Online Conference - Discovery, Archaeological Research and Commemoration of the Mass Burial Sites of the Victims of the Soviet Regime – International Experience

News | Memory and Disinformation Studies | Article 3 February 2021

On 3 February 2021 the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), with the financial support of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, held the online conference “Discovery, Archaeological Research and Commemoration of the Mass Burial Sites of the Victims of the Soviet Regime – International Experience”. The speakers’ list included: Giorgi Kldiashvili, Executive Director of IDFI, Linda Norris, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Irina Flige, Memorial, Saint Petersburg, Volodymyr Birchak, Center for Research on the Liberation Movement, Ukraine and Tomasz Borkowski, Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). The Head of Memory and Disinformation Studies direction, Anton Vatchatadze moderated the discussion.


The Executive Director of IDFI, Giorgi Kldiashvili opened the meeting and briefly described the situation related to the mass graves discovered in Adjara. He thanked the participants of the discussion as well as the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida for their support.


In 2019, the Batumi and Lazeti Diocese discovered a burial site of around 150 persons in Khelvachauri, near the city of Batumi. Giorgi Kldiashvili mentioned that this discovery is a very important event for Georgia. Study of the stories of the repressed persons, their proper commemoration and immortalization is an important and urgent issue in the post-Soviet region. In many countries, on the execution and burial sites, there are complexes of memorials and the governments support the commemoration of the repressed, educational and the other types of events. All of these have a key role in the formation of the collective memory of the countries and the rethinking of the totalitarian past. For this, the graves discovered in Adjara require appropriate attention from the state, church, researchers, scientific community and society in general.


Giorgi Kldiashvili also provided information about IDFI’s activities for studying the discovered mass graves as well as the activities the organization considers important to be accomplished in the nearest future. After the discovery of mass graves in Khelvachauri, first of all, IDFI conducted research at MIA Archives of Georgia. Based on the research, the list of 650 executed persons increased as long as through the in-depth study of the lists, IDFI found out that, in total, 1050 persons were executed. IDFI also attended the first meeting of the commission established at the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs of Adjara, where the positions of the different parties involved were expressed for the first time. Due to the fact that, for several reasons, the work of the commission was not effective enough, the organization sent several recommendations to the Government of Adjara for enhancing the effectiveness of the commission. Based on IDFI’s interview with the Director of Saint Petersburg Memorial, Irina Flige, who was also a speaker at the conference, the organization has listed several recommendations:


- It is necessary to start national mobilization and call for the descendants of the repressed to take DNA tests, which then will be compared to the DNA samples already taken from the discovered bodies. The Polish model is the best example in this direction. They call for the descendants of the repressed to take DNA tests, covered by the state, through newspapers, TV, internet and other information platforms. 


- 3D portraits of skulls should be taken and a relevant database and visual materials should be created.


- Women should be identified among the discovered bodies for establishing the exact date of execution of the buried persons.


- Agreement regarding the construction of common memorial/pantheon should be achieved. According to Irina Flige’s opinion, with which IDFI agrees, the Memorial Complex of the Tuskulenai Peace Park in Lithuania can be considered as the best example. This is the pantheon in which all of the discovered bodies are placed together. All of the tombs have 3D photos while the identified ones also have names, surnames and the dates of birth and death.


After Girogi Kldiashvili, Linda Norris addressed the attendants of the conference and provided brief information about the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which currently covers 65 countries all over the world. She emphasized that the main goal of the Coalition is to create memorials through dialogue among different interested parties. As she mentioned, the dialogue, sharing ideas and results is important for overcoming differences and controversies. For this, the organization supports IDFI’s project “Commemoration of the First Mass Graves of the Victims of the Soviet Regime Discovered in Georgia” aimed at raising public awareness about the discovered mass graves in Adjara, enhancing dialogue between the local Muslim and Christian population and attracting government’s attention to this issue.


