A team of historians and archaeologists used an aerial photo of the German army from the Second world War to identify the burial place of thousands of people executed in Moscow during the stalinist repression.
The existence of mass graves in the area of Kommunarka, in the south-west of Moscow, was known since the opening of the temporary archives of the KGB, in the last days of the USSR, but there was no accurate information on the location of the body.
The place was one of three of this type in Moscow used to do away with the body by the NKVD, the soviet secret police during the stalinist terror of the 1930s.
According to the historians, 6.609 people were executed and buried in mass graves of Kommunarka between 1937 and 1941. They are located in a forest area closed to have belonged for a time to Henrikh Yagoda, the chief of the NKVD, who had a rest home. Yagoda was sacked in 1936, and then executed in 1938. The irony of History, it is likely that his body lies in Kommunarka.
“Before, there was nothing here (Kommunarka), people came to pick up mushrooms,” said Roman Romanov, the director of the museum of the history of the gulag in Moscow. According to Mr. Romanov, who has co-led the excavations, the area of Kommunarka has been less studied than the common graves of a larger scale located in the district of moscow of Boutovo.
– “The Mongolian government is here” –
The inauguration scheduled a memorial to Kommunarka, however, has pushed the historians to try to identify more precisely the location of the graves.
“Volunteers have cleared the area and radar geological accompanied us to detect anomalies in the ground”, explains Mr. Romanov.
But this is an aerial photo taken by a pilot of nazi Germany flying over the area in 1942, when the tombs were “fresh”, which has proved instrumental in the success of the excavations.
By examining the size of the trees visible in the photo, the historians came to the conclusion that some of them had been planted on the graves, a tactic often used by the NKVD to hide his crimes.
The next step of the investigation, according to Mr. Romanov, is to identify the victims in each pit. “In a small tank, there may be thirty people, in another, 100 people. We want to know where is buried in each person,” says the historian.
According to Ian Ratchinski, a long-time member of the NGO Memorial, which collects information on the crimes of the stalinists, about 30,000 people were executed in Moscow between 1937 and 1938.
During the Perestroika, in the late 1980s, the KGB had temporarily agreed to send information on these crimes to journalists and Memorial. The individual files of the NKVD stated sometimes the place of execution of victims in the district of Boutovo, or in the cemetery of Donskoy in Moscow. Others do not give more information than “a common grave”.
“We think that the people for whom the place of performance is not specified is found to Kommunarka,” says Mr. Ratchinksi.
“Virtually all of the government of mongolia is here,” he continued. At the time, Mongolia was a satellite of the soviet Union, has also suffered from the indiscriminate repression of Stalin.
A lot of senior officials from the baltic States have also been executed after the annexation of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia by the USSR in 1940.
– Access to archives –
According to Mr. Ratchinski, more than 1,000 people believed to have been buried at Kommunarka have still not been identified, because the Russian secret services have now suspended the access to their archives.
“They suddenly stopped to send us documents,” said Mr. Ratchinski, which accuses the authorities of not being interested in the crimes of the stalinists.
“The State is responsible for what has happened here,” said for his part the historian Sergei Bondarenko, whose great-grandfather was shot at Kommunarka. According to him, only a responsible person of “average rank” will be the inauguration of the new memorial in October.
“I think the president should come because it is one of the largest mass graves of Moscow”, avance-t-il.
To the director of the museum of the gulag, Mr. Romanov, the picture is less bleak. It highlights that president Vladimir Putin had visited last year at the memorial of the victims of the stalinist repression seems, in the centre of Moscow.
According to the historian, other regions of Russia should follow the “last positive” Kommunarka and set the “precise boundaries” of the mass graves stalinist.
The goal is to identify one day the graves of all the victims.
“It may seem utopian, but it is necessary.”
Take care of the victims stalinist is not without risk, especially in the provinces.
The historian Yuri Dmitriev, who has spent years uncovering mass graves containing the bodies of victims of the stalinist repression seems in Karelia (north), is accused of sexual assault, a case was fabricated according to activists of the rights of man and of numerous Russian cultural figures.