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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unearthing the Terrible Truth

IRKUTSK, Eastern Siberia ? In Siberia, it sometimes seems the people are outnumbered by the ghosts. With about two people per square kilometer, this is a nearly vacant land. But the ghosts are everywhere, an inevitable consequence of Siberia?s history as a place for punishment, and often a killing field.

The ghosts were brought to life for two American visitors here last week by Alexander Alexandrov. He is a geologist who in his professional life knows how to find gold, and who in his private life found the remains of 30,000 people, all murdered by Joseph Stalin?s NKVD, precursor to the KGB. Alexandrov is one of those human beings whose existence compels other human beings to ponder their own condition in a new way.

At 61, he?s an odd duck. He wears a thick, wild, curly beard gone white. His diminutive gold spectacles resemble Benjamin Franklin?s. He?s not a sophisticate: He hasn?t read all the prison literature of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and he?d never feel at home in the kitchens of Moscow?s intellectuals, where Russia?s famous, endless conversational debates are conducted.

He is enormously proud, but not boastful, about his success in locating those 30,000. One of them, he believes, was his grandfather.

Their bones are buried beneath a thin layer of Siberian soil a kilometer beyond the end of the main runway of the Irkutsk airport.

In July of this year, 145 people lost their lives when a Russian airliner crashed 100 meters from the burial ground Alexandrov discovered.

Alexandrov?s is a rich Russian story. It has an unusual beginning, and a compelling middle leading to catharsis. The ending is still being written.

Alexandrov was born in Siberia in 1940; his vivid early memories date from the first years after World War II. Two of those memories are worth recounting.

The first came out of Alexandrov only after his second half-liter bottle of Admiral Kolchak beer (more about the admiral later): At 7, Alexandrov lived in Angarsk, just northwest of Irkutsk, where a petrochemical plant was being built by prisoners after the war. When prisoners died, as they often did, their bodies were buried in shallow graves in the woods.

Alexandrov liked to torment the girls on the walk home from school. He would rush ahead of them into the woods to find some bones or, better yet, a human skull, and put it on the road where the girls would be certain to stumble upon it. They would shriek in horror, and young Sasha Alexandrov would laugh delightedly.

?So I was used to the idea from childhood that there were skeletons in the woods. It was a normal occurrence.?

A second memory from that same time, this one evoked by a question about how and when Alexandrov rejected communist ideology: Angarsk was growing, and Alexandrov learned excitedly that the town would get its own newspaper, Znamya Kommunizma (?Banner of Communism?). He waited eagerly for the first edition.

When it came out, the lead story described how patriotic members of the Komsomol, the young communist league, were building the new coal processing plant.

?What kind of Komsomols are they talking about?? young Alexandrov wondered. ?Everybody knows those are prisoners building the plant.?

?It made me look suspiciously at everything they told me,? he said. He never discussed his revelation with his parents or anyone else, but he also never joined the Communist Party, though that was the thing to do for most bright young Russians with ambition.

A later memory, from about 1957, after Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous speech denouncing Stalin?s crimes and offered to rehabilitate those who?d been unjustly ?repressed?: Alexandrov?s parents and maternal grandmother had applied for the rehabilitation of his grandfather, and it was granted. Soon, his grandmother received her first pension payment from the state.

?When she got that 10 rubles, she burst into tears,? Alexandrov remembered. Even then, no one explained to him what had happened to his grandfather. He only learned about that several years later. Then he realized why his grandmother had cried: The pension meant she was no longer an outcast, the wife of an ?enemy of the people.?

Jump now to 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev?s policy of glasnost revived Russia?s memories of its horrific past and finally allowed citizens to confront it. In Irkutsk, people started to talk about the missing bodies of thousands of people killed here in 1937 and 1938. Alexandrov joined the local branch of Memorial, a new organization formed to honor and preserve the memory of Stalin?s victims.

