Tuesday, 23 October 2007


Three miles south of the MKAD, just off the Kashira highway, lies the village of Vidnoe. Nearby is the hamlet of Sukhanovo. It used to be part of the vast estate of the same name, which was owned by the famous Volkonsky family. In the middle of the hamlet lies a seventeenth-century monastery, called St Catherine’s. It is a peaceful spot, with all the buildings carefully restored in recent years. The visitor would never know that this place used to be the most feared prison in the whole Gulag system.

Nearby stands the neo-classical mansion which was built in the early nineteenth century for Prince Peter Volkonsky, who had commanded the Russian troops at Austerlitz and subsequently became Chief of Staff in the Russian Army. After the revolution, a desirable property like that was naturally taken over by the new rulers, whose notions of proletarian equality were flexible enough to include setting themselves up in the palaces of former princes.

In the case of Sukhanovo, it was Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the NKVD who ended up here. In 1936, after allegedly plotting to kill Stalin, Yagoda was succeeded in his grisly post and princely properties by the strangest of all the blood-thirsty men who ran the NKVD: Nikolai Yezhov. It was he who, when out walking in the grounds of Sukhanovo, spotted the monastery and thought it would make an ideal prison.

It was (then) surrounded by fields and therefore far from prying eyes, yet it was close enough to Moscow to be easily reachable for an evening’s torturing, which was what both he and his successor, Lavrenti Beria, used to like to do when winding down after a hard day’s arrest-warrant signing at the Lubyanka. So common did this practice become in the 1940s, that the prison became known popularly as “Beria’s dacha”.

Yezhov supervised the Great Purge in 1937, but was soon on the other side of the wire himself as an inmate of what was by then known as Sukhanovka. In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn says that prisoners in Lefortovo, Butyrka or the Lubyanka were told that if they did not co-operate with their interrogators, they would be sent to Sukhanovka, which was “the most terrible prison the NKVD had”.

Yezhov was only 5 foot tall, but he used to threaten his victims by making a strangling gesture and saying, “I may be small but I have hands of steel, because they are the hands of Stalin.” After he was incarcerated in the underground cellars of Sukhanovka, he pleaded with his interrogator, “Shoot me, if you like, but do not make me suffer agonies.” When he was finally taken away to be shot, in February 1940—in a building in Varsonofevski Lane, not far from Kuznetsky Most metro station—he collapsed completely. His legs gave way and he had to be dragged screaming, crying and hiccupping uncontrollably to the execution room, with its sloping floor (to ease the task of washing the blood away) and wall of pine logs (to absorb the bullets).

Today, St Catherine’s Monastery echoes to the sound of the Orthodox liturgy, rather than the wet slap of rubber rods on blood-drenched bodies. When the church is silent, the only sounds are of the wind in the trees round about and the quiet slop-slopping of the shoes of the monks as they cross the quadrangle inside the huge, ancient walls. The old interrogation block now contains expensively modernised “cells”, as they are called without any sense of irony, for the monks. Everything inside is warm, clean, carpeted and tastefully furnished. The refectory has beautifully painted Biblical scenes on all the walls. The kitchen is a miracle of stainless steel and micro-wave ovens.

The only evidence of the monastery’s hideous past is a cross and memorial stone in the gardens and, if you look further, outside the walls a pair of crumbling, two-storey buildings which used to house the prison guards.

After Beria’s execution in 1953, shortly after the death of Stalin, Sukhanovka ceased to be a political prison. In 1958 it was turned into a psychiatric prison. Then it became a barracks for the nearby training college for the Moscow militsia (they train these guys?!). In 1991 it was returned to the church, though in a ruinous condition. The rumour is that the main building had, in the 1940s been used as a human incinerator.

The restoration task was enormous. But teams of volunteers, funded generously by the church, have undone the damage of the locust years. It is hard to believe that the place was as smart as this even in 1918 when it ceased to be a monastery (the church was used until 1931). There are lots of excellent photographs showing all stages of the reconstruction work in the lavishly-illustrated book which visitor can buy for a mere 170 roubles in the kiosk on site. It describes the whole history of the monastery from its foundation in 1658 to 2002 when the memorial to the Stalinist repression was unveiled. These can be seen in the foreground in the top photograph.

