Wary of its past, Russia ignores mass grave site

A human rights group is excavating remains that point to a Stalin-era mass murder.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A forest glade near St. Petersburg is yielding terrible secrets under the spade of a small group of volunteers who persevere despite official disapproval and public indifference.

From the mossy soil, the workers have disinterred the remains of hundreds of people believed to have been Stalin's political prisoners. Each discovery bears witness to a mass murder here of possibly as many as 30,000, that, after more than half a century, still awaits official investigation.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, politicians are debating a mayoral proposal to return a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, to its pedestal outside the organization's downtown Moscow headquarters, the notorious Lubyanka.

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These clashing scenes suggest that the struggle for Russia's post-communist soul is far from over – and that, for the moment at least, those who advocate national introspection and repentance are not winning.

"The unresolved horrors of the 20th century are festering in our political culture today," says Irina Flige, head of the St. Petersburg chapter of Memorial, the human rights group that discovered the mass grave on a military firing range near the industrial town of Toksovo last month.

"If the nightmares that occurred in our country under communism are not assimilated, they can be repeated."

Memorial has worked since 1988 to fill in the pages of Russian history deleted or altered by communist propagandists.

The Toksovo site, 1.2 square miles, is just one of hundreds across the former USSR where Stalin's agents murdered vast numbers – estimates run up to 10 million – of real and imagined political opponents.

Working in 50 exploratory pits, Memorial has so far retrieved scores of skulls, each with a bullet hole in its base – the hallmark of execution by Stalin's agents.

"Everywhere we dig, we find evidence that thousands were shot here by the Soviet secret police," says volunteer Lev Krylenkov, whose own grandfather may be buried here. "We believe this entire forest, several square kilometers, is one huge mass grave."

No Russian leader has yet commented on the discovery. Memorial believes the area could hold as many as 30,000 victims of Stalin's 1930s terror campaign against his own people.

The FSB, successor agency to the Soviet secret police, has responded to Memorial's requests for assistance with a terse official note saying there is "no relevant information" in its archives.

Volunteers and journalists seeking to visit the mass grave 10 days ago were stopped by armed soldiers. Shortly after, another group found the only access road to the site had been bulldozed, forcing them to walk five miles through the forest to reach it.

"The authorities do not openly prevent us from investigating this, as would have happened in Soviet times," says Ms. Flige. "They just take no responsibility, which is in itself a powerful form of obstruction. In any other country, wouldn't a mass grave of murder victims be officially investigated?"

For Russians, exhausted by a decade of post-Soviet political crisis and economic decline, the discovery is more unwelcome bad news. President Vladimir Putin has made social stability and accord a political priority, and sought to play down the controversies of history.

"You have to understand that most people live in the present," says Anatoly Pristavkin, a member of the Presidential Council, a Kremlin advisory group. "When society becomes agitated, it becomes destabilized. To protect themselves, people avoid living in the past."

Surveys show that Russian society remains deeply divided between a majority who hold no special grudge against the former Soviet power and millions of others who suffered personally or lost relatives in secret police terror that reached a peak in the 1930s.

In a poll conducted by the independent Center for Public Opinion Studies last year, more than half of Russians said they regard former dictator Joseph Stalin with respect, admiration, or indifference, while only a quarter expressed strictly negative feelings toward him.

Mr. Krylenkov, a young St. Petersburg mathematics student, is haunted by his grandmother's stories of her arrest and torture by the NKVD, precursor of the KGB, in the 1930s. His grandfather and an uncle disappeared around the same time. Krylenkov has resolved to help with the excavations until every last victim has been documented.

"A friend told me about this place, and after I saw it I just couldn't stay away," he says.

For many others, however, the Soviet regime is associated with Russia's rise to superpower status, social order, full employment, mass education, and other progress from Russia's backward state before the revolution.

Post-Soviet politicians have actively courted this huge segment of the population, especially the Communists, who can still expect to get about a quarter of the popular vote.

Mr. Putin has also offered symbolic gestures, such as restoring the music of the old Soviet national anthem, and allowing a set of commemorative coins bearing Stalin's image to be struck by the Russian mint this year.

Neither Putin nor his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, have initiated work on an objective history of the USSR for schools, nor have they supported calls by human rights groups for building a national museum to document the crimes of communism.

"Our leaders prefer comfortable myths to hard truths," says Svyatoslav Kaspe, a historian with the independent Russian Public Policy Center in Moscow. "But this is exactly why the tragedies of Russian history keep repeating themselves, and could do so again. We must find the courage and political will to confront our past before we can say we have permanently changed."

The Kremlin did balk at Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's proposal to restore the Dzerzhinsky statue, which was pulled down from its pedestal by pro-democracy protesters in 1991.

But Mr. Luzhkov, buoyed by a recent opinion poll showing 53 percent of Muscovites support the monument's return, may go ahead with the plan anyway.

"Dzerzhinsky is a monument to terror, to the successful repression of a whole society, and it is indicative of the state of things in our society that leaders can actually discuss putting that statue back in its place," says Flige.

"Here's another thing that's indicative: Nowhere in Russia is there a monument to liberty. Not a single one."

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