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Memorial, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to uncover crimes of Communist terror and win redress for victims, was announcing its find of the Toksovo execution grounds after a 14-year search.
The forest near Toksovo, Memorial estimates, could hold the bones of 32,000 people executed from the late 1920s until the late 1930s, on the eve of World War II. That would make it perhaps the single biggest grave of Stalinist victims found in the former Soviet Union.
And yet a monument that Memorial erected in St. Petersburg to the victims of a Communist campaign of terror was defaced in September with the words: "They should have killed more."
Eleven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the FSB -- the successor agency to the NKVD, the KGB and other Soviet secret police agencies -- is still stonewalling about how many people were killed and exactly where they are buried, said Irena Flige, head of Memorial's office in St. Petersburg.
It took Memorial 14 years of deduction, investigation and detective work -- initiated by Flige's husband, Veniamin Iofe, a former political prisoner who died in April -- to find the first remains. They were unearthed Aug. 20 in these woods controlled by the Ministry of Defense and used as an artillery firing range since czarist times.
The very secrecy of the killings proves that the Stalinist regime knew the executions were a crime, something to be kept hidden.
Prisoners were loaded into Black Marias in the middle of the night from St. Petersburg's Kresty Prison and the NKVD's "Big House" headquarters and driven over a bumpy dirt track to a small access road that led into the forest. The appearance of this road to nowhere in aerial photographs dating to the 1920s was the first clue that led Iofe to believe that graves would be found in this area, said Flige, 42, an anti-Soviet dissident since age 18.
Now that more than 50 graves have been found, she said, there can be little doubt that this was the NKVD's main graveyard in St. Petersburg during the 1937-38 period known as the Great Terror. In its work there, Memorial has dug down only about 3 feet. The group presumes that there are many layers below, but it says it is not interested in disturbing the dead by doing a complete excavation.
Memorial's knowledge about the grave site is "fragmentary," according to Flige, because FSB authorities in the region are refusing any detailed discussion with her group. The FSB is saying only that it has no written records of a graveyard or of mass executions near Toksovo.
Although Memorial does not know who all the victims are, but strongly suspects that one is Father Pavel Florensky, a pre-revolutionary Russian theologian, writer and scientist who refused to surrender his philosophical opposition to Bolshevism. Documents from government archives show that he was to be executed in the vicinity of Toksovo in December 1937.
Memorial's estimate of 32,000 victims in Toksovo is based on subtraction. About 40,000 people in what was then Leningrad and its surrounding region were killed in the Great Terror, but the one known grave of the victims is believed to hold only about 8,000.
The discovery of the graves has electrified sons and daughters of victims, now in their 60s and 70s. Their lives were permanently changed after nighttime visits of the secret police, which meant that their fathers or mothers -- or both -- were to be consumed by the Stalinist killing machine.
"I want to go to Toksovo and go down on my knees there and take a handful of earth home in a little bag and keep it on my desk, where I can always look at it, touch it and maybe talk to it," said Mela Lyubavskaya, 75, who lost her father -- a devoted party member -- on the night of Feb. 19, 1937, when she was 10.
Her father, Pavel Lazarevich Bulat, 36, was executed a few months later.
His wife, Nina, was sent to a camp. Mela and her sister, 3, went to orphanages, where they were raised to detest their disgraced father and worship Stalin, the constructor and master of the apparatus of terror. It was an experience shared by millions, none of whom could speak openly about their pain until decades afterward.
Andrei Dybovsky, a St. Petersburg forensic crime expert, said he examined 12 skeletons from the Toksovo site. Many of the skulls had bullet holes ranging in diameter from 9 to 11.43 millimeters in the back, which he said would match the killing style and weapons of NKVD executioners of the time.
The excavations and search for more graves would continue until the first freeze, then resume in the spring with the aid of archeologists and geophysicists, Dybovsky said.
The remains that are unearthed are photographed, studied and then put back into the ground.
Drozdov, 55, a mathematician, born in a Stalinist labor camp, said that at the least he would like to see a sense of shame develop in Russia, where even today prominent people are often slain but the killers are rarely brought to justice.
"We should make sure that a person asked to do this in the future would think about how his children and grandchildren will feel about him someday.
"Nobody is shocked that the government ignores this," said Drozdov, who wants those perpetrators still alive to be prosecuted. "They do not want to deal with the people who committed this crime."
The difficulty of getting Russia to deal honestly with its past was shown by the recent proposal, by Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, to re-erect the statue of Dzerzhinsky, and by the defacing of the memorial to victims of Communist terror.
The vandals also drew a swastika and a Star of David on the stone and painted over verses by Anna Akhmatova about Soviet-era repression.
Memorial's monument to the victims was put in place in early September. It was formed from a large rock from the Solovetsky Islands, site of one of the first Communist labor camps beginning in the 1920s.
The toppling of the Dzerzhinsky statue in 1991 outside the KGB headquarters in Moscow after the failed hard-line Communist coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev symbolically heralded the victory of Boris N. Yeltsin, the end of one-party Communist rule and the demise of the Soviet Union a few months later.
The fact that Moscow's mayor now wants the statue put back -- purportedly for its artistic merit -- is seen by many here as a clumsy attempt to curry favor with President Vladimir V. Putin, who served as a KGB colonel and has installed many of his former colleagues in important political posts.
As Flige sees it, nothing fundamental has changed in Russia over the last decade, and the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era was simply one of the periodic thaws in an overall Russian political climate of repression.
"And that seems now to be coming to an end," she said. "First we get a president who is an ex-KGB colonel, then we move on to [restoring] the Dzerzhinsky monument."
Victor L. Masaytis, 76, the son of a Great Terror victim in St. Petersburg, said he has difficulty understanding what is happening.
"This is blasphemy," he said of the push to reinstall the Dzerzhinsky statue. "This is utter blasphemy."
(Source:Times, Nov.18, 2002)