Stalin's victims honored in emotional memorial

By Conor Sweeney
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; 2:07 PM

BUTOVO, Russia (Reuters) - Relatives of Stalin's victims gathered at a new memorial outside Moscow on Wednesday beside a firing range which became one of the most notorious killing fields during the era of Soviet repression.

A new 12 meter (40 feet) wooden cross, built on the gulag island of Bolshoi Solovetsky near the Arctic circle, was blessed during an emotional Russian Orthodox service held on the 70th anniversary of the start of the murders at the site.

Relatives shed tears and laid flowers as they recalled how their loved ones had perished.

Records at the site show at least 20,760 people were killed and buried in mass graves at the Butovo firing range in the two years from 1937 to 1939. Many of the dead were priests.

On the first day of the killings, August 8 1937, 91 people were shot dead, while the daily toll peaked at 562 on February 28, 1938.

Across Russia, millions more died during Stalin's purges, most in prison or forced labour camps, known as gulags, which were spread across the Soviet Union.

During the service, held in bright summer sunshine as part of the Church's commemoration, relatives wept and told of their search for information about parents and grandparents.

Some clutched photos of loved ones and explained how they had trawled for information from the secret police archives. Nina, a middle-aged woman holding a photograph of her grandfather, was in tears as she told his story.

"I came here today to pay my last respects to my grandfather. He was buried in one of the 13 mounds where the victims are, but we don't know which one," she said.

"Andrei Sergeyevich was a good character, he wasn't a bad man, but they detained him because he was the best in his village. He didn't agitate for anything and you see how beautiful he was, like the tsar, he was innocent," she said.

Now aged 87 and blind, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko was himself arrested three times, the last in 1943, but came to the ceremony to honor his father, who was murdered at Butovo.

A historian and director of a gulag museum, he discovered details about his father in secret police archives that were partially opened up after the fall of the Soviet Union.

But the frail old man complained that Russia still hasn't come to terms with its past.

"I feel pity, because I visited the place where our secret service killed many Polish officers in 1940, in Katyn, now there are many memorials there," he said, contrasting it with Russia's failure to identify all the victims of the terror.

"There is no murdered person without a name, they know everybody who was killed there. In Russia, we have many victims who are still anonymous, whereas Polish people respect these heroes very much," he said.

After the lengthy Russian Orthodox service, many elderly people climbed the mound of stone erected around the cross to leave candles, flowers and say some prayers, though many had no personal link to the site.

"In future we'll have to love our enemies like our friends," said Yevgeny Naumkin, after kneeling before the cross.

In front of the raised mounds containing the remains of the victims, another young woman, Anya Sverdlova, knelt in prayer.

"I think it's an important memorial, but not many people know about it," she said. "Every Russian family suffered from the political oppression."

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