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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 / October 10, 2002



TOKSOVO, RUSSIA

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.

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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.

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.

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