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The Russia Guy
E125: Matthew LUXMOORE on Denis KARAGODIN’s crusade in Tomsk
– "Matthew LUXMOORE, a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL, discusses his March 2021 article about an amateur researcher in Tomsk named Denis KARAGODIN who’s spent the better part of a decade compiling archival documents about the execution of his great-grandfather in 1938 by officers in the NKVD. Earlier this year, the local authorities reportedly started building a criminal case against KARAGODIN on defamation charges filed by the relatives of some of his grandfather’s supposed executioners."
- 2:17 What did Matt ask Denis KARAGODIN?
- 6:51 Does it take a professional historian to do this archival work?
- 9:37 STALIN’s Terror vs. U.S. slavery
- 11:09 Public opinion about KARAGODIN’s campaign
- 15:39 Framing KARAGODIN’s archival work as political activism
- 17:53 Privacy as a political weapon
- 22:45 Should historians start fearing criminal prosecution in Russia?
- 24:07 Placing the Kremlin in all this
- Готовим полную 📑 расшифровку и перевод на 🇷🇺 русский язык [в работе].
Kevin Rothrock: Howdy folks, welcome back to the Russia Guy. I'm your host, Kevin Rothrock. This is a podcast where I talk about Russian news, politics, and culture. You know this. I interview various journalists, academics, and activists, they're doing interesting things in the field. That's why I'm talking to them. On today's show, my guest is Matthew Luxmoore, a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL, that's Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, who covers Russia and the former Soviet Union. He was kind enough to come on this podcast to talk about an article he wrote way back in March.
In fact, this interview was recorded sometime in mid-April. It's taken me about a month just to get it together and put it out. Sorry about that, everybody. Matt's report is about a man in Novosibirsk named Denis Karagodin, an amateur researcher who spent the better part of a decade compiling archival documents about the murder of his great-grandfather back in 1938 by officers in the NKVD, which is the predecessor of the KGB.
Earlier this year, the local authorities reportedly started building a criminal case against the Karagodin on defamation charges brought by relatives of some of his grandfather's supposed executioners. This story gets into how Russia deals with the legacy of the Stalinist repressions, what Russians considered to be acceptable amateur sleuthing when it comes to these sorts of criminal matters. Everybody can actually learn about Russia's security apparatus and its Soviet past by working in its archives. That and more in the interview. Now, here it is.
It makes for interesting reading, right? Because when I read the article, I was thinking like, "Oh, I wonder what Matt would have asked him if that had contributed to the article." You did talk to him. My question was going to be, what would you have asked him? Can you tell me what you did ask him without quoting him? What he said?
Matthew Luxmoore: Yes, sure. Well, he and I had a few conversations, mainly exchanges on telegram, but also a couple of calls. Obviously, now he's in pre-investigation phase, so I think he's also a bit careful about what he tells the press. He's generally quite reluctant, I think, to talk to the press. It's a bit complicated, because on one hand, he talks to [unintelligible 00:03:01] I think and almost feel on a very regular basis, so you know that one of the biggest liberal-minded radio stations in Russia.
At the same time, he doesn't want to say too much about the case because now he faces criminal charges. In our conversations, he came across very much the way he comes across in all of his interviews with[unintelligible 00:03:28] the radio station and other interviews he's given on Medusa's Podcast also. He's this dogged, determined campaigner who's been at this for the last nine years, doggedly researching the death of his great-grandfather and finding the names of the people he claims are responsible for his great-grandfather's murder during the Stalin era in 1938.
He likes to say that he welcomes this criminal investigation, which is not usually what you hear from people facing criminal charges in Russia. The reason he welcomes every criminal investigation, which makes the story a lot more interesting for journalists, especially is he sees it as an opportunity to use a platform to basically push his claims or places, perhaps a bit unfair to him, but the evidence, the huge amount of evidence he's gathered relating to this murder of his great-grandfather. This is perhaps the most amazing part; he wants to use this criminal investigation to introduce these documents into the criminal trial to then basically shed a light on this murder.
A lot of people in Russia, especially people who think it shouldn't be taboo to discuss these topics about the dark pages of Russian past, very much welcomed his investigation because they applaud him as someone who has basically done what Russia has unfortunately failed to do, which is conclusively reach closure on these chapters of his past and maybe have a very open discussion on it. Which it had in the '90s but it doesn't, definitely not to the same extent today.
