Seeking Meaning in Mass Murder: Butovo

Last Sunday, two friends and I took a train from Moscow’s Kursk station to Butovo, a residential district just south of the Moscow city limits along the Warsaw highway. Having meandered along the little streets beneath sometimes crumbling Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks, we came to a narrow, tree-lined road that soon led us to the Butovskii shooting range (Бутовский полигон). Parents with young children were strolling between the trees, playing beside the fence topped with barbed-wire that surrounds the shooting range. Inside, workmen were doing repairs to some small buildings at the entrance, and the sound of pop music drifted across from the radio of a car parked close by. There were no tourists, no tour buses, and it is clear that not many people visit the site; we were the only visitors at that time.


On this plot of land, between 8 August 1937 and 19 October 1938, 20,761 people were executed and buried in mass graves. The total number of people buried on this site could be as high as 50,000.[1] Butovo was the principal location in Moscow for the so-called ‘mass operations,’ which were secret policies of violent removal of suspect population categories conducted by the political police (under the NKVD, or Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in 1937-38. The vast majority of victims of the violence of the late 1930s in the Soviet Union were ‘ordinary’ people, not Communist Party members; they were former kulaks (wealthy, allegedly exploitative peasants), criminals and other ‘anti-soviet elements,’ and members of suspect nationalities as war appeared imminent. The so-called ‘Great Terror’ of the late 1930s is largely a misnomer, as the purpose of the bulk of the violence of that time was not to terrify a wider audience and communicate a political message, but to purge society of unsuitable persons at a time of intense security concerns.[2]

The ‘mass operations,’ beginning with the infamous NKVD Order no.00447 of July 1937, resulted in about 700,000 executions in the country over this short period, with many more people sentenced to lengthy periods of confinement in concentration camps. This was violence by quota, as precise figures for execution and arrest were handed down from Moscow to all regions. Once the bureaucratic, competitive dynamic kicked in at the lower levels of the security apparatus, the quotas were exceeded considerably, resulting in a crazed spiral of violence whereby utterly innocent people were rounded up to meet targets.[3] Those executed and buried in Butovo reflected the full range of the victims of Stalinism, of various social strata and nationalities. Most victims were Moscow workers who had previously been peasants. The relatively large number of clergy and persons shot as a result of religious conviction (973) helped to ensure that the site passed into the ownership of the Orthodox Church in the 1990s, and it is the clergy that are most prominently remembered at the place that the Church refers to now as a ‘Russian Golgotha.’[4] Most horrific of all, at least 830 invalids were shot there.[5]




It is not surprising that Butovo, as a site of commemoration, is very different from the Nazi concentration camps, for example. Russian society, like all societies, is complex and variegated, but there is no standardised, national narrative about the Soviet tragedy (nor necessarily should there be). The version of the Russian past preferred by the Russian state since the presidency of Vladimir Putin appears one that stresses national achievement and incorporates the Soviet past into this narrative, epitomised by treatment of the Soviet victory over Nazism. Putin has visited the Butovskii shooting range along with Church leaders, and there is no denial of these horrors, but what is most significant about Stalinism for the Russian state – and perhaps for most Russians – is the victory over Nazism and the subsequent attainment of superpower status along with the US.

The representation of Stalin and Stalinism in Russia, then, is often very different to that in ‘the West,’ and it appears only too easy here to sideline (or even justify) the repressions. When engaged in a conversation about politics and history (invariably the two go hand-in-hand in Russia) with Russians, one is as likely to encounter a liberal-minded, vociferous opponent of Stalinism (and probably by extension the present Russian regime) as a nationalistic-socialist, openly anti-Semitic Stalinist sympathiser. The bookshops in Moscow reflect this divergence, with sensationalist accounts of the horrors of Stalinism sitting on the same shelves as Stalinist hagiography. The short description inside the cover of one book published earlier this year to mark the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death, which I saw in one of the city’s main bookshops, castigated the ‘liberal Yids’ in the West for criticism of Stalin. In fact, I often feel slightly embarrassed when telling archivists or other scholars in Russia that I work on state violence in the Soviet Union. Sometimes, as happened this week when conversing with a young researcher in the library, I am asked (not without some justification) why Western historians always seem to view the Soviet Union in the narrow terms of violent totalitarianism, with the suggestion that the Western frame of reference derives from an anti-Russian bias.

The reasons for the violence of the ‘mass operations’ in the late 1930s are complex and multiple. Historians are methodologically disposed to avoid simple, neat explanations for complex events. These operations were not the logically violent culminations of the Soviet system, whether in its Stalinist or even Leninist forms. Those who make such arguments underestimate the complex, contingent, and even contradictory nature of the system and its ruling ideology. The nature of Marxist-Leninist ideology with its vision of a perfect future, and its basic precepts of class warfare and social conflict in the meantime; the immense hubris of this most modern of states; fear of imminent war; the perceived threat posed by ‘anti-Soviet elements’ to the security of the state under such circumstances; the nature of centre-periphery power relations; self-preservation and denunciation; the extensive system of police surveillance conducted for years on behalf of an obsessively paranoid state; the bureaucratic process and dynamic of killing; simple competition between individuals to see who could sign off on the greater number of death warrants – all of these factors contributed to the origins and course of these operations.

