From the early morning into the late night, thousands of Muscovites poured into Lubyanka Square, home of the former KGB, now the FSB.
The protest, devoted to naming the victims of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” has taken place on Lubyanka every October for the last nine years. Russians pay tribute to the 1 million people executed by the Soviet regime in 1937 and 1938, including more than 40,000 people killed in Moscow alone. But never before has Moscow seen so many people willing to participate in the memorial as last week.
Each participant had a piece of paper in hand with the names of two victims, their ages, professions, and dates of execution. There were 40,000 names all together. Shivering in the cold, damp wind, Tatyana Lokshina, the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, waited in line to make her point: The victims were killed secretly and now the time had came to speak their names out loud. Lokshina’s piece of paper said: “Alexander Smirnov, 51, an ordinary collective farmer, was executed by shooting on July 10, 1938; Aleksey Smirnov, 67, a senior security guard at a savings bank in the Ukhtomsky region, was executed by shooting on February 17, 1938.”
Lokshina’s husband, Alexander Verkhovsky, had also been waiting in line to read his two names for almost three hours. The protest on Lubyanka Square was symbolically important for Lokshina and thousands of other Russian families. “The KGB secretly executed hundreds of thousands of people, as if on a death conveyer, depriving victims of their lives and the victims’ families of their right to remember,” she said. “By our collective readings of names, we return their memory to Moscow residents.”
To many Russians, Moscow is a big monument of mass terror with Lubyanka Square at its heart. Nowadays, Moscow’s dark history is hidden underneath layers of luxurious hotels, restaurants, bars, beautiful public parks with WiFi and bike trails. But the shadows still exist in people’s memories.
The number of activists reading the names last Thursday was unprecedented, organizers from the Memorial Human Rights Center told The Daily Beast. It demonstrated that many Russians today are willing to look back at the scale of Stalin’s terror. “People around me in line said that the ghost of modern repressions grows more and more obvious; once again people live with fear of arrests. I am sure that nobody out of the thousands of Russians coming to Lubyanka this week wanted the return of mass repressions to Russia,” Lokshina told The Daily Beast.
But the Kremlin sent a controversial message that day. As if to mock the day of memory, authorities detained the director of a Ukrainian language library in Moscow, Natalya Sharina. Armed policemen in masks had raided her library the day before and allegedly found some banned literature, some “anti-Russian propaganda.” If convicted, the 58-year-old librarian could go to prison for four years. Her story resonated with Russians, as the armed men arrived to grab the woman in the early-morning hours—a well-known signature of the FSB and its predecessors. The methods did not seem to have changed.
Earlier that week, Memorial Center had presented a unique project, an interactive map called “Topography of Terror” in Moscow. Dozens of people worked on it for several years, putting together a map of prisons, burial sites of KGB victims, and sites of mass murders. One of the terror sites was between Lubyanka and Varsonofyevsky streets, the so-called “black block.” Beginning from 1918, secret police tortured and executed detainees right in the heart of Moscow, in the building that still belongs to the FSB today.
Signs on wooden billboards at the protest proclaimed: “The city as a history book.” In the 1930s, KGB vehicles—nicknamed chernye vorony, or “black ravens”—picked up detainees from almost every building around Lubyanka headquarters. “I remember that terrifying time as if it were yesterday—my parents could not sleep at night, they expected a knock at the door,” Irina Nagornaya, a Moscow pensioner, told The Daily Beast. Nagornaya’s family lived in an apartment on Potapovsky Street, not far from Lubyanka Square. “People were detained for reading the wrong books, for making the wrong comments,” Nagornaya remembered. “Some did not do anything wrong, but the KGB still dragged them away from home to gulags or to execute them, and their families never saw their loved ones again.”