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The Remarkable, Forgotten Story of How a Soviet Town Disposed of Its Dead

The Ob River. Photo by Ondřej Žváček. August 3, 2007. CC 2.5.

The Ob River. Photo by Ondřej Žváček. August 3, 2007. CC 2.5.

Sergey Parkhomenko, a Russian journalist and publisher, has worked as a reporter, an editor, a radio show host, and more. He is also immensely popular on Facebook, where he has more than 133,000 subscribers. A man of generally anti-Kremlin views, Parkhomenko challenged his social media audience on November 2 to tell him if they know the history of a Russian town called Kolpashevo. He received more than 5,000 responses—most of them saying no. Five hours after polling his readers on the subject, Parkhomenko wrote on Facebook again, telling a story very few Russians, it turns out, have ever heard. This post has attracted more than 12,700 “likes,” more than 13,000 shares, and more than 1,200 comments. RuNet Echo reproduces that text below, translated into English.

Sergey Parkhomenko, May 11, 2012. Photo by Evgeniy Isaev. CC 2.0.

Sergey Parkhomenko, May 11, 2012. Photo by Evgeniy Isaev. CC 2.0.

Well what do you know. Five thousand people answered my impromptu survey in my last post. I asked if my readers can tell me anything about a place called Kolpashevo, located in the Tomsk region. Or if they knew anything about a particular place inside Kolpashevo: the Kolpashevsky Ravine.Colleagues at [the human rights organization] Memorial assure me that Kolpashevo’s history is well-known, has been written about many times, and is all over the Internet. In the 90s, moreover, a small book was even published on the subject.

Of the 5,000 people who responded to my Facebook post, however, only 30 or 40 said they know about the history behind the town. And most of these people live in the Tomsk area (or used to live there), so they know the history from their relatives and their neighbors… The rest answered: no, don’t know, never heard of it.

So now I can go ahead and tell the story.

The town of Kolpashevo (home to a little more than than 20,000 souls, according to the latest census) sits on the high bank of the Ob River. The water makes a turn at Kolpashevo, and every year it “eats away” a few feet of a sand cliff there, inching closer and closer to the homes on streets named after Lenin and Dzerzhinsky [the founder of the Soviet secret police forces]. This is how it’s been for as long as anyone can remember, and everyone in town is used to it.

On April 30, 1979, exactly one day before May Day, the Ob’s waters knocked down another six-foot chunk of sand from the riverbank. Sticking out from the newly exposed wall were the arms, legs, and heads of people buried there. A cemetery at least several yards wide had been exposed. The people had been packed in and layered tightly. The top layer of bodies were decayed almost completely, while the lower layers were very well preserved, mummified in pure sand. It’s said that you could easily see the clothes they were wearing, and in some cases you could even make out the faces. There were men and women of different ages, and there were children. All in civilian clothes.

Some of the skulls from the uppermost layer rolled out from the sandbank, and little boys picked them up, put them on sticks, and started running around the town, scaring passersby. Soon the whole town was aware of what had happened. People started gathering at the sandback. Some thought they could even recognize one person’s coat, or place another person’s face… The police and neighborhood watch volunteers then cordoned off the whole thing. Then, very quickly (literally within a few hours), they built around the crumbling sandbank a thick fence.

The next day, the Communist Party staged gatherings all throughout town, at various enterprises, and in the so-called “red corners” [the Party meeting areas of factory floors]. The Party’s activists began to explain to the population what they’d been told by the Party’s district committee: buried here were traitors and deserters from the war. But the explanation wasn’t entirely convincing. Why was everyone dressed in civilian clothes? What were the women and children doing there? And from where, for that matter, did so many deserters come in a town of just 20,000 people?

Meanwhile, a bit more of the sandbank slipped into the river, and it became clear that the burial site was enormous. There were thousands of people. People around town recalled how there used to be a prison on these grounds in the late 1930s. It was general knowledge that there were executions there, but nobody could imagine just how many people were shot. The perimeter fence and barbed wire had long ago been dismantled, and the prison itself was closed down. Even the prison house had been moved to another location farther from the disappearing coast, to a place where it served for many years as a dormitory for students at a technical institute.