Kevin: In your story, you mentioned that he's eager to put these documents even more in the public. He already has been sharing them online for years now, but I guess it would be even more exposure to have them admitted as evidence in a trial or something like that.
Matthew: I'm going to say, I think he's supremely confident, maybe rightly or wrongly. He got these documents from the FSB. The reason he got these documents, and the documents do name the three people who directly murdered his great-grandfather, and they name his great-grandfather's name among 36 names of people who were shot that day in Tomsk. The reason he's so confident is because as he has hinted, the FSB has perhaps launched this case or was overseeing this case, and it's the same agency that provided these documents to him. I think he's quite confident that he has a strong case to get to defend himself.
Kevin: Just out of curiosity, why are there three people that are directly responsible for executing him? Why isn't it just one executioner?
Matthew: The one person pulled the trigger, but the document that basically proclaims that this order that was given to shoot these 36 prisoners was carried out is signed by three people. We don't know who actually pulled the trigger.
Kevin: Is this the same document that in your article you say, Yon Rucinski, I think is how you say his name, who's at Memorial, if I'm right?
Matthew: Which is, yes, exactly.
Kevin: He seemed to criticize Karagodin and saying that he lacks the necessary archival training and that he's interpreting this one document as the smoking gun, but he says that actually, this is a common thing that was drafted maybe even years after the execution was carried out. Is that the same document? Are we talking about the same document right now?
Matthew: No, I think what Rucinski was referring to is the document was signed by Mityushov, who was the father of the person who launched the first complaint against Karagodin, which led to an administrative case, as you call it in Russia, not the criminal case, there are two cases against him. That document was signed by Mityushov, and Rucinski says that Mityushov was most likely just as simple clerk. He was someone who, after the fact, did the administrative work that collated all these different documents, and signed off, saying, "This particular event took place at this time."
Most likely, he never had any involvement in the murder. Karagodin, I think, has this view that anyone who was part of the NKVD at the time, just like liberals say, I guess about people who work in the government today. Liberals is not the right word, but Putin critics. Karagodin thinks that anyone who works in the NKVD is culpable, is complicit in the murder of the people who fell victim to the Great Terror.
Kevin: I see. This gets into a lot of the politics of language. When he calls this person a murderer, he's not literally saying this guy pulled the trigger. He's saying he's morally culpable?
Matthew: Yes, exactly. He has this chapter on his website, which is just meticulously curating hyperlinks everywhere. It's a very impressive piece of work. He has his chapter one of the tabs in his website, which is titled murderers, and Mityushov is listed there, not as the murderer, but as someone who, in Karagodin's words, is partly responsible or is complicit in the murder. That's where the complications arise with terminology and how Karagodin wants to phrase these things, and how other people would rather have it phrased.
Kevin: At first glance, the idea of pressing felony charges against somebody for calling-- I'm trying to think of in American history or just Western history. I don't know if there's an easy one at hand. I don't know, I'm going to get a little bit theoretical here. Let's say in the United States, at least like probably the closest like comparison I can make would be like something to do with slavery. Let's say like somebody is investigating the people that enslave their great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather or something, and they think they've identified some descendant of their slave owners something, and then they have a blog, essentially where they call out people for enslavement or racism and somebody, then.
I mean, you think that does that kind of like, in the context of like American history, is that a somewhat fair-
Matthew: I think for lack of an accurate way, that's probably the most accurate analogy in terms of having an event in America's past that the country definitely still hasn't reached closure on, which is in some way comparable to the event in Russia. Obviously, Russia has served in right in some form of slavery. Yes, the Great Terror, I think, has the same first place in the Russian psyche at least as far as we can compare.
Kevin: Now, in terms of like of how popular Karagodin's campaign is, I guess, I'd like to know, like what you think the common Russians assessment of it is, because, I mean, recently there was this article, I think it was published in [unintelligible 00:11:28] by sociologist Grigory Yudin, and he did focus groups and he did I think, just some polling. He asked people-- I have to look at the article again to see if he mentioned Karagodin specifically, but it was clearly-- his case clearly informed at some of the questions that he asked people.
