Personal Life Stories under Stalinism: The Case of Atto Liesi

In the history of the Soviet Union, what has been called the “Great Terror” (1937–1939) rested on a range of repressive operations targeting various social and national groups. These operations were accompanied by intense propaganda campaigns fostering total mobilization in the struggle against external and internal enemies. There was a clearly formulated legislative basis for repression on political grounds. The repressive campaign started at the 1937 February-March plenum of the Central Committee of VKP(b), during which an ideological justification was provided for the repressive course taken. Then, several major orders were launched, unleashing the Terror as such. The most infamous order to be applied throughout the country was the Operative Order No. 00447 of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs “On the operation to repress former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements.”[1] Under this law, massive operations were carried out in the late 1930s by conveyor-belt justice out of court—most often targeting people categorized along class, social status, or nationality lines. Moreover, it has been shown that arrests made were actively supported by a population that participated in reporting and denunciating individuals.[2] This article explores the impact on people’s lives of Soviet society’s support for repressive policies by unveiling the history of one Soviet citizen—a Finnish national— who desperately tried to survive amidst the Stalinist terror of 1937-1938. The investigation is based on research at the Archive of the Ministry of the Internal Affairs of the Republic of Karelia, Russian Federation and contributes a better understanding of the impact of the Terror on Soviet society.[3]

This research delves into the details of a judicial case that started in 1937 under the authority of the NKVD (Narodný komissariat vnutrennih del)[4] of the KASSR (Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic)[5] concerning Atto Liesi. The case-study explores the circumstances that led to his arrest and subsequent execution. It argues that, by the start of the repressive operations of 1937-1938, communities in the Northwestern borderland had been well-prepared to actively assist the regime in its “political cleansing” campaigns. During the first half of the 1930s,[6] “ethnic” deportations and repression in the Russian Northwestern borderland regions paved the way for not only the state’s further repressive policies but also the process of social “self-purification,” by which regular citizens and state structures isolated citizens deemed “politically unreliable”—often leading these people to lose their job or their party affiliation and, starting in 1937, contributing to their swift arrest and execution. These policies compensated for the staggering incompetence of the Soviet political police bureaucracy in the remote borderland regions. Under these policies, Soviet citizens who were fully integrated into society and legally employed—sometimes in an official capacity—were expelled from society, which, in the borderland areas, happened mostly to those citizens whose ethnicity was non-Russian. After being physically deported and removed from their social networks, some—as Atto Liesi—were forced to live in ways typically associated with the concept of “asociality.” This lifestyle entailed travelling without documents, disconnecting from their family, and engaging in illegal or semi-legal occasional occupations. During the “Great Terror,” the concept of “asociality” played an important role in sentencing. However, the relationship between “asociality” and convictions for political crimes was much more fluid than most studies have suggested.[7]


Survival and demise of Atto Liesi (1918–1937)

 Goodbye, my dear parents. My life has become unbearable since 1935, and now I have no way out except by taking my own life because there is nothing in the future for me but prison. I cannot stand it anymore. Well, so long, farewell my friends… I am dying my way if I can find some rope. Don’t be sad. Tell or write Shura that I am at peace… if there is a child, let them bring him up together. Say my last hello to Mother. C[omrade] Liesi.[8]

This suicide note was written in Finnish from a Petrozavodsk prison in September 1937 by nineteen-year-old Atto Liesi, a native of Finland and a resident of Vyborg. He was single, part of the working-class, and had “low” levels of education (i.e., he did not finish secondary schooling—“unfinished secondary”). He was not a member of any party, not “usefully” employed, and had no fixed abode. Liesi ended up not committing suicide, but his life ended no less tragically: he fell pray to the “Great Terror.”

At first glance, Liesi’s criminal case is typical of that of a “déclassé” or “asocial” individual who, like many others, was accidentally caught up in the Stalinist repressive meat-grinder. The record shows that Liesi had been previously convicted. Indeed, a memo dated September 1937 mentions that, on September 13, 1935, Liesi was charged under Article 111 of the Penal Code (pertaining to “office crimes”) in particular under the clause pertaining to the “failure by an official to perform the actions that he was obliged to perform by the duty of his service.”[9] By September 23, 1935, he had already been sentenced by the Olonets People’s Court to three months of correctional labor for losing the passport of a worker who had turned it in to him for registration.[10] Liesi had come into possession of his colleague’s passport in the course of his employment as an official. However, despite the charge of “asociality”—a charge routinely delivered by investigators—the story of Atto Liesi is different from that of most déclassés. In reality, Liesi was neither a déclassé nor a “socially harmful element,” Since he and the members of his family held official positions in the state’s apparatus.

