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Skeletons of History in Russian Graves

Despite a lack of official data, activists say thousands of Stalinist purge victims are buried at the site.

November 18, 2002|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

TOKSOVO, Russia — Mikhail Pushnitsky, his long gray hair hanging down the side of his head, jiggled the steel rod in his hand and pressed it down into the brown soil again and again, until he heard the tell-tale thump. Like a beating heart in a horror story, the hollow echo of the rod striking bone lingered in the air: an accusation.

Gingerly using a shovel and the kind of brush for getting snow off a windshield, he soon exposed a skull, femur and shin bones, all of which had taken on a rusty hue. For some reason, however, the enamel of the victim's teeth still shone white.

"As any normal person, the first time I saw this I was shocked," said Pushnitsky, 55, part of a small team investigating what it says is a newly discovered Stalinist killing field outside St. Petersburg. "But when you get to your 20th skull, you get angry. We understand that this is a crime scene, and through this we have come close to a hideous crime."

"The perpetrators should not be able to get away," added Fyodor Drozdov, Pushnitsky's colleague rooting in the dirt of the forest. "If we cannot get the killers, at least let's bring the crime out into the open."

What drives the two men to anger is the tendency of many of their fellow Russians, and the wider world, to rationalize, doubt or somehow excuse the state-sponsored killing of tens of millions of Soviet citizens from the earliest days of the Bolsheviks until the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, and some even later.

Even as Memorial, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to uncover crimes of Communist terror and win redress for victims, was announcing its find of the Toksovo execution grounds after a 14-year search, politicians were calling for the reinstatement of a monument to one of the chief killers, Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the first Bolshevik secret police.

The forest near Toksovo, Memorial estimates, could hold the bones of 32,000 people executed from the late 1920s until the late 1930s, on the eve of World War II. That would make it perhaps the single biggest grave of Stalinist victims found in the former Soviet Union.

And yet a monument that Memorial erected in St. Petersburg to the victims of a Communist campaign of terror was defaced in September with the words: "They should have killed more."

Eleven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the FSB -- the successor agency to the NKVD, the KGB and other Soviet secret police agencies -- is still stonewalling about how many people were killed and exactly where they are buried, said Irena Flige, head of Memorial's office in St. Petersburg.

It took Memorial 14 years of deduction, investigation and detective work -- initiated by Flige's husband, Veniamin Iofe, a former political prisoner who died in April -- to find the first remains. They were unearthed Aug. 20 in these woods controlled by the Ministry of Defense and used as an artillery firing range since czarist times.

The very secrecy of the killings proves that the Stalinist regime knew the executions were a crime, something to be kept hidden, Flige said.

Prisoners were loaded into Black Marias in the middle of the night from St. Petersburg's Kresty Prison and the NKVD's "Big House" headquarters and driven over a bumpy dirt track to a small access road that led into the forest. The appearance of this road to nowhere in aerial photographs dating to the 1920s was the first clue that led Iofe to believe that graves would be found in this area, said Flige, 42, an anti-Soviet dissident since age 18.

Now that more than 50 graves have been found, she said, there can be little doubt that this was the NKVD's main graveyard in St. Petersburg during the 1937-38 period known as the Great Terror. In its work there, Memorial has dug down only about 3 feet. The group presumes that there are many layers below, but it says it is not interested in disturbing the dead by doing a complete excavation.

Memorial's knowledge about the grave site is "fragmentary," according to Flige, because FSB authorities in the region are refusing any detailed discussion with her group. The FSB is saying only that it has no written records of a graveyard or of mass executions near Toksovo.

"We interpret this as a problem of crimes against humanity," Flige said. "Since the FSB is the direct legal heir of both the KGB and NKVD, we believe their categorical denial of assistance to us should be considered as concealment of information."

*

Official Denial

Although she does not know who all the victims are, she strongly suspects that one is Father Pavel Florensky, a pre-revolutionary Russian theologian, writer and scientist who refused to surrender his philosophical opposition to Bolshevism. Documents from government archives show that he was to be executed in the vicinity of Toksovo in December 1937.

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