"Butovo: Field of Repressed Memory" A Guest Essay by Daniel Silva
Daniel Silva is the author of eleven bestselling novels, including The Confessor, The Secret Servant, and A Death in Vienna. He will be at Vroman's on Wednesday, August 13 at 7 pm to discuss and sign his new book Moscow Rules. What follows is an essay Mr. Silva wrote about a recent trip to Russia.
Butovo: Field of Repressed Memory
By Daniel Silva
I noticed the article in the New York Times while I was preparing to head to Russia to begin researching my new novel, Moscow Rules. Butovo, one of Stalin’s killing grounds during the Great Terror, had been turned into a memorial and was now open to the public. We contacted our guide and told him we wanted to visit the site during our stay in Moscow. He agreed to take us there but later admitted that he had been quite surprised by the request. No American had ever asked to be taken to Butovo. In fact, he himself had never been there.
It had been a village once. Now it was a leafy Moscow suburb and a beehive of real estate development. To reach it, we headed south from the center of Moscow, down the thunderous Leninsky Prospekt, which is lined with the largest apartment blocks I have ever seen. As I wrote near the climax of Moscow Rules, “It was as if the masters of the Communist Party, in all their infinite wisdom, had decided to uproot the entire population of the world’s biggest country and resettle it here, along a few wretched miles of the Leninsky Prospekt.”
Eventually, the apartment blocks gave way to warehouses and factories, and soon we even began to see small dachas in the woods along the road. When finally we arrived in Butovo, it took us several minutes to actually find the old killing ground. It had recently been entrusted to the Russian Orthodox Church; a young priest had agreed to give us a tour. I cannot recall his name, but I will never forget his appearance. He was an elfin figure, thin as a reed, with a shirt collar two inches too big and an old-fashioned flat cap perched on his narrow head. He spoke no English; our Russian guide, a former schoolteacher and Communist Party member, provided simultaneous translation.
He led us first to a small wooden church that had been erected in the center of the field. Next to the church were several display boards covered with police photographs of the soon-to-be-dead. The images were haunting; I had the distinct impression that the victims knew what fate awaited them. Next to the photos was a macabre chart that showed the pace of executions on a month-by-month basis. The NKVD had called this place Butovsky Poligon—literally, the Butovo Shooting Range. Night after night, from August 1937 to October 1938, Stalin’s executioners killed opponents of the regime, real or imagined, and dumped their bodies in long trenches dug by earthmovers. At least twenty thousand were murdered at Butovo, only a tiny fraction of the more than seven hundred thousand Soviet citizens believed to have been executed during the wild orgy of killing known as the Great Terror. But Butovo is significant for another reason: it is one of the few places in the New Russia where one can pay tribute to the victims of the Soviet regime.
We did not speak much as we filed past the burial trenches, and when we did it was usually in a whisper. Small groups of Russians followed after us—the elderly, the middle-aged, the young—nearly all in tears. No one knows where individuals are buried at Butovo. The only way to walk past the remains of a loved one is to walk past them all. And even then, one cannot be absolutely certain of having been in close proximity to the bones of a family member or a loved one. The priest told us that there were almost surely more mass graves in the adjoining woods and meadows.
I had been to such places before—while researching A Death in Vienna, I visited the Treblinka extermination camp in eastern Poland and walked alone past its terrible cremation pits—but there was something about Butovo that troubled me deeply. It was not the Russian state that tended this patch of sacred ground but the Orthodox Church. You see, the rulers of the New Russia aren’t much interested in exposing the sins of the Soviet past. In fact, they are engaged in a carefully orchestrated endeavor to airbrush away its most repulsive aspects. One can understand their motives. The NKVD, which ran the killing operation at Butovo, was the forerunner of the KGB. And former officers of the KGB, including Vladimir Putin himself, are now running Russia. I wrote of this attempt to sanitize the past, and the reasons behind it, in Moscow Rules:
Now, in the minds of the New Russians, the murderous crimes of the Bolsheviks were but a way station on the road to an era of Russian greatness. The gulags, the cruelty, the untold millions who were starved to death or “repressed”—they were only unpleasant details. No one had ever been called to account for his actions. No one had ever been punished for his sins.
There is a danger in this sort of historical myopia: the danger that it might happen again. The truth is, it is already happening. The new regime has revived the practice of sending its critics to psychiatric hospitals for “treatment.” And, in a few instances, it is even killing its critics or allowing them to be killed by others. The Russian people seem not to mind. Quite the opposite: most support harsh measures against opponents of the government. One wonders whether they would be so accommodating if their rulers allowed a full and frank exploration of the horrors that lie buried in the not-so-distant Russian past.
Our tour ended where it began, next to the little wooden church. The faces of the dead gazed silently at us as we bade good-bye to the priest and filed into our minibus. During the drive back to central Moscow, our Russian guide was in tears. He said the visit to Butovo had been one of the most moving experiences of his life. And had it not been for a request from an American novelist, he would never have gone. That, too, is a Russian tragedy.