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Stalin purge victims honored

Wooden cross marks location of executions

A woman lit a candle yesterday near a giant wooden cross commemorating the victims of the political purges of Josef Stalin. The cross was placed on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of mass executions at Butovo, outside Moscow. At least 20,000 people were killed there by Stalin's secret police. A woman lit a candle yesterday near a giant wooden cross commemorating the victims of the political purges of Josef Stalin. The cross was placed on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of mass executions at Butovo, outside Moscow. At least 20,000 people were killed there by Stalin's secret police. (DIMA KOROTAYEV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

MOSCOW -- Russian Orthodox priests consecrated a wooden cross yesterday at a site south of Moscow where firing squads executed thousands of people 70 years ago at the height of Josef Stalin's political purges.

Created at a monastery that housed one of the first Soviet labor camps and brought by barge to Moscow along a canal built on the bones of gulag inmates, the 40-foot cross has been embraced as memorial to the mass suffering under Stalin.

The ceremony at the Church of New Martyrs and Confessors, built recently at the Butovo site, is one of a series of events planned throughout this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Great Purge of 1937, when millions were labeled "enemies of the state" and executed without trial or sent to labor camps.

Hundreds of people, most of them women wearing colorful headscarves, laid flowers and lit candles under the cross. The crowd, led by priests carrying icons, continued to the execution and burial site for a service. Some of the women were crying.

There were no representatives of the government, which has shown little interest in the anniversary of the Great Purge. This is in keeping with efforts by President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, to restore Russians' pride in their Soviet-era history by softening the public perception of Stalin's rule.

"We have been ordered to be proud of our past," said Yan Rachinsky from Memorial, a non-governmental group dedicated to investigating Stalin's repression.

"I know no other example in history when 700,000 people were killed within 1.5 years only for political reasons," he said in an interview.

The wooden cross was carved at a monastery on the Solovki Islands in the White Sea, one of the earliest and most notorious camps in the gulag.

It arrived in Moscow on Monday after a 13-day journey that took it down the Belomorkanal, a 141-mile waterway linking the White Sea with Lake Onega. The canal was built between 1931 and 1933 entirely by gulag inmates.

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