Unburying the Past: My Family, the Gulag, and Stalin’s Secret Police in Ukraine

As far back as I can trace it, my family’s history is closely tied to some of the most dangerous political conflicts erupting today. I offer this inside story in the hope of giving readers a glimpse of the tangled roots between Russia and Ukraine, and some understanding of the complexity of their long relationship.

“A generation which ignores history has no past—and no future.”
—Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

The rain had stopped but the skies remained dark with clouds full of water. I lowered the hood of my rain jacket, sensing the heavy, somber mood of the people around me as we walked along the Alley of Memory toward a small open space laid with red bricks. As we stepped onto the bricks, a woman in a clear plastic rain poncho gave us each a wildflower from the nearby meadow and asked us to remain silent. It was August 7, 2017—a day in memory of Stalin’s victims at the Solovetsky Lager Osobogo Naznachenia (SLON), the special prison camp that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “the mother of the Gulag.”

We were traveling in Russia with our American-born son, who had requested the trip as his high-school graduation gift. Pavel had never seen his ancestral homeland, and my husband and I, who were born and raised in Moscow, wanted him to experience more than the usual tourist destinations. We were hoping to offer him the possibility to understand Russia and the Russian people, the chance to feel his ancestors’ motherland. And nowhere on earth feels more Russian than Solovki.

A remote White Sea archipelago off the coast of northern Russia, the Solovetsky Islands have an odd, transformative effect that in its own way is an act of self-awakening. The soft, golden light of the low northern sun; the riotous fields of wildflowers blooming all at once in the short, compressed summer; the solemn grace of the fifteenth-century monastery reflected in a lake so cold and clear the monks had deemed it holy—Solovki emanates savage beauty, spiritual elevation, and earthly power.

Solovetsky Monastery

But it is also a place of profound sorrow, where the harsh winter climate, extreme isolation, and twenty-foot-thick walls of its ancient monastery perfectly suited the purposes of the first Soviet maximum-security forced labor camp. Established under Lenin in 1923, the year before Stalin seized power, by 1930 SLON contained as many as 70,000 prisoners.

SLON, 1930s

I personally had a connection to these horrors that I needed to reveal to my son. From 1935 to 1938, my paternal grandfather, Gorimir Gorimirovich Cherny, spent three years of his short life as a SLON prisoner. What we had not known when we came to Solovki was that a ceremony to commemorate its victims would take place during our visit, a ceremony we would certainly have missed had a sudden morning downpour not prevented our plan to hike to the other side of the island.

So there we were, two naturalized American citizens and our teenaged son, holding bluebells on a plot of Russian soil filled with the bones of thousands of prisoners. Yet except for a few stones inscribed “To prisoners of SLON” or “To victims of Communist Terror,” there was nothing to remind us of the mass executions that took place on that very spot. It felt unsettling to be standing on the remains of so many victims.

The ceremony began. Holding wreaths and flowers, officials, activists, and journalists stepped up to speak about the horrors of Stalin’s terror and the efforts of their countries to preserve the memory of the victims of Communism. Most of the dead had been sentenced to hard labor and subsequently executed as “enemies of the people” in accordance with the nefarious Article 58 of the Soviet Penal Code, which gave the State Secret Police carte blanche to arrest and imprison anyone at all suspected as a counterrevolutionary. Not surprisingly, no Russian Federation officials were in attendance. Putin’s government not only continues to ignore this gruesome, disturbing history, it is actively hiding or destroying what little evidence remains.

Unexpectedly, even to myself, I made my way up front, feeling the urge to speak. Addressing the woman in the rain poncho, I asked if I could speak next.

“What organization do you represent?” she asked.

“None, I am a private citizen,” I answered.

“Fine,” she said. “After the officials are done, we’ll open it up to everyone.”

My heart was pounding as I waited my turn. For the first time in almost thirty years, I would be addressing an audience in Russian. What exactly was I going to say? Would I have an American accent?

The woman waved to me and I stepped up front, taking a small microphone from the previous speaker.

