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Memento : Issue 26
TOTALITARIAN REGIMES tend to retain secret police files on their citizens, even decades after the people in question have died or emigrated. The information I found in such files in Russian and Chinese archives were an invaluable starting point for my book. But equally important were the human sources and historical material which helped put the information in context. It is now clear, many records were falsified and information manipulated to suit the politics of the day. Mara tells her story . . . ' Victims of Stalin Growing up in Cold War Australia, I was curious about the fate of my grand- mother Gita’s family who had left China for the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s to escape the Japanese occupation – especially her father Girsh Onikul, her 26-year-old sister Manya and 30-year-old brother Abram, who had disappeared during the purges. My chance to find out came with the release of documents from previously secret Soviet state and party archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as these included the secret police files of victims of Stalin’s purges. In 1992, I went to the old KGB (renamed the FSB) headquarters in Moscow, armed with the family’s so-called ‘certificates of rehabilitation’, which had been given to me by a surviving relative. Issued in 1956 after Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s crimes, these cleared the family members of any charges. These certificates proved to be my access to the Onikul family’s secret police files. Six months after my visit to the FSB, I received advice on four of the Onikuls from security authorities in Nizhny Novgorod (previously Gorky) in central Russia, where they had gone to live, and on Abram Onikul from the military court in Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. All had been arrested in 1937 as Japanese spies. Manya and her father had been executed, her mother and younger brother sent to labour camps, from which they were released in the 1940s. Abram had died in 1941 while serving his 10-year sentence in the Arctic Gulag. In 1996, I visited the Nizhny Novgorod State Archive to see the Onikul family files. They were extraordinary. Starting with each individual’s arrest documents, the files contained detailed biographies, records of interrogation, indictments, sentences, appeals, and later documents about their rehabilitation review. I still recall the emotional impact of reading the words ‘To be shot’ in Manya’s sentence, with a scribbled note ‘Shot 18 January 1938’. Through a fortuitous connection with a former KGB colonel, I visited Khabarovsk in 2000, where I gained access to Abram’s 200-page file at the FSB headquarters. The sad irony I discovered was that Abram had, in fact, been working for the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor), running operations against the Japanese in Manya Onikul (1911–38) in Shanghai, 1934. Manya was Mara’s grandmother’s younger sister. 12 MEMENTO News from the National Archives