Butovo Polygon and Church
Text and photos Ian Mitchell
Last month I wrote about Sukhanovka, the most feared prison in the Gulag system, which was situated within what today, once again, is St Catherine’s Monastery. Five kilometers away from St Catherine’s is the place where the battered inmates of Sukhanovka, along with many, many others, were brought to be shot and buried. This is at Butovo, in a place which used to be known as the Butovo Polygon, “polygon” being the Russian word for “shooting range.”
In 1937, at the time of the Great Terror, Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police, began executing people on a huge scale at this site, which was then in a woodland fifteen miles or so from the southern edge of Moscow. Corpses were shovelled into long, trench-like mass graves. Today these are heaped up above the level of the surrounding land (see picture right; they are shown in blue on the plan above right), and clearly visible. The whole site is a monument to the victims. It was visited by President Putin last November.
Directions: Take the Metro to Bulvar Dmitria Donskogo at the southern end of the grey line and catch a cab (it is about 5 kms), or drive down the Varshavsky Shosse 5 kms south of the MKAD and turn left for Novodrozhino. About 1 km further, on the left hand side is the Polygon, though it is not obvious, but look on the right side of the road where the big modern church, which can hardly be missed stands.
In all, nearly 21,000 people were shot here between August 1937 and October 1938. The whole area is perhaps five or six acres. There is a large wall-map at the entrance to the site, showing the layout of the mass graves, as well as a table showing the numbers shot on each day. Photographs of some of the victims look hauntingly out across the silent square.
Visitors can buy a beautifully produced, 500-page book, in Russian, full of fascinating illustrations and reproduced documents, which gives a full history of the tragedy that took place on this site. It also give a great deal of interesting background information, including details of the building of the Moscow-Volga canal, which provided so many of the victims. Published in 2007, it is called “Butovsky Polygon: a Book in Memory of the Victims of Political Repression”. ISBN 5-93547-008-X.
For all the archaeological work that has been done at Butovo, it is not known just how extensive the mass graves are. It is known that some extend beyond the fence of the current memorial park, out into the forest which used to surround the area. Today, there are modern êîòòåäæè on two sides, and the threat exists that more will be built on the remains of the forest, and therefore possibly on top of some of the human remains as yet undiscovered in other mass graves.
Across the road from the shooting ground is a large, modern church (see above), which was completed this year. It stands as a formal memorial, even though there is small wooden church inside the Polygon. The modern church is one of the more bizarre buildings I have seen in Moscow. Inside it is opulent to the point of vulgarity, while outside (see above) it looks almost Californian.
On the grounds is a fifteen-foot high cross which was fashioned from wood taken from the first GULAG camp on the Solovetski Islands. It was brought to Moscow via every labor camp along the way, with appropriate memorial ceremonies at each stop.