Of Murder and Memory:
An Unfinished Story from Post-War Ukraine
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.”
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 judicial 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 joined 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 judicial 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 floorplan 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 floorplan), 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 “systematically” disobeyed the Prosecutor General of the Red Army, focused on his private life, and was not properly selective about the right kind of 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 kommunalkaroom. 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. 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.
This is an updated version of my King’s Review piece (3/2018).
All photographs are my own.