?It occurred to me that, as a geologist, I ought to try to find the bodies,? he said.

He had a hunch that the NKVD killers might have hidden the bodies on land they themselves controlled. He learned that before World War II, NKVD officers in Irkutsk had a big piece of wooded Siberian taiga out near the airport where they built dachas. He found the spot quite easily; the remnants of several of the old dachas were still there, as was an old well and other evidence of human habitation.

He looked farther and, with his geologist?s eye, found a field nearby with an unnatural topography. He dug one hole and found nothing. Then he dug a second hole a few meters away and, just below the surface, found human bones, then a skull with a bullet hole.

His first reaction was to say nothing. ?First we had to build public opinion,? he explained ? to create the impression, and perhaps even the reality, of a popular clamor for information about the missing graves. This worked to his satisfaction. Ultimately, even the local KGB branch joined the search, after its chief called Alexandrov and suggested they collaborate. With that development, he decided it was time to reveal his discovery.

The authorities dug in five spots in the field Alexandrov found, quickly uncovering the remains of 305 people. This was a mass burial ground, no question about it.

The local KGB found and made public NKVD archives that recorded the deaths of 30,000 people during the great terror of 1937-38. Many were Communist Party officials; others were people exiled to Siberia in earlier repressions. The Memorial society pressed the Irkutsk papers to print the names of the dead. Soon these ?lists of the shot? began to appear regularly, sometimes filling an entire page.

Once the mass graves were found, Memorial lobbied the Irkutsk authorities to grant this piece of ground the status of a graveyard. A monument of giant rectangular pieces of stone was built to mark the spot. A local artist offered families the opportunity to put up marble markers or photographs preserved on metal on a wall of honor.

Several hundred did so. The artist, Alexandrov said, made a lot of money on the transaction ? and many errors on the markers.

We had called Alexandrov not knowing any of this story but guessing that the head of Memorial in Irkutsk, an important transit point for political and other prisoners during the Stalin years, might be an interesting person. We met him at his apartment in town. ?Let?s take a drive,? he said.

He told the story in a matter-of-fact tone and walked us around the vast field of bones. He then marched us into the woods, where the famous Siberian mosquitoes were thick as smoke, to show the remains of the NKVD dachas, the well, the swimming hole. Then, another 400 meters down a bumpy dirt road, he took us to his proudest discovery: a big pit that, he was certain, the NKVD had dug for more bodies but never used.

?I feel that I?ve found the grave of my grandfather,? Alexandrov said later, clearly a source of great satisfaction. But his struggle isn?t finished.

He and his Memorial colleagues, about 20 activists, are trying to persuade authorities that this site should be made an official monument, not just a cemetery. And they?re publishing the ?lists of the shot? in book form, with brief descriptions of each victim, taken from the NKVD files. Four volumes have been published, with 12,000 names; six or eight more will follow. But they are printed in editions of only about 1,500 copies, and now Alexandrov wants to find the money to put them all online at his web site (, which is in Russian).

The big unanswered question, for Alexandrov and other Russians who share his outlook, is whether and how his countrymen will ever really come to terms with the horrors in their past. This is where Admiral Alexander Kolchak comes in.

In the bitter civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Kolchak led the anti-communist ?Whites,? whose last foothold was here in Siberia. Kolchak, an upper-class Anglophile, was former commander of the Black Sea fleet and a rabid anti-communist.

The Reds finally killed him here in Irkutsk, where a local entrepreneur has put his name and picture on a pretty tasty beer.

As we drank Admiral Kolchak in a tent set up in a park near the Admiral Kolchak brewery, Alexandrov confided that the local branch of Memorial plans to file a lawsuit in Moscow: to win the legal rehabilitation of Kolchak himself, the embodiment of evil in Soviet propaganda for 70 years.

That shouldn?t matter, Alexandrov reasoned. After all, Kolchak was just trying to prevent the horrors of Russia?s 20th century from happening.