Kommunarka, 2018

On 29 October 2018, the annual “Restoring the Names” ceremony took place in Moscow, despite previous uncertainties. That day and the next, similar events took place in 19 other Russian towns and cities (and in several foreign cities as well).

In many more places, including Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor in Karelia, it was the following day, the 30 October, that was marked as the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repression. At the Zaretsky churchyard in Petrozavodsk and at Krasny Bor on the city outskirts, complained his daughter Katya, there was no mention of Yury DMITRIEV.

His name was recalled that day in Moscow when the Memorial Human Rights Centre issued its updated List of Russian Political Prisoners. As the compilers were careful to comment, it contained the minimum verified list of those who had been detained or prosecuted on political grounds (or for reason of their religious beliefs). Yury DMITRIEV was prominent among the political prisoners; museum director Sergei Koltyrin had not yet been added to the list.

Controversy in Moscow

The most dramatic event that autumn proved to be the opening of the Wall of Remembrance at the Kommunarka execution site and burial ground outside Moscow. Within days other organisations (the Immortal Barrack, notably) were accusing Memorial of rehabilitating the executioners.


Wall of Remembrance, Kommunarka (photo, Vlad Dokshin, Novaya gazeta)

It was in 1991 that people first learned that thousands had been shot and buried at Kommunarka, the former dacha of NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda (himself arrested in March 1937). Not until 1999 did the NKVD’s successors, the FSB, hand over the territory to the Russian Orthodox Church.

On 27 October 2018, a memorial was finally opened at Kommunarka: one long list in alphabetical order including 6,609 names of those shot and buried there between 2 September 1937 and 24 November 1941. On closer examination the list was found to contain not only the name of Yagoda and his two sisters, but over fifty other NKVD officers of various rank who were themselves executed in the late 1930s. The Immortal Barrack was particularly indignant:

“We demand that the names of these murderers be removed from the memorial. In the nearest future a separate information board with the surnames of those who personally carried out acts of repression. Murderers must not be mentioned on the same memorial as the victims.”

On 2 November, the chairman of Memorial Jan Rachinsky, offered an explanation as to why a single list including all those buried at the site had become, in his view, the only possible solution.


In an Afterword to the Kommunarka Book of Remembrance. the late Arseny Roginsky wrote:

“In August 1937 the most extensive and cruel period of political repression began. In July that year NKVD departments across the USSR had already begun 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.”

golden hill chelyabinsk

The Golden Hill, Chelyabinsk

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 killing fields and burial grounds of the Great Terror. There were two such “firing ranges” of the Great Terror on the outskirts of Moscow in the late 1930s, at Butovo and Kommunarka.

An elite burial ground

In this respect, Moscow was 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 during the Great Terror.

In other ways, the Soviet capital was distinctive at this time. It was the setting for three Show Trials in August 1936, January 1937 and March 1938 at which former Bolshevik leaders were found guilty of conspiring with the enemies of the Soviet Union. 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 also shot and buried at Kommunarka, but it was this elite group who present 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, the chairman of the International Memorial Society 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 with a few interpolated comments.

Rachinsky wrote:

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 the next twenty years no State support or funding was forthcoming.


The Entrance to Kommunarka

Finally the FSB relinquished control of the territory to the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2007 a church dedicated to Russia’s New Martyrs and Confessors was erected at Kommunarka. Rachinsky describes that moment:

The descendants of the dead finally appealed to the public and, with the help of Novaya gazeta, were able to fund a small monument. It was dedicated to all the victims of political repression buried at the “firing range”, but did not list any names.

During the 1990s, meanwhile, a full list of the 6,609 persons shot and buried at Kommunarka was compiled by researchers from Memorial from information held at the FSB Central Archive.

By now many groups were involved.

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 firm from northwest Russia, Northern Izba, provided the wooden supports for the wall, free of charge.

After long debate, 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, it may be noted, from the underlying principle of compilation applied in the Kommunarka Book of Remembrance and many other such publications across Russia. They only included those rehabilitated under Khrushchev or under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

In the Kommunarka Book of Remembrance, therefore, Yagoda’s two rehabilitated sisters were mentioned but neither the former head of OGPU nor any of the other unrehabilitated NKVD officers now to be found on the “Wall of Remembrance” at Kommunarka.

One list, not two

And there was a second “far more complex and contradictory issue” wrote Rachinsky: “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?

Yagoda at Kommunarka
Genrikh Yagoda and his two sisters on the Kommunarka “Wall of Remembrance”

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

Rachinsky ended his closely-argued text with two final considerations, about the nature and purpose of a graveyard, and the present condition of Russian society:

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.

John Crowfoot, November 2018