“I am standing here today, the granddaughter of a SLON prisoner and an American citizen,” I began. Everyone lifted their heads in surprise and looked directly at me. “Here, too, are my husband Leonid and our seventeen-year-old American-born son, Pavel, come to pay tribute to the victims of Stalin’s terror. The past few days have been an eye-opening experience for him, and for my husband and me too, as we learned about the incomprehensible tragedy of this place. Yes, it is disturbing and even terrifying, but if we ignore history, there is nothing to stop it from repeating itself. Awareness is just the first step—there is never any guarantee. But the past leaves us a duty to fulfill: we must explain to new generations, we must help them understand what it means to acknowledge our pasts, and live our lives in respect of that memory. Let us all do something to fulfill this duty.”


A Stern Man

The man whose authority is recent is always stern.

“I recall my father being a stern man”—a line from the opening chapter of my father’s memoir. From what followed on subsequent pages, that seemed like an understatement.

I never met my grandfather, Gorimir Gorimirovich Cherny, nor any of my other grandparents; all four died years before my birth, the oldest being only fifty-four. I first learned about the grandfather whose last name I carry in the memoir my father wrote, which was published in Russia in 2012, the year of his death. No exception to the rule of silence, our family had never spoken about my grandfather, and the timing of my father’s memoir left me no chance to talk to him about it. In truth, I had not delved deeply into the pages, but my experience at Solovki had awakened the need to uncover my family’s past.

Born in 1893 in Pordubice, a town close to Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my grandfather, Horymír Černý, was raised by his grandparents, then went to Vienna to pursue a degree at Vienna University of Technology. In 1915, just a year into the First World War, he joined the Czechoslovak Legion, a unit of Czech and Slovak patriots 60,000 strong who took up arms against their Austrian rulers in the desire to free their ancestral land and establish an independent country after the war.

Allying with the Russian czar, the Legion fought on the side of the Entente—Russia, Britain, and France—in the belief the great powers would be victorious and reward them with the statehood they so desired. But in 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power, the Legion found itself trapped in western Russia, surrounded by hostile Revolutionary forces. With most main ports blockaded, their sole point-of-exit was Vladivostok, a Pacific port city 6,000 miles away. The Legionnaires battled their way out in the bloody three-year exodus that followed, at times controlling the entire Trans-Siberian railroad. “The brotherhood of the Czechoslovak Legion was a thing at which to marvel,” one of their members recalled, as noted by photo researcher Amos Chapple for RadioFreeEurope. “Nothing could shake the confidence of the Legionnaire in himself and in his brothers. And so we were able to stand firm in the heart of the Bolshevik ruin, and for all practical purposes, remain untouched by its doctrines.”

Contrary to his fellow Legionnaires, however, my grandfather inexplicably became a firm believer in communism, joining the Red Army in 1918 never to return to his native soil. I will never know why he did not go back to his homeland, now freed from the Hapsburgs, but remained in Bolshevik Russia, a country whose language he never learned to speak fluently. Could he have made this decision after meeting the love of his life, Zoya Laretina, a young Russian woman from Sarapul in eastern Siberia, who ran away from her parents to share the dangerous, itinerant life of an active-duty soldier in the midst of war?

As much as I want to believe that my grandparents had a passionate love affair, knowing what I know now, I fear my grandfather’s sole passion was protecting the young Bolshevik state, no matter the cost. And the cost was high. Now a member of the Red Army, my grandfather fiercely engaged against anti-Bolshevik forces in frontline battles that pitted him against his former co-Legionnaires. On one occasion, the machine-gun squad in which he now served was almost obliterated by the men he had formerly fought with side-by-side. As his Maxim spit out thousands of bullets, did he ever wonder if his newfound allegiance was worth the slaughter of own compatriots?

The attempt to piece together my family’s story is like putting together an old puzzle discovered in an attic: the cover of the box, exposed for years to dust and moisture, offers but a faded suggestion of the picture; many pieces are damaged or missing, and the few I manage to fit together form only small, irregular patches that fail to match up or fit into the whole. The task is all the harder in that the bits of picture that do emerge are uniformly grim.

