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Kuropaty: The Investigation of a Stalinist Historical Controversy

  • David R. Marples (a1)

Between 1987 and 1990, simultaneous with "glasnost' and perestroika" and the rehabilitation of the victims of Stalin's crimes, execution sites were discovered, particularly in the European regions of the former USSR. One such discovery at Kuropaty (formerly Brod) about twelve kilometers north of Minsk, elicited widespread publicity, and was a serious embarrassment to the communist authorities.

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1. See, for example, Stephen Kotkin, “Terror, Rehabilitation, and Historical Memory: An Interview with Dmitrii Iurasov,” The Russian Review (April 1992): 238–62.

2. I visited the burial site in 1993. Though I have not had access to the primary documents in this case, this paper is the result of extensive research at the National Library of Belarus in Minsk.

3. It is worth pointing out here that not all Belarusians remained in their republic. Of an estimated population of 10.5 million people, 1.5 million were conscripted for the Red Army while over 1 million were reportedly evacuated to the eastern regions of the country (see Golenchenko, G.Ya., Osmolovskii, V.P., Istoriia Belarusi: voprosy i otvety [Minsk: “Belarus,” 1993], 145 ).

4. Zianon Pazniak (Zenon Pozniak), Yawgen Shmygalew (Evgenii Shmigalov), “Kurapaty— daroga smertsi,” Litaratura i mastactva, 3 June 1988; and Pozniak, Z., “Kuropaty: narodnaia tragediia o kotoroi dolzhny znat' vse,” Moskovskie novosti, no. 41 (October 1988): 16 . A Russian translation of the Litaratura i mastactva article can be found in Sovetskaia Estoniia, 9–10 August 1988.

5. Not all sources agree that the discovery was made by Pozniak. Like all the issues surrounding Kuropaty, this event is shrouded in confusion. One source thus declares that in April-May 1988 the mass graves were discovered during the laying of a gasline in the Zelenyi Lug-6 microraion of Minsk (see Korzun, V. P., “Menia ne slyshat…,” My i vremia, no. 19 [September 1992]: 3 ). The existence of the mass graves was known as early as the 1950s; Pozniak learned of their existence in the 1970s.

6. Pozniak had learned of these facts in the 1970s but at this time “there was no possibility of revealing the truth to the world. “

7. Litaratura i mastatstva, 22 July 1988, & ff.

8. A concise summary of the contents of the article was provided by Kathleen Mihalisko, “Mass Grave of Stalin's Victims Discovered in Minsk,” Radio Liberty Research Bulletin, RL 288/88, 26 June 1988.

9. Derived from the interview with Pozniak, Z. in Iwanow, Mikolaj, “The Politics of Perestroika in the USSR and Byelorussian Nationalism,” The Ukrainian Quarterly xlviii, no 2 (Summer 1992): 193–94.

10. The notion of an investigatory commission may have been derived from the response to the Chernobyl accident two years earlier.

11. Iwanov, 197.

12. “Soobshchenie pravitel'stvennoi komissii, sozdannoi resheniem Soveta Ministrov BSSR ot 14 iulia 1988,” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, 22 January 1989.

13. Pozniak's figures are much higher than this. In a summer 1989 interview, he remarked that ca. 250,000 people had been executed in the Kuropaty region, but noted that there were execution sites around every city in Belarus. He and his colleagues had found six such sites in the areas around Minsk, for example. In his view, the systematic elimination of the Belarusian population is the only explanation for the decrease in the Belarusian population from 12 million in the 1920s to 9.2 million just prior to the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War. Where, he asked, did 2.8 million people go, particularly in view of the fact that, at the time of the later census, territory had been incorporated from Poland (Molodezh’ Estonii, 20 May 1989).

14. One wonders first about the accuracy of the tree-dating process and how investigators could have failed to initially recognize that such dates clearly meant that the trees had been planted during the German occupation.

15. Pozniak maintained that commission members “invented false pretexts” when they stated that the KGB had no documents referring to the events or that the documents in question were in Moscow. In his view, the members do possess the relevant documents and the “truth cannot be concealed for long” (Iwanow, 198).

16. Ibid.

17. Tarnavskii has published his own account of the Kuropaty investigation: Tarnavskii, Georgii, Sobolev, Valerii and Gorelik, Evgenii, Kuropaty: sledstvie prodolzhaetsia (Moscow: Iuridicheskaia literatura, 1990 .

18. Shershov, V., “Ekho tragedii,” Daugova, no. 1 (1989): 72 . See also, Shershov, V., “Mesto smerti—Kuropaty,” Daugova, no. 9 (1988): 105–10.

19. Shershov, “Ekho tragedii,” 74.

20. Tarnavskii, G., Sobolev, V. and Gorelik, E., “Kuropaty: kto strelial v zatylok?Neman, no. 4 (1990): 127.

21. Shershov, “Ekho tragedii,” 72.

22. Litaratura i mastactva, 3 June 1988. A similar interpretation was made much earlier with regard to the massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. Only in the Gorbachev period did the Soviet authorities acknowledge responsibility for these executions.