Sukhanovo - the monks' refectory

Sukhanovo - the prison

Above is one of the two, identical buildings which used to house the guards for the prison, now decaying in the middle of a forest of maple trees. The lower picture shows the block which used to house the prison cells.

Sukhanova for petrol heads

Round the back, beside the garages, I found an old ZiM which dated, I was told, from 1955. Apparently, it still runs. Beria used to drive a Packard. Even if this car had been older, it would have been too modest for the great man (who, incidentally, played football for Georgia in his youth).

Butovo - the killing ground

From Sukhanovo it is less then ten kilometres to a place called Butovo, where in the 1930s there was an NKVD firing range, or полигон ("polygon"). In 1937, at the time of the Great Terror, Nikolai Yezhov, the successor to Yagoda and Beria's predecessor as head of the Soviet secret police, started shooting people on a huge scale at this site, which was then in woodland fifteen miles or so from the then southern edge of Moscow. Many of the prisoners who had been tortured and/or tried at Sukhanovka prison, were transported the short distance east to Butovo where they were shot and their bodies shoveled into mass graves. One of them is shown in this picture. The heaped ground, perhaps fifteen feet wide and a foot high, stretches fifty yards or so through the trees. In total, there were nearly 21,000 people shot here between early 1937 and late 1938. The place is now a memorial ground, and was visited by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in November 2007.

Butovo - the killing ground

This picture shows part of the display board near the entrance to the Butovo Polygon. The blue strips show the tranches where the bodies were buried. The whole area is perhaps five or six acres. The previous picture is of the long, slightly kinked trench to the left of the plan around and slightly below the middle.

Butovo - the killing ground

The table is also displayed near the gate at Butovo, and it shows the number of people shot here every day between August 1937 and October 1938, when the madness started to abate, largely due to the increasing lack of any vaguely plausible victims. Alongside are pictures of some of the people killed, as shown above the table here. A beautifully-produced, 500-page book, full of fascinating illustrations and reproduced documents, gives a full history of the tragedy that took place on this spot, along with a great deal of interesting context and background information. Though sold on site, it is probably available only in Russia. Published in 2007, it is called Бутовский Полигон: Книга Памяти жертв политических репрессий ("Butovsky polygon: a book in memory of the victims of political repression"). The ISBN is 5-93547-008-X. Below is an illustration in the book. It is the signature of a man called Pavel Troitsky, on the left as it was before his arrest, on 29 October 1937, and, on the right, as it was on the night after he was interrogated.

Butovo - the killing ground

This is the cosy, intimate little church which has been erected near the gate of the Polygon. Across the road is a large, more modern church which was completed this year, and is shown below. The lady in the photograph would not let me enter until she had finished sweeping the steps. There were no other visitors on the occasion I went to Butovo. In side the church was, to my taste, very beautiful.

But, for all the archaeological work that has been done at Butovo, it is not known just how extensive the mass graves are. It is known that some extend outside the fence of the current memorial park, out into the forest which used to surround the area. Today, there are modern houses all around, and the threat apparently exists that some will be built onto of as yet undiscovered mass graves. Below is picture of one of the graves which extends outside the fence, into the as yet undisturbed woodland. But given the rage for building in and around Moscow, and the money at stake, how long will this place stay undeveloped? The relationship between history and the present/future in modern Russia is such that cottages will probably conquer any conscience about the catastrophes of the past.


This is the new memorial church which is one of the more bizarre buildings I have seen in Moscow. The inside (see below) shows the lavishness of the funding, but also an almost chilling sense of cleanliness, order and control. It did not, to me, have any sense of spiritual expresion--not unlike the massive but ghastly Christ the Saviour Church in the central of the city. Perhaps I am missing something, but I preferred the little wooden church, whose interior is shown above.


Perhaps one should not be unfair about the new church. At least it has in its grounds the cross, shown on the left in this picture, which was made from wood taken from the original GULAG camp on the Solovetski Islands. It was brought to Moscow by way of every labour camp on the way, with appropriate ceremony. But then again, maybe I was not being unfair because I was ticked off by a gardener for standing on his lawn when taking this photograph. In the anti-septic, strictly "face-controlled", turbo-anal mood of the nouveau riche in Russia today, it is very much "Keep off the Grass": almost like England!