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Russia: Gulag Mass Grave Discovered

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 11 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A director of a Russian human rights organization says his group has found a mass grave of perhaps as many as 9,000 Gulag victims in Russia's far north Karelian Republic on the Finnish border.

The activist, Benjamin Ioffe, says he and other members of the human rights group Memorial found the grave July 1 near the small Lake Onega town of Medvezhyagorsk. He said it is the largest find of its kind in five years. Ioffe is a director of the St. Petersburg branch of Memorial and an organizer of the Medvezhyagorsk expedition.

He says Memorial believes that more than a thousand of the victims were among the leading intelligentsia of the USSR in the 1920s and 30s.

Some 1,111 intellectuals disappeared mysteriously in the 1930s from the Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp in a former Russian Orthodox monastery that was transformed in 1923 into one of the first Gulag camps. Ioffe says that Memorial activists and local historians in Karelia had been searching for them for over 15 years, but until recently found no evidence explaining their fate.

Memorial says it developed a list of the 1,111 by combing archives. Especially prominent on the Medvezhyagorsk list are Roman Catholic priests and members of the Ukrainian and Jewish intelligentsia. Also among the dead are the head of the Russian Baptist Church, four Russian Orthodox bishops, and a gypsy "king".

Memorial found documents last year in the archive of the Petrozavodsk Federal Security Service that gave it clues to the location of the grave. It then began the search that led to last week's discovery.

Ioffe showed our correspondent photocopies of archival documents showing that the executions were carried out on three days in October or November, 1937, during the Great Terror of 1937-38. Stalinist authorities killed nearly a million people nationwide in that period.

After last week's discovery, Memorial called in a Russian Orthodox priest to conduct prayers for the dead. The group plans to erect a monument and create a memorial cemetery at the site. the group also plans to hold a special service at the Medvezhyagorsk site in October, on the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Great Terror.