One of them was, if you believe you've collected enough archival data to prove that's some past NKVD agent killed your relative in the terror, is it okay to come out publicly and accuse these people of being murderers? I think it was something like almost 70% of people said only once you go through the courts. They had a very legalistic interpretation of when it was acceptable to call somebody a killer or a murderer. I mean, again, like if we play the analogy of instead of the [unintelligible 00:12:16] slavery, there probably would be a lot of Americans who'd be like, "Well, don't call my relatives bad words. You can't accuse them of crimes until you've proven it."
Now I'm rethinking my question initially because my initial question was going to be that sounds absurd to an American, of course, you should be able to name and shame your relatives' killers, but I guess what's your assessment of how this plays out in Russia?
Matthew: Yes, and what's been really interesting on this case is the kind of state media coverage of it. You will often see this with, for instance, the case of Yuri Media, is this amateur historian who discovered Gulag burial sites, published the names of thousands of the victims, people who are buried there, and then was slapped with what his supporters definitely say are fabricated charges that he sexually abuses adopted daughters. A really grim case, but he was also someone who dug into Russia's past.
Obviously, the case has progressed far further than Karagodin's and Karagodin's trial, if it happens, will probably be open because it's not child abuse and other crimes usually mandated close court. There have been discussions in the Russian State Media that have been fairly balanced and very balanced by the standards of Russian State Media, the discussions on these talk shows which are usually pretty vile affairs where people scream at each other about Ukraine and how bad America is, and all this kind of stuff. When they were talking about Karagodin, even the pundits who usually just say indefensible things about all kinds of topics, but quite favorably of him and say he actually has the right to do this.
The signal may come once he is proclaimed a persona non grata or someone who should not be defended anymore, and the toll could quite rapidly change as it did with Meteor Foods just based on just complete propaganda or onslaught, as have other people, in that they're subjected to major legal cases like Nirvana. Yes, I've been quite surprised by that and, obviously, the kind of liberal contingent, as the media likes to call them, but the people who generally are critical of the government and Apple media infrastructure, they've been very positive about-- Lots of journalists have interviewed him far more than on Russian State Media, and he's been given a chance and given a platform to outline his views.
A lot of people that actually praise him for the fact that he's done what, as I mentioned earlier, what a lot of people haven't done and what Russia as a country hasn't done definitely not to the extent that these people would like to have it be done right, which is to really reach some closure on those chapters of the past. Especially the time when lots of young people, at least surveys show lots of young people don't even know what the Gulag was. I'm sure in America, perhaps you had some chapters in the past and some particular events a lot of people wouldn't know that as well. I'm definitely not making that comparison but that is instructive.
Kevin: Does he frame his own activities in any kind of political context? If he's speaking to these "liberal media outlets" consistently, maybe I would imagine that they're probably hoping who he will align with them. I wonder, have you noticed him doing that or is he sticking to-- because it seems to me, the grassroots initiatives that succeed in Russia are the ones that do not attach themselves to any overt political campaigns?
Matthew: Yes. Exactly. Especially right now, it's very dangerous to start speaking publicly against the government. Now, I think he's been quite tactical in that sense. He's been pretty reserved in his comments about Putin and I don't think he's been called to make any comments about Putin, not that Putin is directly related in this case, as far as we know, for the crime. No, he's been really focused on the case and I think he genuinely sees this as his chance to reach a bigger audience. He's very much focused on reaching a bigger audience and he calls himself on his website, a lobbyist and influencer. He republishes any interview that's written about him.
He welcomes the attention maybe not as much for personal reasons, just as a way to bring attention to this case, which he's been working on for ages.
Kevin: Is it always his case or has he expanded to helping, other people discover their relatives' NKVD killers?
Matthew: That's a good question. I haven't actually asked him that question, but I know that Memorial helps people. There's been something close to spike in cases of people turning to Memorial and the Gulag Museum in Moscow, which does this too. People turning to them asking them for help in getting documents. I think Karagodin was pretty unique in getting these documents from the FSB and I think he waited a very long time. I don't think the FSB is technically trigger happy in releasing these documents to people.
He's done very well, in that sense, but there are other people who do this kind of stuff but I think he's definitely the most high-profile and controversial at the same time, because historians do say that he just doesn't do the same due diligence.
