Moscow’s killing fields: inside a Stalinist execution site

File Photo of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin

(Moscow News – themoscownews.com – Joy Neumeyer – August 5, 2013) Across from the sprawling Gazprom offices on Moscow’s southern fringes, there is a forest. It is quiet, full of mushrooms and dead leaves. The only people usually there are a pair of monks, who live by a church built on the property.

The forest is part of a village known as Kommunarka, a pre-revolutionary estate turned collective farm. In the mid-30s, it became the dacha of secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda, the man who would ignite Stalin’s Terror.

Then, from 1937 to 1941, between 10,000 and 15,000 people are believed to have been shot there and buried in mass graves. They were diplomats, scientists and journalists. They were Russian, Chinese, Polish, Mongolian, English and many more. Their bodies have never been raised; they lie beneath the soil, the silent victims of forgotten crimes.

On a cloudy afternoon in August, a small group of foreign and Russian volunteers is working in the depths of the forest, in one of the areas thought to be a burial ground. They are clearing out old growth and throwing it onto a fire; the ashes of dead tree limbs and leaves flutter up and then down as the flames grow.

They are part of a summer camp run by a German nonprofit, the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. They range from students to pensioners. And they have chosen to spend two weeks of their summer helping to uncover some of the 20th century’s darkest sins.

The NKVD dacha: from roses to mass graves

After pulling off Kaluzhskoye Shosse, visitors walk down a dirt path that leads to a seafoam-green wooden fence. This is the dacha’s original entrance, built in the 1920s and the one the victims would have been brought through. Today, a shiny new plaque states that “on this ground lie thousands of victims of the political terror of the 1930s to the 1950s. Preserve their eternal memory!”

Visitors buzz to be let inside by the monks. On the other side, they immediately encounter a wooden cross, and three small obelisks honoring Mongolian officials, Yakutians and the first procurator of Moscow, all of whom lie here.

A dirt road leads to Yagoda’s dacha, a green wooden cottage with a brick chimney. The NKVD head was famed for his love of the finer things, lavishly decorating his apartments and country home; according to Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore, he boasted that his garden held 2,000 roses and orchids. He also kept a large stash of pornography in the dacha.

Yagoda himself would become Kommunarka’s first victim. After spearheading the construction of the Volga Canal, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, he orchestrated the Terror’s first show trial, of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, in 1936. But Stalin didn’t trust him to handle the mass terror to come, and had him arrested in April 1937. He was shot in March of the next year by his successor, Nikolai Yezhov, and buried on the property.

It was Yezhov who turned Kommunarka into one of the new Terror’s killing fields, the second biggest in Moscow. According to research conducted by Memorial, around 32,000 people were shot in Moscow in 1937 1938; of these, almost 21,000 were buried at Butovo, several hundred were cremated at Donskoi Monastery and the remainder are believed to have been buried at Kommunarka.

Kommunarka kept its secrets hidden for most of the Soviet era. It wasn’t until perestroika that its role in the Terror could be discussed, let alone researched. The land remained in the hands of the KGB’s successor, the FSB, until 1999, when it was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, which established St. Catherine’s Monastery there and built a church next to Yagoda’s former dacha.

‘Screams in the night’

That green house is now home to a pair of monks.

Father Alexander, a Tolstoy lookalike with a trailing white beard, emerged from the house at the sound of visitors, holding a wooden staff. A white cat reclined on the dacha’s front steps. The monk has lived on the property since it was given to the church.

“A lot of blood was spilled here, a lot of pain that people endured, so we had to pray for this place,” he said. “You can kill a person, but their soul remains.”

There is a small chapel inside the dacha now, with an altar on the spot where NKVD officials once took off their leather coats.

“When you stand here now, you don’t feel anything anymore,” he said, gesturing toward the trees with his staff. “But before, when the church was being built, the construction workers were afraid to leave the house to go to the toilet. They were too scared.

“We thought we heard screams in the night, groans.”

If you go deeper into the trees along the edge of a barbed wire fence, the path empties out into a small clearing. A dozen or so trees are marked with photographs and makeshift plaques placed there by relatives.

A marble headstone-like plaque is dedicated to Vasily Nesmeyanov, a head scientist at the Department for Surveying and Cartography who lived in the House on the Embankment.

Others are simple photos attached to the tree trunks with scotch tape, their ink fading. Many of the photos are of the victims after they had been arrested, a few hours or days before their execution.

Konstantin Ochalis, a Greek emigre who worked at publishing house Profizdat, is one of the latter. Wearing a knitted scarf and blazer, dark hair slicked back, Ochalis stares out from his arrest photo with calm, yet knowing, eyes.

New names continue to be added to the lists of those killed that are kept by both Memorial and the church, as relatives find new information in archives or on the Internet.

Finding burial pits

A few yards ahead of the photos, Mikhail Mokeyev, 37, was attacking dead trees with a hatchet. As the lay assistant at the monastery, he has lived at Kommunarka for almost a decade. Unlike Father Alexander, he seems to embody little of the suffering that happened on its grounds, and has a ready smile.

Mokeyev was wearing a blue pair of overalls emblazoned with the Gazprom logo. A gas pipeline goes through Kommunarka, an odd reminder of the present. “They help us out,” he said. “They took us to visit Butovo yesterday.”

