MOSCOW -- An annual ceremony honoring the memory of thousands of people executed during Josef Stalin's Great Terror has mixed poignant memories of the Soviet state's victims with pointed calls for the release of "political prisoners" in Russia today.
Thousands of people lined up at the Solovetsky Kamen (Solovki Stone) memorial on Moscow's Lubyanka Square on October 29 to pay their respects at a daylong ceremony called Returning the Names.
Participants -- relatives of the dead, rights activists, and others -- read aloud the names, ages, occupations, and dates of executions of some 40,000 Muscovites -- a fraction of the estimated 1 million or more Soviet citizens killed by the state in 1937-38.
The human rights group Memorial has held the ceremony every year since 2006 at the site in plain view of the building that what was the headquarters of the Soviet KGB and now houses the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), its main successor.
Many who read out names wished "eternal memory for the murdered innocent," with some condemning "the killers" and several calling for the release of people they made clear they believe are "political prisoners" of President Vladimir Putin's government.
One woman, after reading out her grandfather's name and the date on which he was executed by the Soviet authorities, added that she wanted to mention one more name: that of Boris Nemtsov, a Putin foe and former deputy prime minister who was killed in 2015.
"Boris Nemtsov: physicist, politician, statesman. Shot to death on February 27, 2015, near the Kremlin," the woman said at the ceremony, which Memorial broadcast live on YouTube. "The organizers and those who ordered the killing have not been found."
Others called for the release of people behind bars for what supporters and rights activists say are political reasons, intoning: "Freedom for Oleh Sentsov! Freedom for Yury Dmitriyev! Freedom for Oyub Titiyev!"
Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker and Crimea native who opposed Russia's 2014 takeover of the peninsula, is serving a 20-year prison term after being convicted of terrorism in a trial that rights groups, and Western governments contend was politically motivated.
Dmitriyev, the head of Memorial's branch in the Karelia region and a historian who has worked for decades to expose crimes committed in the region by the Soviet state, is under arrest on charges of sexual assaulting his adopted daughter. He and his supporters say the accusation is retaliation for his efforts to expose a side of history that complicates the Kremlin's glorification of the Soviet past.
Titiyev, the head of Memorial's office in Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya, is in jail and on trial on what he and Memorial say is a fabricated drug-possession charge.
A several-minute pause was announced during the ceremony after representatives of the embassies of European Union member states, Australia, and the United States arrived at the ceremony and laid flowers at the memorial.
Earlier in October, Moscow city authorities withdrew their initial permission to hold the ceremony on Lubyanka Square, citing repair work there, but reversed their decision after an outcry and allowed it to go ahead as planned.
Similar events are being held in other Russian cities, and Memorial said that Returning The Names ceremonies were also being held this year in London, Prague, Warsaw, and Washington, D.C.
The Remember the Names ceremony is held one day before the official Day of Remembrance for Victims of Political Repression.
After they revoked the permit and before they relented, Moscow authorities had suggested that the ceremony be held near the Wall of Sorrow, a memorial that Putin opened on October 30, 2017.
At that ceremony, Putin said that the "horrific past" of Soviet-era government oppression must not be forgotten, cannot be justified, and should not divide the country today.
Some human rights activists and Kremlin opponents spoke out against the memorial, saying it was hypocritical of Putin's government to unveil such a monument while carrying out what they called its own political repressions decades later.
While Putin has criticized Stalin at times, he has praised the dictator in the past as an "effective manager" and said in June 2017 that the "excessive demonization" of Stalin is "one way of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia."