Dispossession, imprisonment, deportation and famine
After experimenting in Siberia the previous autumn and winter, the November 1929 plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee decided to proceed with the forced collectivization of the countryside and the “liquidation of the kulaks as a social group” (a process also known as “dekulakization”).
The collectivization campaign supported a double objective: one, it would “extract” – the term used in confidential instructions — all elements prone to actively oppose forced collectivization; two, it would “colonize” vast inhospitable regions of the Russian North, the Urals, Siberia and Kazakhstan through the resettlement of entire “kulak” families.
Over sixteen months (August 1937-November 1938), more than one and a half million people were arrested in the USSR and sentenced in their absence by regional tribunals — the extra-judicial troika (“three-member commissions”), dvoika (“two-member commissions”), and Special Board — or came briefly before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court in Moscow. No defence was offered.
Half of those arrested were sentenced to death. They were shot and buried all over the Soviet Union in killing fields like those discovered and investigated in Karelia by Yury DMITRIEV (Krasny Bor and Sandarmokh), or like Kommunarka and Butovo near Moscow. The other detainees were sent to the Gulag for up to ten years of forced labour.
For a long while the concurrent Show Trials of leading Old Bolsheviks (1936-1938) led many in the Soviet Union and abroad to believe that this unprecedented bloodshed was linked to a “purge” within the Communist Party. Archival research since the late 1980s has shown that the vast majority arrested and shot or imprisoned were picked up in accordance with regional quotas issued by the NKVD in Moscow, and were not Party members.
On Wednesday, 5 August, people marked the annual Day of Remembrance in over 80 towns and cities all over the world (in Bulgaria, Latvia, Ukraine, Scotland and Brittany among others) by reading out the names of those shot at Sandarmokh in 1937 and 1938, during the Great Terror.
Due to the Corona virus epidemic no gathering was held this year at the memorial complex near Medvezhegorsk.
At present 6,241 victims have been identified. Over five thousand were inhabitants of Karelia or prisoners of the BelBaltlag (White Sea Canal) labour camp system; a further 1,111 were brought there to be shot from the Solovki Special Prison in the White Sea.
“In August 1937 the most extensive and cruel period of political repression began,” wrote the late Arseny Roginsky in an Afterwordto 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 such “firing ranges” on the outskirts of Moscow, at Butovo and Kommunarka.