An NKVD agent talks

  • 2002-04-04
  • J. Michael Lyons
Mikhail Farbtukh, 85, was the last person of the former Soviet Union to be imprisoned specifically for Stalinist-era purges. A Riga court ruled March 12 that he was too ill to continue his five-year sentence, and he was released. J. Michael Lyons sat with Farbtukh in his Riga apartment and asked him about his imprisonment, the war and his role in "Latvia's genocide."

Farbtukh was born Mikhail Ivanov in the Russian city of Pskov. He came to Latvia before his first birthday and was raised in Daugavpils by a surrogate family.

He was sentenced in 1999 for his part in the deportation of 31 families from the Daugavpils region where he was an officer in the counter-intelligence department of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. Those deported were school principals, teachers, lawyers and doctors, and among them were ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians. Farbtukh appealed the sentence several times.

What were your thoughts as you entered the court room for the last time?

First of all I didn't expect any positive results. I thought it was just going to be another formality. My thoughts were that the elections were coming and that if they let me go, it would not have been accepted by the more radical part of the population.

Yet they let you go. How do you explain it?

My case is largely a political one, and it became part of the political games going on. They would have released me sooner or later because of my health condition. I think the court was afraid that if they hadn't released me, the prison administration would have. The court didn't want to look like fools.

What did you do in prison. Did you read, or write?

I had the opportunity to read, but as I have rather poor eyesight I couldn't.

If you could have, what would you have read?

Turgenev, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov. As for Latvian writers, I like Rainis very much. I have read all his works. I also like Blaumanis.

You read Rainis and Blaumanis in Latvian?

Yes, of course in Latvian. In my passport it says I am Latvian. I graduated from a Latvian high school in Daugavpils before going on to study at Latvia University .

When did you become involved with the NKVD?

I started working for the NKVD in 1940. I was a volunteer. I didn't have a job, and I thought I would do well there because my German was rather good. A neighbor of ours was a German boy, and I would speak German with him. I also spoke French because another neighbor was a French woman, and I used to speak with her.

That was the main reason I was hired in the counter intelligence department of the NKVD, because of my knowledge of languages - especially Latvian and German.

As a member of the counter intelligence department, was it part of your job to take part in the deportations?

The deportations were taking place on the eve of the war. We knew there would be war. We had serious, reliable data about the start of the war. In all countries that were close to the future front of the war, politically unreliable people were being removed, including in France, England and elsewhere.

In the case of each arrested person there must be 15 documents collected in all, including search and arrest orders. There is no case in which all those 15 documents were signed by me. I only participated in an arrest and deportation once. The reason was because the man working for the department near ours - the political department - was sick.

Why did they choose you to replace him?

Because I knew languages.

What happened that one time you took part? Were you part of the arrest team?

There were three of us - me, another member of the NKVD and someone from the local authorities. It was in a rural area. The person we arrested was a school principal who was also head of the local Aizsargi regiment in the area. That's why he was chosen for arrest. He was tried, convicted and sentenced for, I think, eight years.

What about the rest of the people you were convicted of at least helping to deport?

I didn't take part. My signatures were on some of the documents in their cases. The main document was the arrest order. It had a number of signatures and in those cases my signature was among them. But my signature was a minor one, because then it went up and up through the chain of command to the prosecutor general.

So you don't feel any responsibility for these people being arrested or, in some cases, killed?

The entire preparation for the deportations was kept secret. When I found out what was going to happen I was against it. I said to my chief that it was unjustified. I told him they were not the right ones to be arrested. I knew all of them.

Part of my job in the counter intelligence unit was searching for spies in Latvia. Of course, those who are potential spies are not simple farmers. Potential spies would have been members of the intelligentsia, school directors, doctors. I knew this circle of people. These people have more opportunity to communicate and pass on information, so it was easy to make them look guilty. But they were arrested. Also, at that time if you were a head teacher at a school it was believed you were also head of an Aizsargi unit and therefore dangerous.

Have you had any contact with these people or their families since their arrests?


What if you had? What would you have said to them?

(Pause) If it were now, I would apologize for those arrests. They were unjust. But at that time and after the war I would not have dared say such a thing. The situation was different. After the war I tried to help some people avoid arrest, members of the Meza Brali ("Forest Brothers," a group of resistance fighters who tried to sabotage the Soviet occupation.) My bosses told me I was too liberal.

This happened in 1944, and in 1945 I was fired from the NKVD because of it. They told me that if it had not been for the more liberal regime in place at the time, I would have been tried and convicted of (treason). Despite my attempts to help them they were tried and convicted.

All this happened under Joseph Stalin. What are your thoughts about Stalin now?

We need to give him some credit. In my opinion the victory in the war was in a large part thanks to him. But right from the start I was against his repressive policies. That's why I was kicked out of the NKVD. I don't know much about the high-ranking people in Stalin's regime. But I relate these repressive policies to lower-ranked people. They were very much to blame for the implementation of these policies.

Were you happy when Latvia regained its independence?

It would be wrong to say I was happy. But it would also be wrong to say I was against it. Latvia was economically the loser when it separated from the Soviet Union because Russia is very rich in natural resources. Latvia is just a link in the chain connecting Europe and Russia, an intermediary. That's a fact. But this is a favorable condition for the development of the Latvian economy.