Mass graves from Soviet mass executions

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In July 2010, a mass grave was discovered next to the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, containing the corpses of 80 military officers executed during the Red Terror of 1918–1921.[1] By 2013 a total of 156 bodies had been found in the same location.[2] At about the same time a mass grave from the Stalin period was discovered at the other end of the country in Vladivostok.[3]

These and later mass graves in the Soviet Union were used to conceal the large numbers of Soviet citizens and foreigners executed by the Bolshevik regime under Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.[4] Indiscriminate mass killings began in January 1918 during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) as the Bolsheviks launched their Red Terror. After the upheavals of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) the killings reached a peak in the Great Terror of 1937–1938. At all times they were directed and carried out by the Soviet secret police under its changing titles: the Cheka during the Civil War, the OGPU during forced collectivisation of agriculture, and the NKVD during the Great Terror.

Mass murder, 1937-1938[edit]

In the final years of the USSR and after its demise in 1991, killing fields and burial sites were uncovered and memorialised across the countries of the former Soviet Union.[5] Some dated back to the Civil War[6] or to the intervening years when the secret police in all major Soviet cities regularly used unmarked graves in existing cemeteries to dispose of those they executed or killed during interrogation.[7] Most came into existence during the Great Terror.

Between 5 August 1937 and 17 November 1938 the scale of killing reached its apogee. In a series of 12 "operations" the NKVD executed at least 680,000 men and women.[8] That is the documented total: the real figure is almost certainly higher. In preparation for mass murder on such a scale the NKVD People's Commissar Yezhov instructed his subordinates throughout the Soviet Union to identify areas not far from the major urban centres where thousands of bodies could be quickly concealed. This was described by the late Arseny Roginsky[9]

“In July that year NKVD departments across the USSR had already begun to set aside special ‘zones’, areas for the mass burial of those they shot. For locals these usually became known, euphemistically, as army firing ranges. This was how the zones that we know today came into being: the Levashovo Wasteland near Leningrad, Kuropaty near Minsk, the Golden Hill near Chelyabinsk, Bykovnya on the outskirts of Kiev, and many others.”

The widespread description of these sites as "firing ranges" has led to a confusion between killing fields where the victims were both shot and buried, e.g. Sandarmokh, and the many other sites where those being buried and concealed had already been executed elsewhere.



  • Kurapaty – At least 50,000 are thought to have been shot at this site near Minsk, with considerably higher estimates in the Soviet press.[14]

Russian Federation[edit]

Northwest Russia

In or near Moscow

  • The Butovo firing range. The names of 20,702 victims are etched on the granite walls of the symbolic execution trenches in the Garden of Remembrance (opened September 2017).[21][22]
  • Donskoye Cemetery, the location of a secret crematorium and three secret mass graves, each consisting of tens of thousands of sets of ashes.
  • Kommunarka. At its October 2018 opening 6,609 names were displayed on the Wall of Remembrance.[23]


  • Kolpashevo (Tomsk Region, west Siberia). Over 1,000 bodies discovered in 1979, were then disposed of on the instructions of the local Party chief.[24][25] Up to 4,000 people were shot in Kolpashevo, Tomsk Memorial estimates today.[26]
  • Pivovarikha (Irkutsk Region, east Siberia) near Irkutsk. A memorial area was established at Pivovarikha in 1989 but no accurate estimate has been made of the numbers buried there.[27] The Memorial online database[28] lists 10,609 who were shot throughout the Irkutsk Region during the Great Terror. The Open List database names 1,384 who were then shot in the city of Irkutsk.[29]

1940 onwards[edit]

The Katyn massacre in Russia. With Stalin's approval, NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria issued orders to shoot 25,700 Polish "nationalists and counter-revolutionaries", Poles held captive in a number of internment camps in western Russia, on date.[30] The executions are collectively known as the Katyn massacre but they took place in three distinct locations: Katyn (Smolensk Region), Tver in central Russia and Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.

