In Russia, a grass-roots bid to expose Stalin's ‘Great Terror’

The nascent movement mirrors efforts in many countries – Japan, Germany, Rwanda, and the United States, to name a few – to confront elements of a dark past.

Andrey Arkhipov
The relatives of family members who were killed by Joseph Stalin’s secret police put flowers and candles on graves where the victims’ remains have been reburied near Voronezh, Russia.

Just about every former Soviet city has a place outside town, usually a forest or piece of scrubland, where Joseph Stalin’s secret police brought thousands of executed “enemies of the people” and dumped them into mass graves, especially during the nightmare years of the Great Terror of 1936-38. 

Here in Voronezh, a central Russian city of about 1 million people, that place is known as Dubovka. It’s a forlorn stretch of sparse oak forest that even today can be reached only by a long hike along unmarked paths. For decades the subject of rumors and frightened whispers, Dubovka was recently designated an official “memorial zone.” Mostly youthful volunteers have been excavating the pits each summer, removing and reburying the remains of at least 10,000 local victims that are thought to have been interred here. 

What they find are the remains of men, women, and even children, often with their hands still tied behind their backs, whose tattered documents, buried with the bodies, show they came from all walks of life. Researchers say many had a swift and perfunctory trial, if they had one at all. Most were charged with fantastical crimes, such as operating under the direction of German or Japanese intelligence. They were accused of committing acts of sabotage, motivated by loyalty to Stalin’s personal enemies, such as Leon Trotsky.

“I hope the time has come for people to face this monstrous reality, but it is not happening,” says Lena Dudukina, a local poet and volunteer with the human rights group Memorial. She wants to start a website similar to one set up by activists in the western Russian region of Karelia to document all that is known about the mass slaughter and, perhaps, inspire others around the country to begin their own investigations.

“Something has to be done so that when the public and the government do decide to face these issues squarely, enough facts have been collected to assist that process,” she says. “The worst thing would be if it all slips back into the realm of mythology, and no justice is ever realized.”

In one sense, the nascent movement here mirrors enduring grass-roots efforts in many countries around the world to confront elements of a dark past. In Japan, officials are being forced to deal with the atrocities committed against South Korean “comfort women” during World War II. In the United States, the legacy of slavery continues to haunt many states and institutions. (Click here for related story.) Germany’s moral reckoning with the Holocaust is ever present, and countries from Indonesia to Cambodia to Rwanda have had to deal with past genocides. 

People gather in Moscow’s Red Square to mark the anniversary of the death of Joseph Stalin. Opinion polls show Russians are increasingly inclined to see him as an effective leader and play down the mass crimes he oversaw.

The nations that do confront past atro­cities do so in their own ways and at their own pace. Some hold very public truth and reconciliation hearings. Some erect monuments. Others deal with it more quietly, through schoolbooks and social discussions.

Russia’s response has been more muted than that of other countries in similar situations. Eight decades later, the crimes of Stalin have yet to be fully recognized, much less documented. There is no closure for millions of descendants whose grandparents disappeared, and no consensus – or even much debate – among Russian historians about what happened and why. The slaughter and incarceration of millions remain shrouded in myth, even though former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the repressions in a secret speech in 1956 and attempted to “de-Stalinize” the Soviet system before he was overthrown. His successors, seeing the whole discussion as a threat to Soviet legitimacy, quelled the talk altogether.

During Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to reform Communism in the late 1980s, a flood of revelations about Stalinist repressions in the media, and wrenching memoirs of surviving victims, did contribute greatly to public loss of faith and the subsequent peaceful collapse of the USSR.

To this day, no one has a clear estimate of how many Soviet people fell victim to the massive waves of political purges that rocked the Stalin era, tearing families and whole communities apart, and leaving scars that have not healed.

“Between August 1937 and November 1938, about 1-1/2 million people [in the USSR] were arrested and perhaps 700,000 of them were shot,” says Nikita Petrov, one of Russia’s leading historians on the secret services and an expert with the Memorial society. “It was a really terrible time in our history.” During the entire period from the early 1920s to Stalin’s death in 1953, he estimates, about 12 million people were either killed, sent to labor camps, or otherwise suffered directly from repressions.

“We would like very much if our state would provide official figures, perhaps in the form of an apology, but the Russian state doesn’t seem at all interested in doing that on any level,” he says. “They say: ‘Leave it to the historians.’ But how can we do our jobs when the archives are still mostly closed, even to specialists?”

One of the few surviving victims of the Great Terror is Valery Chekmaryov. His father was one of a group of 23 railroad workers accused of treason and shot in 1937. As the family of a convicted “enemy of the people,” young Chekmaryov and his mother were arrested shortly thereafter, evicted from their apartment, and trundled off to a labor camp in the Volga region of Mordovia.

