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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is Mass Grave Work of Stalin's Beria?

There was a time in Moscow when the discovery of a mass grave would draw a flock of craning necks.

But a small pit in the center of the city went practically unnoticed on Monday, despite news reports over the weekend that the remains of the victims of a Stalinist henchman had been unearthed.

Both city officials and representatives of a prominent historical society said they knew nothing about the site, which was discovered by construction workers on Ulitsa Kachalova on Friday.

The workers, digging the pit to install streetlights, unearthed piles of human bones one-and-a-half meters below the sidewalk.

They told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which reported the find, that the pit was a mass grave because of its appearance and location across the street from the former home of Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of Stalin's secret police.

"We have run across a lot of graves doing work in the older parts of the city", said Vyacheslav Terekhov, a foreman for Sutrik, the construction firm doing the street works. "But we've never seen anything like this".

Terekhov said the bones had been heaped in an erratic fashion and weakened by a covering of lime or chlorine, substances that the Soviet authorities had used on other occasions to destroy traces of mass graves, such as that of Czar Nicholas II and his family, who were murdered and buried in 1918 outside Yekaterinburg.

Dismissing the suggestion that he had unearthed an old cemetery, Terekhov said he had found no traces of clothing, jewelry, gravestones, or coffins.

He said the most likely conclusion was that the bodies were the remains of victims of the notoriously cruel Beria, who was rumored to maintain a private prison and shooting gallery in the basement of the Ulitsa Kachalova mansion where he lived from the mid-1930s until his death in 1954. The mansion now houses the Tunisian Embassy.

The methodical engineer of Stalin's purges, Beria was also rumored to have systematically plucked young women he found attractive from the street, then raped and sometimes murdered them, a charge leveled in the glasnost period by a few survivors of the experience.

Spokesmen for the Moscow city government, the Security Ministry, and Memorial, an historical society devoted to rehabilitating victims of the Soviet past, all said Monday that only a team of medical experts would be able to determine the origin of the grave. They said, however, that they knew of no such efforts to do so yet.

The pit, partially covered by rough hewn planks, attracted only a few passersby Monday. A look inside revealed three broken skulls, two pelvises, and four thigh bones protruding from the side.

Terekhov said he had reported the find to the press, but not to local police. No city organizations had expressed interest in excavating the site by Monday afternoon, he said.

He added that he would wait "a day or two" before having to fill the pit with a cement foundation to erect the streetlights.