23. Entsyklopedychnaia bibliiatechka “Belarus',” Khranalohiia historyi Belarusi (Minsk, 1992), 145; see also Kathleen Mihalisko, “A Popular Front in Belorussia,” Radio Liberty Research Bulletin, RL 514/88, 13 November 1988; Kathleen Mihalisko, “Belorussian Popular Front off to a Good Start,” ibid., RL 560/88, 12 December 1988.

24. See, for example, Jan Zaprudnik, Belarus: At A Crossroads in History (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), 133.

25. Neo-stalinist in orientation, its editorials indicate a profound dissatisfaction with the collapse of the USSR; overt attacks on Boris Yeltsin (as a traitor to the communist cause); and adherence to the former official views on the history of the communist state that include the heroic role of the partisans in the Great Patriotic War and a refusal to condemn the NKVD and other “loyal” state agencies.

26. I.Kh. Zagorodniuk, “Kuropaty: fal'sifikatsiia veka?” My i vremia: Nezavisimaia levaia gazeta, no. 19 (September 1992): 2, & ff.

27. I find Zagorodniuk's assertion curious in that it appears to inculpate the authorities rather than the archeologists. It seems plausible, given the presence in the republic of so many ex-members of the NKVD, that the gravesite must have been known to several people (Pozniak and Shmigalov have already noted that the graves were known as long ago as 1957) and that this information was communicated to officials responsible for the construction of the gasline. But why should this raise doubts about the sincerity of the government commission?

28. Korzun, V.P. and Mironchikova, R.E., “Na osnovanii izlozhennogo,” My i vremia, no. 19 (September 1992): 3.

29. All the following conclusions of the independent commission report are derived from Korzun, V.P. and Mironchikova, R.E., “Zaklyuchenie Obshchestvennoi Komissii po rassledovaniu prestuplenii sovershennykh na kholme vozle dereven Tsena-Yodkovo-Zelenyi Lug, kotoryi izvesten segodnia pod nazvaniem ‘Kuropaty',” Politika, Pozitsiia, Prognoz, no. 10 (October 1992): 89.

30. Korzun, V. P., “Menia ne slyshat…,” My i vremia, no. 19 (September 1992): 3 . The gravesite clearly had been tampered with: the top layer of corpses had been removed. Pozniak and Shmigalov's original account suggests that this action was undertaken by the Soviet authorities.

31. Grishan, Igor, “Kuropaty: sledstvie vozobnovleno,” Sovetskaia Belorussiia (20 March 1993): 3.

32. Pozniak himself is an outspoken politician who is disliked intensely by the communist and neo-communist establishment. I have discussed some of these issues in David R. Marples, “Belarus: The Illusion of Stability,” Post-Soviet Affairs (June-September 1993). See also the thorough study by Jan Zaprudnik, op. cit., esp. 131–32. In June 1994, Pozniak placed third in the Belarusian presidential elections with 13% of the total vote.

33. Iwanow, 197.

34. Mihalisko, “Mass Grave of Stalin's Victims Discovered in Minsk,” 4.

35. Though western Belarusian history for 1939–1941 has received little attention from historians in the west, there have been several studies of the period for western Ukraine, both in the west and in Ukraine itself, based on newly available archival materials. Policies in the areas annexed from eastern Poland in September 1939 were practically identical. Mass deportations were conducted from the region in both the prewar and early postwar years (see, for example, Iuryi Shapoval, “Stalinizm i Ukraina,” Ukrains'kyi istorychnyi zhurnal, no. 12 [1990]; nos. 2, 4–8 and 10–12 [1991]; and nos 1–9 [1992] which provide the most comprehensive study to date of deportations). Kabysh points out that mass arrests and deportations occurred in western Belarus on 9 and 10 February 1940 by the NKVD, resulting in the removal of about 140, 000 Belarusians, mainly intellectuals, by the end of that month. He states that a second wave of arrests followed in May 1940 and encompassed soldiers, police, civil servants and others. The figure cited for this latter wave was around 70, 000. A third wave occurred immediately after the start of the German-Soviet war in June 1941. Altogether, Kabysh estimates that 305, 000 people were deported from western Belarus, of whom “at least 100, 000” were ethnic Belarusians ( Kabysh, Symon, “Genocide of the Byelorussians,” in Kipel, V. and Kipel, Z., eds., Byelorussian Statehood: Reader and Bibliography [New York: Byelorussian Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1988], 237–38). I have given primacy to the Shapoval reference here since it is derived purely from primary source materials.

36. The subject is one that at least until recently was under investigation. I was informed, for example, by a Minsk schoolteacher in August 1993 that during the war many local Belarusian partisan units had been eliminated on orders from Moscow. Golenchenko and Osmolovskii point out, in a remarkably frank account, that the partisans numbered some 440, 000 people in the rear of the enemy in summer 1941, including 40, 000 military servicemen, many of whom were not native Belarusians these constituted only about 5% of the Belarusian population. They characterize the position of a considerable portion of Belarusian residents as one of “wait and see” (Golenchenko and Osmolovskii, Istoriia Belarusi, 147).

37. Zaprudnik, “op. cit.,” 95.

38. Interview with Oleg Manaev, Director of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, Department of Sociology, Belarusian State University, Minsk, Belarus, 15 December 1993.

39. It is located much closer to Minsk than Khatyn', the memorial site dedicated to the victims of the German occupation, for example, though the latter is far more elaborate and better maintained.

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