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A Soviet Legend Dies Hard

Generations were reared on the story of a boy hero murdered for informing on his father. But nearly everything they learned was wrong.

November 12, 2002

GERASIMOVKA, Russia — The story was a fairy tale of sorts, told to generations of Soviet schoolchildren. Once upon a time, it began, a boy went into the woods to pick berries.

He was a good boy. He understood right and wrong. When his father did something wrong, the boy told the authorities. The boy's name was Pavlik Morozov.

There were bad people in Pavlik's village, including members of his own family. They did not understand right and wrong. When the boy went into the woods, the bad people were waiting. And the boy was never seen alive again.

Pavlik's story wasn't really a fairy tale, though. A real 13-year-old boy named Pavel Morozov was killed along with his little brother on the outskirts of this Siberian village on Sept. 3, 1932. Four members of his family -- his grandfather, grandmother, cousin and godfather -- were convicted of the murders in a show trial two months later and shot.

Within weeks of his death, Pavlik became a powerful icon in the new pantheon of Communist saints, a child-martyr worshiped for his feat of heroism: informing on his father.

Just as American schoolchildren learn the parable of George Washington and the cherry tree, Soviet students for decades were taught the morality tale of Pavlik Morozov. For them, the story drove home the lesson that loyalty to the state should supersede loyalty to one's family.

The cult of Pavlik Morozov fed a culture of informants, the lifeblood of a police state. Pavlik became a favorite of the Soviet propaganda machine, which described him as chairman of the village's troop of Communist Young Pioneers and officially dubbed him "Pioneer-Hero #1." Poems, books and even an opera were written about him.

To this day, Pavlik Morozov is a household name.

"Be like Pavlik, children were told from the moment they took the oath as pioneers," the Tribuna newspaper wrote this year on the anniversary of his death. "Study hard, love your motherland, expose the enemies of Soviet power, and be merciless with traitors."

For most of Soviet history, few questioned the accuracy of the legend of Pavlik. After all, in the Soviet Union, propaganda was truth.

Privately, those who permitted themselves to doubt assumed the story was exaggerated. But for most of Soviet history, it didn't matter if it was true or not.

Eventually, though, a few people -- a writer and an engineer among them -- started asking questions.

Their search for answers would uncover unpleasant truths not just about Russia's past but about its unsettled present. It would reveal how the machinery of terror once operated and how its culture of fear lingers still.

This is the story of the tale of Pavlik Morozov, who was a real boy after all. And whose death still haunts a country not yet at peace with its past.

The Writer

Once upon a time, there lived a Soviet writer named Yuri Druzhnikov. In 1974, he attended a conference of playwrights in the southern Russian city of Rostov. One session discussed the importance of "positive heroes of Soviet culture." One of those heroes was Pavlik Morozov.

"How can we create a strong morality of people in our country on the basis of someone who betrayed his father?" Druzhnikov, now 69, recalled asking. "No one answered."

When he was back home in Moscow days later, his telephone rang. A voice "invited" him to KGB headquarters. When he arrived, two KGB officers were waiting.

"They said to me: 'Why did you ask about this official hero? He is still a hero, and it's none of your business,' " Druzhnikov said. " 'You may write your books,' they said, 'But do not touch this subject.' "

The KGB warning only whetted Druzhnikov's curiosity. He started at libraries and archives but turned up next to nothing -- no artifacts from Pavlik's life, no school records, no legal documents connected to the case -- just newspaper stories that, more often than not, contradicted one another.

Druzhnikov found something else puzzling. All the photos of Pavlik looked different.

"I quickly concluded that all the material was falsified," he said.

Posing as a journalist, Druzhnikov began to track down and interview Pavlik's now-elderly schoolmates and neighbors, his teachers and local officials. He traveled to 13 cities around the Soviet Union. He visited Gerasimovka, the village where Pavlik lived and died.

At first, villagers recited the official version of the story.

Pavlik was a model student and head of the Young Pioneers. His father was head of the village's governing council, or soviet. Pavlik caught his father falsifying safe conduct passes for dispossessed peasants. He told authorities, and his father was taken away.

Some months later, Pavlik went into the forest to pick cranberries with his 8-year-old brother, Fedya. They didn't come home. On the third day, villagers found their bodies.

Pavlik had been stabbed near his heart, his berries spilled on the forest floor. Fedya was lying a short distance away. He also had knife wounds, and his skull was shattered.

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