“Unlearned lessons from the past will lead to repeated tragedies.” An interview with the man helping to lead the fight to safeguard a mass grave in Yekaterinburg

INTERVIEW

Politika News spoke to Anatolii Svechnikov, coordinator of the civil rights NGO, Уральский Мемориал – Ural Memorial, which is a local branch of the post-Soviet civil rights group Мемориал – Memorial, led by academics and activists. The organisation dedicates the vast majority of its efforts to research on the oppression and persecution that took place throughout the Soviet Union, and often face an uphill battle against their government, as they try to secure justice for the victims of Soviet terror. The latest legal challenge being fought by Ural Memorial is against a new construction project taking place over a known mass burial ground, a few miles from the city of Yekaterinburg. Following our previous report on this issue, Politika News can reveal what Mr. Svechinkov told us about the situation in Russia, and their fight to stop another injustice for the descendants of those who were murdered.


Politika News: It may seem tiresome to answer this question, but it is important for our readers to understand: what is happening in Yekaterinburg and why is there a problem?

Anatolii Svechikov: In every major Russian city there is a mass grave for those killed during the Stalinist oppressions. In the year of 1937-38, there were so many people shot dead under the secret NKVD order number 00447, that the authorities decided to bury them secretly (for example, in the now well-known Sandarmokh forest massif). They killed absolutely anyone: from officials, to noblemen, to labourers. For the secret burial of victims in Yekaterinburg (then the city of Svredlovsk), the authorities chose an NKVD shooting range. After the (partial) exposing of Stalinist crimes at the end of the 1950s and during the beginning of the 1960s, many of these mass graves were then hidden by covering any ditches with more earth, on top of which they built building parks, as well as sports centres.

At the site which is now home to the Yekaterinburg memorial (editor: and beneath which the remains of thousands of people remain buried), they decided to build a sports complex, owned by Dynamo sports club which, itself, was then owned by the NKVD and now owned by the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs). Since then, skiers have been able to ski over the ground where thousands of people are buried. During the early 1980s, they began new construction work on the site, and this was when builders discovered another mass grave. Bones were thrown everywhere. I remember that back then it was a remote forest. Perestroika reforms had already started – the authorities decided to launch an investigation. They organised an official exhumation. They found the remains of 31 people. They were lying in piles. Afterwards, they were properly and fully reburied. We at Memorial have a photo of this in our archives – the government must have official decrees and other documents, but to this day they have not allowed us access to any so we can make a copy.


“At the site which is now home to the Yekaterinburg memorial, they decided to build a sports complex, owned by Dynamo sports club which, itself, was then owned by the NKVD…”

Anatolii Svechnikov, Уральский Мемориал

After these discoveries, the government’s policy began to change. The NKVD leader who tried to honestly reveal his colleagues’ crimes to the public shot himself. There are grounds to suppose that they killed him, but there has never been an investigation.

At the place where this mass grave was discovered, we built a memorial. It was like saying to the Russian people: here is your space, where you can cry, lay flowers by the slab which bears your father’s name. Somewhere for you to pay your respects, like at a cemetery.

Meanwhile, an investigation into exactly how many people were killed and where within the forest their remains lie remains forbidden. There is no rush to accuse the government of crimes against its civilians. Generally, they do not seem to want to talk about the role the state plays in today’s political persecution. Nowadays people only have one motive: to find a way to use large plots of land to make money.

Irrespective of this, if we recognise that here, in the forest a few miles from Yekaterinburg, there lie more mass graves, then we need to allocate around 150 hectares of land to the memorial site (including where there now sits a sports complex), dedicate a budget to a formal investigation and to the marking out of the graves’ borders, and to remove any sports activities from the site.


“The NKVD leader who tried to honestly reveal his colleagues’ crimes to the public shot himself. There are grounds to suppose that they killed him, but there has never been an investigation.”

Anatolii Svechnikov, Уральский Мемориал

And so the government is trying to waste time, by constantly promising that there will be a future investigation, while in reality liaising with local authorities to allow businessmen to begin new economic activities on the site. This is illegal and amoral. And the other problem is that many people still think that Stalinist persecutions were justified, including the person who runs the sports complex on the burial grounds. I have personally heard him express such views on the Stalinist persecution of millions of people, during a conversation with the head of Yekaterinburg’s Memorial branch, Anna Pastuhova.


PN: Could you explain how Ural Memorial have tried to cooperate with the authorities to prevent construction works on the burial grounds?

Svechnikov: From the early 1990s, Yekaterinburg’s Memorial branch has turned to the government several times, through the oblast’s administration, deputies, and public prosecution office, with the aim of beginning the process of investigation into the true extent of the crimes, a clarification of the number of those killed without reason, then later rehabilitated, and to set out a place for a memorial burial site, with a much-needed educational centre.

In response, the organisation has received broken promises, notifications from the Federal Security Service (the NKVD’s successor organisation) that they have no information on the burial ground (despite the fact there have been witnesses to such official documentation). The public prosecution office claims to have seen no illegal activity by officials, even though we have directly pointed out to them how officials have behaved illegally, by specifying concrete regulations.

To put it briefly, we can characterise the state’s behaviour as follows: “make promises, break them, never confess, refuse information, or simply stay quiet.”


PN: Why is this fight so important?

Svechnikov: This problem is important because, by not knowing the truth about these crimes, by not establishing the extent of the blame and criminality, society as a whole and individual citizens are prepared to allow the authorities to commit the same crimes again. “Unlearned lessons from the past will lead to repeated tragedies.”


PN: In your opinion, does the international media show enough interest in the injustices facing the relatives and descendants of those who were killed during Stalin’s Terror?

Svechnikov: The international media pay little attention to the silence surrounding political oppression in Russia. They can’t be blamed for this but I would like to see a greater participation in the debate on their part. Because the problem of a truly oppressive dictatorial regime, armed with both nuclear and conventional weapons, is a world-wide problem.


“We can characterise the state’s behaviour as follows: ‘make promises, break them, never confess, refuse information, or simply stay quiet.’ “

Anatolii Svechnikov, Уральский Мемориал

Besides, there is another factor to consider: there are people of many nationalities buried at the ’12km’ Memorial site, as well as people who were citizens of other countries. The Baltic States, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Korea, China. In particular, the entire Estonian government of 1940. I don’t believe that the citizens of these nations are not bothered by whether or not the memory of their fellow citizens is being appropriately honoured by the very country whose former governments kidnapped them. I think that it is very important to these societies that either the remains are released or that they are shown appropriate respect by the state that was formerly an aggressor.


PN: How can non-Russians help Ural Memorial and the descendants of those who were killed during Stalinist persecutions?

Svechnikov: How can you help? Tell the true story of persecution in Russia to your people – perhaps your fellow citizens were once among its victims. Advocate the idea that foreign governments need to start asking Russian leaders questions about whether burial sites for their citizens are properly processed and recognised. The latter example is the job of diplomats, but society is capable of initiating this step – a society that interests itself in the honouring of those who were unlawfully and criminally killed. And spread awareness of the fact that our future depends on our ability to grasp the past.


Politika News would like to thank Anatolii Svechnikov, and Urial Memorial, for agreeing to this interview. Read our report on the organisation’s fight to protect a mass grave from being built over by the council.

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