Russian Orthodox priests consecrated a wooden cross Wednesday at a site south of Moscow where firing squads executed thousands of people 70 years ago at the height of Josef Stalin’s political purges.
Created at a monastery that housed one of the first Soviet labor camps and brought by barge to Moscow along a canal built on the bones of gulag inmates, the 40-foot cross has been embraced as memorial to the mass suffering under Stalin.
The ceremony at the Church of New Martyrs and Confessors, built recently at the Butovo site, is one of a series of events planned throughout this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Great Purge of 1937, when millions were labeled “enemies of the state” and executed without trial or sent to labor camps.
Hundreds of people, most of them women wearing colorful headscarves, laid flowers and lit candles under the cross. The crowd, led by priests carrying icons, continued to the execution and burial site for a service. Some of the women were crying.
No government official attends
There were no representatives of the government, which has shown little interest in the anniversary of the Great Purge. This is in keeping with efforts by President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, to restore Russians’ pride in their Soviet-era history by softening the public perception of Stalin’s rule.
“We have been ordered to be proud of our past,” said Yan Rachinsky from Memorial, a non-governmental group dedicated to investigating Stalin’s repression.
“I know no other example in history when 700,000 people were killed within 1½ years only for political reasons,” he said in an interview.
The wooden cross was carved at a monastery on the Solovki Islands in the White Sea, one of the earliest and most notorious camps in the gulag.
It arrived in Moscow on Monday after a 13-day journey that took it down the Belomorkanal, a 141-mile waterway linking the White Sea with Lake Onega. The canal was built between 1931 and 1933 entirely by gulag inmates.
An estimated 100,000 people, many of them victims of political repression, died as they built the canal using only wheelbarrows, sledgehammers and axes. The construction was supervised by the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB.
The Butovo range was used for executions in the 1930s and until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Some 20,000 people, including priests and artists, were killed there in 1937-38 alone.
Putin said in June that although the 1937 purge was one of the most notorious episodes of the Stalin era, no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about it because “in other countries even worse things happened.”
The president, who was speaking to a gathering of history teachers, suggested the United States’ use of atomic weapons against Japan at the end of World War II was among those things.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said the Kremlin was “almost completely ignoring” the anniversary of the Great Purge, which he said was “one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that Russian authorities sympathize with Stalin’s regime.”
Features of Stalin’s rule such as “the physical removal of political opponents, ... spy mania, defamation of government critics and rights activists, equating any dissent with anti-government activity” remain Russia’s political reality, Yavlinsky said in a statement Sunday.
Political arrests on dubious charges were common throughout Stalin’s rule, resulting in the execution of hundreds of thousands. Millions more became inmates of the gulag, the system of thousands of slave labor camps.
Large-scale arrests of Communist Party members began in 1934 and reached a peak in 1936-37, when a series of show trials was held in Moscow featuring dramatic courtroom confessions.
Russia has never sought to bring to justice KGB officials implicated in human rights abuses committed during the Communist era.