Kevin: In terms of the perspective or the pre investigative case that they apparently have opened against him. It's being pursued on these grounds of privacy violations and I thought I'd ask you about this because it's in the news. Police raided the apartment of Roman Anin, and I'm not sure how you say his last name, but his Istorii version. It's important stories, I guess, important stories, although I guess the case concerns that article that he wrote when he was back at Novaya Gazeta. It has to do with Igor Sechin's now ex-wife, and Instagram posts that she had revealing that they used to hang out on a very, very expensive yacht, that even on the Rosneft salary it wouldn't have been affordable.
The case, it seems to be-- it's a privacy violation thing, and this is the same thing that we're seeing now with Karagodin. I wonder, just reporting from Moscow on Moscow on Russia, privacy is one of these things that it seems like the political elite and the upper class in general, it's they're wielding it more, I guess, I would say. That they're wielding their privacy protections more lately. It's another justification, I guess, for the fact that they've concealed a lot of the property records or they're concealing and they're making it harder to get access to these things that have been fueling a lot of investigative reporting over the last few years.
There's the SPARK-Interfax database is something that investigative reporters, they just use constantly in their articles and there've been some was recently to make it harder to populate that database with the asset information that has made it easy to connect a lot of dots and so on. I guess, in the context of the golden preliminary case, what's the role of privacy that you're seeing in news stories in recent memory?
Matthew: Yes, not quite sure if Karagodin's case is part of this trend, where the ability of journalists to mine what's called property's right and these other databases that give information on government officials, which access to that has been restricted. I do think, more broadly speaking, my senses, we're just in a time right now in Russia where there is a pretty concerted and pretty all-encompassing campaign to rein in dissent and prevent the kind of protests that we saw in January.
Again, Karagodin is a very unique case because he isn't part of the opposition. So far as I know, and also in contrast with [unintelligible 00:20:44] who openly and publicly criticized the government. I haven't seen those kinds of statements from Karagodin. There's different theories about this case. One would be that he just fell under this dragnet where all kinds of absurd cases are being launched against government critics across Russia, some absurd ones, some slightly less absurd, and some very, very serious, like the Anin case.
Another possibility is this historical politics thing, which I think is probably less convincing, which is the people who research Russia's past just are being silenced, would be a great story, but I'm not quite sure if there's enough evidence to claim that. Obviously, memorial as an organization has been heavily targeted in recent years as well, so that might add ammunition to that story. Then the third one is just these are local, with the Dimitrova and Karagodin cases, these are just local campaigns that were launched by some local officials against people who annoyed them.
Dimitrova definitely annoyed a lot of people and Karagodin, even by his nature, he's very outspoken, he doesn't seem to back down. I can also imagine that he annoyed some people, especially the people whose relatives he tied to these murders. I'm not really convinced by the Anin analogy and whether Karagodin can be fitted into that trend, but I do think that a lot of people would say, "If they want you to stop doing the work you've been doing, then they might be able to find a case against you, so they'll find something to basically leverage against you in the courts." That seems to have been the case of Anin. It's a pretty sad trend that we're seeing, these cases against journalists, recently, that seems to be an escalation.
Kevin: Do you think that historians have any reason to fear, the ones that, say, go to Russia to do archival work, whether you're talking about domestic Russian, Russian historians, or folks coming from abroad to work in archives? Because I know that when you see the headline, some guys being prosecuted or investigated because he got an archival document and posted it online, a lot of people who work in archives are probably like, "Whoa." Is that going to be a problem?
Matthew: I don't think that foreign researchers are under any great threat in Russia. Definitely, we haven't reached that stage yet. Definitely not, I wouldn't call myself an expert on that topic. I would say that it is a very tense climate right now politically, in Russia. I think some people might be thinking twice about doing certain things among people who are government critics, just because of the repercussions that a lot of people have faced, especially supporters, is alarming. Again, whether we can fit part of the Karagodin case or even the Anin case into that.
You just don't know in Russia, until maybe a few years later when all the documents come out and we know who ordered certain cases if the cases were ordered, and who's involved in it.
