The flood of inquiries placed the KGB, the prosecutor, the Politburo, and the state in an uncomfortable position. Between 1937 and 1938, almost three quarters of a million persons were executed and their relatives were not informed. Most had been sentenced not by courts or tribunals but by troikas, which automatically confirmed the sentence recommended by NKVD operational groups. Between 1940 and 1955, another quarter million were executed, sentenced by military tribunals and special assemblies. Again, their relatives were not told.
As Stalin's successors grappled with the issue, they were unable to admit to relatives and hence to the public, that more than one million citizens had been killed on their watch as Stalin subordinates. The most convenient solution was to lie. Relatives were falsely told that, if the term of the supposed prison sentence had passed, their relative had died in prison. If the term had not yet expired, they were told that their relative was in prison—a lie that became less credible with the passage of time. The highest party authorities even tolerated falsification of official records. Rather than tell the truth, they simply changed dates of death.
Khrushchev's secret speech of February 1956 told the party faithful that most of the party members purged by Stalin were innocent. Therefore, it was easier for the relatives of the elite to rehabilitate their loved ones than for ordinary people. Another obstacle was that the bureaucratic process of rehabilitating the more than one million people executed would be overwhelming. However, there was little doubt in o"cial circles about the innocence of the vast majority of those killed. A December 1953 memo from interior minister Kruglov and chief prosecutor Rudnenko to Khrushchev stated that most of the 442,531 persons sentenced by NKVD Special Assemblies for counterrevolutionary crimes were falsely accused, sometimes "with the most crude violations of Soviet laws.” Kruglov and Rudnenko recommended the creation of a special commission (including themselves plus the chairman of the supreme court and the head of a Central Committee department) to examine cases of those incorrectly sentenced, but they conveniently decided to consider only cases after June of 1945, when death sentences averaged "only” around 3,000 per year.3
Relatives did not have the legal right to information on the fate of loved ones until the June 6, 1992, law of the Russian Federation "About the rehabilitation of victims of political repression” which gave rehabilitated persons, or in the case of their death, their relatives, "the right to obtain for their examination copies of the case materials” from either the interior ministry or the prosecutor's office.
Although the Russian Federation has not published official statistics of the number of executions for political offenses, it has not prevented formerly secret statistics from being published in the scientific literature.4 Even more remarkable is the fact that the KGB's successor has posted statistics on arrests during the Stalin period on its own website.5