As stated in a memorandum included in his criminal file, after his arrest in August 1937, Atto Liesi was newly charged with the following criminal activities:

In 1936, Liesi worked as a passport controller at the Ilyinsk timber plant in the Olonets District. He took part in setting up his brother Teppo Liesi’s attempted escape from Moscow. His brother sought to flee abroad in the face of his imminent arrest for high treason; Atto provided the traitor with a blank Soviet passport, but [Teppo Liesi] was stopped by border guards and subsequently sentenced to death. For aiding and abetting his traitor brother Liesi was expelled from the Komsomol by the Olonets VLKSM District Committee, after which he arrived in the Reboly District where he found employment at the Post Office 9 and joined the Komsomol a second time by hiding his past. However, on June 22, 1937, he was expelled from the Komsomol. In June of that same year, Liesi and all his family members were deported from the border strip as politically unreliable and suspected of having connections with spies. Since that time, Liesi has not performed any socially useful work, has toured various cities in the USSR, lost his passport (he has not received a replacement) and arrived in the city of Petrozavodsk, where he was denied registration and a new passport. It was suggested that he leave the border area; within a month’s time, i.e., on August 13 of this year, he returned to Petrozavodsk illegally.[11]

Further on, the memorandum signed by the police sergeant Khramov and approved by the KASSR NKVD chief Vissarionov, states: “Since Liesi is not engaged in socially useful labor and is a menace to society, he is to be arrested and investigated.”[12] The order for Liesi’s arrest was issued by the AKSSR NKVD on August 16 “on the basis of the data on his criminal activity.” On that date, the chief of the local Сriminal Investigation Department signed Liesi’s arrest papers and charged him with violating passport regulations and residing in Petrozavodsk without proper documentation.[13] This crime fell under Article 192 of the Soviet Penal Code, which concerned “repeated violation of the established rules of the passport regime by persons arriving in an area where the passport system has been introduced.”[14] The archive does not reveal that Liesi was involved in any criminal activity prior to this arrest.

The investigation into Liesi’s case went slowly due to communication issues between various Soviet law enforcing agencies aggravated. In August, the chief investigator of the AKSSR sent a query to the Reboly division of the NKVD AKSSR Directorat requesting “compromising information” on Liesi. In particular, he asked for details on Liesi’s dismissal from his position as the head of the post office in the village of Emelyanovka. He also requested information about “why he was dismissed and expelled from the Komsomol, why Liesi’s father and mother were dismissed and expelled from the communist party, and on what grounds was the Liesi family deported from the Reboly district.” The response arrived on September 19 only, when the investigator received a certificate of expulsion from the party addressed to A. Liesi (the father, also named Atto) and a transcript from the district Komsomol committee citing the deportation of the Liesi family from the border strip zone for being unreliable, as his family members were suspected of being connected to spies. Specifically, the father was expelled from the party for harboring his son and failing to report him to the authorities even though he knew he was a spy.[15] On a different topic, the transcript from the Reboly district Komsomol committee plenum also states that Atto Liesi (the son) “covered up his participation in the organization of his brother’s escape from Moscow and his fleeing abroad; the latter was apprehended at the border by NKVD officers and sentenced to death.” [16]

However, in the course of several interrogations Liesi insistently denied any connection with his own family:

In 1936 in Moscow, my elder brother, Teppo Atovich Liesi was sentenced to five years in jail for high treason. On June 7, 1937, my father and three members of my family, including myself, received a 48-hour notice to leave the Reboly district. At that time, I worked in the village of Emelyanovskoye as a post office manager and, because I was deported, was fired and expelled from the VLKSM. My father was then in charge of a Kirja store in the village of Reboly, and my mother was an educator at the Reboly boarding school. I do not know where my father, mother, and younger brother Toisto are right now. Personally, after deportation, I visited Leningrad, Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Kerch, and Mariupol. In Mariupol, all my papers, including my passport, were stolen. I returned to Karelia, where I stayed without passport or registration. After I made a claim about losing my passport at the passport section of Petrozavodsk, I was permitted to reside in the Sheltozersky District, where I lived in the village of Ishanino until August 13, 1937. On August 13, I went to Petrozavodsk to get permission to reside either in the city of Petrozavodsk or in the settlement of Solomennoye. I have no contacts in Petrozavodsk, so I spent two nights on the pier. I came to Petrozavodsk at the suggestion of the passport official at the Sheltozersky police department, who said that I had to obtain a passport in the city of Petrozavodsk. Before I was deported from Reboly, my father was expelled from VKP(b) for associating with my brother, who had been convicted. I cannot add any more evidence about this case… [17]

