Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

Natalia Kuznetsova silently gazes at the abandoned house constructed by her grandfather, Hasan Dishli Oglu, in the 1930s, reflecting on the events of 1937. At that time, the Soviet secret police apprehended Hasan, then 33 years old, leaving her father, just a young child at the time, with unanswered questions. The whereabouts of Hasan remained a mystery, as he was never heard from again.

As Natalia, now 48 years old, recounts the final days of her father’s life, she remembers his persistent inquiries about her grandfather. He would often wonder why Hasan was shot and where he was taken. “I have no knowledge of Hasan’s whereabouts,” her father would lament. “He was discarded like a dog.”

The house, now scorched and deserted after a recent fire, stands as a desolate structure on a vast plot of land behind their family home in a village near the southwestern Black Sea port city of Batumi. For Natalia’s father, Iakob Kuznetsov, the house served as a daily reminder of Hasan’s disappearance over 80 years ago, symbolizing the intergenerational sorrow that Natalia inherited from her father’s deathbed.

During the Great Terror, the Soviet secret police rounded up Hasan, along with countless other individuals, accusing them of being “enemies of the state.” Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the campaign subjected innocent citizens to mass executions and waves of repression, leading to the deportation or imprisonment of numerous individuals. Many families, like Natalia’s, never discover the fate of their loved ones.

In Georgia alone, it is estimated that nearly 15,000 people lost their lives. However, due to the absence of a dedicated national effort to investigate Soviet crimes and reassess official history, sociologists observe a prevalent amnesia, ambivalence, and even denial among Georgians regarding these executions.

Since Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Joseph Stalin, a native of Georgia, has attained a mythical status in the minds of many compatriots. He is remembered as both a ruthless dictator and a national hero who led the USSR to victory over Nazi Germany, making him a figure of great power and division.

Efforts to uncover the truth about Stalin’s Terror and bring closure to the Georgian people continue to gain momentum. Forensic experts, historians, and the families of the missing are actively engaged in the process of healing a deep national trauma. By employing investigative techniques and raising public awareness, they are tirelessly working towards the identification and recognition of the victims of long-past atrocities.

Boxes of Bones

Boxes filled with bones emit a musty odor in a basement room at Tbilisi State Medical University. The scent is a combination of earth and something else. Within this room, Meri Gonashvili, a member of the Georgian Association of Forensic Anthropology (GAFA), is dressed in black theater scrubs and surgical gloves.

Proudly, the 35-year-old explains that this is Georgia’s inaugural forensic anthropology laboratory. Stacked against a wall are numerous boxes, each containing human bones and labeled with a unique code. It is these boxes that produce the distinct smell.

Meri carefully places a large cardboard box, containing the bones of a single human skeleton, onto a foldaway table. She retrieves fragments of a skull from a brown paper bag and meticulously reassembles them using adhesive tape.

Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

The victim met their demise from a single gunshot to the head. A perfect circular hole at the back of the skull marks the bullet’s entry, while a jagged cavity above the right eyebrow indicates its exit.

Matter-of-factly, the forensic anthropologist states, “We observe signs of trauma, particularly in the occipital region and posterior aspect of the parietals.”

For Meri, this medical terminology acts as an emotional barrier against the tragedy of this individual’s violent death at the hands of the secret police during Soviet Georgia.

“It is inevitable for such tragic events that have occurred within your society not to have a mental impact,” Meri admits. “However, one must bury these emotional burdens within their mind and continue working.”

From another box, Meri retrieves a collection of artifacts discovered at burial sites. Holding up a flattened galosh, she remarks, “This shoe is quite common. Underneath, the stamp ‘USSR’ is printed in Cyrillic, along with the number 37. This could potentially represent the year of manufacture, rather than the shoe size.”

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‘We do it for the families’

The Great Terror or Purge, as it came to be known, saw Stalin authorize the arrests of individuals suspected of plotting against him, following the assassination of senior Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov in 1936. Initially targeting high-ranking party officials, the secret police, known as the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), soon expanded their efforts to include the rounding up of ordinary citizens.