A hardcore Bolshevik, after the war, Gorimir Gorimirovich Kaminsky (his party pseudonym) served in the GPU (State Political Administration), a predecessor of the KGB. Looking at the only picture of him in my possession, I feel uneasy and want to turn away. Dark, piercing eyes stare straight at me, paralyzing my mind.

Gorimir Gorimirovich Cherny (Kaminsky), 1930s

My grandfather’s duties in the GPU frequently required him to move from post to post. His family lived in far-flung places from Kazakhstan to Belarus before settling down in southern Ukraine, where he became the chief of the GPU in the city of Kherson in 1930s. Here my grandfather’s responsibilities included the liquidation of counterrevolutionaries, mostly former White Army officers and the families of small, independent farmers or kulaks, i.e., prosperous peasants. He led and personally participated in the execution and deportation of thousands of ordinary, innocent people. What justification could he have possibly given himself for such unjustifiable acts? But there again, I suppose blind believers are oblivious to questions posed by their actions.

Searching for answers in my father’s memoir, I came across an incident that took place when he was about seven:

One day I entered my father’s office. He wasn’t in, so I waited for him by the window. Suddenly, I heard loud voices. For no apparent reason, I became afraid and hid behind the curtains. A group of people entered the room, my father among them. “Bring in the detained,” he said. A soldier escorted in a short, slim man in a gray suit. I couldn’t see his face. The questioning started. The man was a former White Army officer who’d been living incognito with his wife and two children. I felt sorry for him, because I knew what awaited him. I wished my father would forgive him. But no, he did not. “Shoot him,” he ordered, and the man was taken away.

The following pages go on to describe Gorimir Gorimirovich as a loving husband and caring father of three boys. I tried imagining a dinnertime conversation, which would have taken place in German, one of several languages spoken in my father’s boyhood home and the language of his father’s studies in Vienna.

Hallo Papa, how was your day at work?”

“Stressful. Those counterrevolutionaries! They think they can hide their past and fool us into thinking they support the Bolsheviks. No way! We’ve got them! By the way, I have something for you, boys.”

He brings in books confiscated from the families he has executed.

“And this is for you, Zoya. Isn’t this shawl lovely?”

My father’s early education actually did come from confiscated books. His family moved so many times during his childhood that he did not enter school until the fourth grade. By that time, however, he had learned to read fluently, compensating for his lack of formal education by poring over the forty-plus volumes of the Brockhaus and Effron Encyclopedic Dictionary his father had plundered on a raid he had led against counterrevolutionaries. Many were executed on the spot and their possessions were immediately and legally confiscated.

Comrade Kaminsky was so good at his job that in the early 1930s he received the special title of Honorary State Security Officer (V), the highest honor awarded by the state security agencies of the USSR. The title was accompanied by a decoration distinguished by a red V that signified “the fifth anniversary of service.” Only 790 security officers were awarded this highly selective honor: Medal No. 1 was bestowed on Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first chairman of the GPU. My grandfather was one of the late honorees, the 688th recipient. This honor came with a duty: “If leaving GPU agencies for other Soviet political or professional work, recipients of the title of ‘Honorary State Security Officer’ are under the obligation to contact local GPU bodies, and to consistently provide said agencies with all appropriate assistance.” Once a State Security Officer, always a State Security Officer.

Honorary State Security Officer (V), #688

Growing up, I was unaware of this relic from our family’s past, and even now I wonder where my father could have stashed it. Did he lock it away in the small, mysterious drawer of his desk, the one I could never open when I secretly searched through his things as a little girl? When my father’s widow passed down a few of the family mementos after his death, she offered the decoration to my cousin Arthur, perhaps because he was the oldest male grandson. He eagerly accepted it, and just as quickly put it up for auction, readily fetching 800,000 rubles (then about equivalent to $15,000). It was rare, and highly sought by collectors, and never should have left the family. If only he had discussed his intent with me first, perhaps we could have found an acceptable alternative.

