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Kurapaty (1937-1941): NKVD Mass Killings in Soviet Belarus

Last modified: 1 April 2008
Alexandra Goujon

March 2008

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Alexandra Goujon, Kurapaty (1937-1941): NKVD Mass Killings in Soviet Belarus, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 27 March 2008, accessed 24 April 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/fr/Kurapaty-1937-1941-NKVD-Mass-Killings-in-Soviet-Belarus, ISSN 1961-9898

Kurapaty is the name of a place in the outskirts of Minsk (capital of Belarus) where NKVD officers killed, between 1937 and 1941, several thousand of Belarusian and other civilians.

The burials in Kurapaty were discovered in 1988 and made public. A government commission leaded by Nina Mazaï, Deputy Chairperson of the Council of Ministers of the BSSR (Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic), was created and a criminal investigation was launched by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the BSSR. Archeological excavations were carried out during several days (July 6-15). The conclusions were published in January 1989: they indicated that the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) officers killed no less than 30,000 civilians from 1937 until summer 1941. They also indicated that no documents and materials were found in the archives of Ministry of Justice, KGB, Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office in BSSR. In 1994, a so-called civil commission of investigation on mass crimes in Kurapaty asked the Presidential administration to carry out a new investigation. According to this commission, the perpetrators were German officers and the victims were mostly European Jews. Other excavations were carried out in October 1997 and in May 1998 under the control of the Military Prosecutor’s Office: the results of these excavations were partly published and, mostly confirmed the first ones. But the interpretation of the Kurapaty mass killings is still debatable in the country.

 A. Context

The mass killings in Kurapaty are part of the large-scale repression conducted under the Stalinist regime during the 1930’s. The repression against the Soviet Belarusian people began at the end of the 1920’s. The withdrawal of German troops from Belarus at the end of 1918 was followed by the Russo-Polish military conflict (1919-1920). This conflict resulted in the partition of Belarus into the Belarusian SSR within the Soviet Union (since 1922) and West Belarus that was placed under Polish rule, according to the Treaty of Riga.

Under the Soviet regime, some Belarusian national leaders attempted to revive the national culture and economy but they were interrupted at the end of 1929. They were charged with organizing a Belarusian national democratic movement and conducting counter-revolutionary sabotage aimed at the withdrawal of Belarus from the Soviet Union. On the basis of these accusations, a part of the Belarusian intelligentsia was liquidated. While in 1930 the victims had been mainly members of the older generation, whose ideology had been formed during the pre-revolutionary years, in 1933 repression was directed mainly against Belarusians who were graduates of Soviet educational institutes (Kabysh, 1958: 78, 80-81).

In the early 1930s, Soviet Communist party and OGPU officials directed campaigns of mass repression against what were considered hostile social classes, especially small-holding rural inhabitants. During collectivization and de-kulakisation, mass repression was employed as part of a class war to establish Soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. After 1934, officials justified repression in defense of the state. With class no longer a primary criterion, the repression encompassed an increasingly broad range of social and the ethnic groups (Shearer, 2003: 113).

The process of mass repression was set in motion by the December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, Leningrad Communist Party chief. Even if Stalin’s precise role is still not known in this assassination, he used Kirov’s murder to attack various opponents of the regime. Beginning in the summer of 1936, and more conclusively during the spring of 1937, Stalin extended these repressive measures to eliminate any real or potential opposition to his rule. By 1937, the lethal triumvirate of political opposition, social disorder and ethnic subversion had raised fear among the Stalinist elite of a broadly based anti-Soviet « fifth column » linked to foreign agents and spies (Khlevniuk, 1998). In response, on July 31, 1937, Stalin and his co-leaders sanctioned the NKVD Order no. 00447 which specified by region the number of people to be sentenced either to death or eight to ten years in the Gulag camps (McDermott, 2005: 1065). The kulaks and other anti-Soviet elements were classified into two categories: the first category of repressed was subject to death by shooting; the second category was subject to labor camps (Werth, 2006: 18). The order set upper quotas per territory and category. For example Belarusian SSR was estimated to have 2.000 (1st cat.) + 10.000 (2nd cat.) = 12.000 anti-Soviet elements. It was specifically stressed that quotas were estimates and could not be exceeded without personal approval of Yezhov, head of the All-Soviet Union NKVD in 1936-1938. But in practice this approval was easy to obtain, and eventually these initial quotas were exceeded by orders of magnitude.

The fact that Belarus had a common frontier with the Western world led to further expansion of the arbitrary actions of NKVD frontier troops and of special detachments of the huge garrisons in Belarus. Thousands were murdered on charges of espionage for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Germany (Kabysh, 1958: 81). In fact, in the summer of 1937, the NKVD launched national sweeps of specific ethnic categories. The so-called Polish Operation, ratified by the Politburo on August 7, 1937 and known under the Order no. 00485 was the most important one: it resulted in the arrest of approximately 140.000 people in the entire Soviet Union, a staggering 111.000 of whom were executed (Mc Dermott, 2005: 1065). These mass operations, which also concerned Germans, Finns, Balts and numerous others, were directed against those perceived to be real or potential spies and agents of foreign anti-Soviet intelligence agencies. According to the data collected by Petrov and Roginskii, 17.772 people were shot in Belarusian SSR under this operation (Petrov, Roginskii, 2003: 168). These authors also consider that it would be wrong to equate Poles with the « Polish » operation since other national groups were killed. In the period of September to November 1938, the biggest group concerned by the arrests was that of the Poles (21.258) but other groups were also repressed such as the Belarusians (5.716 people) a large part of whom were shot (Petrov, Roginskii, 2003: 170).

Although national operations developed in 1938, the « anti-kulak » operation under the Order no. 00447 was being run down in the USSR except for the western and southern border areas in which there was an intensification of the killings. In late June 1938, A.A. Andreev, Secretary of the Central Committee of the PCUS, reported to Stalin that the border areas of the Belarusian SSR still contained from 8 to 10 percent non-collectivized farmers and that families of arrested Poles had links across the frontier or acted on the orders of Polish intelligence (McLoughlin, 2003: 128). For the BSSR, a quota of 18.500 sentences was approved on July 17, 1938 (McLoughlin, 2003: 132).

Although mass arrests and executions abated after November 1938, repression continued in the USSR throughout World War II, and up to Stalin’s death. On September 17, 1939, two-and-a-half weeks after Germany attacked Poland and occupied a considerable part of its territory, West Belarus found itself annexed to the Soviet Union as a result of the secret protocol signed in August 1939 between Berlin and Moscow. The installation of the Soviet regime in West Belarus was accompanied by deportations and executions.

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