk in the closet he used as an office (number 8 on the  diagram). That’s where he was attacked. The jacket was never recovered,  leading the family to believe that it was removed as proof. Terrified of  that small room’s history, Iryna walled up the window that opened into  the servants’ staircase — the hitman’s point of entry — and turned the  space into a green-tiled bathroom.

Zina postulates that her father lay on the floor for about three  hours with his head split open. Then he regained the consciousness and  the self-control to walk down the hall, knock gently on his family’s  door, and force what he thought was a comforting smile when his youngest  daughter opened it.

1951. Sergeĭ Trofimenko. The criminal

With their vocal claims to bold resistance and even nobility,  reinforced by broken lives and tragic fates, persons like Sergeĭ  Trofimenko can tempt a researcher into amplified empathy with their  plight. A wrinkled pencilled note from one of the women who sheltered  and helped him while he pursued Karpenko was a timely and sobering find.  Its unseen author describes how Trofimenko beat her, and laments her  own inability to understand why.

“Sergeĭ arrived, the first days were good”, she wrote in 1951, but  “on February 27 he beat me strongly for getting me drunk”. Later they  went to a theatre with Lida, and after they returned, “Sergeĭ wanted to  show off in front of his sister: look how I control everyone, meaning  women. […] he walked her home, came back and beat me again —for what? I  still don’t understand. […] my bruises have healed, but the wound in my  heart will never heal. […] there’s no one to stand up for me, a  defenceless castaway. He is big and strong; it is easy for him to deal  with me”.

This woman, too, received 25 years for her ties to the terrorist. Her  name was Zoia Podluzhnaia, although — like Trofimenko — she used  multiple aliases. She had been on trial four times previously, spending a  total of eight years incarcerated for robberies. The circumstances  under which this note was written are unclear: it is registered as  having been removed from Zoia’s apartment during a search, and added to  Sergeĭ’s file as proof of their connection. We last hear of her when she  departs for a labour camp in January of 1952.

Trofimenko was, indeed, well-built. As part of his final trial, he  was subject to a psychiatric evaluation on April 12, 1951. His  “well-developed musculature” was observed during this examination, along  with complaints about increased irritability and headaches. The  psychiatrist duly noted, too, that Sergeĭ reported to have been  incarcerated most of the time since 1929, having spent only about 2  years in total as a free man. In 1929, at the age of 15, he was infected  with syphilis, and re-infected again in 1947. He never finished the  course of prescribed treatments for the second instance.

Trofimenko is also recorded as testifying to having suffered from  gonorrhoea six times — which the good doctor put down under the  colloquial name of ‘tripper’ — as well as to being addicted to morphine,  ether, and cocaine. The examiner observed some issues with the sound of  his heartbeat. Other than that, the inmate’s speech was “consequent and  logical”, containing no “delirious ideas”. He “behaves apprehensively,  is reserved with words, prefers only to answer questions, [and is]  emotionally tense”. The doctor concluded that Trofimenko does not suffer  from any mental illness, and instead presents a “psychopathic  personality addicted to drugs”. He was fully aware of his actions when  he killed Karpenko, and is therefore fit to stand trial. His death  verdict was issued a few months later.

How do we handle, today, this man’s life-long plight, and others like  it? How do we tackle the choices they made? During the concluding talk I  gave at the end of my Einstein fellowship, a colleague objected: no  empathy should obscure the fact that this was no freedom fighter; this  was an ordinary thug. Not all — not even most — families subjected to  the ruthlessness of dekulakization ended up turning to crime.

Indeed, the reasons that lead some, but not others, down darker roads  may be hidden among the auxiliary details obscured by the dry yellow  leaves of protocols. We are left only with a disarray of isolated  sketches. For instance, we know that Trofimenko would “offer” (as one  case file puts it) the owners of the apartments he burglarized to leave  the room while he robbed them. This is how he was caught at one point:  the owner safely retired to the adjacent room, climbed out the window,  and screamed for help.

Thug or not, there was clearly an anti-Soviet context in at least  some of the criminal activity of Sergeĭ Trofimenko — at least on the  level of retrospective justification, but quite possibly also on the  level of actual motivation. Bolshevik Ivan Karpenko was likely an NKVD  worker — these were attached to all government institutions — otherwise  why would an assistant manager of a post office have a gun? Murdering  him, then, was not only blood revenge; it was also an execution of a  representative of the reviled authorities.

