/ 4 October 2007

Dozens of Russian bodies may be Stalin victims

Workers rebuilding a 19th-century Moscow house unearthed the remains of nearly three dozen people apparently dating back to the era of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s political purges nearly 70 years ago, police officials said on Thursday.

Police also found a rusted pistol on the estate where the remains of an estimated 34 people were discovered, some with gunshots to the head, Moscow city police spokesperson Yevgeny Gildeyev said.

The remains, which were found on Wednesday under a basement of one of the estate’s buildings, appeared to date to the 1930s, he said, and more could be found. Investigators from the prosecutor’s office were trying to determine their identities.

The property was owned by a well-known czarist-era noble family, the Sheremetyevs.

The buildings are located in downtown Moscow, between Red Square and several hundred metres from Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB, where political prisoners were interrogated and executions carried out.

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union experienced a wave of political killings and purges of the government and Communist Party orchestrated by Stalin’s secret police. The killings reached their apex in 1937 during what came to be known as the Great Terror. An estimated 1,7-million people were arrested in 1937-38 by security services alone, and at least 818 000 of them were shot.

Historians said the remains most likely were victims of Stalin’s political terror.

Arseny Roginsky, a Moscow historian and rights activist, said that in the early part of the 20th century, the building adjacent was home to a military conscription committee, while across the street was a military high court.

The military court ”was perhaps one of the most important headquarters for judicial terror … of the 1930s and the 1940s, a most vivid time of murder when … the court actively condemned people to execution on a daily basis”, Roginsky said in televised comments.

Sacred bones

Tamara Chakravadze, an elderly Moscow resident, said she went to the site on hearing news reports of the discovery since her own relatives were victims of Stalin’s purges.

She said her father told her that the estate used to be the site of a prison where people were held before being sent to labour and mining camps as far away, for example, as Kolyma, the Arctic region thousands of kilometres east of Moscow that was home to a huge network of Gulag camps.

”My grandfather was killed and my father served an eight-year prison term in Kolyma when I was just a baby,” she told AP Television News. ”That is why for me these bones are sacred, and there is no forgiveness for those who have not repented even today.”

There have been mainly low-key celebrations this year organised by religious leaders, rights groups and others marking the 70th anniversary of the Great Purges. In August, Orthodox priests consecrated a towering wooden cross at a site south of Moscow where, at the height of the purges, firing squads executed thousands of priests and others.

The Russian government, however, has shown little interest in the anniversary. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin has sought restore Russians’ pride in their Soviet-era history by softening public perceptions of Stalin’s rule.

In June, the Russian leader said that although the 1937 purge was one of the most notorious episodes of the Stalin era, no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about it because ”in other countries even worse things happened”. — Sapa-AP