Kevin: Your impression of what he's-- Because you said he's welcomed this pre-investigative check and he's welcomed the attention from law enforcement as an opportunity to just make his case again in a new venue and so on. To your knowledge, he has not said, "Oh, this is the Kremlin coming after me again." Because that's something that you see a lot of times, like with Anin, for instance, and with other reporters, a lot of times when they're asked, "Why do you think you've been targeted with police harassment?"
My impression is often, what I'd read is people saying, "Oh, well, you don't always know where it's coming from, but in this case, I think it's from the very top because looking how important this work is that I'm doing," that kind of thing. His response is not so much like, "Oh, this is the machine coming for me." He doesn't necessarily address why they're coming for him, he just embraces it as, "Listen to what I got, everybody." That's how you would describe his reaction?
Matthew: Yes. Probably, yes. I think one of the reasons is because this guy who filed the complaint that led to the first case, Mityushov, which is a slander case, he actually gave an interview to a Belarusian TV channel, which is not usually what you see in these cases. The [unintelligible 00:25:23] case, for example, it was an anonymous tip-off that led to his prosecution, and so you never find out who the person who actually filed the first complaint is. In this case, the guy actually made an interview. I haven't seen him speak anywhere since and I tried to contact him, and to no avail.
Karagodin, yes, I think he's hinted that it's coming from above. Again, I can't say any specific statements that I've seen him make publicly. I wouldn't want to put words in his mouth. I'm sure he has his own opinions about that. What's really interesting in this is the way he ties these different threads together. To give you an example, he's publishing the photographs and names, and professional details of all the people who are involved in the current investigation against him, in the same style on his website that he publishes the names and faces, and biographical details of the people that he says were involved in his great-grandfather's murder. He's tying these different threads together.
When I first saw that, my first impression was that that could definitely ruffle some feathers too, if you're publishing the photographs and the names of the guy who questioned you in the Tomsk police station. That gives you a sense of how confident he is. More power to him. He believes that he has nothing to fear in this case because he's simply publishing the documents that he has rightfully procured, at least as far as we know, I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary. Yes, calling people murderers or complicit in murders, that could be the one element that's more questionable.
Kevin: What does he do for a living?
Matthew: He's a designer. He works as a designer.
Kevin: Like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign?
Matthew: I'm not quite sure.
Kevin: Like digital design? Like he's at his computer? What's he designing? Any idea?
Matthew: I haven't actually asked that question. On his website, he doesn't call himself a designer, he calls himself a lobbyist and influencer, which suggests that he's-- suggest that his work and his project that he's been working on for the last nine years is the thing that he's most passionate about. I think if you speak to him, that definitely comes across very clearly. I haven't had a chance to make it up to Tomsk yet, but yes, we have spoken. I think it would be a very interesting case to follow for sure if [unintelligible 00:28:08] to be trusted.
Kevin: He sounds like a unique individual.
Matthew: Yes. I think he definitely is. These kinds of criminal charges, especially if you're facing two legal cases, you may quieten down a bit. I can give you another funny detail, which really gives you an impression of what kind of person that this Karagodin is. The Tomsk branch of Russia's Investigative Committee, which is roughly equivalent to the FBI, they launched this competition. I think one part of the competition is who can submit a piece of artwork that is most positive about the investigative committee or something like that. Then the other one is a piece of artwork or some project that most faithfully puts across the image of a Russian investigator.
Dennis Karagodin, he submitted his website and his nine-year project to the investment committee for this project. No. Actually, I think that's not quite accurate. What he submitted is these photos of the people who are questioning him, these kind of modern-day police officers, these photos and their biographical details, and the details that he's published about the cases, he submitted that to the investigative committee's competition, which the website posts that actually announced this competition looks like it's something made for school kids. It's about competition for school kids.
Anyway, he submitted part of his website to that, saying, "My website should be one of the contesters for a project that depicts a modern-day Russian investigator." I asked him if this was simple trolling, but I think he's quite serious about it and that may just be because, again, he wants to draw more attention to his case. He said, "Yes, we're definitely hoping for a victory."
Kevin: [laughs] All right. Good.
Kevin: That's my interview with Matthew Luxmoore, a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL. Thank you for listening, everybody, and extra thanks to those of you who are still contributing to this show at patreon.com/kevinrothrock. Until next time, everybody.
[00:30:37] [END OF AUDIO]
Последнее обновление: Понедельник, 24 мая, 2021 в 13:37