In fact (to the knowledge of few people in the town), Kolpashevo’s prison operated a full-fledged assembly line of death. There was a special wooden trough, down which a person would descend to the edge of a ditch. There, he’d be killed by rifle fire, by a shooter sitting in a special booth. If necessary, he’d be finished off with a second shot from a pistol, before being added to the next layer of bodies, laid head-to-toe with the last corpse. Then they’d sprinkle him lightly with lime. This process repeated, until the pit was full. When that happened, they filled in the hole with sand, and moved the trough over a few feet to the side, and began again.

And so the river bank continued to recede and bodies were falling into the water and drifting all the way to the town. People watched this happen from the shore.

In Tomsk, the authorities decided to get rid of the burial site and remove the bodies. It was the personal decision of the then-First Secretary of the Party’s regional committee, Yegor Ligachyov, having consulted with Moscow and directly with KGB Chairman [Yuri] Andropov. Officials in Kolpashevo were ordered to destroy the the burial site and rebury the bodies somewhere else.

The task, it turned out, wasn’t so simple. Using heavy equipment so near a collapsing sandbank wasn’t possible. They feared for the safety of the trucks and the bulldozers. And there was no time to dig up everything by hand. The leadership was in a hurry.

By this time, the scale of the gigantic burial ground was already clear. Ships towed to the coast a drilling rig (I’ll say that again slowly: a drilling rig), which cut a few holes into the cliff, to determine the boundaries of the cemetery.

Then from Tomsk came new orders containing an interesting, ingenious engineering solution. Up the Ob, they dispatched two powerful tugboats and sent them right up to the riverbank, where there were tied with ropes to the shore, facing the ships away from the land. Then they set their engines on full throttle. The waves from the ships’ propellers began to erode the cliff, and bodies started falling into the water, where most of them were cut to pieces by the same propellers. The crew working these tugboats was made up of ordinary civilians. Nobody selected these men specifically for this task. Nobody switched the crew.

The people of Kolpashevo watched the whole operation with interest. No one protested.

Then it turned out that some of the bodies had washed away downstream, escaping the propellers. The mummified corpses managed quite well in the water, floating not sinking. So down the river they stationed a row of motorboats, where people sat with fishing hooks. Their job was to catch the bodies in the water. These people were volunteers, recruited from the local male population: laborers, public servants, and the so-called workers’ intelligentsia. A barge loaded with scrap metal from a nearby factory came up to the boats. The men were to tie pieces of scrap metal wire to the bodies they caught and then sink them in the deepest part of the river. This work went on for several days.

The people of Kolpashevo kept watching the tugboats and their propellers thrashing in the water. The tugboats had to be refueled with diesel regularly: all together, each ship burned through about 60 tons of fuel. Nobody was particularly surprised or outraged.

The last team—also composed of local volunteers—worked a bit farther downstream: people on motorboats rounded the shores, collecting the bodies that slipped through the row of boats higher up the river. Some of these remains they buried on shore (in unmarked graves), but more often they buried them in the river, smashing the bones with their oars, or sinking the bones by tying them to stones. This cleanup continued almost until the end of the summer.

Life in Kolpashevo that summer, generally speaking, was calm. It was like it always was. And that’s the story.

If someone out there doesn’t understand yet, let me say plainly that I consider these events to be remarkable. This isn’t a story about the Stalinist repressions, or the Great Terror, or the NKVD [the KGB’s predecessor], or the state’s system of destruction.

This is a story about the Soviet man. It’s about our compatriots and our countrymen, and our brothers and our sisters. It is a story about the way of life in Siberia. It’s about the moral code of the Builder of Communism.

It’s a story about the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century” [Vladimir Putin’s famous description of the fall of the USSR]. It’s about that great and wonderful country we’ve lost—which only a “heartless monster” doesn’t regret.

