Memory in Flux: Murder and Legend in Post-War Kharkiv
During the turbulent post-war period, in the 1940s-50s, criminal gangs terrorized the city of Kharkiv in east Ukraine. One story, involving a particularly ruthless gang leader and a chief prosecutor who opposed him, became a city legend that incited imaginations for years afterwards. With time, however, this part of Kharkiv’s urban folklore faded away.
In her effort to unearth and re-narrate this high-profile criminal case, Tanya Zaharchenko, the prosecutor’s great-granddaughter, is piecing together archival documentation, interviews with contemporaries, and surviving records of court proceedings. Her academic focus has centered on cultural memory studies — how traumatic historical events are remembered by groups of people.
But what happens when a scholar of memory faces her own past?
This little blurb comes from the invitation to my upcoming talk at the Einstein Forum, where I am this year’s Albert Einstein Fellow.
The Einstein Fellowship, offered by the Einstein Forum and the Daimler and Benz Foundation, is a refreshing initiative aimed at encouraging younger scholars to step outside of their area of specialization — in other words, it is awarded only for “a project in a different field from that of their previous research” (more here). So when I applied back in 2014, I knew I couldn’t work on contemporary Ukraine or Ukrainian literature. This opened the doors of possibilities that may have remained shut otherwise.
And so I formulated a project that turned me, temporarily, into a historian: I decided to excavate an event hidden in my own past. My great-grandfather, Alexander Maiboroda (I mentioned him briefly here), was a prosecutor. One night in 1953 he was attacked with an axe in his home in Kharkiv, as he sat bent over his papers in the communal flat our family lived in. The crime was never solved, and he passed away after much suffering from severe head wounds. Over decades, echoes and shadows of this story reached me as I was growing up.
These echoes and shadows included a name: the Trofimenko brothers. The older brother, Sergei, was a gang leader and a well-known criminal (sixteen convictions, sixteen escapes) whom my great-grandfather opposed in court. The family myth pointed to him.
The fellowship interview went well, and soon, the Einstein Forum had their 2015 fellow. Let’s just say that this fellow was rather underestimating the task she had chosen.
Thinking that some time in Kharkiv’s archives and libraries would help me piece the story together, I dove right in. Hours and days and weeks were spent in libraries over old newspapers, in the prosecutor’s office and court archives and some other archives around the city. Information access rejections arrived:
… as did access permissions.
There was even a phone call advising me to stay away from a certain file I was insisting on seeing. In the end, the story on my hands is far more complex that I could have imagined. And although I am preparing to report on these findings, I know it will take longer than the six months of the Einstein fellowship to do justice to the two men (and their families) whose fates were twisted and whose lives were destroyed long before I was born.
In their own ways, both of them battled the system. Neither of them won.
Stories of trying to uncover the past can be far less triumphant and less illuminating than various films have tried to tell us. There is no energetic background music as the efficient film director fast-forwards scenes of determined hero working tirelessly towards the ultimate goal, and no unavoidable victory when these scenes end. In reality, the steps are smaller, the directions are many, some lead to dead ends, and no one can fast-forward any of it.
In fact, I’ve found that metaphors along these lines of “uncovering” lack both accuracy and utility as far as the learning about the past is concerned. Such metaphors assume a stable narrative that simply needs to be glued back together. Though our minds and our books may work that way, reality usually doesn’t. I should have recalled a discussion in my own forthcoming monograph on memory:
This research project is an excellent lesson in balancing the (mostly familiar) theory with the (mostly odd) practice.
But I will write this story: I have already seen enough to know that it needs to be written.
As per the conditions of the Einstein fellowship, I have stepped away from my main field of research. I’m glad I did, and thankful for the unusual opportunity. This has become important to me. I hope I can say what needs to be said, and return to working on contemporary Ukraine in due course.
“I am not a criminal, I am the people’s avenger.” — Sergei Trofimenko in a letter to his sister, 1951