After the welcome speeches, keynote Speaker Irina Flige (“Saint Petersburg Memorial”) talked about the documentation of executions and burials and the experience of her organization in this direction. She mentioned that there are three different documents related to the mass executions in the Soviet Union: 1. Normative acts that regulated the procedures of executions; 2. Reports that describe the details of particular executions. They were usually signed by the executioners and prosecutors and 3. Personal acts that included verdict, name of convicted, date of execution and time. The normative acts, warrants and reports were usually combined and sent to the central NKVD, where they were kept in the archives. However, most of the personal acts were not found. Moreover, in Russia, the majority of documents related to the mass executions remain classified and, for this, the identification of mass burial sites is still a challenge for the researchers. Irina Flige also emphasized that the important documents related to mass graves are preserved at the Special Department of the NKVD Archives and the Archives of Military Unit in Moscow. Moreover, she mentioned that the documents created after 1956 also contain important information that can be useful for studying the mass graves as they include notes and personal stories about the possible execution sites.


Following Irina Flige, Volodymyr Birchak, Center for Research on the Liberation Movement, Ukraine talked about the search and discovery of burial places of victims of mass repressions in Ukraine. He said that, usually, the discovery of burial sites is a result of organized expeditions or construction works. Volodymyr Birchak provided information about the five burial sites discovered in Ukraine in 2018-2019. First one was Drogobich, where, in 2019, 33 bodies were found. As Volodymyr Birchak mentioned, presumably, they were political prisoners who were shot as the German army was approaching in 1939-1941 or the victims of Soviet repressions in 1944. Another mass burial site is Bolshevtsi, where 59 bodies were discovered in 2019 as a result of the excavations carried out by the organization “Pamyats”. Notably, 21 of them were children and their skulls were beaten by blunt items. Moreover, there were no personal belongings found at the place. Third mass grave Dubno was found in 2019. 29 bodies were placed there, among whom 7 were women. The discovered bodies had bullet marks and personal belongings were also found. It has been concluded that this grave dates back to 1941. The fourth mass grave was discovered in Shumsk in 2018 by the organization “Dolya”. This is a military burial site where 14 bodies were found. Telling from their uniforms, they were the militants of the Ukrainian Resurrection Army. The fifth mass grave was found in Lviv in 20198. This grave belonged to the Transfer Prison N25 where prisoners from different prisons of Ukraine were sent before their transfer to another prison. 51 bodies were discovered there among which 11 were children. Based on the study of personal belongings, the researchers assume that monks and a priest were among them. However, presumably, they were not killed. They died in prison and were buried there. This site currently belongs to the Museum of Terror. Volodymyr Birchak also emphasized the effective work and reforms of the Ukrainian archives which has contributed to the study and the discovery of the new mass burial sites.


Next speaker was Tomasz Borkowski, Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) who talked about the research activities of IPN in the field of searching, discovering and identifying graves and remembrance sites. He provided information about the activities of the Office for Search and Identification at IPN and talked about archaeological excavations at the Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw, where the soldiers who fell victim to communists are buried and the process of their identification. Also, Tomasz Borkowski mentioned a former German military airfield in Alt Grottkau from where the Polish underground fighters fought with the Soviet army in the 1940s and those who were killed, were also buried there. Various personal belongings and other items were also found at the site together with the 44 bodies. IPN actively worked on their identification and visual reconstruction of huts standing at the German military airfield. The victims who have been identified, are already reburied. Also, a memorial is built at the place to commemorate the victims. Tomasz Borkowski also provided information about the joint research with Georgian researchers carried out in Rustavi in 2013, where presumably the victims of Stalin’s terror were buried as long as some human bones were discovered there. IPN found some items such as coins and guns as well as mixed skeletons of different individuals. In 2018, IPN conducted another excavation but did not find a mass grave although 56 individual graves were discovered. So, it was concluded that the place was an old, forgotten cemetery.


