Mass graves became a reality of the first decades of Soviet Russia: victims of the revolution, famine, epidemics, political repression, the Civil War and World War II were often buried in common rather than individual graves.
Over the centuries, Russians had regarded such practice as unusual and rarely acceptable. In traditional peasant culture, the deceased were categorised into 'parents' (who died a natural death) and 'corpses' (who died as a result of violence, accident or suicide, as well as vagrants and other outcasts). The former were revered and buried at the community's cemetery. The latter did not merit reverence — rather, they were perceived with fear, and their bodies were usually buried in pits outside the cemetery fence.
Soviet power needed to change popular mentality and give a new meaning to mass burials for both ideological and political reasons. Svetlana Malysheva studied this phenomenon.
October 1917 changed Russians’ funeral traditions. The Bolsheviks did not abandon the old customs altogether, but remodelled them into their own rituals. High mortality rates contributed to the wide expansion of common graves not just in battlefields but throughout the country. For example, in the mid-1920s, common graves accounted for more than one-third of all burials in two Moscow cemeteries (Pyatnitskoye and Semyonovskoye) and reached 68% in Kazan.
Collective burials became commonplace, and this practice fitted well with Soviet ideology. ‘To some extent, the practice of burial in common graves reflected the egalitarian, utopian 'communisation' ideas of the time and the trend towards collectivisation of daily life. Depriving death of its 'sacred status' and imposing brutal pragmatism in this sphere were intended to help society break from its past and remove any remaining obstacles to building Communism,’ the author explains.
Atheists were not supposed to think about the fate of their remains after death. ‘Workers, Communists, young people with Communist aspirations and young Pioneers [children] absorbing the spirit of Communism could not care less whether [their bodies] will rot in the ground or burn on fire...’ (from the Communal Economy magazine, Moscow, 1927).
In fact, anyone could see for themselves what 'burning on fire' was all about. The Moscow Crematorium offered guided tours to the public (within the first year of its operation, the Crematorium hosted as many as 2,000 tours for a total of 90,000 people), and the tour organisers made it a point to show visitors the actual process of cremating dead bodies.
This practice made economic as well as ideological sense for both the public and government. First, common graves were much cheaper than individual ones. Second, they solved the problem of lack of space in cemeteries (following epidemics and famine, the number of people buried in Moscow’s eight cemeteries between 1923 and 1925 exceeded the norm three-fold).
Factors such as an emphasis on the economy and the promotion of indifference towards death, as well as ambivalent policies which combined the cult of deceased Communist leaders with efforts to 'optimise' and simplify funeral rituals of 'ordinary citizens' — could not continue without consequences.
By the early 1930s, ‘the Bolsheviks were unpleasantly surprised to discover indifference in both the public and organisations towards 'Communist' mass graves from the Civil War period.’
Originally set up to perpetuate the Communist Revolution mythology and serve as places for memorial events with the laying of flowers, etc., most of these graves — except those near the Moscow Kremlin walls — were neglected and allowed to deteriorate, so that their sacred status became merely formal by the late 1920s. In 1929, the NKVD and health commissariat issued Regulations which banned mass graves.
According to Malysheva, ‘these Regulations were supposed to mark the beginning of a 'peaceful' period of Soviet history by restoring the practice of individual burials." Mass burials were only to be permitted in "times of popular adversity.’
But popular adversity never ended. The Civil War was followed by the Communist terror and then by World War II.
Sandormokh Memorial Cemetery, Virtual GULAG Museum
In the 1930s, common graves usually marked the burials of ‘internal aliens’ — the so-called 'enemies of the people'; the burial places of those who were executed or died in the GULAG "were to be kept secret, impersonal, and ideally, wiped off the face of the earth.
In most cases, victims of repression were buried ‘without coffins or funeral ceremonies and without any identification.’ In Moscow, their bodies were categorised as 'unclaimed remains' and burned in crematoria (by various estimates, from 7,000 to 10,000 bodies were thus burned between the 1930s and 1950s). In Siberia, where digging holes in frozen ground was hard, ‘dead bodies were stacked in piles, disguised with snow and abandoned until spring <...> or just covered over with rocks.’
During World War II, in addition to 'internal aliens', external enemies appeared: soldiers and officers of the German army. Their burials were regulated by separate policies using the terminology of cleansing and extermination.
‘Battlefields in areas freed from German invaders must be cleared of human and animal corpses; dead bodies must be collected and buried,’ read one of the instructions on how to dispose of enemy soldiers' bodies.
Enemy graves were doomed to anonymity; burial places left behind by Germans in Russian towns and villages had their signs taken down and were levelled to the ground.
When choosing a site for new burials it was advised to take into account its ‘possible future utilisation <...> for planting greenery for public use.’ In some cases, the community did not wait for "possible future utilisation" but ploughed down the burial mound and planted seeds right away.
While the state did not explicitly promote contempt towards enemy graves, officially established procedures treated them differently from Russian burials, and public hatred towards the invaders was massive, contributing to harsh practices.
As a result, situations like the following were common (from reports on steps taken to 'clean up' territories):
‘Reburial of German fascists' corpses was carried out in the city of Yelets in April, including 148 human corpses collected from graves and various places in the city, and 500 animal corpses. The site selected for the burial of German fascist soldiers and officers conforms to the State Sanitary Inspectorate requirements; it is a dedicated animal burial site located at one kilometre from the city, with low groundwater levels, at an elevation and not affected by spring flooding’;
‘... the burial of enemy corpses was poorly performed <...> surface burials were found in the area of Sarepty, Stalingrad Region. Some of the corpses were exposed due to soil settlement and rainwash.’