During the late 1930s, anyone suspected of harboring counter-revolutionary thoughts or engaging in activities deemed threatening to the regime became a target. This included educated and respected village elders, clergy, writers, workers, and peasants. The NKVD is estimated to have executed between 700,000 and 1.2 million Soviet citizens between 1937 and 1938.

Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

Within GAFA’s laboratory, the skeletal remains of approximately 150 people have been exhumed from a series of mass graves near Batumi in the autonomous Adjara region of Georgia. These are the first victims to be discovered and their identification is a task that Meri, and others like her, face, which could span a lifetime.

Meri emphasizes the importance of meticulous laboratory work and forensic anthropological analysis before DNA testing can even be considered. She cautions against incorrectly assembling individual remains, as this could lead to erroneous DNA samples being sent to the lab.

However, despite her composed demeanor, Meri’s voice trembles as she reveals the true motivation behind their work. “We do it for the families,” she declares. “We have a debt to these individuals, to the victims, to do everything within our capabilities to reunite them with their families.”

Muslim victims

In 2019, the Georgian Orthodox Church made an announcement regarding the completion of excavations at a site suspected to be an execution ground for Stalin’s victims in the country. The excavation took place at a former Soviet military base in Khelvachauri, where four mass graves were discovered. The church revealed that 150 bodies had been exhumed since 2017, but unfortunately, none of the individuals had been identified. However, it was concerning to academics and researchers working on Soviet repression that forensic experts and historians were not involved in the process.

The decision to reburial the remains raised many unanswered questions, according to the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), a civil society organization. The IDFI had compiled a list of 1,050 individuals executed in Adjara based on surviving Soviet documents. They hoped that by tracing descendants, they could potentially reunite families with the remains.

Meanwhile, Muslim leaders expressed their objection to the unilateral involvement of the Orthodox Church. The Supreme Religious Administration of Muslims of All Georgia approached the idea of a mass Christian reburial cautiously, considering that many of the victims in Adjara were known to be Muslim. During the 1930s, Adjara had a significant Muslim population, and the Soviet authorities specifically targeted religious and ethnic minorities.

Under pressure, the Church decided to halt its reburial plans, and the Adjaran government established a special commission under the health ministry to study the issue further.

Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

Meri, who had learned about the discovery through media reports, offered her assistance. Upon visiting the site, she witnessed the situation firsthand. Someone had exhumed and stored the skeletal human remains in the basement of a church without involving specialists or following proper methodology.

In August 2021, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences invited experts, along with GAFA, to participate in excavating a fifth mass grave at the same military base. During this excavation, they discovered twenty-eight bodies with their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the body.

Meri passionately emphasizes the significance of the bodies’ arrangement and condition when unearthing a gravesite, as they vividly narrate their own stories. She conceals anger within her composed voice as she asserts that they callously discarded those individuals like animals, depriving them of the dignity befitting human beings.

Subsequently, in February 2022, IDFI, in collaboration with the Georgian Orthodox Church, unveiled the findings of a parallel inquiry. This investigation resulted in the recovery of 29 bodies from a sixth mass grave located at the same site. Polish experts conducted the excavation this time, and the exhumed remains exhibited identical indications of execution as the previous discoveries.

At present, two distinct investigations are underway, each led by separate organizations. These inquiries rely on the assistance and resources provided by different international partners, highlighting the diverse avenues pursued in seeking justice and truth.

Carrying a burden for decades

Carrying a burden for many years, locals who had lost their relatives during the 1930s were invited to visit the work of GAFA. Zura Zakharaidze, while gazing into the pit at Grave 5, couldn’t help but shed tears. He held onto the hope that the mass grave would finally reveal its secrets and alleviate the burden that his family had carried for decades.

Zura, 57, residing in the picturesque Adjaristsqali valley, shares sepia and black-and-white photographs of three men dressed in the fashion of the 1930s. Among them is his great-grandfather, Kedem, a bearded man in his 40s, wearing a sheepskin hat.

Another photograph captures Zura’s grandfather, Ismail, and his brother Suleiman, both in their 20s, with neatly trimmed mustaches. Ismail is dressed in a suit and bow tie, while Suleiman dons a military coat and a peaked cap.

