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“I ask you, for how much does a person burn?” A fragment of the novel by Sasha Filipenko “Kremulator” – about Pyotr Nesterenko, who headed the Moscow crematorium during the years of Stalinist repressions

THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) IS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT.

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Moscow crematorium on the territory of the Donskoy necropolis, where Pyotr Nesterenko worked. 1931

In July, a novel by journalist Sasha Filipenko was released in electronic and audio format “Kremulator” (printed version was published in March 2022 by Vremya publishing house). The text is based on the real materials of the investigative case of Pyotr Nesterenko, director of the Moscow crematorium on the territory of the Donskoy necropolis. Nesterenko worked in this crematorium during the years of repression. Filipenko in his text is based on archival documents – the society “Memorial”, as well as the Gulag Museum. Filipenko himself repeated the path of the protagonist – through Saratov, Paris, Istanbul and Warsaw. The author calls the novel an “artistic reconstruction” of real life. With the permission of the author, Meduza publishes a fragment of the book.

– Okay, Nesterenkotoday you and I will start with this: tell me, how much does a person burn?

– What?

— I ask you, for how much does a person burn?

– For a life! – Pulling a hair out of my nose, I answer.

— Nesterenko!

“A man burns out in an hour and a half, Comrade Investigator.

“I already told you that I’m not your friend!”

– I’m so sorry…

– Continue!

“If the cause of death is execution,” I explain calmly and in detail, “bullets remain in the bucket of ashes—one, sometimes two…

“Don’t bullets melt at such a high temperature?”

– It depends on the core

– I understand … Show me more!

– What’s next?

– Nesterenko, show from the place where you and the investigator stopped in Moscow, tell about the night when you arrived at the crematorium Goals and demanded that you give him the ashes Zinoviev and Kamenev

“Understood, I’m showing further: usually no one removed bullets from the ashes …

– Why?

– Because there would not be enough buckets for all the bullets …

– So, let’s not literature!

– Let’s…

“So Golov demanded from you the ashes of Zinoviev and Kamenev, right?

– Right. That night, Golov really demanded that I bring him the ashes of the great comrades of the Soviet Union, Zinoviev and Kamenev, from which he personally removed the bullets before my eyes …

– Why?

– And how should I know? Maybe he wanted to melt it down on his teeth?

– Nesterenko, let’s agree with you right away that we will do without jokes! I said no joke, got it?

– Yes…

“People like you, I have a whole ship here!” I won’t let you waste my time, truncated?

– And how…

“Now go on!” Why do you think Citizen Golov demanded from you bullets from the ashes of Zinoviev and Kamenev?

Good question, but is it worth answering? What do you think, will the comrade investigator be able to believe what I will tell? And if he believes, then so what? What can it change? What to influence? Intra-party rituals are a sophisticated and complex thing. Does he need his own Virgil?

Answer, I say!

– I think that, following the order, Golov cleaned the bullets and took them to his comrade Yagoda

“What do you think Yagoda needed those bullets for?”

– It is hard to say…

– And you imagine!

– I think that as a sentimental person for his own pleasure, amusing pride or enjoying revenge, and quite possibly both, Genrikh Yagoda kept these bullets in his desk drawer for some time, however, when he himself was shot, memorable artifacts migrated to a drawer to friend Yezhovwhich, as you know, also ended …

Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov on the Moscow-Volga Canal, 1937

– What is a coat?

– When I served in Baranovichi, that was the name of the drawer of the table …

– It’s clear. Keep showing bullets…

– After Yezhov, bullets, presumably, were offered to Comrade Beria, but he, being a man not so much smart as superstitious, I think, refused …

– Nesterenko, I’m warning you for the last time – leave your jokes and witticisms!

– Yes, please, but you yourself ask, and I answer …

“Are you saying that Yagoda and Yezhov kept the bullets of the executed Zinoviev and Kamenev only for their own satisfaction?”

I don’t see any other reason…

– It’s clear. Do you know who shot them?

– Who was behind the execution or who directly carried out?

– Who did it?

– What’s the difference?

I’m asking questions here!

– I see … Zinoviev and Kamenev were shot by a comrade Blokhin

“Why are you so sure of that?”

It was visible to the naked…

– Explain!

– I know Vasily Mikhailovich Blokhin’s handwriting well and highly appreciate his work …

– In what sense?

– In the sense that Blokhin is always accurate. He is a hard worker and a true professional. Respectfully approaches his own business, and therefore mine. Such people are rare.

– Explain, I say!