My grandfather’s life did not end naturally. Like most of Stalin’s executioners, he himself fell victim to the all-swallowing terror, and was sentenced in 1935 to five years in labor camps as “an enemy of the people.” Slurping though the heavy mud at SLON, I could not help wondering what my grandfather’s life must have been like there. Did he ever doubt the justice of his sentence? Innocent of the forged accusations against him, did it ever cross his mind that others, including those he had personally executed, might have been innocent as well?

The story of his release remains a mystery. Having managed to survive three years at SLON, Gorimir Gorimirovich Cherny surprisingly returned to his family in Kherson in 1938, two years short of his sentence. Here’s how my father described the aftermath:

Imprisonment had changed my father. He had become even more self-absorbed and less approachable. One could imagine how hard it was for him, a former military commander and a respected party member, to lose his privileged status and all the perks that came with it. Instead of a spacious house, our family was now squeezed into two small rooms of a communal apartment with no central heating or indoor plumbing. Though he quickly landed a job as chief of militarized security at Kherson’s oil refinery, it was nowhere near the importance of his previous position, where he was driven to work in a chauffeured car and had a large office in the center of the city. He needed to overcome the past and to rebuild his life from the ground up.

Three years after my grandfather’s return, German troops crossed over the Soviet border on June 22, 1941. Hitler had violated his nonaggression pact with Stalin, thus initiating the Great Patriotic War. Just two months later, as the Germans rapidly advanced toward Kherson, my grandfather received his final assignment: to destroy the refinery and burn the oil supplies. Accomplishing this mission left him no time to evacuate. He was shot the next day, in the hours just before or after the Nazis overran the city.

Was he killed at the hands of the Germans? Shot by retreating Soviets, so he could not resume his functions for the occupiers? No one can say. There were no eyewitnesses, no grave. Only my grandmother Zoya remained, staying on in occupied Kherson to care for her two youngest sons, the smallest, my uncle Arnold, being just two years old. Not only did she have to eke out food and shelter; as the wife of the former head of the GPU, she was obliged to hide her identity from fellow Kherson residents and their German occupiers as well, both eager for revenge against her husband. My father recalled his father as a stern man and his mother as “a tough woman.” It seems to me they were a well-matched couple.


To Understand

Also named Gorimir Gorimirovich Cherny, my father left Kherson to study at Moscow State University in September 1940, never to see his father again. When the war broke out the following June, he immediately volunteered for the People’s Militia. Armed only with czar-era rifles, he and thousands of other untrained militiamen got rolled over by German tanks on the outskirts of Moscow in October 1941, and found themselves trapped in occupied territory after their first battle.

My father’s strong will to live, assisted by his uncommon fluency in German, helped him survive the 700-mile journey home to Nazi-occupied Kherson, where he remained until the Soviet Army liberated the city in March 1944. Condemned by the Soviets as a Nazi sympathizer for the “crime” of working in a German-occupied city, he was ordered to the front to “wash his crimes in blood.” Wounded four times, once gravely, he nevertheless made it all the way to Berlin in May 1945, and miraculously survived the war as a highly decorated hero. His hair gone gray at the age of twenty-two, he returned to Moscow to complete his studies, and later became an internationally acclaimed scientist, a member of the highly prestigious Academy of Sciences, and the director of a large research institute in Moscow.

Yet the ghost of his father and namesake, Gorimir Gorimirovich Cherny, “enemy of the people,” shadowed my father for the rest of his life. Although he very rarely shared anything about his past, he did tell me a story about the Holodomor, the Stalin-instigated famine that ravaged the Soviet Republic of Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, killing millions of people without firing a single shot.

This is how my father’s story went, as best I can remember:

The first summer in Kherson, my parents sent me to a pioneer camp for children of military personnel on the Black Sea about 40 miles south of the city. When we arrived in my father’s chauffeured car, I saw the camp was guarded by military patrols. “Papa, why are these soldiers here? So the campers don’t run away?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “To prevent you from being kidnapped and eaten.”

