Activists from the Ural branch of the post-Soviet historical and civil rights NGO, Memorial, are raising the alarm, after finding evidence that Yekaterinburg council is commencing a new construction project within a known mass burial ground. In the grounds lie an estimated minimum of 20 000 victims of Stalinist crimes. The civil rights organisation, whose status has recently been changed by the Kremlin to that of ‘foreign agency’, say that local authorities have thus far provided little in the way of cooperation. Memorial is calling for Russian and international journalists to shine a light on what appears to be both a violation of the law and a moral injustice. Politika News has spoken with representatives of the Ural branch – Уралский Мемориал, Ural Memorial – and now reports on this developing situation.
Years of denial
According to Russia’s Federal Law No.8 on affairs related to burials, mass graves for soldiers who fought in the Second World War and for victims of political oppression are equal before the law. This means a number of things. Chiefly, when a new mass grave is uncovered, municipal authorities are obliged to legally register the respective plot of land and arrange for the proper burial of remains.
But while Yekaterinburg’s soldiers who died fighting Nazism have been granted formally-protected cemeteries such as the Shirokorechenskoye Kladbishche, the city’s estimated 20 000 victims who were shot dead during Stalin’s regime, have been granted no such privilege. At Ural Memorial‘s graveyard, located just 12 kilometres from Yekaterinburg’s highway leading to Moscow and aptly called ’12 kilometres from the Moscow highway’, a thousand of Stalin’s victims are buried, but the research and evidence gathered by historians and archeologists suggest that a minimum total of 20 000 victims lie within the surrounding forest, including the stretch of land beneath a popular sports complex.
This leads onto the next legal problem: Ural Memorial emphasise the fact that the country’s federal law enshrines the exclusion of such burial grounds from any area of economic activity. But when the first remains of those murdered by the NKVD (Stalin’s law enforcement agency) were found by technicians preparing to build the Dynamo sports complex, instead of allowing for an archaeological investigation to ascertain the extent of the mass grave, authorities chose to continue building the sports complex, which continues to be a popular venue for locals and athletes today. Visitors can freely ski, shoot, as well as enjoy a cafe and bathing facilities over the very ground where the remains of thousands of victims are buried, and just metres away from the existing memorial site. In the last few years alone, five new shooting galleries have been built, enjoyed by athletes and shooters from well-known societies such as the ‘Archangel Michael Shooting Club’. The relatives and descendants of those buried within the grounds are subjected to the sound of bullets just metres away from the memorial site, as they pay their respects to their loved ones, murdered during Stalinist terror.
Evidence of further construction
But now it seems the existing sports complex could be joined by further infrastructure on the site. Ural Memorial is raising the alarm, after finding evidence of more construction work taking place next to the existing ’12km’ memorial site. Activists have spotted a new clearing within the forest, stemming directly from the Dinamo sports complex, which already lies within the burial grounds. In this new clearing, activists have photographed several pits dug by excavators in preparation for horizontal drilling necessary to install pipes. Ural Memorial have also filmed technicians working on-site.
According to Ural Memorial, it has been confirmed by the council that technicians and construction workers have already begun demolishing old houses in the northeastern part of the complex, as well as levelling stretches of land within the central areas in preparation for unspecified construction projects.
Though the city’s water provider, МКП «Горводоканал», claims it is merely “refurbishing worn-out plumbing” for the water supply to the local village, Karas’yeozerskiy, and insists that the forest clearing has been there for a long time, activists say this claim is inconsistent with the evidence. Specifically, the Ural Memorial activists stress that the forest clearing, where technicians are now working, only appeared this autumn.
The civil rights organisation are also putting forward the moral case for stopping further construction on this land, in an article it published on its website: “Think about it. You are able to visit your grandfather’s grave and remember him, while tens of thousands of relatives of those who were tortured and persecuted are deprived even of this right.”
As the situation continues to develop, both Memorial civil rights activists and the relatives of the NKVD’s victims are fighting to stop another construction project just metres away from the existing memorial site, and within the very grounds where thousands of innocent people were murdered and lie dead. They appear to have both the law and morality on their side, but as is often the case in today’s Russia, neither of these tools are guarantors of justice.