Valery Chekmaryov, sitting in his home, was just a few months old when he was sent with his mother to a Soviet labor camp.

Chekmaryov spent nearly a year in the gulag before being taken to Voronezh to live with his grandmother while his mother was still being held.

“The fate of my family was typical for those designated as enemies of the people,” says Chekmaryov, who has spent his life trying to document what happened to his parents. His mother returned from the gulag in 1946 and, following Stalin’s death, managed to get herself and her husband “rehabilitated” – which is Soviet-speak for having one’s rights as a citizen restored and their convictions expunged from the record. Chekmaryov himself was only rehabilitated by a Soviet court in 1989. Still, he managed to live a productive life in the Soviet Union, becoming a railroad engineer like his father.

But it’s only in recent years that he’s managed to gain access to some of the documents in his father’s case. For instance, he has a court paper, stamped as a “true copy” by today’s FSB security service, that says his father’s group was convicted after a 20-minute trial of being “a Trotskyist spy and sabotage unit acting under the direction of Japanese intelligence.”

“I have been studying this for many years, and I still have no idea how all [the state purging] was organized,” says Vyacheslav Bitytsky, head of the Voronezh chapter of Memorial – which has, ironically, been declared a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin because it receives international funding. In addition to trying to document the extent of the Stalin-era mass terror, the group works to legally exonerate victims and introduce educational programs in local schools that could help lift the fog that still surrounds this horrific chapter of history.

“They didn’t just seize people in the streets. They opened cases, investigated, held trials, and hence there must be documents,” says Mr. Bitytsky. “Yet it becomes harder and harder to get access to the archives, unless you were a victim or a direct descendant. People like Chekmaryov are the last ones who will be given any access at all. He’s over 80 now, and most of the others are long gone.” 

For years, Chekmaryov did his research largely in anonymity. No one was particularly interested in his efforts to dig up details of his family’s past, nor his push to get the country to confront this dark era. But that began to change about five years ago. 

Now he sits on a committee in Voronezh that prepares events each year to mark a national day to “commemorate victims of political repressions.” He is also a regular guest at solemn ceremonies authorities organize at the Dubovka gravesite, and is often consulted on issues about Stalin-era crimes by local and regional officials.

“Once a year, at least, this issue gets quite a lot of coverage in our local media. The governor and others organize and attend events to honor the victims of repressions,” says Chekmaryov. Sitting in a hotel room in Voronezh, he comes off as someone who has spent a lifetime battling the system – passionate, engaged, committed. “That is something quite new in Russian life, and it’s a symbol of the attitude of our authorities,” he goes on. “On the other hand, the continuing difficulty of getting access to documents, to fully research what happened, is another mark of their attitude.”

What Chekmaryov has been able to find out, he’s written in a book, which he published himself. At this point, he doubts he will unearth any new information. “You can’t call it closure,” he says. “But it’s something.”

Photos of Valery Chekmaryov's mother and his father (r.) who was shot by the secret police.

Voronezh is a cultural and industrial hub in southwestern Russia that sits astride a broad river. It was the city where Peter the Great built his first great naval fleet and, more recently, was almost completely destroyed in back-and-forth sieges between the Germans and Russians in World War II.

Voronezh lies in a more liberal part of Russia, and local authorities, unlike those in many other cities and regions, have been cooperating with efforts spearheaded by the local chapter of Memorial. But even here it’s an uphill slog for activists. They perceive that officials are deeply ambivalent about an issue that remains explosively controversial, and are therefore unwilling to let the social conversation move much beyond commemorating victims and expressing shock at the tragedy that struck here 80 years ago.

Besides sponsoring the annual commemoration day, local authorities have assisted in the publication of a “Book of Memory” that lists thousands of area people who were executed or sent to gulag labor camps. RIA-Voronezh, a state-funded regional news agency, has run a series describing the stories of local people who suffered death and imprisonment during those terrible days.

But that’s about as far as it goes. 

Alexander Akinshin, a history professor at Voronezh State University, and one of the authors of the Book of Memory, says there are two institutes of higher learning in Voronezh with modern history departments, but not a single course is taught about those terrible events of the 1930s. Historians do write about it, but usually their work, like his own, focuses on individual cases rather than trying to analyze the era. 

“To investigate those events properly, to examine the whys and wherefores, you would need access to a lot of documents that are absolutely unavailable today,” he says. He can’t name a single book by any contemporary Russian historian that tackles the broad themes of purges and gulags, though there are plenty by Western authors. “Perhaps not enough time has passed,” he speculates. “Public interest is not there. People these days are too concerned with their private lives, personal problems, and there is no pressure from below for change.”