Liesi went on to say,

In the Olonets District, I worked for two months in the passport office at the timber factory no. 5. On one occasion, a worker’s passport disappeared while I was working there. I was tried for it. I did not give any documents to my brother, and I had no connections with him from 1929 to the moment of his arrest. During that period, I met with him only once, in 1931, when we lived in Kondopoga. I do not know where my brother attempted to cross the border. I am not aware of what constituted high treason on the part of my brother. I learned about his five-year prison term from my father. From June 9, 1937, to August 5, I worked at the Sheltozersk timber production company. I financed my trips by selling my belongings and earning my salary. I did not get a permanent job because I could not get registration anywhere. On May 27, 1937, the newspaper Krasnaya Karelia published an article titled “The Class Enemy Is Loose in a Reboly School,” which accused my mother of distorting the nationalities policy and pointed out that my father was expelled from the party for his relation with a spy. After that, I broke off all connections with my family. My permit to exit the Reboly District was withheld at the Emelyanovskoye border post. I left the district alone and only learned about my parents’ departure for the city of Petrozavodsk when I accidentally saw them standing in line at a bus stop… [18]

The prosecutor’s statement, however, presented a very different version of the case:

While working at the Ilyinsk timber plant, the defendant facilitated his brother’s escape by providing him with a blank Soviet passport. For aiding the traitor in his attempt to flee abroad, [Atto] Liesi was expelled from the Komsomol by the Olonets District VLKSM committee, after which he came to the Reboly District. After getting a job at the district post office for a second time and fraudulently, he joined the Komsomol, hiding his past. However, he was unmasked by his comrades and expelled from the Komsomol on June 22, 1937. In June of that year, Liesi and his parents were deported from the border strip area for being politically unreliable. Since June, Liesi has not been involved in any socially useful work. He does not have a permanent residence and has toured various cities and localities across the USSR. After living without a passport for a long time and despite the fact that he was banned from residing in Petrozavodsk, he still returned to Petrozavodsk on August 13 of this year without permission, spending nights wherever he could. When interrogated, Liesi denied he was guilty of contributing to his brother’s escape abroad but clearly stated that he had not had any socially useful work since June of this year, as he was touring various USSR cities. On this basis, Liesi is accused of contributing to his brother Teppo Liesi’s attempt to flee abroad after he had been charged with high treason. In violation of regulations concerning passport holding, he [Atto] lived in a restricted area without passport or residence permit and, despite having been denied registration there, he went to Petrozavodsk. Taking into account that Liesi is a public threat, this case is forwarded for the consideration of the NKVD troika of the AKSSR. Police Sergeant Khramov. Concurred: Police Second Lt. Anokhin.[19]

It is also worth quoting the protocol of the Karelian NKVD troika session of September 28, 1937, for it fully reveals that the warrant calling for Liesi’s death sentence closely intertwined not only with his past “connection with a spy” (his brother) but also again with the notion of “asociality,” which directly derived from Liesi’s gradual exclusion from Soviet society:

AKSSR NKVD criminal investigation case against Liesi, b. 1918, unemployed, convicted in 1935 under Article 111. Accused of providing his spy brother T.L. with a Soviet passport while working in the passport office at the Ilyinsk timber plant. Has not worked lately, has toured various USSR cities. AKSSR NKVD Chief of criminal investigation Second Lt. Vissarionov. To be subjected to a firing squad.[20]

The sentence was carried out on October 2, 1937, at 3:45 AM.

In the early 1990s, as many of his fellow citizens who had also fallen prey to the Stalinist terror, Liesi was rehabilitated after his case was presented to the Russian Commission for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression. According to the archives about the criminal case against Atto Atovich Liesi,

By act of the KASSR NKVD troika of September 28, 1937, Atto Liesi was executed for assisting his brother Teppo Liesi’s attempt to escape abroad; [Teppo Liesi] was apprehended at the border and eventually executed for espionage. Later, by the troika’s decision, Atto was also found guilty of not participating in socially useful work after being deported from the Reboly District in June 1937 along with his parents on suspicions of espionage. Any proof of Atto Liesi’s guilt is absent from the case. Liesi’s brother Teppo was repressed unlawfully on political grounds. Atto Liesi is subject to the law on the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions. Senior assistant prosecutor L.A. Labutin.[21]

The tragic story of Atto Liesi, who died shortly after his nineteenth birthday, reveals the inner workings of Stalinist state violence. This violence did not only entail direct arrests, executions, prison sentences, or the installation of barbed wire around camp zones. It also manifested itself in the complex ways in which citizens officially classified as “undesirable” and dangerous for the regime were removed from society. Liesi’s case, however, seems to comply to certain formal investigative proceedings. The archive shows that dozens of cases concerning prospective victims went in front of the court without any semblance of investigative procedures. Liesi’s case illustrates that, at the time of the Great Terror, Soviet investigators and law enforcers did not draw a clear line between espionage and asociality when administrating criminal dossiers and death verdicts.

