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Location: Houston, Texas, United States

My name is David Stone. I live in Houston, Texas. I am a 30-something single white male. I am an Orthodox Christian and am a member of an English-language parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

An Orthodox shrine rises on a Russian killing field

"This place is our Russian Golgotha...There is Golgotha in the Holy Land, where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for our sins. All of Russia was Golgotha in the 20th century." - Andrei Kuznetsov

An Orthodox shrine rises on a Russian killing field

By Sophia Kishkovsky
Thursday, June 7, 2007

BUTOVO, Russia: Barbed wire still lines the perimeter of the secret police compound here on the southern edge of Moscow, where more - perhaps far more - than 20,000 people were shot and buried from August 1937 through October 1938, during the height of Stalin's purges. The killing field was run by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB, which controlled it into the 1990s.

Now, gradually, Butovsky Poligon - literally, the Butovo Shooting Range - is becoming a shrine to all the victims of Stalin's murderous campaigns. Grass-covered mounds holding the victims' bones crisscross the pastoral field, which is now dotted with flowers and birch trees. Searing portraits from victims' case files, found in the archives of the secret police, and a grim month-by-month chart of executions, are displayed in front of a small wooden church in the field.

"This place is our Russian Golgotha," the hill where Jesus was crucified, said Andrei Kuznetsov, 34, a social worker, making the sign of the cross recently in front of a newly built white stone church, the Church of the Resurrection and the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, near the site. "There is Golgotha in the Holy Land, where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for our sins. All of Russia was Golgotha in the 20th century."

Butovo, now a hotbed of real estate development, has been in the news repeatedly over the past year because of a standoff between city officials and residents of a village who are resisting plans to raze their homes for high-rises.

But Butovsky Poligon is a symbol of a much larger, bloodier conflict in Russian society, that between the Bolsheviks and the Russian Orthodox Church. One thousand of those killed here are known to have died for their Orthodox faith. Over 320 have been canonized as "new martyrs" of the church - bishops, monks, nuns and lay people who were victims of the Soviet regime.

The new church was consecrated on May 19, as part of the celebration of the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Church Abroad, an émigré group that broke away in the 1920s. The walls of the church are filled with icons of the new martyrs - including one depicting the NKVD executioners shooting them - and hymns to them are sung at services. Glass cases in the lower church are filled with their personal items, such as an executed priest's prayer book, and his violin.

The names of the victims are engraved on plaques lining one of the fences around the field. The fence overlooks dachas that were built for KGB officials who enjoyed the park-like setting, the grounds of a prerevolutionary country estate.

"They say the strawberries grew especially large at these dachas," said Galina Pryakina, 70, nodding at the mounds of bones as she traced her finger across the plaques and found the name of a monk, now a saint, killed on the same day as her father, June 4, 1938.

She visited the site earlier this month, on the fourth Saturday after Easter, a day that Patriarch Aleksy II of the Russian Orthodox Church has chosen in recent years to commemorate Butovo's martyrs "I spent 66 years looking for him," Pryakina said of her father. Pryakina was an infant when he was arrested as an alleged Romanian spy; she and her mother were sent into exile.

Three years ago, she journeyed to Moscow from her home in southern Kazakhstan, near the Chinese border, determined to find her father's burial place. She headed for a cemetery in northern Moscow, but a woman at a bus stop (she is convinced it was a vision of the Virgin Mary) directed her to Butovsky Poligon. There, within minutes, her father's name was tracked in a database.

The Reverend Kirill Kaleda, rector of the Church of the Resurrection of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, has a tragically intimate connection to the parish he serves. His grandfather, Vladimir Ambartsumov, who was a priest, is one of the new martyrs. He was arrested in 1937 and sentenced to "10 years without the right of correspondence," which was frequently a euphemism for a death sentence. The Kaleda family spent decades searching for him.

"I remember very well how when we were little, after our morning and evening prayers, we would add a prayer asking to find how our Grandpa Volodya died," said Kaleda. "It seemed that hope of learning the circumstances of grandfather's death had almost vanished. We had thought he died somewhere in the camps."

Mikhail Mindlin, a concentration camp survivor who devoted his retirement in the 1980s and 1990s to systematically studying Soviet repression, fought to have the existence of Butovo Poligon recognized by the state. Eventually, thanks to sympathetic KGB officials, files with the names of those executed on the orders of Stalin's henchman, Nikolai Yezhov, were found in secret police files.

The scope of the killings staggers, not only in numbers, but also in the swathe it cut across society. Butovo's victims ranged from peasants and factory workers to Czarist generals, Russian Orthodox hierarchs, German Communists, Latvian writers, invalids, even Moscow's Chinese launderers (dozens of whom were executed as enemies of the people). Ultimately, many Soviet officials, including Yezhov and other NKVD officials who carried out the purges, were gunned down at Butovo and elsewhere as the revolution consumed its creators.

Some objections have been raised to the Russian Orthodox focus of Butovsky Poligon today, given the wide variety of victims buried there.

But Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial, an organization that works to catalogue Soviet crimes and help victims of repression, said that the church had stepped in to a void left by the state.

"It's a bit strange that this is a purely Orthodox place, but nothing tragic," he said. "I don't really like this. I think this should be multicultural place.

"But it's better that there be something than nothing. If the state is not ready to help understand the meaning of terror in its history, the role of terror in its history, it's not so bad that the Orthodox Church took it upon itself."



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