Publication Date

May 1, 1999



We are familiar with the images from the Balkan wars of our times—crumpled figures with gaping head wounds against an idyllic rural background, or pits in winter, where forensic teams examine the remains of yet another "ethnic cleansing." In the early 1990s, the Russian press was full of similar, if older, atrocities, as more and more details of Stalin's mass shootings emerged, the killings carried out during the massoperatsii of the secret police NKVD during the Great Terror of 1937–38.

The executions took place at night in the cellars of prisons or local NKVD headquarters and in secluded forest clearings before an open pit. Special zones near urban centers were sealed off with barbed wire fencing and used as killing grounds and huge, unmarked graveyards.

The Butovo Apple Yard

In contrast to other cities in the Russian Federation, the district attorney's office in Moscow refused permission to the Rehabilitation Group of the Moscow Administration of the Ministry of Security (MB) to excavate one such site in 1992. This site, still in the possession of the Interior Ministry, is situated near the village of Butovo, 27 kilometers south of Moscow near the Podolsk Highway.1 The officers of the Rehabilitation Group were convinced that this area, lately in use as an orchard for a local orphanage, was Moscow’s main killing field during the Ezhovshchina of 1936–38, the rule of terror imposed by NKVD chief Nikolai Ezhov. The investigating officers interviewed elderly inhabitants of Butovo village who could recall the revving of lorries and the shots that had reverberated through the night air some 60 years before. An analysis of the orchard earth showed a high phosphate content, which explained the luxuriant growth of the grass and bushes and suggested the presence of bones on a gigantic scale. From aerial photographs the group sketched out the outlines of the burial pits—depressions in the ground that ran to 500 meters in length.

The MB staff involved were under pressure from several sides. For one, the relatives of the murdered, organized in associations like Memorial and backed by the democratic press, were demanding the full truth and were not satisfied with the general government policy of rehabilitating the victims en masse and posthumously. Furthermore, the law of October 18, 1991, which allowed the families of the victims arrested in the Stalin years the right to view the investigation file of the prisoner, also obliged the security organs to find the scenes of whole-scale slaughter and mass graves and publish the names of both victims and perpetrators in the local press. In addition, a government decree of March 30, 1992, entrusted the security service and local administrative bodies with the assignment of issuing remembrance books containing data on the thousands shot and unceremoniously interred in the districts of the Russian Federation. Commissions were set up throughout the country to extract victims' data from the millions of files, a task that MB officials could not have conducted alone. A group of volunteers met regularly for this work in the offices of the Moscow Rehabilitation group at Bolshaia Lubianka 14, a blue and white former palace a stone's throw behind the forbidding ochre block of the Lubianka headquarters.

The 20,000 files of people sentenced to death in Moscow by two- or three-man boards (dvoiki, troiki) in the years 1937–38 revealed nothing about how and where the executions had taken place. Scrutinizing the files of pensioned KGB staff, the Rehabilitation Group officers located a handful of ex-operatives, suspicious old men who lived in fear that their families might one day find out what “special work” (spetsrabota) had amounted to in the Ezhov era: driving the doomed to Butovo or killing them there with a shot in the nape of the neck. Comrade S., first komendant of the Butovo firing squads and one of the rare survivors of purges within “the organs,” proved talkative in the end. He related details of the strict hierarchical work roster of the dozen or so executioners. The killers waited in a stone house in the northwestern corner of the restricted area while the victims’ data was being rechecked in a wooden barracks nearby. Each gunman took his victims one at a time to the pit’s edge and dispatched them with one shot each from a Nagan army pistol. At dawn, after the “quota” had been accomplished, a bulldozer covered in the night’s work. The executioners steadied their nerves with vodka and at the end of the shift they washed with eau-de-cologne to rid themselves of the stench of gunpowder and blood.

Butovo is now a place of pilgrimage, maintained by the Russian Orthodox Church and open to visitors on weekends. Three thick volumes containing all the victims' names (20,765) and giving the history of the fenced-in acreage have appeared in recent years. They describe the transformation of Butovo from model landlord estate to an agricultural colony of the secret police in the early years of Bolshevik rule, and its later role as service shooting range and killing fields.

The basis for the short biographies thus published was the discovery in the MB Administration in Moscow of 18 bound volumes of death lists that named all those sentenced to death by shooting by the dvoiki and troiki in the Soviet capital between August 1937 and October 1938. Each list was addressed to the chief of the execution squads and laid down that those involved in the shootings had to sign a preprinted form confirming that they had personally carried out the sentence. Sometimes hitches occurred; as for instance, when prisoners being led to their deaths shouted "Long live Stalin!" ("anti-Soviet provocation") or when the data of the condemned was incorrectly typed. Alois Ketzlik, a former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Austria, was included in the Butovo transport of August 9, 1938, but was brought back to prison because he had been given the first name Adolf on the shooting order. He was executed 11 days later. Semenov, head of the normal police in Moscow and the chairman of the local troika, was responsible for the technical details of the Butovo operations; the executioners came from the komendatura or the Fifth (Special) Department of the Administration of State Security within the Moscow apparat of the NKVD.

