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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Finds Its Killing Fields

Stalin's killing fields came closer to home this week when the Interior Ministry disclosed two mass graves near Moscow containing the remains of purge victims, one of them believed to be the largest in the Moscow region and among the biggest in Russia.

The two sites, in the southern suburb of Butovo and at the Kommunarka farm village nearby, served as execution grounds for thousands of people shot by Stalin's secret police, according to Alexander Mikhailov, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

He said that the site at Butovo was estimated to hold 22, 000 bodies, while 16, 000 were believed to be buried at the Kommunarka farm.

"I think the Butovo site was one of Russia's biggest mass graves", said Alexander Milchakov, head of the Foundation for the Search for Secret Sites of Burial of the Victims of Stalin's Purges, a non-government organization.

Milchakov, a journalist and expert on the killings, which were carried out from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, gave a sharply higher estimate than the Interior Ministry for the number of bodies at Butovo. He said that 200, 000 to 300, 000 purge victims had been buried there.

"They shot as many as 600 people a day in Butovo", said Mikhailov, the Interior Ministry spokesman.

He added that the Butovo location was created in 1936 for the purpose of executing people convicted of any of 27 "crimes" ranging from alleged betrayal of the motherland to so-called plots against state leaders.

Mikhailov said that residents of nearby villages were told that the Butovo site would be a military training ground - and at first guns were really tested there.

"This was done so people would get used to the sound of gunshots", Mikhailov said.

The Kommunarka location, a former dacha of Stalin's aide Genrikh Yagoda, was used as a special compound to eliminate personnel of the NKVD secret police - the forerunner to the KGB - who had become unwanted or knew too much, Mikhailov said.

Convicts were brought out in special trucks to ditches and executed by firing squad.

"They were turned to face the ditches and shot in the back", said Mikhailov. Then the bodies were piled in the pit, covered with lime to speed decomposition and covered with earth.

"People were dumped in ditches three meters deep, three meters wide and up to 500 meters long", said Milchakov, who personally interviewed participants in the events, including a supervisor of the executions.

According to Mikhailov, the executions were carried out by soldiers of a special platoon of about 20. The soldiers lived on the spot in a special dormitory.

Both sites were closed down in the early 1950s, the homes for KGB employees were built around the Butovo killing field.

At present the Butovo burial ground is protected by a solid green fence topped with barbed wire.

The 1. 5 hectares of the graveland is now covered with tall green grass, and an apple orchard was planted there to cover up the traces of death. An armed guard and German shepherd dogs "protect the apples".

Today there are 140 permanent residents whose parents "worked" at the burial grounds and 24 acting KGB generals have dachas in what is now called the Butovo dacha cooperative, according to Olga Vetoshenkova, the cooperative's chief administrator.

"I have worked here for 20 years and nothing is a mystery for me", said Vetoshenkova, who was born in the Kommunarka farm village.

A long-term KGB employee, she denied that any shooting had ever taken place at Butovo or Kommunarka.

"The bodies were brought here, but they were already dead", she said.

Milchakov and his fund are campaigning to turn the still semi-secret location into an official monument.

He said he would like to see the grounds preserved as they are now, like many Nazi concentration camps were.

Viktor Bulgakov, a member of the Moscow City Council and former political prisoner under Stalin, said he believed the Butovo site to be one of the biggest in Russia.

A member of the Memorial group dedicate to remembering the victims of the purges, he said he estimated that 60 million people died in camps or were shot during the Stalin years.

"The worst part is not what is buried in the ground", Bulgakov said, "but what is still alive within us".