MOSCOW — The muddy slush numbed the feet. Voices trembled, not because of the freezing cold but because of the weight of their words. Russians gathered Monday in the shadow of the building where Stalin’s secret police drew up their death lists, and they spoke the names of the murdered.
Members of the Memorial human rights society, relatives of victims and others come here once a year to stand near the Solovetsky Stone, brought from the White Sea island where the Soviets organized their first prison camp in 1923, and read from a list of the 30,000 Muscovites executed in 1937 and 1938.
This year, the reading had more than the usual resonance. Opponents of President Vladimir Putin have been saying that his crackdown on political opposition reminds them of those two years, the worst of Stalin’s terror, when 1.7 million Russians were arrested and at least 725,000 of them were shot. Others were sent to the gulag.
“No,” said Vladimir Kantovsky, an 89-year-old survivor of the camps, after he had read four names of the dead and placed a candle next to the stone. “It cannot be compared. You cannot even imagine what it was like.”
He pointed across the square to the Lubyanka, the home of the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB.
“There were guards there with knives,” he said. “People wouldn’t even walk near the building, they were so terrified.”
Even so, Kantovsky said, it was more important than ever to read the names. “We must make people remember,” he said. “We can’t let them forget. If they do, it can happen again.”
Memorial organized the first reading in 2007, the 70th anniversary of the terror. The names are read on the eve of Oct. 30, the day set aside to remember victims of political repression. The names, along with ages, professions and dates of execution, are read to defy a totalitarian system that tried to obliterate its victims — relatives of the executed often did not know when they died or where they were buried.
“It is our duty to return their names to them,” said Yelena Zhemkova, Memorial’s executive director.
Memorial has been working for years to build a database of the victims of Soviet-era repression and was among the agencies supported by funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which the Russian government forced out of the country Oct. 1.
A 45-year-old village laborer, a 52-year-old employee of a brick factory, a 42-year-old accountant, a 40-year-old newspaper editor, a 22-year-old unemployed man. The names went on and on. The reading began at 10 a.m. and would end at 10 p.m., still not enough time for every name.
Kantovsky was a 17-year-old high school student when he was arrested in 1941 for passing out leaflets defending his history teacher, who had been arrested. He spent time in six different prisons and camps, including the Lubyanka, and served on the front in World War II with a penal battalion.
After the war, he finished his sentence and then spent five years in Siberian exile, finally gaining his freedom in 1956. He returned to school at age 33 and got an engineering degree. His old teacher, Pavel Dukovsky, had died in April 1942 near Nizhny Novgorod.
“Why were they arrested?” he asked rhetorically. “Why were they executed? Stalin did not like people to think and have their own opinions.”
Natalya Leleka, a teacher, read four names, all young men named Alexeyev, none of them related.
“It’s important for our children and our grandchildren to remember,” she said. “I’m here so those times won’t be repeated.”
After reading her names, 84-year-old Marina Lukoyanova squeezed the arm of an American reporter and thanked the United States for its support of dissidents during the dark Soviet years.
“Get ready,” she said, smiling. “We may all have to start leaving for America again.”
A framed picture of a handsome young man hung from a cord around her neck. It was her father, a scientist executed in 1938 at age 34 because he was Latvian. He was rounded up with thousands of other Latvians in Moscow by Stalin’s paranoid henchmen.
“They arrested writers, poets, researchers,” Lukoyanova said. “They were murdering the intelligentsia, the same kind of people who are in prison today.”
Now, protesters who demonstrated against Putin on the eve of his presidential inauguration in May are being prosecuted.
“They are suffering for your rights,” she told the gathering.
She was 9 in 1937 when the terror began.
“I remember listening to the radio,” she said. “Horrible things were happening, and they were playing waltzes, saying, ‘Don’t worry, we are destroying your enemies.’ ”
Lukoyanova said she is deeply worried about the arrests of today’s dissidents, even though only a relative few are being pursued.
“We have such a great country, such great people,” she said, “and once again, they want to destroy us.”