Those boundaries have undoubtedly been set by the Kremlin. On one hand, Vladimir Putin has gone much further than any previous Soviet or Russian leader in acknowledging the massive tragedy that befell millions of Soviets, and admitting that it was wrong. On the other hand, President Putin is striving to knit together a narrative of Russian history that promotes national unity, and Stalin needs to be integrated into that story as an effective leader who oversaw industrialization and a victory over Nazi Germany, and left the USSR a mighty superpower on the world stage when he died.

“What we see in the official narrative is that victory over enemies takes precedence over the ‘mistakes’ that were made. It doesn’t deny the repressions – as [the government] did in Soviet times – it accepts that they happened but offers a very vague moral verdict,” says Anastasia Nikitina, a former history teacher who is now an education consultant for a local coalition of nongovernmental organizations called Human Rights House.

She works with local schools and teachers, with the aim of raising consciousness about fascism and Stalinism. Ms. Nikitina says students generally know that many people were killed during this period but few teachers are interested in discussing the atrocities in any depth. 

“There is a strange imbalance in the way this history is taught,” she says. “Young people are officially encouraged to speak about their grandparents who died fighting against Nazis in the war. Whole classes are devoted to showing pictures, recounting their experiences, keeping their memories alive. But no one is encouraged to speak about ancestors who perished in the repressions. It’s an awkward, silence-inducing subject.”

Nikitina takes some solace in knowing that young people today seem more willing to discuss such topics. While the interests of the state tend to reign supreme in Russian political culture, she says that young people today believe their opinions matter. 

Still, she believes the country has a long way to go in addressing the atrocities of the past. In her view, Russia needs to not just recognize the victims of the Stalin era, but the crimes that took place as well. “People want justice, and that only happens when the criminals are named and the crimes are punished,” she says. “We are very far from having any kind of discussion about that.”

Last Oct. 30, the official day commemorating “victims of political repression,” Putin inaugurated a major monument to thousands of faceless victims of Stalinist terror called the “Wall of Sorrow” in central Moscow. It is a 100-foot-long bronze wall featuring a multitude of faceless figures intended to represent the victims of repression and persecution. The wall is curved like a scythe and contains stone fragments from gulags across the country.

“An unequivocal and clear assessment of the repression will help to prevent it being repeated,” Putin said at the unveiling on a damp night. “This terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers during a ceremony unveiling a memorial to victims of Soviet-era political repressions called the ‘Wall of Sorrow’ in Moscow.

Yet in his recent interview with US filmmaker Oliver Stone, Putin slammed critics for “excessive demonization” of Stalin and argued that focusing on the former dictator’s crimes against humanity “is one means of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia.”

That illustrates the fine line the Kremlin is attempting to walk over how to deal with the massive crimes of the Stalin era, which did more to delegitimize the USSR than any other issue and cannot be comfortably woven into any conceivable narrative of Russian history that purports to stress continuity, national unity, and rightness of purpose.

One key problem for Putin is that Russia sees itself as the inheritor state of the Soviet Union, and many of its current institutions proudly trace their roots back to Soviet predecessors. Foremost among these is the FSB security service, which recently celebrated 100 years since the founding of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police organization. To mark that occasion the current FSB director, Alexander Bortnikov, gave a defiant interview to the press arguing that accusations against Stalin’s secret police are greatly overstated. The USSR faced all kinds of threats from devious external enemies, as does Russia today, and the Motherland had to be protected even if the methods were sometimes harsh.

“The enemy either tried to defeat us in open combat or by using traitors inside our country to sow discord, divide the nation, and paralyze the ability of the government to effectively respond to threats,” he said. “The destruction of Russia is still an obsession for many. Although many associate this period [1936-38] with the mass fabrication of charges, archive materials show a significant number of criminal cases were based on factual evidence.”

Public opinion polls show that Russians themselves are increasingly inclined to see Stalin as an effective leader and play down the mass crimes that he oversaw. A tracking poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found the number of respondents who regarded the Great Terror as a “matter of political necessity that history will absolve” grew from 9 percent to 25 percent between 2007 and 2017. Those who viewed the purges as a “political crime that cannot be justified” fell from 72 percent to 39 percent over the same period.

“It’s not just that the public is mostly indifferent to these issues; it’s that even people who know all about it are conflicted,” says Svetlana Tarasova, author of a series of articles about the Great Terror for the RIA-Voronezh news agency. “I talk with people who went through terrible things, who were real victims, and yet they still are unsure what to think about Stalin. Even if they suffered through agonizing personal tragedy, somehow they still find it possible to justify him.”

Chekmaryov, the gulag survivor, hears the same things – and it haunts him. The only way to cleanse a nation’s soul and prevent the horrors of history from being repeated, many believe, is to have a full and forthright reckoning with the past.

“These days the thing that just astounds me is when I hear that somewhere in Russia, someone is talking about putting up a monument to Stalin,” he says. “I wonder, have they learned anything from history?”

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