Levashovo Memorial Cemetery
I'd like to call them all by name…
A corner of sylvan quiet surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire. Welltended paths. The occasional sound of a bell. Small "graves" marked by visitors but not at all as in an ordinary cemetery: on the trees, portraits of the executed; on the ground, mounds decorated with pine cones and small stones. Of no one here may it be said with certainty that he is buried in exactly this place.
The history of the secret NKVD burial site not far from the village of Levashovo began in 1937, the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution and the activity of the Cheka—Vńheka—OGPU—NKVD, and the year when "free elections" to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR were announced in accordance with Stalin's new Constitution.
On July 2, 1937, the Politburo of the Central Ńommittee of Communist Party of the Soviet Union resolved to undertake a large-scale "operation for the repression of former kulaks, active anti-Soviet elements, and criminals". On July 31, 1937, L. M. Zakovsky, chief of the Leningrad and Leningrad Region NKVD Directorate, received from Moscow a copy of Secret Administrative Order No. 00447 from N. I. Yezhov, the People's Commissar of Internal Affairs, for immediate commencement of the operation. According to the plan for the Leningrad region described in the order, a "threesome" (troika) consisting of the chief of the regional NKVD Directorate, the regional prosecutor, and the second secretary of the District Committee of the Communist Party was required within four months of August 5 to sentence 4,000 people to execution by shooting (First Category) and to send another 10,000 to camps and prisons (Second Category).
At the same time, a mass campaign against "spies and saboteurs" was loosed in the country. The so-called "German", "Polish", and "Kharbin" secret administrative orders of the NKVD called for the compilation of local execution lists of "spies" for subsequent approval by a Moscow "twosome" (dvoika)—the Commission of the NKVD and the Office of the Prosecutor of the USSR.
An NKVD order for the repression of "wives of the betrayers of the Motherland" and their children was also implemented. A separate execution plan was sent to Leningrad for the Solovetsky Prison. The Yezhovshchina of 1937-38 had begun.
At the time, the Leningrad region also included the present-day Murmansk, Novgorod, and Pskov regions, as well as part of the Vologda region. The operations of the Leningrad NKVD were carried out there too under the supervision of the deputy chief of the Directorate, V. N. Garin.
People were arrested for their biographical particulars — for their political past or their social or national origin — and on the basis of denunciations and spurious interrogation reports. Savage torture became a routine interrogation practice. By December 1937, the quotas for arrest and sentencing had all been met or exceeded. Show trials of "enemies of the people" took place in the region. In 1938, the terror continued with renewed force.
The executions ordered by the special "threesome" of the Leningrad regional NKVD Directorate, the NKVD Commission, and the Office of the Prosecutor of the USSR, and military tribunals, the Military Board of the Supreme Court of the USSR, and a special board of the Leningrad Regional Court were of incomparably greater scale than the political terror previously engaged in by the Soviet regime. In 1937 19,350 citizens were secretly executed in Leningrad, according to recent research, and in 1938 20,769 were, according to official data. Among the victims were well-known figures: the Japanese specialists N. A. Nevsky and D. P. Zhukov, the Byzantinist V. N. Beneshevich, the theoretical physicist M. P. Bronstein, the poets Nikolai Oleinikov and Boris Kornilov, and the religious philosopher Fr. Pavel Florensky. Included as well were workers and peasants, teachers and students, clergymen, physicians, military officers, railroad workers, factory directors, and janitors. All were accounted "enemies of the people".
Those doomed to execution were brought to Leningrad, where the sentences were carried out by officers of the commandant's office of the Directorate of the Leningrad and Leningrad Region NKVD. Executions also took place in other cities of the region (Novgorod, Borovichi, Pskov, Lodeinoe Pole, Belozersk) and in the camps. Convicts of the Solovetsky Prison were executed as well, according to documents preserved in the Sandarmokh district near Medvezhegorsk, in Leningrad, and in the Solovetsky Islands.
It is clear that it was realized even before the start of mass operations that a new burial site near Leningrad would be needed for the interment of unprecedented numbers of executed people. (According to extant evidence, the municipal cemeteries of Petrograd-Leningrad and the Rzhevka artillery range near the villages of Staroe Kovalevo, Berngardovka, and Toksovo were also used during the Soviet period as burial sites for the executed.) For that purpose, the NKVD Directorate began to use in the summer of 1937 a lightly wooded area surrounded by a solid fence under strict guard in the Pargolovsky Dacha of the Pargolovsky forestry district near the village of Levashovo. In February 1938 the area was officially transferred to the NKVD Directorate.
It is presumed that the bodies of the executed were transported to Levshovo by vehicle from August 1937 to 1954. According to official data, 46,771 people were executed in Leningrad during that period, 40,485 of them on political charges, including the victims of the "Leningrad Affair".
