The tale of Pavlik Morozov was one of the most enduring legends of the communist era. Pavlik, so the story went, was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Pioneer who squealed on his father to the Soviet authorities in the early 1930s for hoarding grain and not giving it up to the collective farm. Popular with the authorities but less so with his own kulak-sympathising relatives, he paid the ultimate price when he was killed in the woods for denouncing his dad.
The Pavlik myth, which was peddled to millions of Soviet schoolchildren from 1932 onwards, was loosely based on a true story - the murder of 13-year-old Pavel Morozov and his brother Fyodor in Gerasimovka in west- ern Siberia. It is debatable whether anyone ever really believed it, and certainly by the 1970s and 1980s the name Pavlik Morozov had become a joke, a byword for "goody two-shoes". In 1938, however, Pioneer Pravda described the boy in glowing terms: "All Soviet children want to be like Pavlik Morozov. They are ready to give up all their strength, and if necessary even their lives, for the beloved motherland."
As Catriona Kelly's brilliant study shows, the Pavlik legend spawned as much cynicism as patriotism. His star rose and fell continually, and was contorted in different ways at different times to suit whichever political message was expedient. In the early 1930s, he was heralded as a lone hero Pioneer, the boy who would shop his own father to remain true to the communist cause. After this, he represented the triumph of the individual over the family. By the late 1930s, however, Pavlik's once-exemplary tale-telling had come to seem wrong: Stalin had become the benevolent father figure, and children were being coached in the importance of family loyalty. At this point, Pavlik's denunciation of his father was underplayed, and it was claimed that he had merely co-operated with the authorities. In the early 1940s, he was forgotten for a while, before being rehabilitated under Nikita Khrushchev as "Pioneer No 001". Pavlik was still lending his name to Soviet streets in the 1980s.
Seventy years later, with all the pro- tagonists long dead and many of the archives highly unreliable, it would be next to impossible to uncover what "really" happened. Sensibly, Kelly does not attempt this. Instead, with obsessive flair, she presents us with a wealth of inconclusive evidence. She seems to find it unlikely that Pavel thought of himself as a Pioneer, and suggests that, if there was a denunciation of his father, it was politically motivated. The one thing she asserts with certainty is that Pavel and his younger brother Fyodor were brutally murdered, their bodies spattered with cranberry juice from a fruit-picking expedition to the forest. The evidence that it was a politically motivated crime - either a set-up by the authorities, looking to create a boy-hero, or the act of a conveniently evil "band of kulaks" out to exact revenge - is too flimsy to convince.
Instead, Kelly tentatively points her finger at the mess of village life. The 1930s were a time of extreme poverty and virtual civil war in the villages: anyone whose cart didn't have a broken wheel was considered a "greedy kulak". In Kelly's version of events, Pavel's father, Trofim, chairman of the village soviet, disappeared from home after finding himself unable to cope with the stresses and pressures of collectivisation, leaving Pavel, the eldest child, to hold things together. He became drawn into low-level activism, helping the authorities to look for weapons and arguing with his cousins over whom a horse harness belonged to. One day, the older boys decided to teach him a lesson that went badly wrong. Intentionally or not, Pavel and his brother ended up being stabbed. Once the police - as well as the local Soviet authorities - became involved, the case inevitably took on a political slant. It is unlikely that much of this was premeditated: everyone was simply caught up in the concerns of the moment.
Kelly's take on Pavel's life, both myth and reality, is darkly entertaining and painstakingly researched. The highlights of her account are the doubts expressed by ordinary Soviet citizens off the record. One woman recalls the warning her father gave her in the early 1980s: "Please: they may tell you at school that Pavlik Morozov really is a hero, but don't kid yourself! A person can't be a hero if he betrays his parents! That's really not normal." After all, propaganda has power only if you choose to believe it.