On the Wall of Remembrance in Kommunarka

Photo by Vlad Dokshin / Novaya Cazeta

Jan Rachinsky, International Memorial Board Chairman:

On October, 27, 2018 the Wall of Remembrance was opened at the former NKVD special object Kommunarka in Moscow.

6,609 people were executed and buried on the territory of Kommunarka between September 2, 1937 and November 24, 1941. All the names put on the Wall of Remembrance were taken from the execution acts kept in the Central Archive of FSB. <…>

When the existence of the Kommunarka burial became publicly known the children and grandchildren of the victims became naturally eager to see the names of their relatives displayed at the place of burial. A group of activists tried to get the government’s support for this initiative. 

After 20 years of no results relatives of the executed decided to rely on themselves, addressed the public and raised funds to erect a monument to the victims of political repressions without any names indicated. 

Some relative, hopeless to get any support from the state, started installing burial plates on the territory of the special object or putting sheets of paper with information about the executed on the trees. 

But in general the task of public revealing of the names remained unfulfilled. Several projects were developed by the initiative group of relatives, they implied participation of the state and required sufficient funding. 

The present project was designed by Petr Pasternak, grandson of Boris Pasternak, in 2014. It fit well into the environment and was approved by everyone participating in discussions. Besides it did not require enormous resources to be fulfilled. Necessary fund were allocated by the Fund for Commemoration of the Victims of Political Repressions. The wooden stands for the memorial were donated by private business. 

All kinds of permissions and approvals took quite a lot of time to get. At the same time the possible ways to form the list of names on the Wall on Memory were discussed. These discussions were numerous, the participants included representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Memorial, initiative group of the relatives, Museum of the History of Gulag, Moscow Commission for Restoration of the Rights of the Rehabilitated, independent experts. Finally the participants came to a unified solution – the wall was to be a burial stand on the common grave. This is neither canonization nor rehabilitation. That’s why in Kommunarka as well as in Butovo the wall included all the names irrespective of rehabilitation or its absence. Those are the people who were buried there. This is a statement, not judgment. <…>

The state did not participate in creating the Garden of Memory in Butovo and the Wall of Memory in Kommunarka – neither financially nor conceptually. 

We were standing on the premise that construction of the Wall of Memory cannot be put off, the ancestors of the executed had been waiting for it for many years – and many did not live to that moment. At the same time, although we did study the execution acts in the Central Archive of FSB and compiled a full list of those buried in Komminarka (6,609 names), for 2,000 of them we knew only the names and the dates of execution– we had no information on who they were and if they were exonerated. <…>

This very lack of information could become a serious argument in favor of a combined list – since these names could not be excluded or labeled as victims or executioners (in terms of the following discussion). But for our debates this argument was absolutely secondary. 

The first decision – to announce all of the names – was based on the obvious for us ground that everybody has a right for a grave. The Soviet regime was trying to make war with the dead, burying the bodies of the executed at classified grounds and often later destroying those burials. This practice unlikely deserves to be copied. 

There was still left another question, a much more complicated and controversial one – whether to present a common or separate list, and in case of separation – what should it be based on. The most debated variant was obviously to separate the victims and the executioners.

Why did we refuse from it? 

Not because «everyone is a victim here» – although this is true to some extend: very few were sentenced according to standard legal procedures and it is unlikely that any one of them might have had an attorney. 

Not because in our history it is often a difficult task to tell the difference between a victim and an executioner, although this is also true: an ex-convicted could turn into an executioner, and vice versa. The Holocaust history is different from this point of view – the victims and executioners did not change places there. 

The unsolvable problem was in performing such separation here and now – apart from the fact that two thousand names cannot be classified into any category at the moment. 

A formal feature, such as absence of presence of exoneration could have solved the problem – but unfortunately it didn’t work. 

The fact is that during rehabilitation movement, which started after Stalin’s death, most security officers – members of NKVD troikas in the Great Terror time – were refused exoneration. At the same time all the Obkom secretaries, members of the troikas, were rehabilitated, though they often demonstrated no less enthusiasm in purges. Out of 30 Obkom, Krajkom and Reskom1 secretaries buried in Kommunarka sixteen were members of the troikas. Participation in collectivization was never an obstruction for rehabilitation. 

Another side of the question is that everyone who fought against the Soviet regime using or planning to use military action have been denied exoneration. Unfortunately the Law for Rehabilitation is used in the version which was passed under the Soviet regime and it has some shortfalls in spite of enormous efforts of its authors. Though the law denounces the crimes of the Soviet regime, it basically rehabilitates only those who committed no misdoings to this criminal regime. 

If we had free access to the archives, then theoretically we could try to find another formal criterion – for example, the participants of our discussions suggested listing as executioners those who signed the documents «of arrest, shooting or execution». Due to the classified status of archives we don’t have a full list of people involved. Besides many obvious criminals didn’t sign papers of arrest, shooting or execution. For example, the investigators who falsified the cases and tortured the arrested – their signatures can be found only at the interrogation protocols and indictments. We are not going to have this list for a lot more years to come, even if the archives become public like in Ukraine. This list is only possible as a result of processing all the corpus of archived cases. 

We cannot seriously consider the suggestion to move names between the lists upon revealing new information – this is not playing with building blocks. 

Still there are other aspects to be considered. For example, the question is where and how to mark the border. Should we treat as executioners those who at various meetings accused colleagues of «associations with the enemies of the people». These speeches of accusation often became a reason or excuse for arrest. Should we consider executioners those who wrote and published articles calling for arrests and shootings? <…>

There are two more essential issues to mention outside of the story of how the decision was made. 

Making two lists would mean that the relatives coming for memorial ceremonies would go to different stands. That is unlikely to encourage understanding of the tragedy. I don’t think that the burial sites are the places where the children of the executed need to be reminded that their relatives were never exonerated or to be explained that they were wrongly exonerated. <…> A name on a grave is outside of a judgment – either positive or negative. A different story is when the names of well-known executioners are displayed publicly. 

And the last note.

Ever since that famous Khrushchev’s speech at the XX Congress the state terror has been called «breaches of socialist justice» and responsibility was put partially on Stalin and mainly on secret services which allegedly went out of control of the Party. Now is the time to say out loud that Jagoda for example did not commit any breaches of socialist justice – he was an embodiment of Bolsheviks’ justice and never acted against the will of the Party. The same can be said about other leaders of VCHK-OGPU-NKVD-KGB. From my point of view putting the executioners in a separate list as well as excluding them from this list would renew the soviet interpretation of the state terror. Narrowing the issue down to the deeds of executioners means to simplify and emasculate the problem. Definitely those who executed unlawful orders were criminals, but first of all the state itself was unlawful enough to start this blood-fest. And so far the crime against humanity has been called «breaches in socialist justice» or «exceeding authority» – and this is the main problem. 

Regional committees of the Communist party