Stalin purges remembered

Millions of Russians and East Europeans were executed or imprisoned in labour camps during the Soviet era, particularly when Joseph Stalin was in power. Parts of the continent are still recovering from the experience. October 30 has become the day when vi

President Vladimir Putin has visited a former execution site to attend a memorial service in the Butovo district of south Moscow.

The Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksy II, also attended the ceremony.

After the service, the President and the Patriarch laid flowers at the memorial to the victims of Stalin's dictatorship.

“Such tragedies accrue when ideas, however appealing they are, are set higher than human values, rights and freedoms. And because of its scale this tragedy is of special importance for Russia,” Mr Putin said.    

Lubyanka Square in Moscow, where the old KGB had its headquarters, is where the relatives gather to light candles and lay flowers. 

Irina Vysochina was only five years old in 1937. But even as a child she felt the menacing atmosphere of the times.

“I remember my parents saying every day: So-and-so was taken away. Relatives and friends were disappearing. Chaos was all around,” she said.

Rostislav Mikolyuk's father was 46 when he was arrested in March 1938. Rostislav remembers how he wasn't allowed to write letters and how his mother was thrown out of the city as “an enemy of the people”. 

In 1957 he wrote to the Supreme Council to inquire about his father’s whereabouts. Much later he was called to the Internal Affairs Department in the city of Ufa.

“There I was told that in 1942 my father was sentenced for 20 years. He died in the labour camp from kidney disease,” Mr Mikolyuk said.

In just two years, from 1937 to 1938, about 1.5 million people were arrested and 700,000 executed by the Soviet authorities.

But political repressions had been going on since before the Soviet revolution.

However, it was the Bolsheviks and the feared secret police, known as Cheka, that turned it into a machine.

Arrests, deportations, and killings reached their peak in the 1930s. By then a network of prisons, camps and colonies had been created.

All of this was justified by Joseph Stalin's belief that the class struggle intensifies as the nation progresses towards socialism.

There was also a huge practical benefit in having a large pool of slave labour. Russia had an urgent need at the time to develop remote regions quickly and at the lowest cost.

The Soviet leadership didn't stop the repressions at the end of World War Two, despite suffering enormous losses in the conflict.

Out of the almost two million Soviet prisoners who returned from Germany, half were sent to labour camps. 

It wasn't until 1956 that Stalin's 'personality cult' was denounced as a political crime and the mass release of prisoners began.