Slowly, purposefully, on a quiet autumn afternoon in Moscow’s Donskoye cemetery, several dozen Russians came forward to read the names of people murdered during Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror. Their remains are believed to be scattered among three mass graves, though most of the victims were burned and no one can say for sure which ones they lie in.
“Sergei Mikhailovich Tretyakov is a poet, writer and playwright,” read a red-haired woman named Olga, 72, with a soft voice, as crows rustled in the barren trees overhead. “Special correspondent for Pravda newspaper. He lived in Moscow. Shot dead on September 10, 1937. He was rehabilitated in 1956,” she continued, using a term meaning his name was cleared. “Buried at Donskoye Cemetery.”
Three weeks after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and nearly a year after the Kremlin moved to liquidate it, the Russian human rights organization Memorial was carrying on with its annual tribute to Stalin’s victims — a ceremony known as “Returning the Names.”
It is normally a marathon reading of the names, ages, professions and dates of death of the people killed under Stalin’s reign, conducted for most of the past 15 years in Lubyanka Square, by the headquarters of what used to be the K.G.B., the notorious Soviet security services. But this year, Memorial was forced to jury-rig the tribute and break it into small gatherings, after the authorities banned the daylong reading planned for Saturday at Lubyanka, which typically attracts thousands of attendees.
The government cited public safety rules related to the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for canceling it, as it did in 2020 and 2021. Though Moscow has long moved past such virus-related restrictions, the rules are frequently invoked to prohibit protests or to jail those who express dissent in public.
“The point in returning the names is that we’re naming the victims,” said Yan Rachinsky, the chairman of Memorial’s board. “But the question inevitably arises: If there are victims of crime, then there are criminals, and there are reasons for the crime. These are no longer things that our authorities are ready to discuss.”