Moreover, the case brings to the fore the lack of human, financial, and logistical resources in the USSR’s law enforcement agencies, including the OGPU-NKVD. It took one month for an investigator in Petrozavodsk to process a request in the Liesi’s case and to get it to the NKVD office in the borderland Reboly area, 500 kilometers away. The action of the NKVD remained limited because the USSR covered a huge territory and transportation and infrastructure were lacking in the peripheries. Additionally, the agencies lacked professionalism. The short training the Soviet chekists underwent in the 1930s was hardly adequate for them to effectively carry out their professional activity. In those training programs, ideology and politics predominated and consumed most of the curriculum, away from practical learning. Soviet officers too had very little space or teaching hours to learn about operative tactics and their professional functions.[22]

The active support of society for policies of stigmatization and exclusion cemented Stalin’s grip on Russia and accelerated and made inevitable the execution of Liesi and many of his fellow citizens. Liesi’s story reflects his desperate desire to reintegrate Soviet society, not only through attempts at gaining legal, honest work, but also through repeated attempts to join the Komsomol. However, he was unable to achieve these goals because the system, his colleagues, and fellow citizens reported him and eventually threw him into the hands of the state. The investigation materials in the archive clearly reveal that the border guards were able to seize Atto’s brother after receiving information about his crossing from a local informer two days prior.[23] Civil officials with whom he interacted when he arrived illegally in Petrozavodsk on August 13, 1937, had also reported him.

The population in borderland areas had been previously defiant of Soviet values; but from the mid-1930s, people demonstrated an increasing willingness to collaborate with authorities in their hunt for “enemies,” “spies,” and “border defectors.” This collaboration can also be seen in the hostility with which local populations most often met runaways from the Gulag camps who attempted to cross the Soviet borders. By the end of the 1930s, the constant “outreach work” by law enforcement personnel, which consisted in convincing local populations that all prisoners in the camps were common criminals, had had an effect.

Thus, although the Soviet border zones had previously defied the state, they later contributed to strengthening Stalinism and state violence. As scholars have demonstrated, the apparatus of state violence was crude and rudimentary, as it hastily organized deportations and mass arrests.[24] Its power emanated in part from an all-pervasive propaganda, which since the mid-1930s had successfully fostered and supported practices of “social exclusion.” These practices entailed people reporting and denunciating individuals who had already been subjected to repression in the past. As Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov stated, “the Soviet state’s true power lay not in its presumed centralizing tendencies, and also not so much in the repressive actions, but rather in its ability to gradually and slowly penetrate even into the places (and spaces) where it was perceived not to exist.”[25]


Atto Liesi’s case to understand today’s Russia

Today, reminiscent of the 1930s, the rights guaranteed by the Russian Constitution are ephemeral. Contemporary Russian authorities have tried to reshape old systems aiming at isolating, mobilizing, and coercing citizens. For example, in the summer of 2023, a nationwide digital military register was created to prevent “draft dodgers” from leaving the country, indicative of a new stage in the control of the state over individuals. Another register has been created to include individuals associated with different categories of “foreign agents” or their associates. Today’s law on foreign agent status allows even more flexibility in repression than the laws used to carry out sentences in Stalinist courts. Today, the Russian state makes it possible for citizens to self-report their status as “foreign agents” by filling out an online form. As a result of such self-reporting, citizens are subjected to increased surveillance, as the state applies “provisional restrictive measures” targeting different and constantly renewed categories of “foreign agents” and their associates. In such a state-run digital control system, citizens enjoy rights that depend on how well they comply with the regime. Today, as it did in the 1930s, real or alleged non-compliance leads to immediate “social death,.” which is embodied in various restrictions: people may be banned from government jobs and self-employment and deprived of the right to carry out real estate transactions and drive a car. As a result, a growing number of analysts have compared the current situation with the Soviet regime under Iosif Stalin[26] and regarded current state policies as a step toward the creation of a “digital gulag.”[27] Contemporary Russian society finds itself in a state of ideological mobilization while political repression, secrecy, suspicion, and suppression have restricted the flow of information within the country. The current regime has used the propaganda industry in its struggle against external enemies, relying on people denunciating others on political grounds. The character of the informer has again emerged in the Russian provinces. The range of sources from which informers draw information for their denunciations has broadened significantly. Indeed, they now also draw from the fertile ground of online media—comments and reposts on social networks or open-access Internet publications. The increase in the number of people engaged in denunciating those who are deemed dangerous to the regime—according to official criteria—reveal a regrettable replay of a long-gone Soviet past.[28]