I was in my teens and no longer a child at the time of this exchange, but I did not sleep well that night. I could not stop imagining the gruesome scenes of widespread cannibalism to which the starving were forced to resort. Their hunger grew so desperate that parents even devoured their children. The true death toll of the Holodomor remains uncertain, and its status as genocide remains a subject of debate. According to the best estimates, 3.3 to 5.5 million died in just two years. Even now, in researching this essay, I find myself avoiding articles on Holodomor, knowing that the deeply disturbing images are sure to make me sleepless again.

While researching his memoir in the early 2000s, my father was granted access to documents from my grandfather’s file in the KGB archive in Moscow. Describing this experience, he later confessed he became visibly emotional when reading his father’s reports on how the GPU had annihilated enemies of the State. He was so disturbed to encounter lists of the “counterrevolutionaries” his father had arrested and executed that the KGB officer presiding over the room attempted to calm him down: “Don’t get so upset,” he tried to reassure him. “They were strictly fanatics.” As if being a fanatic were a valid excuse for murder.

Talk about ancestral drama and generational guilt! Would have I named my first son Gorimir had I known the deeds of his great-grandfather? When I initially thought of writing a memoir, I had no intention of including my grandfather’s story. After all, I never met the man and knew next to nothing about him. But as I gradually discovered his story, I began to change my mind. The story of my life is not separable from his; after all, I owe him a quarter of my DNA.

I think of the words of the Esperanto poet Yvegeny Mikhalsky, who himself fell victim to Stalinist purges and was executed in 1937: “To understand is to forgive . . . But in order to judge, one must understand.” While I certainly do not approve my grandfather’s actions, I have given up the attempt to comprehend his thinking. Nor do I have the capacity to judge him.


The ceremony I attended in 2017 in Solovki was organized by Memorial, Russia’s oldest civil rights group, established by Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents in the late 1980s in memory of the victims of Soviet political repression. In December 2021, just days after I finished writing this essay, Putin took a crucial political step when the Russian Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial following years of broad crackdown on the opposition. Concerned about the fate of Memorial members, I reached out to one I had befriended in Solovki. I was immensely relieved to hear back from him, but his message only heightened my concern. “I have no illusions about what happens next,” he told me. “If I knew how to pray, I would. But the cat will eventually cry the mouse’s tears.”

I doubt we will see any cat tears soon. It appears that liquidating Memorial was among the final items on Putin’s preparatory “hit list.” In checking it off, he signaled a shift to more aggressive actions. As Russian tanks geared up to ruthlessly invade Ukraine in a “special military operation,” Putin’s government passed laws initiating a new spiral of repressions at home. Russia has yet again plunged into darkness, and the specter of the catastrophic past is haunting Europe.

As I write these lines, the war in Ukraine has already claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the bloody slog for control of Kherson, the city of my father’s youth, continues on as Putin persists in feeding meat into the meat grinder, chewing up innocent civilians and untrained soldiers on both sides. If I knew how to pray, I would.

Galina Chernaya, the granddaughter of the head of Stalin’s State Secret Police in Kherson, Ukraine and daughter of an eminent Soviet scientist, was raised among the intelligentsia in Cold War and Brezhnev-era Moscow. After earning a PhD in biomechanics and launching a career in research, she fell afoul of Soviet authorities, culminating in a failed lawsuit against the State for violating the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under threat of imprisonment she, her husband, and two young children emigrated and were admitted as refugees to the U.S. in 1991. The family settled in Princeton, N.J., where Galina and her husband worked as pharmaceutical scientists. Now living in Vermont, Galina enjoys hiking, cross-country skiing, coaching the Middlebury College crew, and writing the memoir of her family’s struggle and survival, which is also excerpted in The Evening Street Review. https://www.linkedin.com/in/galina-chernaya-5933822/

All photos are courtesy of the author.

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