However, popular anger was not the only cause of such practices. ‘The Nazis had planned to create Toteburgs ('cities of the dead') over German graves in occupied countries to mark the boundaries of a new Germany and thus consolidate their conquered territories. <...> Perhaps instinctively guessing rather than knowing about such plans, the Soviet authorities and citizens made it a point to physically destroy any traces of the German army's presence, including the enemies' dead bodies,’ the author suggests.
There were official instructions regulating the burials of civilians during World War II in Russia, including the pronouncement of death, delivery of remains to a mortuary and release to the family, and the burial of unidentified bodies in common graves within 48 hours.
Reality, however, imposed its own 'rules'. In the besieged Leningrad, coffins were almost never used by December 1941. In January 1942, the official ban on interment without a coffin was secretly lifted and replaced by a widespread practice of burial in mass graves: ‘Explosives were used to make trenches in frozen ground, and dead bodies were carried with excavator tongs and stacked in the trenches. No sanitary norms were observed; corpses were stacked tight in the trenches and literally compressed as much as possible. <...> According to a report of the Leningrad public utility services administration dated June 1941 to June 1942, there were 662 mass graves totalling more than 20 kilometres in length in Piskaryovskoye Cemetery alone.’
In cities located far away from the frontlines, pits were dug for mass burials of Soviet Army soldiers who died in hospitals, as well as for townspeople. But the authorities did not endorse this practice, as it was not justified by an emergency such as war or epidemic.
Instead, it was caused by the Soviet funeral service industry's decades-long poor performance, before as well as after WWII, due to shortages of vehicles, gravediggers and supplies, and inadequate management of funeral services throughout the country.
The names of Red Army soldiers buried in mass graves were supposed to be kept on records, but this was not always the case, and many graves remained unidentified.
People who lost their relatives and were unable to bury their remains suffered dual pain. Starting in the second half of the 1940s, memorial stelae or stone slabs with the names of the dead began to appear in towns and villages – usually outside local cultural centres or cemeteries. Such cenotaphs were typically paid for by public collections and served as a popular method of ‘processing the trauma from the loss of loved ones and the inability to bury them, and shaping the local community's memory of the war,’ according to the study.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the cult of fallen heroes acquired state importance: cenotaphs were put up by regional administrations and big memorials were erected on the sites of fraternal graves.
Fallen soldiers were honoured as heroes and their graves became symbols of courage and patriotism. Official mourning events invariably turned into a celebration of the ideas of socialism. ‘Death was used as the strongest and indisputable argument emphasising the high price paid for the Victory. The sacredness of war monuments was upheld by Soviet soldiers' graves at their base. The heroic death discourse embodied in these monuments was called upon to serve a number of important objectives, such as “reaffirming Soviet identity through the idea of victory over Nazism”,’ according to Malysheva.
Monument to fallen soldiers in the village of Ukolitsa, author: Oleg1959/ © Wikipedia
The authorities were less interested in having memorials built over fraternal graves of civilians: the process was much slower and far less triumphant. Over 30 years (1943 to 1975) passed between the decision to commemorate more than 3,500 residents of Shakhty in the Rostov Region dumped into a mineshaft, and the actual building of the memorial.
In 1945, a decision was made to build a monument and a memorial park on the site of the Babi Yar massacre of Jewish people. In 1949, the construction was stopped due to an official 'fight against cosmopolitanism', and the monument was finally opened in 1976 without any indication that the majority of victims were Jews.
In Leningrad, it was forbidden ‘to consolidate and publish data on deaths during the siege’; in 1949, the authorities closed the Museum of Leningrad Defence and Siege, and it was only in 1960 that a memorial complex was built at Piskaryovskoye Cemetery.
According to the researcher, there were several reasons behind the silence and belated memorialisation, such as:
routine withholding of information by the Soviet leadership to avoid ‘dangerous associations with its own practice of mass repression’;
the government's desire to avoid the inconvenience and expense of reburials and identification of the dead;
a difference in status between war victims and war heroes. The country's leadership considered the former ‘somewhat ambiguous and suspicious’ and lacking the 'poster heroism aspect'. The theme of mourning over the dead had to be inseparable from that of the heroic fight for communist ideals.
The latter policy caused some of the memorialised tragedies to be reinterpreted, e.g. mass deaths from hunger or ethnic killings presented as results of fierce resistance to the invaders. This rhetoric reaffirmed loyalty to the Soviet regime, ‘legitimised mass deaths and sacralised common graves of war victims alongside those of Red Army soldiers.’
Thus, the Soviet regime used mass graves, either voluntarily or unwittingly, as an ideological and political tool. At different times, they served as
testing grounds for presenting Communist utopias;
a method to reduce burial costs;
evidence of funeral services' poor performance;
an instrument to stigmatise enemies;
an argument to condemn opponents;
markers of territories liberated from the Nazis.
Collective burial became a cornerstone for the establishment of socialist ideas and the USSR's political system. This system ceased to exist a quarter of a century ago, but ‘the symbolic significance of Soviet-era common graves still comes up in political debates of our time.’