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Russia: The Unhappy Few Commemorate Gulag Dead

St. Petersburg, 31 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russians yesterday marked a national day of mourning for the victims of Stalinist repression. They did it quietly.

The occasion was mostly commemorated by dwindling numbers of survivors and the descendants of the victims. And only in selected places.

Yesterday, about 400 people, mostly elderly, traveled to the small village of Levashovo, located some 8 kilometers from St. Petersburg. They went to pay their respects to the estimated 46,000 Leningrad victims of the Great Terror (1937-38) who are buried there in a mass unmarked grave.

The Levashovo mass grave now rests amidst a forest grove, specially planted by the NKVD--- the forerunner to the KGB--- to conceal the crime. For decades, the site was boxed off by a tall, green wooden fence and closely guarded. Not even the locals were aware of the site's ghastly secret. Only in 1989, during glasnost, did Leningrad journalists discover the truth.

Since 1990, the mass grave has become a place of pilgrimage for relatives of the victims. And since 1992, official Remembrance Day ceremonies have been held here each October 30, with crowds never exceeding several hundred.

Most of those in attendance in Thursday's ceremonies were relatives of the deceased and members of the Memorial organization. Both Orthodox and Catholic priests were on hand to perform memorial prayer services to the dead. In the cold forest, the people stood in grim silence, many shedding tears or barely able to hold them back.

After the last prayer, a heavy, mournful bell rang out and people silently dispersed across the snow-laden site to lay flowers to the memory of the dead. In order to overcome the anonymity of the mass grave, many relatives have turned trees into tombstones and fastened pictures of their loved ones to them. Metal and wooden crosses also dot the territory.

Given the scale of the bloodshed, the relative public and official ambivalence about the commemoration of the tragic past seems striking.

"People today have no historical memory," said one elderly woman who only gave her name as Tatyana, apparently hesitant to say her last name. Her father, a sailor, was executed in 1938 for having traveled abroad. She adds that most people today are concerned with just making money or getting by, but, also that the communist system conditioned people to forget about the past and concentrate on the "radiant future."

Leonid Kuznetsov, 61 year old, whose father, a village blacksmith, was executed in 1937 as an "enemy of the people", has his own idea about memory and forgetting. In his own words, "The Stalinist Terror was terrible not only because it consumed many lives, but because it divided the nation and pitted people against each other." In comparison, he adds that the victory in the War united the people in defense of their motherland, and that it is natural that people will not want to dwell on the Terror because it was a dark chapter in the country's history.

Most of those who gathered in Levashovo expressed concern that the Terror will be forgotten. Galina Romanovna, whose father lies buried in Levashovo, worries about who will visit Levashovo and remember the dead after her generation has passed away. "I try to get my 38 year old daughter to come here." she says. "It will be up to her generation whether or not the Terror will be totally forgotten."