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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Easter Offers Resurrection From Stalin's Terror

Christ died Friday afternoon in a small wooden church in Butovo, an ugly region on Moscow's southern edge, just as he did in thousands of Orthodox churches around the world to be resurrected on Easter Sunday.

But as the great Christian drama of death and resurrection is played out these days throughout Russia, in tiny chapels and grandiose cathedrals, there are few places where Christianity's defining miracle can be felt as deeply as in the small Butovo church dedicated to the New Martyrs of Russia. The church stands -- literally -- on their bones.

Christians believe that those who died for Christ share Christ's suffering and death and that together with all of humankind, they will be resurrected at the time of the Second Coming.

The church in Butovo was built two years ago on the site just outside Moscow where Stalin's secret police shot tens of thousands of people from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. No one knows for sure how many people are buried in the mass graves here.

What is known precisely from KGB archives is that in slightly more than a year -- from Aug. 8, 1937, to Aug. 19, 1938 -- 20,765 people were killed here.

After passing through a small gate in a barbed-wire fence, visitors trod along a muddy path near a tall memorial cross to the wooden church. The symbolism of Christian liturgy, which was celebrated by the first Christians on the tombs of martyrs, is brought to life here.

But even standing outside the simple wooden church, it is impossible to comprehend that thousands of bodies lie under the muddy snow on the 6 hectares of land that were transferred from theKGB to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1995.

Near the end of the special Friday afternoon service in memory of the Deposition, Father Kirill Kaleda placed on his head the shroud, or cloth with the image of dead Christ on it, representing the shroud in which Joseph of Arimathaea wrapped the body of Christ and buried it.

As in every other Orthodox church, the priest put the shroud on a symbolic tomb in the center of the church, where it will lie until the Easter service, which starts shortly before midnight Saturday. About 30 people lined up to kneel before the symbolical sepulcher.

"How shall I bury Thee, O my Lord, or in which shroud shall I wrap Thee?" The four-member choir sang the ancient text somberly, striving not to go too far off pitch.

Kaleda, 39, whose grandfather, Vladimir Ambartsumov, a priest, was shot and buried here, leads the small Orthodox Christian community in Butovo. The church miraculously unites relatives of the victims, who commute from other parts of Moscow, with former employees of the execution site and locals who lived here at the time.

The church community, together with a secular memorial group, has published a book with the names and short biographies of about 6,500 people killed here.

"People buried here are from all over the world," Kaleda said. There are Indians, Afghans and even six Americans and one Boer from South Africa.

Some of the victims were from different faiths, and Jewish and Roman Catholic services also have been held at the site.

But most of the victims were from the Moscow region, including many members of the Orthodox clergy, Kaleda said. The names of 430 churchmen are known so far.

Last year, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized one of them, Metropolitan Seraphim Chichagov of St. Petersburg. The names of others, listed on plain plastic plaques outside the church, may one day find their place in church calendars.

The daily prayer "for the blessed memory of our fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters" is recited in the Butovo church with special significance.

The Shroud Father Kirill was deposing once belonged to a priest, Sergei Goloshchapov, who found his death in this place. When the church was started three years ago, mainly by relatives of the victims, Goloshchapov's son donated the Shroud.

Kaleda said that looking through the many files of Butovo victims, he found a pattern in the testimony of priests and laymen. Answering the standard question about their attitude toward Soviet authority, most would say something along these lines: In general my attitude toward the authorities is loyal, but as an Orthodox Christian, I consider Soviet power temporary and disagree with its policy regarding the church.

It was enough to accuse them of anti-Soviet conspiracy and sentence them to death.

"We believe that they will rise, together with Christ, and that their suffering was also for our salvation," Kaleda said. "Those are our close relatives, who took part in Christ's suffering, and they will also take part in the resurrection of our people, of our motherland, and in our personal resurrection during the Second Coming of Our Lord."

As midnight draws near Saturday, this small wooden church, like thousands of others throughout Russia and the Orthodox world, will be full of people. But when the procession around the outside of the church stops at midnight before the closed doors, as the myrrh-bearing women stopped at the entrance of the Holy Sepulchuer in Jerusalem, the Easter Hymn will sound here with a particular vigor: "Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to all those in the tombs bestowing life!."