President Vladimir Putin has attended a memorial service conducted by Patriarch Aleksei II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, at a church built near a Soviet police secret killing field, where at least 20 000 people were executed at the peak of dictator Joseph Stalin's bloody purges - writes Sophia Kishkovsky from Moscow.
The visit to the site, known as "Butovsky poligon", or "shooting range, on 30 October 2007 was for Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB secret security services, his first. The newly built Church of the Resurrection and the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia honours the 355 "new martyrs" who the Russian Orthodox Church has so far canonised after they were executed at Butovsky poligon.
About 1000 people are known to have died for their Orthodox faith at the shooting range. The church on the site was consecrated in May 2007 as part of ceremonies marking the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The latter is an émigré group that for decades called for proper acknowledgement of the new martyrs.
Since 1991, Russia has marked the 30 October as the Day of Victims of Political Repression, and it is commemorated annually with religious services across Russia and rallies by human rights organizations. Putin has been criticised by human rights activists for downplaying Stalin's crimes.
"Such tragedies have occurred more than once in the history of mankind," Putin said at Butovsky poligon. But he emphasised that he was aware of the scope of the country's losses.
"Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people," he said outside the church in comments that made the top story on Russian television news and the Kremlin's Web site, www.kremlin.ru.
"Along with this, as a rule, these were people with their own opinions. These were people who were not afraid to speak their mind. They were the most capable people. They are the pride of the nation," said Putin. "And of course over many years, and today as well, we still remember this tragedy. We need to do a great deal to ensure that this is never forgotten."
In 2007, Russia and the former Soviet republics are marking the 70th anniversary of Stalin's Great Terror of 1937-1938. Memorial, a human rights organization that compiles information about Soviet repression and helps its victims, estimates that an average of 1000 people a day were executed in that period. Some days during the Great Terror at Butovsky poligon, the NKVD, a predecessor of the KGB, executed more than 500 people a day. Memorial estimates that in total, in the Soviet era, there were 12.5 million victims of political repression.
At this year's Butovsky poligon ceremony, Putin and Patriarch Aleksei venerated a 12-metre high wooden cross that stands outside the church. The cross had been ferried to the site in August in a religious procession from Solovki, a monastery in the White Sea that was turned into one of the first Soviet prison camps.
A stone from Solovki stands on Moscow's Lubyanka Square, near the former KGB headquarters, as a monument to victims of Soviet repression, and was also the site of other 30 October ceremonies this year.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]