– Blokhin always shoots so that the bullet passes into the back of the head from the bottom up, leaving the skull intact. When the sentence is carried out by his assistants, shifting the corpses, I often have to collect head scraps, which takes extra time. Agree, if you need to cremate fifteen or twenty people per night, it is stupid to be distracted by this kind of chores. However, even Blokhin has misfires. Several years ago, the body of a man, which I was already loading into the furnace, suddenly showed signs of life. Probably, busy with routine work, Blokhin fired somehow wrong, and the bullet did not hit the brain, or something else – I don’t know, because Blokhin shot tens of thousands of convicts, and, of course, there could be blots with such volumes … In general, the man was alive. He seems to have no idea what’s going on…

– AND?

— What and?

– What did you do?

– What should I have done? Of course I came to the aid of a friend!

– Which comrade?

– Blokhin! What else?

— Nesterenko!

– Don’t you know, citizen chief, what needs to be done with a person who, according to documents, has already been shot, but in fact is still alive?

I ask what did you do? Shot again?

What would I shoot? With a look? I don’t have any weapons. Besides, why waste a bullet? Blokhin lifted the man by the hair and hit the back of the head on the cart several times. When we were all convinced that the convict was dead again, I cremated him…

Stories like this, honey, do happen—a big stream. In recent years, a lot of people have been shot, and besides, local people are constantly asking to increase the limit. Everyone wants to prove their loyalty to Moscow. The unspoken All-Union Spartakiad, in which the executioners compete in performance, of course, produces blots. The volume creates a marriage, however, despite the many interested parties, it is almost impossible to get close to Blokhin’s indicators. Stakhanov trigger! Perhaps only the commandant Green from Kharkov, who personally shot almost seven thousand people, can rise to the same pedestal with the great Vasily Mikhailovich. In general, Blokhin, of course, sometimes had to finish off people – the costs of the profession. For example, a few years ago he shot a certain citizen Chazov again …

Once, over a bottle of vodka, Blokhin told me that the kulak Chazov, having been sentenced by a troika, had fled from execution in Novosibirsk and had come to Moscow to complain about the arbitrariness of the Chekists. During interrogation, Chazov testified that he had been wrongfully convicted, after which he was taken to the firing range, hit on the back of the head with a rifle butt and thrown into a pit with other half-dead convicts like him. All of them were going to be shot down by the lazy enkavedeshniki from top to bottom, standing on the edge of the ditch. And so they did. For formality, several clips were discharged, but during the massacre Chazov did not move, which allowed him to escape. Apparently, mistaking him for dead, the executioners did not fire at him (although, of course, they should have, because many pretended to).

One way or another, when the unfortunate commandants left, Chazov fled. First from the pit, and then from the city. Chazov came to the capital to tell the Moscow investigators that there, far away in the provinces, there are excesses in the field. After listening to him, the Moscow interrogator was discouraged – first of all, by the work of his Novosibirsk colleagues. The hack was convicted, and Chazov was decided to be shot again and for sure. The responsible task was entrusted to the most experienced executioner of the Soviet Union, Comrade Blokhin, and it should be noted, my dear, that Vasily Mikhailovich did not disappoint.

What else can you say about Blokhin’s work?

— What else can be said? Diligent comrade, however …

However, I know people who criticize Blokhin. Some say that every time after executions he arranges drinking parties (which is true), others say that from time to time he appropriates the things of the dead (which is also true). Whatever it was, neither in the first nor in the second case, I do not see anything reprehensible. Every product, even in the Soviet Union, has a cost – every work must have a tax.

It is important to understand that, on the one hand, the work of Vasily Mikhailovich is hard (sometimes you have to shoot several hundred people a night), and on the other … what’s wrong if some kind of raincoat or, say, a beautiful vest will serve him or his spouse? “Why care so much about other people’s things?” I sometimes think. If there’s anything to be worried about, it’s more likely to be about the shortage that is taking place in our country. If Blokhin could buy all these beautiful things in a store, would he take them off corpses and present them to his wife?

Sometimes, on such-and-such a quiet street in Moscow, relatives of those who have been shot suddenly recognize rare objects of their missing relatives on a passer-by: here a scarf, there very special shoes, but on the bridge of the nose screaming about the disappeared wife, exceptionally beautiful French, horn-rimmed glasses (and you should come on! How symbolic that both the executioner and the victim have myopia). It is clear that at such moments it becomes uncomfortable for both Blokhin and other performers, and even more so for their innocent wives. On such days, excesses happen – you have to detain those who identified the things of their relatives. The secret must remain a secret – there are (almost) no mass repressions in the Soviet Union.

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