TVER, Russia -- The historic building on Soviet Street is now dedicated to the practice of saving lives. But some still recall a time when it served the opposite purpose.
Before it was taken over by Tver State Medical University in 1954, this was the regional headquarters of the NKVD, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s secret police. For a decade and a half, starting in 1938, its basement housed a prison for enemies of his regime.
According to documents unearthed by historians and eyewitness testimony, it was here that, in 1940, several thousand Polish officers were killed by Stalin’s government as part of what became known as the Katyn massacre -- the execution of some 22,000 Poles following the successive invasions of that country in September 1939 by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which had signed a nonaggression pact and secretly agreed to divide the lands lying between them.
Every year on October 30, a delegation from Poland comes to lay flowers at the building, beneath two metal plaques that were affixed to its facade in 1991 with inscriptions commemorating those who died in its basement: the 6,000 Poles estimated to have been shot, and the many other nationalities who fell victim to what became known as Stalin’s Great Terror.
But two days before this year’s ceremony, authorities in Tver ordered the plaques taken down. In a letter to the university’s rector Lesya Chichanovskaya, the local prosecutor’s office said crucial documents relating to the plaques’ origins are missing from the archives. Their inscriptions, it said, are “not based on documented facts.”
Ahead of grandiose celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of victory over the Nazis in World War II next May, the Russian government stands accused of a concerted campaign to rewrite aspects of the wartime past in a way that downplays Soviet cooperation with Germany and the scale of Stalin's crimes, while highlighting the sacrifice of Red Army soldiers who countered Adolf Hitler's 1941 invasion of the U.S.S.R. and freed much of Eastern Europe from Nazi occupation.
That military campaign, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, is a cornerstone of national identity and of the historical politics of President Vladimir Putin’s government, which often understates the Western Allies’ contribution to victory over the Nazis. Critics say it is also fueling a drive to bend history, obscure the facts, and mute alternative treatments of the past.
The year 2020 will also bring another anniversary: 80 years since the Katyn massacre. Moscow took responsibility for the atrocity in 1990, after decades of denial, acknowledging also its 1939 pact with Hitler’s Germany, which paved the way for the two totalitarian powers to carve up Poland and made that massacre possible.
But this year, as Poland and the rest of Europe prepared to mark the September anniversary of that agreement, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Russia launched a campaign to justify it, including a social-media campaign featuring slick videos in its defense.
At the opening in August of an exhibition in Moscow marking the start of World War II, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, calling it a necessary measure in the face of what he said was Western countries' appeasement of Hitler, and accused the West of falsifying wartime history in order to belittle the Soviet role in ensuring fascism’s downfall.
It was a stark departure from a more low-key narrative -- at times contrite but more often ambiguous -- that Moscow has advanced about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ever since the moribund Soviet Union denounced it in 1989.
Kremlin critics and activists determined to preserve the memory of the Soviet crimes say the removal of plaques from buildings with brutal legacies, like the latest move by authorities in Tver, may be merely a small part of an expanding effort to rewrite dark pages of Russia’s past -- a campaign that has included arrests, propaganda, and even the alleged exhumation of bodies belonging to victims of repression.
“All of this is part of a bigger, sinister tendency,” said Aleksandr Golts, an independent military analyst who was among the first to write about the situation in Tver. “They want to privatize history and use it in their own interests; to forget about the repressions, about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and to take the history of the Great Patriotic War as a collection of myths rather than trying to learn the true story.”
In 1988, a group of researchers from Memorial, an NGO dedicated to studying Soviet-era atrocities, began interviewing survivors of a prisoner-of-war camp run by the NKVD near the village of Ostashkov, 180 kilometers west of Tver, which was called Kalinin at the time. Up to 7,000 Poles were kept there, transported east as prisoners of the invading Soviet forces.
Between April 3 and April 19, historians believe, more than 6,000 were executed in the basement of the NKVD building on Soviet Street, which still bears that name 28 years after the Soviet Union's demise. The bodies were then transported 40 kilometers to fields outside the village of Mednoye, where they were clandestinely buried.
While news of the Katyn massacre had been revealed decades prior, it was only in the spring of 1988 that rumors spread about the bodies lying near Mednoye. According to Sergei Glushkov, who co-founded Memorial’s Tver branch, former officers of the KGB, the NKVD’s successor agency, revealed the presence of the secret graveyard. One day, Glushkov and five other Memorial members traveled to the site to see what they could find.
“We just climbed over the metal fence and started digging,” said Glushkov, who is now 72. “It definitely wasn’t legal, but we couldn’t wait.” He said a duty officer from the KGB gave him coordinates for the site.
