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Putin Commemorates Victims of Soviet Repression

Russian President Vladimir Putin has commemorated more than 20,000 people executed at a Moscow killing field during the height of Stalinist terror in 1937 to 1938. Mr. Putin said those who perished included the Soviet Union's most outspoken and effective people. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report.

Under gray skies, President Putin laid flowers at a cross erected in memory of more than 20,000 people shot at the Butovo firing range on Moscow's southern edge. Mr. Putin said Russians should do their best to remember the tragedy, which occurred in 1937 and 1938.

The Russian leader says millions of people were destroyed, shot, sent to labor camps, and tortured. As a rule, he says, these were people with their own ideas and were not afraid to express them - the most effective people, the flower of the nation.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Stalin's deputy, Vyacheslav Molotov told the VOA that he talked about the Great Terror with his grandfather. While Nikonov condemns the repression, he says Molotov and other Communists felt justified.

Nikonov says the terror was justified by the logic of the time, based, first of all, on the life experience of the Bolsheviks, which meant the horrors of the Russian Civil War, and also the Communists' firm conviction of an imminent war for survival with Germany.

Also in Moscow, Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, has been reading the names of repression victims at a square in front of the former headquarters of the Russian Secret Police, which carried out the Great Terror.

Among those participating is activist Lev Ponomarev, who says Russia once again has at least 100, and perhaps as many as 1,000 political prisoners.

Ponomarev told the VOA that imprisonment for political reasons is the work of people, who continue to believe in the principles of the Cheka, the first of several repressive Soviet secret police organizations. Mr. Putin continues to speak highly of the Cheka and the KGB, of which he was an agent. The Cheka was reorganized in 1922 into the NKVD, which carried out the Great Terror. The KGB maintained secret prisons almost until the Soviet collapse.

Ponomarev says people who show solidarity with the Cheka follow their personal beliefs to repress others for political reasons. The activist accuses Mr. Putin and others of commemorating Soviet repression victims for the benefit of the West and purely for the sake of public relations.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Great Terror. A survey by the Russian Public Opinion Center indicates 44 percent of this country's citizens are not aware of that historical period. But only two percent agree that the repression was justified.