One of the great ironies of political mass murder is that its perpetrators – whether the political leaders or the actual executioners – assert the meaning of their own lives through the utter denigration of the meaning of the lives of their victims. The role of meaning in mass violence has been stressed in particular by the historian/psychologist/political scientist Jacques Semelin, in his description of massacre as an ‘act of purification’ in the service of imaginary constructions of friends and enemies, and the often sacred understanding of the cause. For Semelin:

‘Identity [in terms of the ‘friend-enemy dissociation’] supplies the framework within which the process of violence will take shape. The desire for purity toughens this identitarian framework by grafting on to it a theme of religion or secular sacredness […] The need for security, in phase with the context of crisis that led to the development of the imaginary construct, makes it urgent to move into action.’[6]

Why should one visit Butovo? Like Auschwitz, it serves little cautionary purpose: it is highly unlikely that these events will occur again in Russia. One should visit Butovo to give some dignity to those who died and were buried there, to assert the meaning of their lives. For, unlike the way in which the death penalty is implemented in developed countries today, as a sombre occasion whereby the condemned is treated with dignity and respect (even if one thinks the death penalty is barbaric), the victims buried in places like Butovo were disposed of as rubbish. They truly were like the ‘weeds’ that resulted from the ‘gardening’ process in which the Soviet state was engaged, in its attempt to cultivate a harmonious, beautiful socialist future.[7] To die like that is to die under a most direct assertion that one’s life has ceased to matter, and that it has been largely purposeless.

In that sense perhaps, Butovo and places like it represent the sites of a nightmarish scenario for all of us, in more than just the obvious sense. It is a basic human psychological need to construct meaning and purpose for our lives, and to interpret events accordingly. This, however, raises the question of how we deal with doubt, with ambiguity. I read Straw Dogs a few years ago, the best-known work by the public philosopher John Gray. I like Gray’s works, largely because they are understandable in addition to being well-written, and they are challenging for those of us not as well versed in the history of philosophical thought as we’d like to be (this seems very confusing to me). Gray’s philosophy can be neatly summed up as the assertion that life has no meaning and purpose – or at least not intrinsically, not apart from that which is constructed through myth.[8] Reading this book left me feeling uncomfortable, for once fully self-aware of and challenged on one’s own mental constructions, it is difficult to rely on them again so assuredly.

History provides very many examples of how religious and political movements have reacted bullishly and violently to any challenge to the security of their ideas. The Soviet state, with its near-absolute intolerance of dissent, of ‘other-thinkers’ (инакомышлящие), is but one extreme example. To accept doubt as a virtue is not something that is generally encouraged in our societies, even openly tolerant ones. However, one of the important lessons of history is surely that healthy doses of doubt are important for our societies as well as for us individually. Encouraging doubt, challenging entrenched opinions, is a basic function of a humanities education. Doubt should not lead to the inability to act, or to lying in bed for three hours in the morning wondering if there’s any point in getting up. Religious faiths, for example, are supposed to be about faith (which presupposes doubt), not absolute and unquestioning truth. The benefits of living with doubt are to challenge us to examine and accept our own frailties and insecurities, to be prepared to accept useful criticism, and to help prevent the type of processes that lead to the annihilation of others.



[1] Владимир Кузьмин, «Владимир Путин посетил Бутовский полигон, где похоронены жертвы массовых расстрелов», Российская газета, 31 октября 2007. <> Accessed 22 May 2013.

[2] On the validity of the term ‘terror’ in this context, see David L. Hoffmann, Cultivating the Masses. Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011, p.239, and David R. Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism. Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953, New Haven, CN, and London: Yale University Press, 2009, p.286

[3] For excellent, and detailed, accounts of the process by which these operations were implemented, see Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism, and Paul Hagenloh, Stalin’s Police. Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926-1941, Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

[4] See <> Accessed 23 May 2013

[5] For a detailed study of the executions at Butovo, see Karl Schlögel, Moscow 1937, London: Polity, 2012, pp.472ff.

[6] Jacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy. The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide, tr. Cynthia Schoch, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, pp.49-50.

[7] The analogy of modern states as ‘gardening’ states is that of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. See Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, Oxford: Polity Press, 1993, p.15.

[8] See the review of Gray’s most recent book by John Banville: <>



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6 responses to “Seeking Meaning in Mass Murder: Butovo

  1. Good post. It seems to me that considered understanding of the Stalinist crimes can only come when there is a reckoning for his rehabilitator Putin. Until then ambivalence about the strong leader and the strong state is necessary.

    The question of memory and understanding is fundamental, as you say. It is necessary for us that such terrible events ‘mean’ something. I hesitate to even bring it up, given the vast differences in scale, but our own civil war suffers from exactly this kind of forgetting because it doesn’t appear to make any sense. Result; either silence or polemic as people fight about what it all means. do you notice the same thing in Russia?

    On another note, it’s good to see the Terror being put in context now. The majority of victims were peasants and ethnic minorities, not communists, according to Snyder. Also while absolutely horrific, it’s also good to see harder numbers for the victims and not fantastical figures like 80 million that were being cited in the 1990s.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Brilliant analysis. To a relative of one who died in the Gulag during those years, the significance of the mass murders of Marxist-Leninism is that they are an inevitable accompaniment to regimes that demand the subjugation of the individual to the State. What is truly horrible about the Soviet atrocities is the way some Western commentators still seek to blame them on “the Russian character”. Even the flimsiest knowledge of pre- 1917 intellectual life and society in general gives the lie to such pernicious nonsense. The Russians abolished the death penalty in 1864.

  3. Elizabeth White

    Interesting that the site is owned (managed?) by the Orthodox Church, given that according to your figures, only a small minority of the victims were clergy. Has the Orthodox Church in general taken it upon itself the role of managing such sites of remembrance across Russia? Or just this one? Do they give equal prominence to all victims?

    • James Ryan

      What’s interesting when you look at the Church’s website for Butovo ( – and yes, the site is owned by the Church – is that it claims that those who were killed there were ordinary Russians so, by extension, they were Orthodox! In Butovo itself, though, it’s clear that prominence is given to commemorating clerical victims, with several slabs bearing their names. I don’t think the Church has taken on a similar role anywhere else, though it does seem to be prominent in commemorating the victims of Soviet violence.

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