Ukraine: Discovery of the Largest Mass Grave of the Stalinist Purges

September 03, 2021
Joseph Stalin

The recent unearthing of mass graves containing the remains of several thousand victims of communism in Ukraine has brought to the fore the persecutions suffered by many Christians, victims of communist totalitarianism.

The Communist Great Purges - or the Great Terror - led by Stalin consisted of a campaign of arrests, political repression, and ethnic cleansing in which more than 20 million people died, victims of executions for criminal and political offenses, murdered in forced labor camps and other horrific ways.

Graves containing the remains of 5,000 to 8,000 people in a nearly five hectare site near Odessa Airport, by the Black Sea, were recently discovered, thanks to the National Memorial Institute of Ukraine (IMNU).

On August 25, 2021, the authorities announced that 29 mass graves had been discovered, containing the mortal remains of victims of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) on a plot of nearly five hectares.

This discovery was made possible by the work of historian Odesius Oleksandr Babich, who found documents relating to the mass executions in Odessa.

The head of the regional branch of the Institute of National Remembrance, Sergui Goutsaliouk, is certain: most of the victims were shot in the head by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police and ancestor of the KGB. Executions that date back to the years 1937-1939, under the Great Stalinist terror.

Also according to Mr. Goutsaliouk, it will not be possible to identify the victims, the documents concerning these purges being classified secret and kept in Moscow, “which will not give them” to Ukraine because of the tense relations between the two countries.

But the Odessa mass grave is a small thing compared to the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who, according to historians in this country, have paid the price of communist totalitarianism: one of the best known killing sites is in the forest near the village of Bykivnia, on the outskirts of Kiev, where tens of thousands of victims were buried.

The IMNU clarified: “We can only speculate on the amount of blood that the Soviet power shed to impose itself on Odessa,” because, according to the documentation, the graves could stretch further into the territory as far as a former military barracks, which would make it the largest communal burial site in all of Ukraine.

It is useful to recount the context of these mass killings: at the end of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin put an end to Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP), in order to restore pure communism.

After 1929 and through the 1930s, church closures, mass arrests of the clergy and active lay religious, and persecution of church attendees reached unprecedented proportions.

The spearhead of this policy was the League of Atheist Militants (LMG) or Society of the Godless or the Union of the Godless, an anti-religious organization formed of Soviet workers and citizens during the period 1925–1947.

Guided by Bolshevik principles and the anti-religious propaganda of the Communist Party, the League fought religion in all its forms, and inculcated the ideal of scientific thought among the working people. The League closed most places of worship in the Soviet Union.

The LMG used tactics of terror against believers to advance their campaign, while covering up their actions under the guise of state protection and the prosecution of law breakers.

Trials were organized against bishops who, along with their clergy and lay parishioners, were denounced as constituting “subversive terrorist bands” which had been unmasked.

The official propaganda of the time demanded banishment of the very concept of God from the Soviet Union. These persecutions were to contribute to the ultimate socialist goal of eliminating religion.

Like the five-year economic plans, government economic planning strategies setting production targets for a period of 5 years were established in the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1991, other projects of the same name had much darker sides.

From 1932 to 1937, Joseph Stalin decreed the “five-year plan of atheism” and the LMG was charged with the complete elimination of all religious expression in the country. Many of these same methods and tactics of terror were also imposed on others whom the regime saw as its ideological enemies.

So in 1932, the Soviet power tightened pressure on the peasants of Ukraine - the kulaks - guilty of doing things only as they see fit and suspected of nationalism. Party representatives increased forced requisitions, including on collective farms.

In 1932, the first effects of this disastrous policy were felt, with a famine which will claim several million victims - approximately seven million according to a low estimate, famine orchestrated by Stalin to suppress any independence will.

Ukrainian historians do not hesitate to give the name of genocide to this murderous famine, planned by the “little father of the people.”