Sunday, December 24, 2017

‘The Communization of Death’ – Soviet Culture and Mass Graves in the USSR

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 23 – Mass graves became a new and widespread reality in the first decades of Soviet power, sometimes for ideological reasons -- the Soviet man shouldn’t think about life after death -- and sometimes for economic ones – the number of deaths was beyond the capacity of the regime to inter people individually, Svetlana Malysheva says.

            In a new study which she calls “The Communization of Death,” the researcher at the Higher School of Economics says that in the first years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks viewed mass graves as a positive educational experience for the citizenry because such places undermined traditional religious ideas (

            In many places, she notes, people were buried in mass graves even if there was every possibility for them to be buried in individual ones. This was intended, Malysheva says, to deprive death of its “sacred status” and to promote atheism.  And where mass graves were a problem because of space, the regime turned to promoting cremation.

            At the same time, she continues, “common graves were first of all significantly cheaper and second they solved the problem of lack of space in cemeteries.” But they had an unexpected and unwanted consequence: by the end of the 1920s, Soviet citizens were showing their indifference to the mass graves of Soviet heroes as well as to others.

            That led the NKVD and health commissariat in 1929 to ban mass graves. But that ban did not last because the number of victims of the Stalinist system – purges, expulsions, deportations and so on – and of World War II overwhelmed the regime’s capacity to bury people individually or even to identify victims by name. In the case of “enemies,” the authorities didn’t want to.

            “Enemies of the people” who were executed or died in the camps were typically buried in mass graves without any identification at all. During the war, the Soviets buried both Soviet victims and German ones in mass graves, although at least in principle they tried to separate the two, identifying the former while often not putting up any markers on the latter.

            After 1945, residents of many villages where there were mass graves put up memorial plinths with the names of the dead, a means, Malysheva says, of overcoming the trauma of loss and the impossibility of burying all the dead in individual graves at the time.  Such plinths were typically paid for not by the state but by public collections.

            “In the 1950s and 1960s,” she continues, “the cult of fallen heroes acquired state importance, and cenotaphs were put up by administrations in the regions. On the sites of fraternal graves, major memorials were erected.” The authorities were less interested in having memorials go up over fraternal graves of victims of the war who weren’t in uniform.

            In the latter case, Malysheva says, the authorities tried to play down or ignore how many such mass graves there were not only to avoid any discussion of the role of the Soviet state in these deaths both directly and indirectly but also to avoid spending money on such projects when the regime was focusing on others. 

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