Paradoxically, Trofimenko adopted the regime’s own language in his  voiced opposition to it. For instance, he called himself “the people’s  avenger” in his letter from Sochi. During World War II, this was a  common reference to Soviet partisans who took down Nazi soldiers.  Trofimenko saw himself as a fighter against the system, but at the same  time, he internalized some key elements of the ideology and phraseology  of his enemy, as is known to happen. Scholars have discussed the fine  line between perpetrator and victim as one of the most striking  characteristics of the Soviet regime, and this story illuminates its  fineness yet again.

“Unfortunately, we cannot witness the dialogues hidden behind the  unified narrative recorded in a pre-established pattern”, mused a  scholar who shared his archival research into the 18th  century on one of Ukraine’s history-oriented websites in 2016. One  cannot help but agree with this lamentation for the obliterated  “secondary” details of old criminal cases. We will probably never  recover them from the protocol storylines that were, as historian David  Sabean put it, “adjusted so as to equate the punishment with the crime”.


What had started as a six-month project to look into a long-forgotten  murder has turned into an attempt to do some sort of justice — at least  by writing things down — to the two men whose fates were twisted and  whose lives were destroyed long before I was born. In their own ways,  both of them struggled with the system. Neither of them won. One  grappled from the inside; the other, from the outside. Both lost their  lives as a result. Prior to the start of this research, these men were  antagonists in my mind. But reality, as usual, has claimed its endless  shades between black and white: the downfalls of prosecutor Maĭboroda  and gangster Trofimenko seem to have paralleled each other, even in  time.

This struck me when I dropped by a small museum run by the  Prosecutor’s Office. One of its exhibits is dedicated to all state  attorneys who had fought in World War II, as well as to those killed in  the line of duty. I scanned it for Alexander Maĭboroda, but in vain. We  know for certain, however, that he fought in that war. I turned for help  to the elderly museum keeper and a retired prosecutor chatting nearby.  “Yeah, I know his story”, smirked the latter. “And for what  achievements, exactly, do you expect to find him here?”. He made no  effort to hide his disdain.

These kinds of things tend to stay with you, like the apples tossed at the giant insect in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.  Those apples, I always thought, represent words that have the power to  bury into one’s skin. They can rot there, and kill through decay, just  as Kafka describes. Maĭboroda’s insubordination, and then his severe  injury, pushed him out of the state’s relentless system of order. No  books or newspapers mention his name, and the files on the crime  committed against him in 1953 are, to this date, missing. Finding  herself with three children and a disabled husband, Edya begged for a  certificate of illness to qualify him for a pension. His broken skull  and infected brain, which could be seen beneath the boneless skin of his  head in his final years, got him certified at level 3 — the lightest  possible grade of legally registered handicap.

So for what reason, exactly? Perhaps for questioning authority in an  authoritarian state and refusing to seek his superiors’ approval, at the  very least. This may or may not have cost him his job, but there are  far worse things I was preparing myself to find in his file that  sleepless night after the cautioning phone call. Despite the complexity  of his fate and his choices within the system, the discovery of this  audacious side of my great-grandfather — who focused on his private life  and was not properly selective about having the right friends — has  been a genuine gift from an otherwise dark chronicle.

Alexander had married a Jewish girl from an orphanage, and together  with Edya they put their money where their mouth was, as we say now.  During his years as a high-ranking prosecutor, he repeatedly refused the  state’s offer of a separate private apartment instead of the kommunalka  room. During her years as head warehouse manager at a hospital — an  influential position that could open up possibilities in exchange for  favours — Edya remained utterly unapproachable about said favours. She  passed away in 2000 at the age of 92 on the other side of town, far from  Rymarskaia Street. She lived on the fourth floor, but in her final  years, she worried about a figure climbing in through the window.

We still do not know who attacked Alexander Maĭboroda, and for what  reason. It would be helpful to see the records of a criminal  investigation into the possible assailants, but these — unlike  Trofimenko’s case file — are nowhere to be found. Numerous requests have  gone out to relevant agencies, but the response so far is silence. And  this silence, too, is part of the non-triumphal reality such personal  journeys sometimes have to face.