The victims of the nocturnal carnage came from all walks of life and from 30 countries. Around 85 percent of the executed Russians were noncommunists and of simple peasant stock, Orthodox priests, reputed followers of the Old Regime ("former people"), individuals of bourgeois extraction ("socially alien elements"), and inmates of DMITLAG concentration camp; in a word, persons held to be implacably hostile to Bolshevik rule. The 4,200 victims of foreign birth were the direct opposite—skilled workers, communists, students, and political refugees who perceived themselves as contributing to the "socialist construction" of the first Five Year Plans. The overwhelming majority of these foreigners were Poles, Balts, and Germans, immigrants from "hostile" states who could form a "fifth column" in time of war. Another specific category were the Harbins, people who had been born, worked, or lived in the Manchurian city of Harbin and had returned to the USSR in 1935 following the sale of the Northern Chinese Railway by the Soviet government.

The nine Americans shot in Butovo were of Russian, Jewish, or Latvian extraction. The Pupol brothers, Arthur and Karl, and the Predin siblings, Walter and Arnold, all native-born Bostonians in their twenties, were indicted for having links with "Latvian Intelligence." Ernest Pupol, when applying for a transfer from the American to the Soviet Communist Party 10 years earlier, stated that he had brought his family to Russia in order "to educate my boys as communists." 2

Killing Quotas from the Kremlin

The decision to plan and carry out the massoperatsii of the secret police against certain sectors of the population and foreign residents was rubber-stamped by the delegates to the February–March 1937 Plenum of the Central Committee. In late summer the Politburo approved NKVD drafts for the mass repression of “anti-Soviet and kulak elements” in the native population, and of Germans, Poles, and “Harbins.” Sentencing quotas were drawn up for each region in order to convict “category one” (death by shooting) and “category two” (five to eight years in the Gulag) suspects. Regional NKVD units were expressly encouraged to apply for quota increases. For foreign prisoners seized in the giant arrest sweeps, no arrest or conviction limits were established and most were subsequently shot. As no corroborative evidence existed for the common charge of spying for a foreign power, confessions in Moscow and elsewhere were extracted from the foreigners by coercion, especially by means of torture and sleep deprivation. The self-abasing statements thus obtained always included the names of “fellow-conspirators” in the scenario fabricated by the NKVD and hinged on two questions: “Who recruited you for these espionage activities?” and “Whom did you then recruit?” These procedures swelled the constituency of potential suspects and “justified” the applications for more and more arrests. Such was the murderous dynamic of massoperatsii, placing prisoner, interrogator, and executioner under extreme pressure to succumb to or fulfill the “plan quota.”

Besides sanctioning the rise in quotas for arrests and convictions, the Politburo also extended the NKVD operations targeting foreigners to mid-April 1938, then to August 1, and finally to the end of mass operations in mid-November 1938. During the "Polish operation," for instance, 140,000 prisoners were sentenced, 111,000 of them to death, between November 1937 and November 1938.

Prisoners' Files and the Great Terror

Three different kinds of NKVD documentation exist on victims of the 1930s terror: a dossier containing informers' reports and characterizations supplied by party organizations and employers, an investigation file assembled by the interrogators, and a personal file pertaining to the person's prison record. The dossiers are considered NKVD internal documents and are not available to the victim's family or persons of their trust, whereas the other kinds of files are.

The prison file, kept in the Ministry of the Interior in Moscow, opens with a slip ordering the director of a Moscow prison to accept the arrested suspect, then documents transfers between prisons, how often the person concerned was interrogated, for how long, and by whom, and also names the guards who brought him or her to the interrogator's office and back to the cell. The file also includes all written requests made by the prisoner (such as appeals for clemency; applications to speed up the case; and requests for personal funds, clothes, or extra rations) and the incriminating reports of stool pigeons placed in the cells. A fourth type of file, not seen by this author, is the record of the prisoner while incarcerated in the Gulag, files said to be still lodged in provincial centers in the vicinity of the camps.