According to a story passed down through generations, witnesses recall Zura’s grandfather attending a local village council meeting after Kedem and Suleiman were arrested. Zura explains his grandfather’s defiant words, “If my father and brother are considered enemies, then I too am an enemy.” He adds, “And from that day on, Ismail, my grandfather, vanished.”

IDFI has documented the executions of all three of Zura’s relatives, but his DNA has not yet linked him to any of the recovered remains.

“Our great-grandmother, my father’s grandmother, Aishe Tavdgeridze, endured immense suffering,” Zura reveals. “Her tears never ceased, and our family has carried the weight of this tremendous tragedy to this day.”

Zura’s determination to find his missing ancestors extends to assisting others facing the same plight. Through his Adjara Memorial foundation, established by his father in 1997, he collaborates with the Adjaran commission to locate the families of victims or connect them with the commission.

“All the recovered remains should undergo DNA analysis, and the search for other repressed individuals should continue,” Zura emphasizes.

Analysing the remains

Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

The dark secrets of the skeletons are slowly being revealed through careful analysis.

Meri explains that the NKVD documented the crimes, and she possesses 28 execution documents from December 27, 1937.

Meri’s team suspected that these documents might pertain to the victims they excavated from Grave 5, and their hypothesis proved to be correct.

By collaborating with a genetics laboratory in Poland, they were able to identify three individuals through their bone samples. These samples matched the DNA of surviving family members who were located by a Georgian television producer working on a documentary about the project.

However, progress has encountered obstacles.

The method they used to cross-reference DNA, while relatively affordable, has limitations and cannot definitively establish a connection between the other remains and reference samples from living descendants.

Meri explains that they require more families to participate, but it is challenging to find a positive match since they are now dealing with second or third generations, such as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

To overcome this problem, a different DNA sequencing technology that is more effective in determining more distant relationships could be the solution. However, this alternative technology is up to five times more expensive to operate, and their Polish partners have covered the costs thus far.

Meanwhile, the investigation to identify the victims of Grave 6 has come to a halt. The IDFI team has been unable to finance DNA analysis for any of the 29 skeletal remains discovered there.

Anton Vacharadze, the head of memory and disinformation studies at IDFI, expresses his deep regret over this situation, especially since forensic analysis has revealed the presence of a female individual among the skeletal remains.

According to the official list from Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs archive, the archive documents 29 individuals executed on March 15, 1938, with one of them being a female. Given that historical records indicate only 11 women executed in Adjara during that period, it is likely that a match exists between the 29 victims and the document from the archive.

Vacharadze states that the DNA analysis for 29 remains will exceed $20,000, making it unaffordable for a non-governmental organization. Additionally, the state does not provide funding for this procedure. Furthermore, there is a challenge regarding outreach. Despite the identification of 1,050 executed individuals in Adjara by IDFI researchers, there is no centralized contact database for their living descendants. Moreover, there is a lack of a coordinated communication strategy to encourage more individuals to step forward for DNA analysis.

Hasan: the man with the leather boots

A portrait of Hasan, the man with the leather boots, sits on a side table in the Kuznetsova family’s living room.The photograph captures him in his twenties, exuding a youthful charm. He wears a military-style tunic and knee-high riding boots, reminiscent of Natalia’s fondly remembered grandfather, Hasan. In the picture, he strikes a slightly awkward pose, with his hands on his hips and his thumbs tucked behind his waist belt. This single photograph is the only visual representation they have of him.

Seated at the dining room table are Natalia and her mother, Eteri Kuznetsova, who is now 69 years old. Eteri sighs as she recalls that her husband, Iakob, was merely two years old when Hasan was taken away. The image of Hasan with his distinctive leather boots is how Iakob always remembered his father.

In 2022, Meri collected DNA samples from the family for reference. When the lab results arrived, it was confirmed that Hasan was among the victims discovered at Grave 5.

In June 2023, Eteri and Natalia had a meeting with the Adjaran special commission. The court had granted a death certificate for Hasan, and the commission concluded that there were no longer any reasons to withhold his body.

