The Russian human rights group Memorial says it has discovered what it believes to be a secret burial site near St. Petersburg. Memorial says the Soviet-era secret police, or NKVD, may have used the site to bury as many as 30,000 victims of Stalin's Great Terror before World War II.
Prague, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a forest outside the small town of Toksovo, some 30 kilometers northwest of St. Petersburg, human rights workers have detected a Stalin-era mass grave that might hold the remains of thousands of people killed in the purges of the 1930s.
The Russian human rights group Memorial says the discovery is the culmination of a five-year search for the grave. The group has so far uncovered 20 sets of bones but says it has reason to believe the 500-acre plot may contain the remains of as many as 30,000 people.
Memorial says the grave is believed to be the work of the NKVD, the Soviet-era secret police that preceded the KGB. The NKVD was responsible for the executions of thousands branded "enemies of the people" during Stalin's rule.
Irina Flige, who heads Memorial's historical division, tells RFE/RL her group used accounts from local people, archival documents, and old aerial photos to locate the site. The group's painstaking efforts finally brought success in August when the first remains were found.
"[Toskovo] is the place where the executions were carried out in the 1930s. Maybe they started executing people here in 1929 and proceeded until the end of the 1930s, which included the period of the Great Terror. During these years more than 30,000 residents of our city were executed," Flige says.
Memorial says the majority of those victims were probably killed during the Great Terror of 1937-38, when Stalin sought to eliminate the old guard of the Communist Party and consolidate his personal power. Until the discovery of the Toskovo grave, only one other mass grave had been discovered near St. Petersburg. It is believed to contain the remains of up to 8,500 people.
Flige says there is no evidence to suggest the graves date from the German siege of Leningrad during World War II. She says the victims recovered from the graves so far have been piled on top of each other and killed in a manner characteristic of the NKVD -- with a shot to the back of the head.
"A forensic expert working on the remains confirms that people were killed with .45-caliber Colt pistols, [the type of gun used by the NKVD]. The experts confirm the shots were fired into [the back of the head]," Flige says.
Flige says the recovered remains indicate that women and children were among the victims.
Witnesses who lived near Toksovo told Memorial that in the 1930s, black trucks -- known as "black ravens" ("chyorniye voronki") -- could be seen nightly driving to the site. Shots would ring out from a nearby military testing range.
Flige says Memorial has sent a request to the Federal Security Service, or FSB, asking for information about Toksovo but has yet to receive a response.
Sixty-eight-year-old Ina Bulan lives in St. Petersburg. She was just 3 years old in 1937 when her father, Pavel, a Transport Ministry employee, was killed after being accused of being an "enemy of the people" and of conspiring to kill Stalin.
"I know with some certainty that he was killed in Saint Petersburg. From his file [in the KGB archives], I found out that a special [NKVD] commission came to Petersburg from Moscow," Bulan says. "I know the names of those people. He was executed 20 minutes after the verdict was announced."
Many of the victims were executed in the NKVD's St. Petersburg headquarters at 4 Liteiny Prospect -- now the local headquarters of the FSB and city police. Bulan says employees of entire departments of the ministry where her father worked were killed. Their families were told their loved ones had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with no right to correspondence.
Several years after the death of Bulan's father, her mother was also arrested and Bulan was placed in a children's home. Bulan, who grew up with the stigma of being the daughter of enemies of the people, says life at the time was difficult. Most people were enthusiastic supporters of Stalin and believed the Soviet Union represented one of the world's most progressive societies. Few people imagined that mass executions were being conducted at Stalin's behest.
"Arrests took place at night. People thought that those arrested really were enemies of the people. And when they themselves were arrested they thought it was a mistake, that the authorities would realize the truth and admit their mistake," Bulan says.
Bulan says many of St. Petersburg's educated upper- and middle-class residents were targeted for arrest and executions. It was only during the so-called "thaw" of the 1960s that authorities began to admit to the Stalin-era crimes and the truth about the mass executions began to surface.
Jan Rachevsky of Memorial tells RFE/RL that Toksovo may be one of the largest killing fields found yet in Russia. He says other mass graves have been discovered in Siberia and near Moscow, where one grave contains the remains of at least 25,000 victims.
Rachevsky says the Stalin-era death count reaches into the millions: "It is known almost exactly that more than a million were shot and killed on political charges -- approximately 1 million and several hundred thousand. At least 3 1/2 million were sent to the concentration camps, having been accused of various things by the authorities. It is not known how many of them died there. Many millions more were deported as part of the de-kulakization" -- Stalin's systematic elimination of wealthy, land-owning peasants.
Rachevsky says the exact number of Stalin's victims and the location of burial sites remain unknown partly because the FSB is not inclined to share information.