The "anti-kulak" order of the NKVD decreed that investigation files were to contain only the essential documents. Indeed, the part of these files relating to the time spent in the custody of the secret police, that is, the period from arrest to execution, rarely exceeds 20 pages. The second half of the file, on the other hand, is usually much longer and more interesting as it contains the complete correspondence in regard to the reinvestigation of the original charges. Military jurists reviewed many such files in the 1950s and 1960s and recommended that the victims be rehabilitated. Most documentation of this kind, which originated in the Soviet capital in the Stalin era, is in the process of being removed from secret depositories in the warren of streets behind the Lubianka to the main state archive. Access is strictly limited to victims' families or persons they appoint to view and copy the file in question.

Investigation files opened on suspects later shot in Butovo start with a short report justifying the reasons for arrest and detention. They were issued by the subunit of the Administration of State Security and countersigned by the department head and the chief of the Moscow Administration of the NKVD. However, the spaces above the names of these high-ranking officers are often empty or the scrawled signature is that of a deputy or assistant. Sometimes the document is undated or contains a garbled version of the prisoner's name. Finally and more important, the sheet carries the stamp of the Military State Prosecutor for the Moscow Military District who sanctioned the arrest. This was illegal, as regulations dating back to 1935 stipulated that the civilian state prosecutor had this function. This detail demonstrates that the supervisory role assigned to district attorneys in monitoring the arrest and investigation policies of the NKVD was suspended for the duration of massoperatsii.

The second document, signed by the NKVD officers named above, was the numbered order to arrest the suspect and search the place of residence. This was usually done in the presence of the house janitor who then confirmed, on the third document, that the search had been carried out according to the law. The signatures of the arresting policeman and the arrested individual were appended, and this form sometimes included a list of the items seized during the ransacking of the house or apartment. This catalogue frequently consisted merely of the printed material seized, especially various official documents (such as passport, residence-permit, party and trade union cards), personal correspondence, and books in a foreign language. As a rule, these papers were destroyed soon afterward, but they are sometimes included in the file as enclosures. The fourth document was the receipt issued by the arresting officer, listing once more the items confiscated. Valuables taken away, such as money, jewelry, bank books, cameras, clothing, and footwear, were often simply stolen and did not appear on the receipt.

The suspect was taken to the Lubianka (Inner Prison No. 1) for formalities and the first interrogation before being transferred to the Butyrka or Taganka prisons. On arrival at the Lubianka, the incoming prisoner filled in the fifth form, the questionnaire for arrested persons, a form with 22 sections and ending with a space for details of the suspect's family. The sixth document contains the interrogation protocols, which in the case of Butovo victims rarely record more than two questioning sessions and total merely four to six pages. All answers to the standardized questions were signed by the accused. From the content of this record it is obvious that the interrogator-investigators wrote down only what was germane to the trumped-up charges of "spying," hence the brevity of any one protocol. In the end, most prisoners relented after being tortured and deprived of sleep, and confirmed the fantastic charges by appending their signatures, often now in spidery, slanting handwriting, to the dictated answers. We may assume that many of the accused relented finally on the advice of their fellow prisoners, hoping that a confession, no matter how self-abasing, would end the nightly beatings in the offices above the communal cells and expedite the transfer to a work camp.

The interrogators may have offered similar "advice" in order to persuade their innocent victims to incriminate themselves, thus ending another case file. In any case, the prisoner was sentenced even if a confession had not been obtained, and the verdict subsequently passed was generally a capital one. Once the interrogating officer had concluded the "investigation" by acquiring a statement of guilt from the accused, he typed up the seventh document, the indictment, which was countersigned by superior officers. This final charge sheet, sometimes identical in content with the original report for arrest, recommended that the case should go before the troika or dvoika for sentencing on the following charges: “spying,” with the supplementary accusation of “anti-Soviet agitation” or “membership in an anti-Soviet organization,” that is, under sections 6, 10, and 11 of Article 58 (“counter-revolutionary crimes”) of the Soviet Criminal Code.

No trial took place, the victim's case was summarily ticked off with 400–500 others at a troika session or surfaced on a list of equal length laid before the dvoika consisting of Ezhov and Vyshinsky (main state prosecutor) or their deputies. The sentence excerpt is not included in the Butovo investigation files, but the outcome is—in the eighth document, the confirmation on the part of the executioner that he had shot the prisoner on a certain day. The case reviews carried out by KGB officers after Stalin’s death emphasized that no proof existed for the original charges, and that the verdict should be decreed null and void, thus paving the way for the posthumous rehabilitation by a military tribunal.