The women emerged from the meeting with a sense of triumph. Hasan’s remains had been resting in a cardboard box under the supervision of GAFA at BAU International University Batumi for nearly three years.

However, Eteri couldn’t help but feel a lingering regret. Her husband, Iakob, who passed away in 2020, would not be able to witness his father’s return home.

Back at their family home, Natalia discovers a copy of Hasan’s execution document from the state archive. She delicately runs her finger across the faded Cyrillic print.

“Dishli Oglu, Hasan Yakubovich. Shot. But who were the individuals who signed the execution order?” she wonders aloud, pointing to the signatures of three Soviet officials known as a troika. These officials held the power to determine whether a person would live or die.

Stalin’s ghost

During the 1950s and 1960s, under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policy, families of the victims received letters that posthumously overturned their relatives’ convictions. This marked the official end of the story for many.

However, unlike other post-Soviet bloc countries such as Poland, the former East Germany, Romania, and the Baltic states, independent Georgia did not implement a truth and reconciliation program after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Civil society organizations in Georgia, including IDFI, are determined to illuminate this dark chapter in Georgian history, where families endured executions and forced exile. However, there is little support for a public inquiry into Soviet-era repression. Many in society view these efforts as a waste of time, as they believe there are more pressing issues to address, such as poverty, unemployment, and the fear of a return to conflict due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Successive Georgian governments have also been reluctant to support research into this period. They prefer to focus on the country’s victories and achievements rather than dwell on the traumatic past. Additionally, there are still influential individuals in politics who are descendants of Communist Party members and do not want to expose the crimes committed by their ancestors.

This creates an endless cycle of power, where families who were active during that period continue to exert influence in the present.

Today, the ongoing debate surrounding Stalin and the broader Soviet legacy continues to be a contentious issue. SovLab, a prominent institute dedicated to studying Georgia’s Soviet past, has accused the government of increasingly restricting access to state archives, pointing out limitations in what the education system can teach.

SovLab and other organizations argue that Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has weaponized history in an attempt to rehabilitate Stalin. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns significantly impacted public discourse in Georgia, further amplifying their influence through collaboration with the country’s own political elite. Due to the lack of informed and open debate, the crimes committed during the Soviet era remain poorly understood and even denied, according to Tinatin Japaridze, the author of the book “Stalin’s Millennials” published in 2022.

Despite this, polls consistently show that many Georgians still hold Stalin in high regard, particularly due to his status as the most powerful leader to have emerged from the country.

Japaridze’s book argues that a post-Soviet identity crisis persists in Georgia, with Stalin at the center. In this context, his presence is likened to an ever-present ghost haunting a divided society. She also draws from her own family’s experience of repression, highlighting the execution of her great-aunt Nina Chichua-Bedia and her husband Erik Bedia. Erik Bedia, as the editor in chief of the Komunisti newspaper, played a role in propagandizing and supporting the regime.

“We, as a family, were not just victims. We were somewhat complicit in these processes,” Japaridze explains. “As a country, we need to accept a certain degree of responsibility for everything that transpired. The victims who perished as a result of these purges and repressions were not solely the victims of Joseph Stalin. There were also those who remained silent on the sidelines.”

Furthermore, when it comes to investigating mass graves, authorities seem more focused on reburial rather than identifying and excavating additional burial sites.

“We will not wait long,” says Nino Nizharadze, the health minister of Adjara and the head of the special commission.

Dacha of death

Meri finds herself standing in front of a line of barbed wire at the Khelvachauri military base, facing a decaying Soviet housing block that once housed the garrison. The observation tower in front of her leans precariously, its twisted frame hinting at an impending collapse. This place holds a dark history of mass murder.

Meri reveals that the gravesites are not limited to this area alone. Georgia is home to many more, with approximately fifteen thousand missing individuals who still need to be located.

While other parts of the country, including the capital city of Tbilisi, have known gravesites, their exact locations remain uncertain.

