Fight to clear Stalin's butcher

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA's legal system yesterday found itself facing a dilemma: should it rehabilitate a man who was executed on wholly bogus charges, even though he was himself one of the authors of the campaign of terror that destroyed him?

The person in question is one of Stalin's henchmen, Nikolai Yezhov, who as head of the NKVD secret police between 1936-38, presided over purges - killings and imprisonment - on a scale unprecedented in Russian history.

The case, before the Military Board of Russia's Supreme Court, was brought at the request of a woman claiming to be Yezhov's adopted daughter, Natalya. Under the law, any Russian can apply to the court for the rehabilitation of victims of Stalin's mass repression.

She has been seeking his rehabilitation on the token charges for which he was executed: high treason, spying for foreign powers - including Britain - and the murder of his wife, who was poisoned two years before his death. He was shot in 1940, and replaced by the even more feared Lavrenty Beria (who was also later shot).

The charges will have had a familiar ring to Yezhov, as they frequently appeared on the lists of thousands of names which Stalin sent to him, with instructions that they should be killed. Yezhov had a team of several hundred NKVD killers who carried out the slaughter. Citing espionage charges, Yezhov purged almost all of the NKVD, most of whom was shot in the head after a perfunctory trial.

Russia's courts, one might argue, have more pressing matters to worry about, including corruption, chaos in the legal system, official crime and millions of unpaid workers. But the case has raised a difficult point of principle, articulated by Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's leading human rights activist. He has argued that all executed Stalin-era secret police bosses - no matter how terrible - should be acquitted of the charges brought against them because they were "fake and nonsense".

The court took a different view yesterday. It refused to review Yezhov's case, arguing that he was "not fit for rehabilitation".