Relatives of the victims of Stalin's purges held a ceremony yesterday at an execution site in a Russian forest on the 70th anniversary of the start of the mass killings.
Dozens of family members were joined by a few hundred campaigners, officials and local residents and clerics for the Remembrance Day ceremony by the mass graves of Sandormokh. Memorial, a Russian human rights group, organized the event.
Aug. 5 marks the day in 1937 when top Stalin henchman Nikolai Yezhov issued the notorious Order 00447 for the mass executions of "anti-Soviet and socially dangerous elements."
"We cannot forget that this evil took place. Otherwise, evil will beget evil," said one of the relatives, Liza Derybash, 79, whose mother was executed and buried in one of the mass graves of Sandormokh in November 1937.
Some 7,000 people are believed to lie buried in at least 40 mass graves found at Sandormokh, near the town of Medvezhegorsk, the site of a former prison camp around 1,000km north of Moscow.
"It had to be a remote place so the executions wouldn't be heard ... It was a secret place," said Tatyana Voronina, 30, a researcher at Memorial, which documents the history of the Soviet prison camps.
The site is now strewn with hundreds of crosses extending deep into the dense pine forest. Flowers ring the mass graves, which are marked by depressions in the ground.
Through painstaking historical research, Memorial found the graves in 1997 and has held a yearly ceremony at the site in an effort to keep alive the memory of the millions who perished in the Soviet purges.
In a separate commemorative event in Saint Petersburg, human rights campaigners planned to gather yesterday outside Kresty prison, from which many of the victims of the purges were sent for execution or to the camps.
A memorial cross was also being transported by boat from the Solovetsky Islands in northern Russia, once a prison camp, to a former execution ground outside Moscow, where it was to be consecrated on Wednesday.
Russian media has paid scant attention to the anniversary, and both Memorial campaigners and relatives of the victims complain that there is a reluctance on the part of officials to commemorate the Soviet purges.
"There's a new regime that wants heroes, not victims ... They prefer to celebrate the victory in World War II. It doesn't make you feel proud when you know that it's your own people who did this," Voronina said.
There is also widespread indifference among many Russians, campaigners said.
There have been recent signs, however, of greater efforts by Russian officials to commemorate the history of the Soviet purges, alongside a celebration of brighter chapters of Soviet history.
This included a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June to former Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in the Gulag and wrote extensively about the prison camps, to give him an award.