Following the speeches made by the invited speakers, Anton Vatcharadze provided additional information about the results of the research activities carried out by IDFI for studying the mass grave discovered in Adjara. Based on the data of the MIA Archives of Georgia, it can be concluded that 1050 fell victim to the Soviet repressions in 1937-38 in Adjara out of whom 11 were women. As for the ethnic background, the research showed that all of the repressed individuals, born in the end of the 1800s or the beginning of the 1900s in Batumi and Adjara, have Muslim names and patronyms. The number of such individuals is 464. All of the individuals who have Georgian surnames were born outside of Adjara, mainly in Guria region, and then they moved to Adjara. The number of such persons is 291. 316 repressed individuals were ethnic Germans, Armenians, Russian and others who were born in the different parts of the Russian Empire and lived in Adjara, 3 were Abkhazians and 19 individuals remain unidentified until now. As for the religious affiliation, it should also be considered that, since the 1920s, the majority of people in the Soviet Union became atheist and it is very difficult to establish which confession different individuals belonged to during their execution. Notably, 151 out of 1050 repressed were executed based under Stalin’s direct order.


At the end of the conference, the Questions & Answers session was held, at which the attendants of the discussion had a chance to ask questions to the invited speakers. The questions mainly concerned the procedures for the identification of the discovered bodies at the mass burial sites. The Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs of Adjara Autonomous Republic, Zurab Teneishvili asked Irina Flige how bodies were identified in Russia. According to Irina Flige’s response, personal identification is not going in Russia but the historians and researchers manage to carry out collective identification. This means that although they cannot identify individuals, they establish their ethnic or religious affiliation, date of death, etc. Additionally, Rafal Michlinski, the representative of the Institute of National Remembrance, Poland asked Volodymyr Birchak whether the victims in Ukraine are being identified by DNA or not. Volodymyr Birchak responded that DNA testing is difficult as long as the researchers should know the exact identity of the person who was shot, and then look for relatives for DNA testing and comparison. For this, apart from the discovered artefacts, documents from archives, memories and oral stories are used for identification.


Anton Vatcharadze also asked Irina Flige about the opinion voiced in the documentary film by Rustavi 2 that the victims were sometimes executed at Beria’s dacha. Anton Vatcharadze expressed doubt that due to the big number of execution sites, stories about shootings at dacha were just myths. Irina Flige responded that this question encompasses two aspects: 1. To what extent can we trust such stories? 2. Is it worth to start excavations at such places? She said that the best example is “komunarka” near Moscow where the dacha of Soviet official, Yagoda was located. However, it should be considered that the executions at his house started after his arrest. Irina Flige mentioned that such oral stories should be studied in details. However, as long as a long time has passed since then, they need to proved documentally, so that the researchers will not lose time in vain.


The head of the Department of History and Archaeology at the Shota Rustaveli State University of Batumi, Oleg Jibashvili also asked a question. He said that many specialists were skeptical about the coins in the mass grave discovered near Batumi and considered that grave did not belong to the repressed in 1937-1938. They think that personal belongings were confiscated from prisoners. Irina Flige responded that there are many graves where many personal belongings, including coins are found but there are also the graves without any materials. As she said, at Sandarmokh - the place where she worked, there were no personal belongings found because before the executions, clothes were taken off the victims. However, there are also other burial sites (for instance Chelyabinsk) where many personal belongings were found.


The discussion was successful. International participants expressed readiness to help Georgia in studying the mass graves at any time. IDFI will try to coordinate this issue in the future and give new recommendations to the local and central government. Up to 40 Georgian and foreign people interested in this issue attended the conference. Notably, the fact that the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs of Adjara, Zurab Teneishvili and the Deputy Head of the Administrative Department of the General Staff at the Ministry of Defense, Paata Devdariani attended the meeting shows that the government pays attention to the issues related to the mass grave discovered in Adjara.


The recording of the conference is available here. Moreover, you can find the recording of the Online Discussion on the Issues Related to the First Mass Grave of the Victims of the Soviet Regime in Adjara held on 22 December 2020 using this link. The detailed information about the above-mentioned discussion is available here.


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