All translations from archival documents are by the author.


Oksana Ermolaeva has a PhD in the history of Eastern and Central Europe from the Central European University, Budapest. She is a visiting researcher at the Complutense University, Madrid, Spain, and a grantee of the Scholars-at-Risk Research Fellowship from Gerda Henkel Stiftung, 2023-2024, Dusseldorf, Germany.



[1] Mark Junge, Rolf Binner, Kak Terror stal Bolshim. Serketnyi prikaz № 00447 i tekhnologiya ego ispolneniya. (Moskva: AIRO-XX, 2003); Oleg Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (Annals of Communism Series). (Yale University Press, 2013).

[2] Alexander Vatlin, Terror raionnogo masshtaba : massovye operatsii NKVD v Kuntsevskom raione Moskovskoi oblasti 1937—1938 gg. (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2004); Oleg Khlevniyuk, 1937: Stalin, NKVD I sovetskoe obschestvo. (Moscow: Respublika, 1992).

[3]To provide just few examples from this enormous body of literature: Wendy Z. Goldman. Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Golfo Alexopoulos, “Victim Talk: Defense Testimony and Denunciation Under Stalin,” Law & Social Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 3 (July 1999): 637-65; James Harris, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Sheila Fitzpatrick. “Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s.” Journal of Modern History 68, no. 4 (1996): 831-66; Orlando Figes. The Whisperers; Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. (London: Macmillan, 2007).

[4] Established in 1917 as the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, (NKVD) under the authority of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, this agency was originally tasked with conducting regular police work and overseeing the country’s prisons and labor camps. It was disbanded in 1930, and its functions were dispersed among other agencies, only to be reinstated as an all-union commissariat in 1934.

[5] Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic existed from 1936 to 1940 and from 1956 to 1991 on the territory of contemporary Republic of Karelia.

[6] Terry Martin, “The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing.” The Journal of Modern History. 1998. no. 70(4): 813-861; Irina Takala, “Granitsa na zamke! Osobennosti gosudarsvtennogo terrora v

Karelskom prigranichje 1920 – pervoi poloviny 1930 gg.” Almanakh severoevropeikikh I baltiiskikh issledovanii. 2016. no. 1: 132-159.

[7] David R. Shearer. Policing Stalin’s Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953 (Yale-Hoover Series on Authoritarian Regimes, 2009).

[8] Arkhiv MVD RK. F. 72. Op. 01. D. 909. L. 13.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Arkhiv MVD RK. F. 72. Op. 01. D. 909. L. 5.

[11] Translation by the author.

[12] Ibid. L. 1.

[13] Ibid. L. 6.

[14] Penal Code of RSFSR in the redaction of 1926.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. L. 11.

[17] Ibid. L. 6.

[18] Ibid. L. 13.

[19] Ibid. L. 14.

[20] Ibid. L. 15.

[21] Ibid. L. 16.

[22] GARF. F. 9401. Op. 1a. D. 20. L. 253.

[23] Arkhiv MVD RK. F. 72. Op. 01. D. 909. L. 14.

[24] Sergey Glebov, Alexander Semyonov, Marina Mogilner, “Ot redaktsii: Differentsiruya gosudarsvto, imperiy I natsiy,” Ab Imperio, 4/2022, 20.

[25] Nikolay Ssorin-Chaikov, The Social Life of the State in Subarctic Siberia. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 22.

[26] Olga Romanova, “The GULag is Still Alive.” Eurozine, February 22, 2021

[27] Stanovaya, Tatyana. “Zakon o tsifrovykh povestkah– eto shag v storonu nastoyashchego gulaga. Vypadenie iz novoi sistemy budet oznachat dlya rossiyan sotsialnuyu smert.” Meduza, April 17, 2023.

[28] 7Х7. Gorizontal’naya Rossiya. June, 17, 2023.


Published on February 15, 2024.


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