And finally.

In 1983, four years after the Kolpashevo incident, Yegor Ligachyov was promoted to a new position in Moscow. On Yuri Andropov’s recommendation, Ligachyov was appointed chief of the Party’s Department Organizational Work and made a secretary of the Central Committee. Yegor Ligachyov is alive today. Until 2010, he was active in public life, trying to participate in the activities of the Communist Party. He’s a big fan of Nikolay Gumilyov’s poems.

Yuri Andropov, meanwhile, became the Communist Party’s General Secretary in 1982, just three years after Kolpashevo. He designed a reform policy, but never managed to implement it. Andropov wrote his own poems, and it’s said he loved jazz and American films. He died surrounded by faithful companions and loving family members.

On the banks of the Ob River, directly across from Lenin Street in the center of Kolpashevo, to this day there is still a long triangular cavity preserved in the sandbank. For some reason, the river doesn’t wash it away.

Parkhomenko’s account of what happened in Kolpashevo is not without its detractors. Several people, including locals from the Tomsk region, claim that he plays with facts and exaggerates the town’s participation in the cleanup effort, in order to criticize Soviet society writ large and not just the already-discredited Soviet state. RuNet Echo translates a Facebook post by Nadia Taiga, a Russian art projects director now living in Chicago who hails originally from Kolpashevo. Taiga disagrees strongly with Parkhomenko's version of events.

Nadia Taiga. Photo: Facebook

Complete indignation. I’ve read this work of fiction by the distinguished Sergei Parkhomenko, as well as some of his readers’ surprisingly myopic comments (though there are also many sane responses, which lightens my indignation). His post is about events that took place in Kolpashevo, my hometown, in 1979. I was born in this town and I was only eight at the time, but I remember well the events that christened the Kolpashevsky Ravine, made reports on Radio Freedom and the BBC, and became some of the first public evidence of the Stalinist repressions.I will write about this event with a bit less emotion than Sergei, who wasn’t actually there. In short, that year just before the May holidays, part of the shore collapsed into the Ob River, exposing a mass grave of executed political prisoners. Some skulls fell into the water, some kids picked them up, and played with them. Later, several squads arrived from the military and the KGB (I call it the NKVD, like my grandmother still does to this day). They cordoned off the pier and, after a few meetings with senior authorities, decided to destroy the bodies, in order to hide the burial site and avoid publicity. Many of the bodies were mummified because they’d been sprinkled with lime after being shot. The story is horrible. But no less horrible, in my view, is the reaction of many people now.

Then, it was people in plainclothes [non-uniformed police] sinking the bodies by tying them to stones. They sent a ship to the ravine to cut up the bodies with its propeller. Generally speaking, the authorities tried every way they could think of to conceal the crime. “Plainclothes people” were everywhere throughout the town.

So what’s got me so bothered? There are this experienced journalist’s subtly worded lines like “the people of Kolpashevo watched the whole operation with interest, and no one protested,” “the people of Kolpashevo kept watching the tugboats and their propellers thrashing in the water,” “life in Kolpashevo that summer, generally speaking, was calm, like it always was,” and other claims about how local people actively participated in the destruction of bodies. Sergey isn’t describing a town, but a metaphor for mass surrender. And then he draws the following conclusions for any dimwits who haven’t yet understood him:

“If someone out there doesn’t understand yet, let me say plainly that I consider these events to be remarkable. This isn’t a story about the Stalinist repressions, or the Great Terror, or the NKVD, or the state’s system of destruction.

This is a story about the Soviet man. It’s about our compatriots and our countrymen, and our brothers and our sisters. It is a story about the way of life in Siberia. It’s about the moral code of the Builder of Communism.”

