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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ceremony at Butovo a First for Putin

APPutin hugging Alexy II while visiting the site at Butovo where tens of thousands of people were shot in the 1930s.
President Vladimir Putin paid a rare tribute to victims of Soviet-era repression Tuesday, using the opportunity to call for political pluralism and say that differing opinions should be able to coexist peacefully.

Putin's visit to a firing range in Butovo, in the south of Moscow, where more than 20,000 people were killed during the peak years of Stalin's terror in 1937 and 1938, was the first time he has attended ceremonies on the official day of remembrance for the victims of political repression.

It was also a rare attempt by the Kremlin to address Stalin-era crimes.

"Political disputes, battles and a struggle between opinions are necessary, but this process should be creative rather than destructive," Putin said, adding that such conflicts "should not leave the cultural and educational context."

Putin's address came minutes after he and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II had laid flowers at the foot of a small wooden cross at the site of mass graves.

The field containing the graves was the property of the FSB -- the successor agency to the feared NKVD and KGB -- before being handed over to the Orthodox Church in the mid-1990s.

Putin, himself a former FSB head, has in the past acknowledged the repressions as one of the worst episodes of the Soviet era, while apparently trying to cushion the blow by saying worse incidents have occurred in other countries.

On Tuesday, however, he skipped mention of other countries, focusing instead on the "colossal scale" of Russia's tragedy.

In a brief address to reporters, Putin said such tragedies "occur when ostensibly attractive but empty ideas are placed above the fundamental human values of rights and freedom."

He eulogized the victims as "people with their own opinions" and "the cream of the nation."

While an accurate number of those killed or sent to the camps by Stalin's regime remains a subject for argument, the Memorial human rights group puts the figure at 12.5 million.

Putin, who famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "catastrophe," chose not to dwell too long on history Tuesday.

"While remembering this tragedy, we should focus on what is best in the country and unite our efforts for the country's development," he said.

Earlier, Putin attended a ceremony conducted by Alexy and lit a candle at the nearby Church of Christ's Resurrection and New Martyrs and Confessors.

"Mindboggling, this is incredible" he said, surveying a collection of photos of victims, Interfax reported. "Why?"

The resting place of more than 20,760 people, the Butovo firing range is the second-largest Soviet-era execution ground in Russia, according to Memorial. The largest is near St. Petersburg. Local priests say people from all walks of life were shot and buried at the site in the 1930s.

"There was a whole theatrical troupe from the Baltics executed here," said Deacon Dmitry, a priest at the church. He said people of 60 nationalities, including Japanese, Greeks and an Ethiopian, were buried there. The bodies were packed so tightly in 6-meter-deep trenches that as many as 60,000 might be buried there, he said.

Memorial services were held Tuesday across Russia, including outside the former KGB -- and now FSB -- headquarters on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, where human rights organizations and others have traditionally gathered to mark the event.

Memorial's Yan Rachinsky said that even if Putin's motives were political and calculated for effect ahead of parliamentary elections in December, it was still positive that he had for the first time "not only celebrated the day of the Chekist, but also paid tribute to the victims of the Chekists." The term "Chekist" comes from the name of the first Soviet secret police.

Rachinsky, whose grandfather is buried at the site, said that although the state had acknowledged past atrocities, it has still shied away from responsibility and that many of the estimated 70,000 survivors of the camps struggle today to eke out a ragged existence.

Rostislav Kandaurov, the son of a priest buried at the site, said his family had not known what happened to his father for decades, and only learned of his fate in the early 1990s. His father, who stubbornly restored churches after the Soviets shut them down, was arrested in January 1937 and executed along with 500 other people on a day in February.

Kandaurov said FSB officials had helped him get lists identifying the victims.

He welcomed Putin's visit, saying that he wanted "as many people as possible to know about Butovo."

"The memory should be kept alive and people should know what happened," he said.