It was from Ostashkov that, according to documents signed by high-ranking NKVD operatives, more than 6,000 Poles were transferred in groups to the secret police headquarters in Kalinin in May 1940. Over a period of several months, 100 Poles were taken daily from the camp to the city.
The documents include no order to kill the prisoners, but proof that executions took place in the basement comes from the 1991 testimony of Dmitry Tokarev, the former head of the NKVD’s regional branch. That March, military prosecutors twice questioned Tokarev as part of a criminal investigation into the Katyn massacre. Tokarev explained how each night, some 250 prisoners were shot in secret and later driven to Mednoye for burial. Exhumations took place at the site in 1991, 1994, and 1995; photos from the digs show earth turned navy blue from the dye that seeped from the uniforms of Polish officers.
Twenty-three pits were excavated, containing the remains of around 2,300 people and various personal items establishing the identities of many victims. In Mednoye today, tall wooden crosses mark the spots where the pits were dug; since only the Polish part of the burial site has been studied, the names of Soviet victims of repression who may also lie there in their thousands are yet to be ascertained.
Yet many in Russia continue to deny the killings ever took place. The Soviet government doggedly refused to acknowledge its responsibility for the Katyn massacre -- until it did -- and a cottage industry of deniers continues to thrive today. Propaganda films spread the message that Mednoye contains the bodies of Red Army soldiers, not Poles, and a new Tver-produced war movie depicts Tokarev as a valiant NKVD commander who roots out spies among his officers on the eve of the city’s invasion by the Nazis:
“There is no direct or even circumstantial evidence that can be seen to prove that those events took place in the building on Soviet Street, in the city of Kalinin, and especially in Mednoye,” said Ilya Kleymenov, head of the Tver branch of the Communists of Russia party, which initiated the campaign to get the plaques removed from the building of Tver State Medical University.
On June 14, in a letter to Tver’s Mayor Aleksei Ogonkov, Kleymenov -- whose party is separate and much smaller than Russia's main Communist Party -- called the information on the plaques “distorted” and claimed that it has an “antipatriotic effect on the young generation.” Without providing support for his claim, he called the idea that Polish officers were shot in Kalinin’s NKVD building “quite simply falsified.”
Four months later, the prosecutor’s office sent its letter to Chichanovskaya, the university rector, ordering that the plaques be removed.
Chichanovskaya’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
One former student told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that the school’s management is in flux as it seeks to manage the fallout from a major criminal investigation into corruption allegations against Chichanovskaya. She was arrested in November on suspicion of siphoning money from the university’s budget into salaries for two acquaintances she fraudulently hired as employees, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.
The building of Tver State Medical University is off-limits to passersby, its grounds fenced off for the past several years. The basement, where the NKVD prison was located and where hundreds were executed under Stalin, is no longer open to tourists as it was in the 1990s. Glushkov, who visited several years ago, said it has since been repurposed as a vivarium -- a place where animals are raised for research or observation by the school’s students.
For Memorial, which has meticulously researched Stalinist repressions for the past 30 years, the conflict over Mednoye comes at an uncertain time. Since September, the organization has been barraged with fines associated with its status as a “foreign agent,” a label applied by the Russian government to groups that receive foreign funding. With the total sum now exceeding 3 million rubles (almost $50,000), Memorial has been forced to launch an online crowdfunding campaign for the first time in its 30-year history.
Aleksandr Guryanov, who coordinates Memorial’s Polish research team, sees the order to remove the plaques in Tver as part of a years-long effort to rewrite the history of the Katyn massacre. This year, he and his colleagues at the organization released a three-volume book listing the names and biographies of 6,287 Polish inmates of the Ostashkov camp. Over several hundred pages of assiduous research, it cites documents attesting to their imprisonment there, their execution in Kalinin, and their eventual burial at Mednoye.
In August, the State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History in Moscow, which oversees the Mednoye Memorial Complex, announced plans to commence digs at the site in a bid to identify the Soviet citizens -- including wounded Red Army soldiers believed to have received treatment at military hospitals in the area -- who may also be buried there
Guryanov suspects ulterior motives.
“I think this is happening under pressure from the [Katyn deniers], who strive to prove that firstly, there are no executed Polish POWs there, and secondly that there are no executed Soviet citizens. They want to prove that all these graves are the graves of Red Army soldiers,” he said.
He is not against excavating parts of Mednoye, since much of the area remains understudied. But he said he fears the consequences of approaching the task with a predetermined theory.
“We must first find the documents, so that we don’t dig blindly and at least delineate the likely burial spots prior to any digs,” he said, adding of the museum: “I don’t trust them.”