There is also evidence that shots were fired inside the fence of Levashovo cemetery. (In January 1990 the newspaper Vechernyi Leningrad began publishing a list of those who had been executed in the city, and in 1995-2002 the National Library of Russia (Public Library) published the first five of twelve volumes in the series, A Leningrad Martyrology, 1937-1938. A book commemorating the victims is also available on the website of the Center for Recovered Names at the National Library of Russia.)
In the post-Stalin period the Leningrad KGB Directorate created on the basis of first-hand recollections a so-called Diagram of the Dacha with Times and Numbers of Interments, indicating the burial places of 19,450 people. The Diagram has an approximate, provisional character, however, necessitating further research.
The cemetery remained secret until 1989 and was maintained in virtually pristine form by the Leningrad KGB Directorate. The guard building and barns were preserved, along with tracks left in the earth by vehicles. To be sure, over the half century a tall forest had grown up, and from time to time the guards had covered the common graves with sand brought in for the purpose. In 1975-76 the fence and entrance gate were repaired.
On January 5, 1989, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union passed a resolution "concerning additional measures for the restoration of justice with respect to the victims of the repressions that took place during the period of the 1930s and 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s". A half century after the Yezhovshchina, those citizens who had been executed by the extralegal "twosomes" and "threesomes" were to be rehabilitated and their burial places put in order. By the spring of 1989, V. T. Muravsky, head of the "Search" group of the Leningrad society Memorial, had obtained evidence of the existence of Levashovo and several similar sites, although that same spring the Leningrad and Leningrad Region KGB Directorate, after conducting a special survey of its own archives and the classified holdings of other municipal archives, declared that no documentary data concerning the existence of other sites had been found. On July 18, 1989, by Decision No. 544 of the Executive Committee of the Leningrad Municipal Council, the Levashovo burial site was recognized as a memorial cemetery and soon afterward, in the very first responses of the press, it came to be known as "Levashovo Wilderness".
In 1989-90, the territory of the cemetery was studied by the Trust for Geodesic Work and Engineering Research and by a working group of the All-Russia Geological Research Institute, in order to establish the boundaries of the burial pits. The Trust made a survey of the area and in several places drilled holes that confirmed assumptions about the interments in the central and northern parts of the cemetery.
In May 1990 Levashovo Memorial Cemetery was transferred to the to the City of St. Petersburg. The same spring the Ninth Architectural Studio of the LENNIIPROEKT headed by A. G. Lelyakov was asked to design a renovation of the memorial, including the erection of a bell tower and chapel.
Reconstruction by the community had begun even earlier. On October 21, 1989, and April 14, 1990, the first funeral services for the victims were conducted at the fork in the road in the center of the cemetery. A memorial stone was placed and an Orthodox cross was affixed to a tree. Relatives of the victims left ribbons on the trees with inscriptions and photographs. Surface grave markers appeared: metal tablets with portraits, slabs placed in the earth, and crosses and other memorial tokens, many of them brought from far away.
Levashovo Wilderness became a true national memorial, a symbolic place of remembrance for those fellow countrymen and women who had perished without a trace in a time of peace. On May 7, 1992, the cemetery worker A. N. Volchenkov, a local resident and an eyewitness of the building of the fence with the barbed wire, installed a memorial cross.
Architects, city societies of the repressed, and the City of St. Petersburg have all supported subsequent initiatives to improve Levashovo Memorial Cemetery. Belorussian, Russian, Polish, Ingermanland, Jewish, German, Pskovian, Norwegian, Vologdan (to Residents of the Goritsk Convent), Estonian, Assyrian, Ukrainian, Lettish, and Lithuanian memorial plaques have been put up. Requiems for the victims have been conducted in many languages on the days of commemoration. And there will be other monuments, as well.
On June 6, 1993, the bell in the bell tower erected by the workers of the cemetery under the direction of V. M. Tabachnikov was heard for the first time.
On October 30, 1993, the day of the solemn unveiling of the Russian Orthodox and Polish Catholic monuments, an exhibition on the Great Terror, prepared by L. A. Bartashevich, a member of the Association of Victims of Illegal Repressions, was opened. Since then, visitors have left their comments in the Guest Book.
In September 1995 and the spring of 1996 the cemetery's roads were put in order. Among the first to contribute to that work was Lydia Chukovskaya, who provided funds from her State Prize for Notes on Anna Akhmatova. A group of architects under the direction of I. G. Uralov, the city's chief artist, completed the improvements to the cemetery. On May 16, 1996, A. A. Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, unveiled the monument, The Moloch of Totalitarianism, at the cemetery's entrance.
So does Levashovo Wilderness look in our own time: a cemetery similar to Butovo and Kommunarka near Moscow, Kuropaty near Minsk, and Bykovnya near Kiev — a cemetery similar to the many burial places of those who were executed, both the known and the unknown.