August 24, 2003


RZHEVSKY ARTILLERY RANGE, Russia – They killed them effortlessly, in the signature style of Josef Stalin’s dreaded NKVD secret police: a bullet to the back of the skull, the bullet’s exit shattering the facial bones.

Then, haphazardly, the executioners buried their victims in mass graves, barely disguising their remains under a foot of sagging, sandy soil – year after year, body after broken body. . . .

What lies beneath the mulberry bogs of the Rzhevsky range could be perhaps the single biggest grave of victims of the “Great Terror” ever found in the former Soviet Union. But it appears that the people who died here are a part of a forgotten history Russia would rather not remember.

A year has passed since activists from Memorial – volunteers who have worked for more than a decade to uncover crimes of the communist era – unearthed this burial site: at least 50 graves set just a few paces apart, each containing remains of about 30 people, their yellowed skulls bearing bullet holes that St. Petersburg forensic experts said are telltale signs of NKVD executions.

The Russian government has said nothing so far about the ghastly find.

Irina Flige, head of Memorial’s historical department, said this silence is a disturbing symbol of Russia’s unwillingness to deal honestly with the ugly side of its recent past.

“It’s the kind of history the Russian government doesn’t need,” Flige said.

Historians believe that as many as 20 million people were executed without trial or perished in the labor camps of the Soviet gulag. In 1937-38, at the height of the purges, as many as 40,000 residents of St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, were put to death.

I’m surprised that this story isn’t getting more attention. But not that surprised, as sympathy for communism is still treated as an amusing foible — rather than the complicity with mass murder that it, in fact, is.

UPDATE: But Marxist scholar Eric Hobsbawm is perfectly fine with mass murder in the name of communism. Despicable.

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