Those who did not return

Russia’s Necropolis of Terror and the Gulag

“I would like to recall them all by name,
but they’ve taken the list, there’s no way to find out”

Anna Akhmatova wrote Requiem, from which this famous couplet is taken, over almost thirty years (1935-1961). In Russia the poem could not be published in full until 1987.

Her first husband, fellow poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was shot on trumped-up charges in 1921 [47-01]. Their son Lev was twice arrested and sent to the camps: during the Great Terror and again in 1949. Her third husband Nikolai Punin died in August 1953 [11-23], a few months after Stalin, in the hospital of a labour camp complex in northwest Russia.

Nikolai Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova and their son Lev (1915)

As she was well aware, Akhmatova was giving voice to millions who suffered a similar ordeal. When she died in 1966 Khrushchev’s brief and ambivalent “Thaw” had come to an end. For the next twenty years there would be silence about the crimes of the 1920s-1950s; any discovered remains were hastily reburied or moved elsewhere [42-08]. Not until the late 1980s did the rehabilitation of the “victims of political repression” under Stalin (and Lenin) resume.

A silent people without a literary voice

In The Gulag Archipelago, completed in 1968, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote with passion of the fate of the peasantry during the forced collectivization of agriculture.

Their experiences were neglected. “A silent people without a literary voice,” they differed from prominent victims of the Great Terror or the more literate inmates of the Gulag who survived to tell their tale. They did not “write complaints or memoirs”. “Russia’s Necropolis” records what happened to the victims of “dekulakization”. They are well represented on the website by the “special” settlements to which they were banished in the early 1930s, many of which have since ceased to exist [29-43]. 


Elsewhere Solzhenitsyn repeated Akhmatova’s lament: the lists had been lost or destroyed and we would never be able to identify the victims. The events of the 1990s proved him wrong. Today numerous lists of victims, stretching back to 1918 and forward into the 1980s, have been published in book form or are accessible online.


Since the early 1990s, almost all of modern Russia’s constituent regions and republics have compiled Books of Remembrance. These multi-volume publications contain the names and details of those arrested during the Great Terror (August 1937-October 1938) who were shot or sent to the camps; some also include volumes dedicated to entire families exiled in the early 1930s as kulaks or “rich peasants” to be followed later by deported Poles, Lithuanians, and, after 1941, by Chechens and Ingush, Crimean Tatars and Kalmyks [22-01].

Memorial to Deported Kalmyks

Numerous burial grounds discovered in the 1990s are today maintained by local schools and museums, by the Orthodox Church and regional branches of the Memorial Society. At many of these sites commemorative gatherings are held each year [63-01].

After the mass rehabilitation of the “kulaks” in the early 1990s, regional departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs released lists of dekulakized family members. Their names filled additional volumes of some regional Books of Remembrance. Added to Memorial’s online database of “The Victims of Political Terror in the USSR” they helped swell its numbers to 3 million. Where do their dead lie buried?

“Russia’s Necropolis” records over four hundred commemorative sites and burial grounds across the length and breadth of Russia. Today 1,800 such sites are known but their discovery does not tell the full story.

Dneprovsky camp burial ground (Magadan)

“Dekulakized” peasant families and deportees were allowed to bury their own. This was not true of Gulag inmates [49-12] or, especially, of those shot, buried and concealed during the Great Terror of the late 1930s. The lists compiled in the 1990s gave names, dates and other details: they did not indicate the last resting place of these tens of thousands.

That required further archival investigation and expert exploration of the most likely location, a feat notably achieved by Yury Dmitriev in Karelia. In July 1997, following work in the local FSB archives, Dmitriev, with Irina Flige and the late Veniamin Joffe from St Petersburg, discovered Sandarmokh [10-9], one of northwest Russia’s largest killing fields and burial grounds.

Those who did not return

The sites included in “Russia’s Necropolis”, first launched in 2016, are indeed a representative selection. Some date back a hundred years to the Civil War (1918-1921), to the massacres of hostages [36-02] or the shooting of those who then took part in peasant uprisings [22-02].

Most relate to the great upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s: the forced collectivization of agriculture (1930-1933); the demands of the insatiable Gulag (1930-1939); the Great Terror (1937-1938) and the deportation of various nationalities before (1939-1941), during (1941-1944) and after (1945-1951) the Nazi-Soviet war.

Abandoned graveyard (Malaya Lata, Sverdlovsk Region)

The stone and wooden monuments at these commemorative sites and burial grounds bear a variety of epitaphs. Frequently they adopt official terminology and refer to the “victims of political repression”. A more recent style of dedication is poignant in its simplicity [11-21]. “To those who did not return” it reads, their tragedy and that of their loved ones captured by a single Russian word, “Невернувшимся”.

John Crowfoot, August 2021

Select bibliography

  • Robert Conquest (1968), The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1973), The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (unabridged, in three vols)

The truth of the above classic works, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and survivors, is beyond doubt. Some figures they proposed should be examined in the light of more recent research, e.g., The Great Terror, 1937-1938.

  • Anne Applebaum (2003), Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps
  • Oleg Khlevnyuk (2004), The history of the Gulag: from Collectivisation to the Great Terror
  • Lynne Viola (2007), Unknown: The lost world of Stalin’s “special settlements”