Tag Archives: Red Army

Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Looking in from the entrance to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

The Second World War—and in Leningrad, the 900-day siege of the city by German forces—was one of the defining events of Russian history (yes, I’ve written about the war a lot lately.).

To better understand the role of the Great Patriotic War and the blockade in St. Petersburg’s history, I went to the most tragic monument to the human cost of World War II: Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Click here for photographs from my visit to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I arrived at the cemetery, a half hour walk down Проспект Непокорённых (Avenue of the Unvanquished) in northern St. Petersburg, expecting rows of neat tomb stones marked with Russian names and tragic end-dates from 1941 to 1945. I expected Hammer and Sickles chiseled into stone monuments to brave soldiers alongside the graves of innocent civilians who perished in the blockade.

My vision of military cemeteries was shaped by places like Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.

But Piskaryovskoye is nothing like Arlington.

I entered the cemetery between two rectangular white-stone buildings. Inscribed on one’s wall: Пискарёвское мемориальное кладбище – Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

I approached the eternal flame that burns red just beyond the entrance—it was hardly visible in the bright sunlight—and looked out over the cemetery in the small valley below.

At the far side, about a quarter mile away, stood a dark statue of Mother Motherland (The name of Mother Russia during Soviet times). Between her and me, I saw three parallel pathways, nearly empty of people, lined by grass and rosebushes. I did not see any tombstones, but thought they must be hidden behind the trees to the sides of the paths.

Descending into the cemetery, I suddenly understood the absence of tombstones.

The grass to the left and right of the paths covered rows of identical rectangular mounds, each marked by a stone inscribed with the year 1942, a Hammer and Sickle, and a leaf.

I had found my chiseled Hammer and Sickles.

But they marked mass graves, 186 in all, containing nearly 500,000 people—more deaths than the United States suffered in the entirety of the Second World War, more people than are buried in all the rolling hills of Arlington.

Never before had I seen mass graves. They struck me as somehow more tragic than traditional tombstones; a jumble of former lives, anonymously lying under green grass in the late June sun.

A few plastic flowers stemmed from the fronts of the graves—strange, bright contrasts to the sombre music playing from hidden speakers.

I made my way down the length of the cemetery, slowly passing the still mounds, til I reached the towering Mother Motherland.

On the stone behind her, there is a memorial poem (translation courtesy of my Lonely Planet guidebook):

Here lie the people of Leningrad

Here are the citizens – men, women, and children

And besides them the Red Army soldiers

Who gave their lives

Defending you, Leningrad,

Cradle of the Revolution.

Their noble names we cannot number

So many lie beneath the eternal granite

But of those honored by this stone

Let no one forget

Let nothing be forgotten.

After pausing to make out what I could of the poem in Russian, I began walking through the rest of the cemetery. (I’ll soon have photos online with more detailed information about the cemetery.)

The mass graves are numbered—I wanted find the last one, number 186.

This goal brought me to the far back corner, far from Mother Motherland, surrounded by trees and grassy mounds of dead.

After some wandering, I found the 186th mass grave. I stopped there a moment, and wondered. How many people were buried under the rectangular mound?

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

There are 186 mass graves in the cemetery.

As I thought, I picked up a small stone and placed it atop the grave marker.

Over 2000, I figured. And then I made my way back, up, and out of the cemetery.

Click here for my photos from Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.

Russia tries to control interpretations of its past

For the Soviet Union, history was always a touchy subject. The state derived its legitimacy, at least in part, from a historical narrative that portrayed the Bolshevik revolutionaries as embodying the aspirations of the vast majority of Russians—not as a minority imposing their will through violence.

The Soviet Union couldn’t even stomach criticism that avoided the state’s founding myths. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev was harassed and expelled from the Communist party in the late 1960’s for writing a book critical of Stalin, for instance. There was one acceptable version of history—the one that suited the interests of the state.

And now, it seems the Russian government is working to shape the past once again. The St. Petersburg Times reports Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is creating a committee charged with “collecting and analyzing information about attempts to diminish Russia’s prestige by falsifying history.”

The initiative may simply be a piece in formulating a broader, more coherent national approach to Soviet-era history, particularly the Stalin era (sort of a curriculum standardization). Or it may be a political move, with little real effect. Of course, it could also have real consequences for the study of history in Russia.

Analysts quoted by the St. Petersburg Times seemed to have differing opinions. One believes that the committee may open more archives to researchers, making it beneficial in the long run. Another analyst, however, said the committee might lead to, “defense of the historical myth about Russia in the interests of the country’s rulers.”

Among Russians, memories of the Communist era are mixed.

While the horror of Stalin’s reign is acknowledged, there are still mixed feelings towards him here. Stalin embarked on massive purges and collectivized agriculture, killing millions, but also pursued large-scale industrialization and defeated the Nazis.

The text at the Museum of the Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg—a glimpse into how the state wishes to present its past—is quite critical of Stalin and his purges. But it does not mention some of the most undeniably evil portions of his reign. The Holodomor famine that occurred in the early 1930s in Ukraine, killing millions, is absent. Stalin’s aggressive collectivization of agriculture led to the famine, and Ukrainians consider the famine to be a genocide committed against their people. Russia rejects this claim.

In a related development, Russia’s parliament is likely to pass a bill that would criminalize criticism of the actions of the Red Army during World War II, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Penalties for such criticism, which is often made in former Soviet republics, could reach five years in prison. Foreigners who accuse the Red Army of atrocities (See: Katyn Massacre and Soviet War Crimes) could be punished upon entering Russia.

For a slightly different view of Medvedev’s committee, let’s turn to Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s communist party. In a translated article headlined Russia will never let anyone falsify history of Second World War, Pravda celebrates the government’s effort to combat portrayals of Soviet soldiers as looters and rapists.

“As a matter of fact, we find ourselves in the situation when we must defend the historic truth and even prove the facts that seemed to be absolutely obvious not so long ago. It can be very hard and even disgusting at times, but we must do it. We must not turn a blind eye on the terrible truth of the war. We will never let anyone cast doubt on the deeds of our nation,” Medvedev said, according to the paper.

Neither Pravda nor the St. Petersburg Times made it clear exactly which “correct” version of history the government will promote.