The 12-meter wooden cross involved in the procession, specially made from trees native to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, was transported from the Solovetsky Monastery to Moscow by sea and erected on the Butovo Polygon, where on August 8, 1937, the first mass executions were carried out by the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the secret police organization responsible for Stalinist political oppression).
During these repressions, tens of thousands of people of different ages, professions, and convictions lost their lives.
Notably, the official Russian leadership did not in any way express its observance of this event, except in stories on central television stations typically describing logistics regarding the making of the cross and its symbolism in the epoch of Russia's extraordinary rebirth.
RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke with Archpriest Kirill Kaleda, deacon of the Butovo Church, whose grandfather, a priest, was executed here in Butovo in 1937:
"For us, people who have entered the 21st century, it is essential to preserve the memory of those who suffered in the previous, 20th century. This is necessary especially for us. We need to acknowledge these events now, when our society is divided into various groups, when very often between people there is no mutual understanding, we need to remind ourselves of this horrible lesson that our history brought us, so that we can try to find the path to reconciliation, the path to harmony."
Those who came to Butovo are primarily the children and grandchildren of those executed here 70 years ago. This is Galina Ivanovna Priakina, whose father Ivan Ivanovich Priakin perished here:
"That night 136 people were shot to death with him. Among them was the Leningrad Archimandrite Vladimir. Prior to execution, they were photographed, and before being led to the ditch, undressed. My grandfather was a priest, and father was just a carpenter at the silicate factory in Moscow. He was accused of spying for Romania, but really he was shot to death because grandfather was a priest. We looked for father for 60 years, and only three years passed since we found him. Father is recorded in the fifth volume of the Book of Memory here. The first time I came and saw this meadow, I really lost consciousness for a moment. How many of them lie there!"
The latest list of 20,000 names is considered incomplete; it is said that hundreds of thousands were shot to death here.
"Possibly, this isn't all. But investigating this possibility is constrained by certain difficulties. We don't know whether the FSB [Federal Security Service] archives contain documents about executions that may have taken place here after 1938."
Behind the cross lie the ruins of the former commandant's office, even earlier the office of the manager of the horse-breeding farm of the village of Drozhzhino stood here. Today, rumor has it that the cottage belonged to Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's chief of police, and his descendants won't let it be wiped off the face of the Earth.
This isn't the case, explains Garkavy:
"Here stood the commandant's office of the Butovo shooting polygon. Prisoners were brought to this building. They were announced their verdict and were led away from here to have their sentences carried out. And after the end of the 'Yezhovschina,' [the period during which NKVD leader Nikolai Yezhov brought systematic political repression to unprecedented heights,] here, next to the graves of their brothers -- this is especially ironic -- employees of the MGB [Ministry of State Security, predecessor of the KGB] set up a sanatorium. Maybe Lavrenty Pavlovich [Beria] vacationed here himself."
During these days, mourning ceremonies took place on the Solovetsky Islands. The center for commemorative events, opened in Medvezhyegorsk and Sandarmokh, was moved to Solovki, the site of the first Soviet political concentration camp. Among others, the site was visited by human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov:
"Never in history since the times of ancient barbarism during the earliest Middle Ages has there been such absolute contempt, such total disregard for the value of human life and human freedom, and such deification of the state. The state in the middle of the 20th century in our country ceased even to feign public service. The state became the metaphysical purpose of the society and of each of its citizens, the ultimate metaphysical value. We are suffering the traces of this even now. It's a very strong legacy. We found ourselves in an atmosphere of former officially accepted values. We are constantly told that we need to remember the heroic triumphs of our history and to quietly forget the filth and moral depravity of that history. This has become the official line, and it's no accident that our contemporary sensibility reproduces the basic values of the Stalinist epoch in a different, somewhat evolved, more sanctimonious form."
This is a major cause for alarm for many politicians, public representatives, human rights activists -- lessons are not derived from 1937 and other horrible pages of history.
This was discussed in a conversation with Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Sharyi by Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky:
"Many representatives of today's Russian leadership, to whatever extent, declare themselves to be the successors of that time and that style of governing. Besides, one can say about the leadership in all levels of government that in Russia there is a pseudo-democracy: manipulated justice, manipulated mass media, manipulated interpretation of laws. The reproduction of various mechanisms, for example, the execution of some economic reorganizations or reforms in this manner, so that everyone who participated in them is subsequently always under the threat of arrest, deportation, imprisonment, and punishment. This relates to practically all of our business.
"Polls show that up to 20 percent of the population is ready to vote for Stalin for the country's president, and they excuse what happened back then. There obviously needs to be a huge, thorough investigative study, but besides that, there needs to be a clear unequivocal official identification of everything that happened then as state crimes, and on the basis of that, we need to determine how to write textbooks, how to explain history to schoolchildren and in the universities. Otherwise, sooner or later, this will lead to repetition of those events in some form or other."
This was discussed by Dmitry Katayev, former deputy of the Moscow City Duma, with the host of the program "Facets Of Time," Vladimir Kara-Murza:
"It's a disgrace, after all, that in Moscow there still aren't any memorials. How many of them are there in the world, in Russia, and in the former Soviet Union! But there aren't any in Moscow. There is the Donsky Monastery, the cemetery, there are three graves of unmarked ashes, unrecorded in the cemetery records. In one of these are the ashes of my father, Ivan Katayev, shot to death on August 19, 1937. I found out that my father was executed on this day only after August 19, 1991, thanks to the Memorial. Here is the Donsky Cemetery, and, of course, Lubyanskaya Square. Where is the memorial plaque on the KGB building? How many were spontaneously shot to death in the basements of this building? Portraits of [Cheka founder Feliks] Dzerzhinsky hang there, I know, but there's no memorial plaque."
The discussion was joined by president of the foundation Holocaust, former State Duma Deputy Alla Gerber:
"I was in the FRG [Germany] -- there is no city there without a museum about the history of the Nazi party, about repressions, about concentration camps. Children are taken there. But here recently at a convention of historians, [President] Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin said that we don't have any complex of guilt. 'Why are we feeling so bad about our past?' he said, 'we didn't have any concentration camps.' Maybe he forgot about Gulag? Anything can happen again. What happened, for example, with [imprisoned oligarch] Mikhail Khodorkovsky was purely a political process. The fact that scientists are periodically put behind bars, that many journalists are periodically stripped of their right to work in their profession. The fact that this is happening now -- it's already a danger."