For a time at least in the late 1950s, the families of the Russian-born victims were told of the true cause of death and offered compensation. The relatives of the foreigners shot in Butovo, however, were rarely notified at all, and even then the laconic letter from the Soviet Embassy enclosed a forged death certificate, with a fictitious date and cause of demise ("arteriosclerosis," "TB of the lungs"). The reasons justifying the rehabilitation of Heinz Roscher are typical. Roscher, shot in Butovo with 229 others on May 28, 1938, had commanded a regiment of the Social Democratic military organization Schutzbund in Vienna during the Austrian Civil War of February 1934 and later attained prestige and popularity in Moscow. He was elected a member of Moscow City Council by his fellow workers in the "Stalin" automobile plant, where he led a skilled brigade in the experimental shop for diesel motors. His case, reopened in 1963, was deemed worthy of rehabilitation on the following grounds:

  1. He had not been acquainted with the final indictment early enough.
  2. The state prosecutor had not confirmed the charges.
  3. He had been confronted with extracts from the interrogation protocols purported to have been signed by other prisoners, but which, it transpired, had been obviously forged as they differed substantially from the originals.

Other investigation files include information obtained from ex-NKVD staff interrogated by KGB investigation officers in the 1950s, statements describing their role as young investigation officers 20 years earlier. While many of these depositions conform to the Waldheim syndrome of "I was only doing my duty," they do contain lengthy passages on the mechanisms used to extract confessions and forge documents. The KGB men also looked at the investigation files of the leading secret police staff who had been removed by Beria, Ezhov's successor in the Lubianka, and shot in 1939–40. Before they were led to the execution cellars after conviction on trumped-up charges ("organizing a conspiracy within the Moscow organization of the NKVD"), these prominent operatives admitted how they had signed hundreds of arrest warrants daily and demanded that the maximum number of confessions be obtained by their subordinates.

The killing teams, by contrast, weathered all internal service shake-ups, receiving service medals (Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Red Star) before retiring on a lieutenant colonel's pension. Many of them died shortly afterward, victims of alcoholic abuse, heart trouble, and suicide. Others had to be retired prematurely because of deafness or schizophrenia.


New regulations laid down by the Central Committee on November 17, 1938, heralded the end of the Great Terror and introduced stricter regulations in regard to investigations by the secret police. In the following years, investigation teams within the secret police had to be more careful when writing up the interrogation records, noting exactly the beginning and end of the questioning sessions. They also had to apply regularly to the state prosecutor for an extension of investigative custody when the final indictment was not yet formulated. Torture, we may assume, declined (at least its systematic employment). However, June 22, 1941, the first day of the German invasion, saw the issue of a plethora of decrees that accorded the secret police extraordinary powers once again. Foreigners, especially German speakers and Poles, were arrested en masse, deported further into the interior or press-ganged into forced labor units of the army. All releases from camps or prisons were suspended, and anyone suspected of "anti-Soviet views" was liable to be taken into custody. The catastrophic state of the food supply within the Gulag system in 1941–42 meant that many of the new inmates soon died of starvation. Finally, many political immigrants held in prisons or camps in the path of the German advance were summarily shot on Beria's orders.

The changes in the system of terror were, then, relative. Many questions remain a mystery to Western rationale, not least, unlike the Nazi experience, the periodic purging of the ruling elite, or the willful annihilation, through the bullet or slave labor, of persons valuable and dedicated to the regime. Russian historians now agree that the mass repression of 1937–38, which claimed up to 1.7 million victims, including at least 700,000 death verdicts within 16 months, must be seen in an immediate prewar scenario: Stalin, the argument runs, decided to annihilate all internal opposition, whether real or potential, before European hostilities broke out. What we suspected and now know in detail is to a large extent an achievement of Russian democracy. Foreign historians profiting from serendipity in Moscow's archives in the "golden years" of 1992–94 had to acknowledge this debt, realizing that, as in the case of National Socialism, only the final defeat of the system could guarantee honest inquiry into the scope and nature of its crimes.

— is a researcher at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, Vienna.


1. The research into this topic was funded for a year and a half by Fond zur Forderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung, the main Austrian state funding agency for science, under project no. P-11197-HIS. I would like to thank the Fond staff and my supervisor, Dr. Wolfgang Maderthaner, for this assistance. Preliminary investigations were subsidized by the Cultural Office of Vienna City Administration on the recommendation of Dr. Hubert Ch. Ehalt, to whom I am equally grateful. Essential assistance in Moscow was afforded by the officers of the Rehabilitation Group, especially Nikolai Grashoven, Vadim Levitsky, and Mikhail Kirillin, who processed my applications for investigation files on behalf of over 60 Austrian, German, and Irish familieswith unbureaucratic haste and provided me with maps, photographs, and information on Butovo. The group of volunteers extracting the victims’ data from the files, especially Nataliia Musienko, Zheniia Lubimova, Svetlana Bartels, Aleksandr Vatlin, and Sergei Zhuralev, are likewise a source of support for half a decade.

2. Russian Center for the Study and Preservation of Documents of Modern History, Moscow, fond 17, opis 98, delo 9190, list 1.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.