It seems reasonable that there would have been an investigation into  the (unsolved, as far as we know) attack on a state attorney, but no one  knows where those papers might be. Perhaps someplace, as we speak, sits  the undisclosed evidence of the night of September 17, 1953 — witness  statements, crime scene description, a list of suspects. Maybe it  clarifies who had threatened Maĭboroda and his family to the extent that  the state installed armed police guards outside the main entrance of  Rymarskaia 6. They stayed for months, if not years; Zina had to walk to  school in their company. At one point, someone shot at Edya, but missed.  Trofimenko was that threat — such is the story passed down to me. But  there are too many loose ends. For a long while, I thought they made the  story unworthy of being told. Human beings, it appears, come with an  innate fondness for closure.

I did try to tie the ends up. A meeting with acting Prosecutor  General of the Kharkiv region was not as difficult to arrange as one  might expect. My evening caller — the one who advised me to stay away  from my great-grandfather’s personnel file — helped organize an  encounter. In a large room, at the end of an impressive long table, the  prosecutor general listened to my much-abridged story and promised to  help locate the investigation file and the armed guard directive. His  disposition was attentive and respectful. I left with much hope; but to  this day, I have not heard from him. His secretaries are silent.

If it does not correspond to the truth, then who created the  narrative of the Trofimenko brothers taking down the prosecutor as one  avenged the other, and when? Why did the attacker use an axe, instead of  a gun with a silencer? How did he find his way to the back door and up  the old servants’ staircase? For what reason, and where to, did he take  the blood-soaked uniform jacket? How did he leave through the front  door, as family members insist, if an armed guard was stationed there?  Why were the pages of Maĭboroda’s file re-numbered in 1957? Who filed  the many information access requests, some classified, for Trofimenko’s  case file after 1954? What was in that hidden safe? And did the hostile  KGB general play any role in this story? These questions will stay with  me for a long time — a situation probably true for most descendants of  the victims of unsolved violent crimes.

The important question of what happened to the other Trofimenko  brothers remains unanswered as well. We know from a neighbour’s  testimony that the boys were “Grigoriĭ, Stepan, Sergeĭ, Alexander,  George”. Stepan joined the Red Army and was killed in World War II.  Grigoriĭ and George were, reportedly, incarcerated criminal offenders  (another neighbour’s testimony omits George’s existence altogether).  Either way, Konstantin, the archivist, claims that neither file exists  at the Security Services.

The fear that the adult children of the imprisoned will return to  avenge their parents is a characteristic motif of Soviet repressive  mythology. Its variations were used to frame the 1953 attack on  Alexander Maĭboroda. But unlike the quintessential film director with a  triumphant soundtrack, I cannot end this story with clear conclusions  about whether it was, indeed, retaliation by someone he had tried as a  prosecutor; an assassination attempt on a representative of the law  enforcement (whom the state failed to protect despite the armed guard);  or something entirely different altogether.

What matters now is the 75-year documents storage law that will end  the existence of his personnel file a mere decade from now. The 1950s  remain a comparatively understudied period, trapped between the densely  explored war of the 1940s and the influential poetics of the 1960s. Yet  criminal files from that time in Ukraine are scheduled to be destroyed.  Most are, in fact, already gone, such as the protocol of Maĭboroda’s  1948 trial of Trofimenko for the post office robbery attempt. It was  annihilated 25 years after the sentencing, and only a brief summary  survives in court archives. Records of greater crimes, like homicides,  are still around. But we don’t have much longer to study them.

I have returned to academia on more familiar grounds: cultural  memory, literature, identity, borders and boundaries. But the many hues  of Sergeĭ’s and Alexander’s stories are here to stay. So maybe, just  maybe, it isn’t so bad that no efficient film director fast-forwarded  those endless page-flipping scenes, or overlaid them with victorious  soundtracks. This wouldn’t be true to life.

Which doesn’t mean we should stop flipping the pages.


1. ↑ Where Currents Meet: Post-Soviet Fiction of Kharkiv, Ukraine, p. 11

All by
Tanya Zaharchenko