Beside him, the volunteers were collecting branches. This summer marked the Kommunarka camp’s second year, which concluded on August 3.

Alexandra Lipitskaya, the local coordinator for Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, explained that the project deals with memory. Many of the organization’s programs grapple with the crimes of Nazi Germany, staging summer camps (“sommerlager”) to clean up former Jewish cemeteries and organizing lectures by Holocaust survivors at former concentration camps.

In Russia – where many gulags, execution sites and other places of terror are unmarked parts of the landscape – the project is unique.

“It might seem strange to have Germans come to Russia,” Lipitskaya said. “But quite a few Germans are buried here.”

Campers slept in an unfinished wooden house, which the monks say will one day be a museum about Kommunarka. After rising early and working in the forest for several hours, they broke for lunch at two o’clock.

The afternoons were filled with field trips to sites such as Butovo, the other mass shooting ground from the 1930s, and Sukhanovskaya Prison, where NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria is said to have personally interrogated his victims. A trip to Memorial’s headquarters was their main glimpse of central Moscow.

“It’s less practical work than I’m accustomed to at these camps,” said Anna-Marie Grosse-Guette, a German participant in her 50s who has previously worked with programs related to the Holocaust. “But we tried our best, despite the weather.”

Mokeyev was quick to point out that they were not exhuming bodies; digging requires state permission, which they lack. Rather, they were cleaning up the area to prepare for a new round of land surveying, which will use probes to determine the burial pits’ size and the probable number of bodies they contain.

At Butovo, excavations have been carried out, and a small museum has been built on the spot. Kommunarka, however, remains relatively unstudied; the forest spans 20 hectares, and researchers don’t know precisely where the mass graves are located.

After examining one patch of forest, researchers determined that the area contained one burial pit four meters deep and 12 meters wide. Mounds of comparable size at Butovo were found to contain around 140 bodies.

‘My mother told me not to pick mushrooms here’

There is some debate over whether the victims were executed on the site, or shot in Moscow and their bodies brought to Kommunarka. A pensioner cutting logs with a chainsaw, who did not wish to be named, said that he grew up next to the forest.

“My mother told me not to pick mushrooms here,” he said. “She understood what it was.” But he thinks the shootings took place elsewhere.

“We never heard shots.”

Alexander Ivanov, 54, disagrees. His grandfather was Ivan Ivanov, an Old Bolshevik who served as secretary of Astrakhan’s Central Executive Committee. He knew his grandfather had been repressed and rehabilitated in 1957, though his parents never discussed it.

Three years ago, however, he found his grandfather’s file at the central FSB archives. It stated that Ivanov had been shot at Kommunarka in 1941. Three days after his death, on July 10, 1941 the entire leadership of Mongolia was shot and buried there. As the Germans advanced on Moscow that fall, 220 people were shot on a single day in October.

There is a small clearing off a dirt road to the side of the main entrance. “In the 10 years that the church has been here, we haven’t mowed anything, we haven’t chopped anything down, but still nothing grows there,” Mokeyev said. This is thought to be the resting place of the victims of 1941. Probes have confirmed that it is a burial pit.

“My wife saw on TV that volunteers were working here, foreigners, and suddenly I felt ashamed,” Ivanov said. “I understood that I had the opportunity to help… to try to do something so that there’s some kind of remembrance.”

The fight for a memorial

The church is working with Memorial to try to turn Kommunarka into a memorial to those who died, creating a museum and an official gravesite. There has also been a proposal to erect a wall with the victim’s names. The plan for now is only to fix where the mass graves are located. To do more detailed research, they need government backing, which so far has failed to materialize.

But Mokeyev said that may change with Kommunarka’s incorporation into New Moscow, the massive expansion of the city’s official territory into its southern suburbs. The planned location for the government’s gleaming new administrative buildings is right next to the forest.

As work in the forest slowly continues, relatives keep piecing together information about the people taken from them.

Ivanov has taped a small portrait of his grandfather and his arrest photo on a tree near the clearing where he might rest. At the tree’s base lies a pile of red carnations.

The mystery of Jonathan Marshall

In the clearing where relatives have attached names and photos of their loved ones to tree trunks, there is one that stands out from the rest. The name “Jonathan Marshall” is printed on a white sheet of computer paper. The paper states that he was born in 1898 and died in 1938. But beyond that, nothing is known about Marshall. His name is nowhere to be found in the monastery’s records or the Memorial database; monastery representative Mikhail Mokeyev said he doesn’t even know who put the marker there.

Over 60 nationalities are thought to be buried at Kommunarka, including some Englishmen. But over half of their names and stories remain unknown.

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Among those buried at Kommunarka

Nikolai Bukharin, 1888 1938, leading Old Bolshevik, show trial victim

Alexei Rykov, 1881 1938, Premier of Russia and the Soviet Union, show trial victim

Sergei Efron, 1893 1941, poet, Soviet spy in France, husband of poet Marina Tsvetaeva

Boris Pilnyak, 1894 1938, writer (“The Naked Year,” “The Volga Falls into the Caspian Sea”)

Anandyn Amar, 1886 1941, Prime Minister of Mongolian People’s Republic

Bronislava Metallikova-Poskryobysheva, 1910 1941, wife of Stalin’s secretary Ivan Poskryobyshev