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Russian Remembrance Of Victims Of Political Repressions Passes Quietly

The memorial to Stalin's victims at the Butovsky Firing Range in southern Moscow, where more than 20,000 people were executed by the Soviet secret police during the Great Terror of 1936-38.
The memorial to Stalin's victims at the Butovsky Firing Range in southern Moscow, where more than 20,000 people were executed by the Soviet secret police during the Great Terror of 1936-38.

Russia is marking a state day of remembrance of the millions of victims of politically motivated repressions during the Soviet period.

However, the government is largely standing aside, as it traditionally has done since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, and the events are largely organized by local nongovernmental organizations, volunteer groups, and local religious organizations.

In cities across the country, including St. Petersburg, Tula, Voronezh, Tver, Ryazan, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Penza, and Tomsk, volunteers on October 30 read out the names of some of the millions of Soviet citizens who were directly victimized during the reign of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin between the late 1920s and the early 1950s.

Small memorials were unveiled in some cities and many held religious services and laid memorial wreathes.

"We cannot change the past," local historian Aleksandr Petrushin told a small crowd gathered in a light snowfall in Tyumen. "But we must remember it and pass it on to our heirs as a vow, in the words of the monument here, 'never again.'"

Activists in Moscow read out the names of local victims in a daylong ceremony on October 29.

A memorial ceremony was held in the far eastern port city of Magadan, through which many prisoners bound for the brutal labor camps of Kolyma passed.

In Moscow, a small ceremony was held at the Butovsky Firing Range, where more than 20,000 people were executed by the Soviet secret police during the Great Terror of 1936-38.

No senior Russian government officials participated in the commemorations, and there was no statement to mark the occasion on the website of President Putin. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is making a working visit to Tajikistan.

Asked about Putin's participation in the events, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on October 30 that "the president is not scheduled to have any events on this issue."

Putin made a low-profile visit to the Butovsky Firing Range in 2007 with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii. "Such tragedies have occurred more than once in the history of mankind," Putin said at the time, adding that the victims of Stalinist repression were "the most capable people, the pride of the nation."

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin on October 30 issued a two-minute video in which he described the day as "highly politicized" by people who "as a rule have no personal relation to the repressions." He went on to note that both his own grandfathers were touched by the repressions.

"I think that on this day we should not be accusing one another or accusing our ancestors or the leaders of the past or evaluate the past on the basis of today's humanitarian values," Sobyanin said. "I think this is a day when we must forgive and make peace with our past."

Stalin Returns

The day of remembrance of victims of political repression was established in 1991.

It is being marked in Russia in the midst of efforts to rehabilitate the image of Stalin. Six monuments to him were erected in Russian cities in 2015. Busts of Stalin and other Stalin-era figures are widely available in shops around the country.

According to the Levada Center polling agency, 45 percent of Russians feel that the crimes of Stalin are justified by the achievements of his government, including the country's rapid industrialization and its victory in World War II.

WATCH: In the small Tatar village of Kazarovo in Siberia's Tyumen region, a monument honors Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the feared chief of the Soviet secret police. The statue was removed in the mid-1990s but reinstalled three years ago. RFE/RL spoke to people in the village to see how they feel about this controversial figure. (RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service)

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"Attitudes toward the political repressions have changed markedly in recent decades," says Aleksandr Mironov, a researcher with the Memorial nongovernmental organization. "At the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, when Memorial was established, there was a lot of discussion of this in the press and on television. Today, on the contrary, they say it is better not to think about the dark past but rather we should talk about our victories."

Putin has in the past criticized Stalin's repressions, but he also frequently praises Stalin's management skills and his leadership during World War II. Since he has become president, he has revived many Soviet-era symbols.

Other senior officials have been even more open about their positive views of Stalin. In an interview with The Telegraph, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said that although he personally opposed erecting monuments to Stalin because they "split society," he saw no reason why they should not be erected in places where a majority of locals favor them.

Remembering Those Lost

On social media, dozens of Russians marked the October 30 remembrance day by posting photographs or comments about relatives who were repressed.

"My grandfather, before the war, was arrested after being denounced," wrote Pyotr Ofitserov, a management consultant in Moscow on his Facebook page. "And he never came back. Before his arrest, he was awarded the Red Banner of Labor. A week later -- he got a 10-year sentence without the right of correspondence."

"Ten years without the right of correspondence" was a Stalinist euphemism for summary execution.

A woman cleans a plaque for a victim of Stalin's purges at a memorial on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
A woman cleans a plaque for a victim of Stalin's purges at a memorial on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

Many of these remembrances have been collected on a special Facebook page called Immortal Gulag. That organization, headed by Andrei Shalayev, is also creating a database of photos and information about Stalin's victims.

In addition, Memorial maintains an online database listing known victims and basic information about them in alphabetical order.

The liberal newsweekly The New Times published a long excursion through Moscow in which the dark history of many of the city's buildings was explained by local historian Pavel Gnilorybov.

Kommersant published a "collective diary" of 1937, the worst year of the Great Terror, gathering together excerpts from letters, diaries, and other documents of the time.

Moscow on October 29 announced final plans to erect a "wall of sorrow" for victims of political repressions.

"The wall is horizontal because grief is, I am profoundly certain, horizontal," sculptor Georgy Frangulyan, whose design won the competition, said in an interview with RFE/RL. "It is pressed to the ground, just as all those people passed into the ground as their souls -- as I depicted it -- fly upward. They pass into eternity, into endless space, into the cosmos. But the grief itself is horizontal."

Last year, a group of volunteers initiated a project called Last Address, which is installing commemorative plaques at the last known addresses of victims of Soviet repressions.

Memorial estimates that about 4 million Soviet citizens were direct victims of political repression and more than 1 million were executed.

Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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