“In August 1937 the most extensive and cruel period of political repression began,” wrote the late Arseny Roginsky in an Afterword to the Kommunarka Book of Remembrance. “In July the NKVD departments across the USSR had already began to set aside special ‘zones’, areas for the mass burial of those they shot. For locals these usually became known, euphemistically, as army firing ranges.
“This was how the zones that we know today came into being: the Levashovo Wasteland near Leningrad, Kuropaty near Minsk, the Golden Hill near Chelyabinsk, Bykovnya on the outskirts of Kiev, and many others.”
For decades after the death of Stalin in 1953, these sites remained in the hands of the NKVD’s successor, the KGB, and only in the very last years of the Soviet Union did they become known as the burial sites and killing fields of the Great Terror. There were two “firing ranges” on the outskirts of Moscow, at Butovo and Kommunarka.
An elite burial ground
Moscow was, in this respect, no different to other major cities throughout the USSR. Between 1937 and 1941 at least 32,000 people from Moscow were shot in cases “investigated” by the NKVD; no less than 29,200 of this total were executed in 1937-1938 at the peak of the Great Terror.
In other ways, the Soviet capital was different. It was the setting for a succession of Show Trials between 1936 and 1938 at which former Bolshevik leaders were found guilty of conspiring with the enemies of the Soviet Union, and Kommunarka was the burial ground for the Soviet elite. Most of the people shot and buried there, as participants in the “Right-Trotskyist Conspiracy”, were Soviet leaders and administrators of various rank: government ministers, military and naval commanders, diplomats and directors of intelligence agencies, secretaries of Party regional committees and heads of NKVD departments, directors of the largest factories, chief editors of newspapers, and heads of research institutes. The fate of these high-ranking individuals was often shared by their wives, children and relations.
Others were shot and buried at Kommunarka, but it was this elite group who have presented a particular problem for any form of commemoration.
Mention every name
As someone for many years acquainted with the burials at Kommunarka and the issues they raised, Memorial chairman Jan Rachinsky offered to explain why the controversial decision to include every name on a single list was the only acceptable response.
(What follows is a summary of what Rachinsky said.
Any additional information or comment is added in [brackets].)
Soon after Kommunarka was identified as a site of mass burial descendants of the dead formed an action group and long tried to gain some support from the authorities. The Mongolian government and the administration in Far Eastern Yakutia erected monuments at Kommunarka to their executed predecessors, but over twenty years no State support or funding was forthcoming.
[The territory was finally relinquished by the FSB in the spring of 1999 and passed into the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2007 a church dedicated to Russia’s New Martyrs and Confessors was erected at Kommunarka.]
The descendants of the dead finally appealed to the public and, with the help of Novaya gazeta, were able to fund a small monument to all the victims of political repression buried at the “firing range”, but it did not list any names.
During the 1990s, meanwhile, a full list of the 6,609 persons shot and buried at Kommunarka was compiled from information held at the FSB Central Archive by researchers from Memorial.
Discussions about the long-delayed memorial now involved the relatives’ action group, the Orthodox Church, Memorial, the Gulag Museum, independent experts and the Moscow city commission for restoring the rights of rehabilitated victims of political repression. In 2014 Pyotr Pasternak proposed the simple design now implemented (earlier proposals were elaborate and costly) and it appealed to all taking part in the discussions as something that blended naturally with the surroundings. It was financed by the Fund for Commemorating the Victims of Political Repression and a northwest Russian firm, Northern Izba, provided the wooden supports for the wall, free of charge.
After long discussion, a common position was agreed about the content of the proposed memorial. The wall was, in effect, a gravestone on a mass burial, not a form of canonisation or rehabilitation. It simply stated, “These are all the people who lie here.” Therefore, the list at Kommunarka, as in the Garden of Remembrance opened at Butovo in 2017, would include all the names whether or not they had been rehabilitated.
[This was a change from the principle of compilation applied in the Kommunarka Book of Remembrance, it may be noted. There Yagoda’s two rehabilitated sisters were mentioned but not he himself or any of the other unrehabilitated NKVD officers now to be found on the Wall of Remembrance at Kommunarka.]
One list, not two
A second, far more complex and contradictory issue was whether to give one list or two. Only one type of division, between victims and perpetrators, was considered and finally rejected.
One potential problem was that very little was known (only the name and date of execution) about almost a third of those shot and buried at Kommunarka. Since the mid-1990s the rehabilitation group at the KGB, established during the perestroika years, had ceased to exist and access to the files remained difficult. Who in this large group of two thousand individuals were victims and who were perpetrators? Who among them had been rehabilitated or still had family who could apply for rehabilitation or visit their final resting place?
There were other arguments but they did not play a decisive role in the final decision. Such a division was not rejected because all, in a certain sense, were victims and had been denied a fair trial or that, more than once in Soviet history, a prisoner had become an executioner and a perpetrator became a victim.
The insoluble problem was that it is impossible to make such a division here and now.
Certificates of rehabilitation from the late 1950s and early 1960s were no reliable guide. The membership of the extra-judicial troikas, which condemned so many to death during the Great Terror, illustrates this very well. The majority of NKVD men who were members of a troika were not rehabilitated after Stalin’s death, but all the regional Party secretaries who were members, and often enthusiastic members of such bodies, were rehabilitated. Likewise, the third member of the troika, the regional prosecutor (or procurator), was also always rehabilitated.
Apparently straightforward definitions of the perpetrator were found, on closer examination, to exclude many who were indubitable criminals, for example the investigators who fabricated cases and tortured the detainees. Incomplete information made the formation of such a list impossible — and, it was felt, further delay in naming those buried at Kommunarka would be intolerable.
Two final considerations
A graveyard is not the place, concluded Rachinsky, to remind some children or grandchildren that their relatives have not been rehabilitated or to explain to others that their executed forbears were unfairly cleared of past misdeeds. An assessment of their past activities should be made elsewhere. It’s a different matter when the names of known perpetrators remain in public places in Moscow, such as the bust of Dzerzhinsky at police headquarters on Petrovka or that of Stalin recently erected by the Military History Society in Petroverigsky Street.
Russian society needs a wide and open discussion of these tragic pages from its past, he agreed. It was not helpful to revive the Soviet interpretation of State Terror, relying on the flawed rehabilitation process, focusing on the activities of the perpetrators and ignoring the criminal nature of the State itself.