It all seems to add up. It’s not about the state’s system of destruction; it’s about you and me, or rather it’s about me and my neighbors in Kolpashevo. It makes sense. But there are certain nuances…

Here's an excerpt from my comment on his post:

“I remember how they cordoned off the pier and didn’t let anyone near, and when all the KGB agents got to work there, it was impossible to see, because they made every effort to limit any publicity. We lived on the other side of town, near the taiga itself. But everyone knew that the brigades sinking the bodies and cordoning off the riverbank were from the military. My grandmother spent the whole time wailing and praying. Some local people (Communist activists) surely helped the brigades, but there were other people who risked their own lives to try to bury the dead. I don’t know the exact number of KGB agents that came to our town then, but a cleanup in the town was organized professionally. My dad, who was an ‘enemy to the fulfillment of Stalin’s plan for livestock’ and the son of a political prisoner, spent 15 years in the Norilsk prison camps. Later, he told me that ‘people in plainclothes’ were everywhere: at every enterprise, institution, and school.”

I’m also bothered by some of the comments on [Parkhomenko’s] post that reduce to disgusting “non-people” not the KGB or the Communists, but the people of Kolpashevo. One young woman even wrote that “these people birthed another voiceless generation.”

So, dear former Soviet citizens, today’s Russians and expats—you who were bystanders to this, or perhaps you lounged around drinking tea and reading samizdat in the kitchen of your Moscow apartment, or maybe you were ignorantly a member of the Komsomol (or better still the Communist Party), and now you’re full of anger and a thirst for vengeance—answer me this one simple question: what would you have done in 1979, living in this particular town, cordoned off by soldiers and KGB agents? Tell me. I’d love to hear your answer.

And here’s where that poisonous Siberian separatism and provincialism boils over in me. Calling Siberians (most of whom are exiled political prisoners or the children of the exiled and the dispossessed) “voiceless” and “quiet observers,” when you’re somebody born and living in Moscow, seems to me to be something very, very wrong. And I’ve got some cold Siberian contempt for the people who hurried to write lovely comments about how the people, not the KGB, are a bunch of “bastards.”

I’d also like to say to Sergey and all the furious commenters that not everything WAS or IS so awful with the PEOPLE in the Soviet Union and in Russia. There were people who didn’t join the Communist Party, but didn’t openly march into the streets then, having spent many years already in internal exile. There were people who brought flowers to the burial site at the Kolpashevsky Ravine, and who secretly buried any bodies they found. Some of the people who came were former prisoners, but of course some were also guards. But now many people have decided to become guards of other people’s lives and judge them.

Something here smells like the Soviet Union to me. Here’s the guard’s magnifying glass and we’re on a search for shit. What was then is what we’ve got now. What we’re looking at is all we’ve got. The voiceless majority was awful then, and it’s awful now and forever, just as any angry mob is terrible. But what’s the point of all this? Do you want to say that an individual is stronger than the system? What do you want from people? What do you want from your countrymen alive today?

My view now is from afar. I don’t ride the Moscow metro every morning, so I can’t be objective when I talk about Russia. But when I visit Kolpashevo (which is dying, by the way, not because of the people living there but because of the “state’s system of destruction”), I meet wonderful, compassionate people. You can find many of them in the comments on [Parkhomenko’s] post, but for some reason it’s better to go after the amoral “builders of Communism.” These are two polar opposite ways of viewing the world. Two ways to create your own world. You can write about the impassive onlookers, staring at the victims of car accidents and terrorist attacks, or you can support people who create, for instance, social foundations to help the elderly, the sick, and the young. There are many such amazing people. They don’t march into squares with guns in their hands, protesting the regime. These people are fewer than the voiceless crowd, but because they do exist I will never say that all people in Russia are “non-humans” or that the Soviet people were “cattle.” And because, in my youth, there were people in town who tried to honor the bodies of those executed, I cannot allow even the most respected onlookers to disrespect my neighbors.

The texts above were translated from Russian into English by Kevin Rothrock. The original Russian-language texts, authored by Sergey Parkhomenko and Nadia Taiga, can be found on Facebook here and here, respectively.

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