At Katyn (Smolensk Region) at a site used earlier for executing hundreds of Soviet citizens. Polish POWs were shot there by the NKVD in April and May 1940. 4,413 bodies were later exhumed and identified.[31] Polish prisoners were also shot at Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and in Tver, then known as Kalinin. Some of them were buried at Mednoe, today a commemorative site in the Tver Region,[32] having first been shot in Tver.[33]

  • Dem'ianiv Laz near Ivano-Frankovsk in modern Ukraine. After the Soviet occupation of the territory in 1939 at least 524 men, women and children were shot by the NKVD.
  • The Augustów roundup. In July 1945 at the end of World War Two about 2,000 Polish partisans and anti-communists were rounded up in northern Poland by returning Soviet forces (Red Army, NKVD and SMERSH). Some were deported and it remains unknown where the bodies of 593 of their number lie buried.


See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "More 'red terror' remains found in Russia". UPI.
  2. ^ "ST PETERSBURG by Petropavlovsk fortress [C] Executions & burials". August 19, 2014.
  3. ^ "Stalin-era mass grave yields tons of bones". June 9, 2010 – via
  4. ^ "Documenting the Death Toll: Research into the Mass Murder of Foreigners in Moscow, 1937-38 | Perspectives on History | AHA".
  5. ^ "Russia's Necropolis of Terror and the Gulag".
  6. ^ "N. NOVGOROD Pochainsky Ravine [C]* Red Terror executions & burials". August 20, 2014.
  7. ^ "MOSCOW Vagankovskoe graveyard [C]* Burials of the executed & prison dead". August 19, 2014.
  8. ^ Sergei Krivenko and Sergei Prudovsky, "Statistics of the national operations of the NKVD, 1937-1938", April 2021, 49 pp. (in Russian).
  9. ^ "МЕМОРИАЛ: растрельные списки Коммунарки".
  10. ^ "Ukraine reburies 2,000 victims of Stalin's rule". October 27, 2007 – via
  11. ^ Hiroaki Kuromiya, The Voices of the Dead: Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s. Yale University Press, December 24, 2007. ISBN 0-300-12389-2 p. 23
  12. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, US, 2007, p. 287.
  13. ^ "Mass grave found at Ukrainian monastery". July 16, 2002 – via
  14. ^ Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, US, 2007, p. 288.
  15. ^ "ST PETERSBURG "Levashovo" [C]* Burials of the executed". September 23, 2014.
  16. ^ "Forest skulls may tell where 30,000 Stalin victims lie".
  17. ^ "Wary of its past, Russia ignores mass grave site". October 10, 2002 – via Christian Science Monitor.
  18. ^ "CNN - Pictorial essay: Death trenches bear witness to Stalin's purges - July 17, 1997".
  19. ^ "Half those shot in 1937-1938 …". November 1, 2021.
  20. ^ "Sandarmokh complex [C]* Execution & burial site". August 27, 2014.
  21. ^ Kishkovsky, Sophia (June 8, 2007). "Former Killing Ground Becomes Shrine to Stalin's Victims" – via
  22. ^ "Butovo [C]* Mass burial of the executed". August 19, 2014.
  23. ^ "MOSCOW Kommunarka [C]* Burials of the Executed". September 10, 2014.
  24. ^ Hochschild, Adam (28 March 1993). "The Secret of a Siberian River Bank". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  25. ^ [Russia's Necropolis of Terror and the Gulag]
  26. ^ "Kolpashevsky Yar (c) Mass burials of executed". September 12, 2014.
  27. ^ "IRKUTSK [C]* Pivovarikha graveyard". September 3, 2014.
  28. ^ "Списки жертв".
  29. ^ "Открытый список".
  30. ^ [provide source]
  31. ^ "Katyn Memorial Complex [C]* Execution & Burial site". September 9, 2014.
  32. ^ "Mednoe Complex [C]* Burials of the Executed". September 9, 2014.
  33. ^ "TVER regional NKVD headquarters [C]* Execution site". August 1, 2014.