As is always the case where Russia is concerned, when there is one step forward there are always at least two steps back. The New York Times documents the opening of a new memorial to victims of Stalin on Moscow’s outskirts, and this is good news, yet it quotes a Russian visitor saying “This place is our Russian Golgotha. There is Golgotha in the Holy Land, where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for our sins. All of Russia was Golgotha in the 20th century.” Do Germans refer to Auschwitz as “their Golgotha”? Do Americans talk about the Japanese camps this way? In fact, this is the exact opposite of the truth. Russians were not suffering for the sins of mankind, but for their own sins, and they were as much inflicting suffering as receiving it. Not only did they sit idly by while Stalin carried out his purges, many informed on their neighbors and benefited from the purges. The complicity of the Russian people themselves in the atrocities of Stalin is not recognized in this neo-Soviet memorial, nor is it reflected in the comments of this Russian or any other mainstream person in Russia today. Those, like Starovoitova and Politikovskaya, who dare to make such points find themselves pushing up daisies. Only a Russophile flight of egomania could possibly allow one to analogize the Russian people to Jesus Christ. Abraham Lincoln made a similar comment about American suffering during the Civil War, but in America the suffering was between two fully armed groups of rivals fighting over coherent political ideologies. In Russia, the armed state attacked the unarmed population on the ad hoc basis of preserving its power, and the vast majority stood by doing nothing. That’s not Golgotha, it’s just gross.
Worse still, the Orthodox Church, which bore the brunt of the attacks for which this memorial was created, is currently complicit in the rise of a neo-Soviet state, a Holy Russian Empire, and is condoning the persecution of rival religous groups. A proud KGB spy governs the nation, and he has rehabilitated Stalin, the KGB and even the Soviet anthem. It does not appear that Russians have learned anything positive from the Stalin era.
BUTOVO, Russia — Barbed wire still lines the perimeter of the secret police compound here on the southern edge of Moscow where more, perhaps far more, than 20,000 people were shot and buried from August 1937 through October 1938, at the height of Stalin’s purges. Now, gradually, Butovsky poligon — literally, the Butovo shooting range — is becoming a shrine to all of the victims of Stalin’s murderous campaigns. Grass-covered mounds holding the victims’ bones crisscross the pastoral field, which is now dotted with flowers and birch trees.
Searing portraits from victims’ case files found in the archives of the secret police are displayed, along with a grim month-by-month chart of executions, in front of a small wooden church in the field. “This place is our Russian Golgotha,” said Andrei Kuznetsov, 34, a social worker, making the sign of the cross recently in front of a newly built white stone church near the site, the Church of the Resurrection and the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. “There is Golgotha in the Holy Land, where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for our sins. All of Russia was Golgotha in the 20th century.”
The killing ground is a symbol of a much larger, bloodier conflict in Russian society, that between the Bolsheviks and the Russian Orthodox Church. One thousand of those killed here are known to have died for their Orthodox faith. More than 320 have been canonized as “new martyrs” of the church — bishops, monks, nuns and lay people who were victims of Soviet rule. The new church was consecrated on May 19 as part of the celebration of the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Church Abroad, an émigré group that broke away in the 1920s. The walls of the church are filled with icons of the new martyrs, including one depicting their executioners shooting them. Glass cases in the lower church are filled with their personal items, like an executed priest’s prayer book and his violin.
The names of the victims are engraved on plaques lining one of the fences around the field. The fence overlooks dachas that were built in a parklike setting for officials of the K.G.B., the secret police agency was a successor of the Stalin-era N.K.V.D. and endured until the collapse of the Soviet Union. “They say the strawberries grew especially large at these dachas,” said Galina Pryakina, 70, nodding at the mounds of bones as she traced her finger across the plaques and found the name of a monk, now a saint, killed on the same day as her father, June 4, 1938. She visited the site this year on the fourth Saturday after Easter, a day that Patriarch Aleksy II of the Russian Orthodox Church has chosen in recent years to commemorate Butovo’s martyrs. “I spent 66 years looking for him,” Ms. Pryakina said of her father. She was an infant when he was arrested, supposedly as a Romanian spy, and she and her mother were sent into exile. Three years ago, she journeyed to Moscow from her home in southern Kazakhstan to find her father’s burial place. She headed for a cemetery in the city’s north, but a woman at a bus stop — Ms. Pryakina is convinced that it was a vision of the Virgin Mary — directed her to Butovo. Within minutes, her father’s name was tracked in a database here.
The Rev. Kirill Kaleda, rector of the Church of the Resurrection and the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, has a tragically intimate connection to the parish. His grandfather Vladimir Ambartsumov, who was a priest, is one of the new martyrs. He was arrested in 1937 and sentenced to “10 years without the right of correspondence,” the official euphemism for a death sentence. The Kaleda family spent decades searching for him. “I remember very well how when we were little, after our morning and evening prayers, we would add a prayer asking to find how our Grandpa Volodya died,” Father Kaleda said. “It seemed that hope of learning the circumstances of Grandfather’s death had almost vanished. We had thought he died somewhere in the camps.”
Mikhail Mindlin, a concentration camp survivor who devoted his retirement in the 1980s and 1990s to systematically studying Soviet repression, fought to have the existence of the Butovo killing ground recognized by the state. Eventually, thanks to sympathetic K.G.B. officials, files with the names of those executed on the orders of Stalin’s henchman Nikolai I. Yezhov were found in secret police files.
The scope of the killings is staggering. Butovo’s victims ranged from peasants and factory workers to czarist generals, Russian Orthodox hierarchs, German Communists, Latvian writers, invalids and even Moscow’s Chinese launderers, dozens of whom were executed as enemies of the people. Ultimately many Soviet officials, including Yezhov and other N.K.V.D. officials who carried out the purges, were gunned down at Butovo and elsewhere as the revolution consumed its creators. Some objections have been raised to the Russian Orthodox focus of the memorial, given the wide variety of victims buried here. But Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial, an organization that works to catalog Soviet crimes and help victims of repression, said the church had stepped into a void left by the state. “It’s a bit strange that this is a purely Orthodox place, but nothing tragic,” he said. “I don’t really like this. I think this should be a multicultural place. “But it’s better that there be something than nothing. If the state is not ready to understand the meaning of terror in its history, the role and place of terror in its history, it’s not so terrible that the Orthodox Church took it upon itself.”