Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Remains of 34 People Dug Up Near Kremlin

MTPeople standing Thursday near the basement entrance on Nikolskaya Ulitsa.
Construction workers have stumbled upon 34 skeletons in a cellar a few hundred meters from the Kremlin, in what may be proof of a Soviet secret police execution site in the center of Moscow.

The remains of 34 bodies and a rusty pistol were found in the basement of 8 Nikolskaya Ulitsa on Wednesday, said Vladimir Korobkov, a spokesman for the city police.

"The shots were fired point blank," an unidentified law enforcement source said, Interfax reported. "The nature of the wounds and the positioning of the bodies suggest that the workers have found an execution chamber."

"The bodies had been in the cellar for at least 60 years," he said.

Television reports showed photographs of dozens of bones, seemingly sorted out into different types, lying on a white cloth in the high ceilinged, white brick cellar.

Korobkov said that either "holes had been dug and [the bodies] thrown into them, or they were covered with earth later."

Reporters arrived early Thursday morning to crowd in front of the closed black metal gate in the archway of the building on Nikolskaya Ulitsa, which runs from the Kremlin to Kitai-Gorod.

The remains may mark the burial site of victims of a 1930s mass execution by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB, although law enforcement sources were downplaying the idea later Thursday.

"It is the biggest such find in the center of Moscow," said Yelena Zhemkova, acting director of the Memorial human rights organization.

Known as Chizhevskoye Podvorye, the address comprises a series of buildings that belonged to a famous 19th-century merchant said to have been a friend of writer Nikolai Gogol.

Of greater significance is that the address is close to one of the city's most notorious buildings, where tens of thousands of victims of Stalinist repression were condemned to death.

Almost directly across the street from the site is 23 Nikolskaya Ulitsa, dubbed Rasstrelny Dom, or The Shooting House, which was home in the 1930s to the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, which condemned more than 40,000 people to death.

The tribunal dealt with the elite of Soviet society -- scientists, servicemen and party members -- during 1937 and 1938, the peak of the period known simply as "the terror." There have long been stories that many victims were executed in the cellars of the building itself.

"There was a legend that they were shot there but there are no documents to confirm this," said Zhemkova. "The fact that the discovery was made nearby, on the opposite side of the street, gives us good reason to re-examine the legend."

Zhemkova said No. 8 was home to an office in the 1930s that could have been occupied by the NKVD.

"It could have been used for special shootings," she said. "There could have been a tunnel from the other building."

Memorial has been campaigning for 23 Nikolskaya Ulitsa to be turned into a museum devoted to the memory of those who died in the terror ever since it discovered there were plans to turn the building into a business-entertainment center.

"This discovery only reinforces our point," Zhemkova said.

The NKVD took over many of the buildings in the area near its Lubyanka headquarters, today home to the Federal Security Service. One of the buildings at No. 8 was said to have been used by the KGB, said Alexei Klimenko, an architectural restorer who has studied the area's history.

"There is nothing surprising about finding skeletons. People from the Lubyanka used cellars to put a bullet in place for those opposed to Bolshevik policies," Klimenko said.

Prosecutors cautioned, however, that it was too soon to conclude that the deaths were the work of the NKVD.

Sergei Baluchevsky, chief prosecutor at the Tverskoi District Prosecutor's Office, said there were many possible explanations for the presence of the bodies, including an epidemic or violence during the 1917 or 1905 revolutions."

Stalin's purges was just "one of the versions" being examined, he said, but "not the primary version."

The remains are from a dozen to 300 years old, he said. None of the complete skulls found had bullet holes in them, although one showed signs of some unidentified injury.

Baluchevsky identified the pistol found by the bodies as a 1903 Browning model, but said it "most likely has nothing to do with the deaths of these people and may have been left there at a different time."

The skeletons did not show any "signs of a violent death," said Mikhail Ionkin, a representative of the Investigative Committee under the Prosecutor General's Office.

The remains were sent for forensic testing at the Moscow Health Department on Wednesday to determine their ages and the causes of death. The examination will take one to 1 1/2 months, Ionkin said.

Baluchevsky said no criminal investigation had been opened but that a pre-investigation inquiry was under way.

The courtyard at 8 Nikolskaya Ulitsa contains the 18th-century Church of the Assumption, and the bodies may be from the graveyard attached to the church, Russian television news suggested. Likewise, the graveyard itself may have been chosen as an ideal place for executions.

"It is very important that all proper procedures are followed," in the investigation, said Zhemkova, adding that a complete medical examination of the remains was needed to discover when and how the people died.

She said it was possible that the remains were from the time of the terror but that they could also be those of people killed during the revolution or even as late as 1941 when, with the German army moving closer to Moscow, many political prisoners were shot.

If the year of death is determined to have been in the 1930s, they may belong to people who were sentenced just across the street, Zhemkova said. Scrupulous records were kept of these executions, meaning that it would be easier to determine the identities of the bodies.

Researchers could check whether 34 people were executed on the same day, Zhemkova said. The presence of women or children among the remains would also provide a significant clue to the fate of people who disappeared 60 years ago or more.

"Nobody should be without a name," she said.