Rumors circulate about a mass grave situated within the grounds of an opulent country home, originally constructed to accommodate the main regional office of the Soviet leadership. This building, adorned with a combination of European, Soviet neoclassical, and Georgian architectural styles, boasts a grand colonnade, terraces, and balconies. It sits atop a steep hill in the densely forested Adjaran countryside.

Akhmed Mekeidze, a 67-year-old individual, gazes through the iron entrance gate that leads to what locals refer to as Beria’s dacha. The name pays homage to Lavrentiy Beria, a prominent leader of the Communist Party who assumed the role of head of the NKVD in 1938. Beria was responsible for overseeing the political purges in Georgia during the period known as the Terror.

Today, the dacha is under private ownership and inaccessible to the general public.

Akhmed, with his hair now silver and his moustache still retaining a hint of auburn from his youth, shares a disturbing account. He discloses rumors suggesting that this very place used to function as a slaughterhouse, where authorities either brought and distributed prisoners or where they met their tragic end. Akhmed recalls his grandfather’s brothers mentioning a foul stench emanating from the area for an extended period, indicating improper burial practices.

Despite being born two decades after his grandfather’s disappearance in 1936, Akhmed vividly remembers his grandmother’s constant tears during his childhood. He made a solemn promise to her that he would bring his grandfather back.

Akhmed worked as a farm laborer and engaged in illegal activities by reselling goods on the side to earn extra money. As soon as he accumulated enough funds, he embarked on journeys to remote penal colonies scattered across the vast Soviet empire, hoping to find his deported namesake rather than discovering his execution.

However, in 2019, he stumbled upon his grandfather’s name as the 51st entry on the IDFI’s list of victims from Adjara. Four years later, in 2023, he provided a DNA test, anxiously awaiting a response that still eludes him.

Akhmed deliberately ignores the intimidating mountain dog that is barking fiercely from behind the gate. Despite his hopes that the dacha might hold the key to his grandfather’s disappearance, he acknowledges that the remains could be located anywhere.

If his grandmother, who passed away in the 1980s, had lived to witness the return of her husband’s remains, Akhmed believes she would have found solace.

Perhaps one day, the owners will grant permission for experts to investigate the dacha. Until then, Akhmed has reserved a space for his grandfather next to his grandmother in the family plot at the local cemetery.

“As long as I am alive,” Akhmed declares, “I will strive to fulfill that request and lay him to rest alongside his wife, his mother, and his two children.”

A funeral

Georgians identify victims in Stalin’s mass graves

Due to the current lack of funding and a prevailing political indifference, it is highly unlikely that the remaining victims of Stalin in Georgia will ever be located or even identified.

In light of this situation, Zura expresses his hope that the local government will allocate funds for the construction of a large tomb on the military base, which can serve as a sacred place.

“We are still unaware of the exact location of our ancestors’ resting place, but we desire a place where we can pay tribute to their memory,” he explains.

The families that Meri maintains regular contact with all share a common wish. “They long for the return of their loved ones,” she states.

During a hot and humid weekend last June, Meri made a trip to Batumi to assist Natalia and Eteri in preparing Hasan’s remains for burial.

Although many Adjarans have converted to Orthodox Christianity since Georgia’s independence, including Natalia and her brother Valery, the family honored Hasan’s faith by giving him a Muslim funeral.

Meri and Natalia carefully remove Hasan’s remains from the container and place them on a pristine burial cloth. Under the bright sunlight, Meri meticulously reconstructs his skeleton.

In the shade of Hasan’s dilapidated house, Eteri, dressed in mourning attire, sits silently while the imam recites a prayer from the Quran.

Akhmed and Zura arrive to pay their respects. The unearthing of Adjara’s mass graves has brought together the families of Stalin’s victims, forging a sense of community among them.

Amidst the bustling traffic, the pallbearers solemnly carry the casket along the main road towards a nearby cemetery.

While lowering the coffin into a neighboring grave, Hasan’s portrait rests against the tombstone of his son Iakob.

Eteri gently caresses her husband’s image, engraved on the black granite. “Hasan has left us with precious children,” she sobs, “and you have left me with a precious family.”

Zura reflects, “I have mixed emotions as if I were burying my own missing relatives. But now, we have started to find hope.”

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