On a recent Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, a dozen people, mostly elderly, gathered in front of an elegant apartment building on a sun-dappled street in central Moscow.
Ksenia Polunina stepped up to remember her father Sergei Polunin, a scientist who was hauled from the building, her childhood home, on a February night in 1938 — and then shot by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s secret police.
“I was seven years old. Everybody thought that I was sleeping, but I heard everything,” Polunina told the small crowd. “He came to my bed, made the sign of the cross and kissed me. I pretended that I was asleep.”
Polunina leaned on her cane and squinted, as if she were living that terrible night all over again. Two months after her father’s arrest, the Communist secret police — then known as the NKVD — returned to the building to arrest and later execute Vladimir Lyubarsky, a microbiologist, and Kronid Milov, himself an NKVD officer.
The three neighbors had become victims of what Russians call “the Great Terror” of the late 1930s, when Stalin purged the ranks of the Soviet elite in a bid to wipe out his enemies, real and imagined. Over his three decades at the helm of the Soviet Union, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens.
Now, more than half a century after his death, many Russians look up to Stalin as the leader who defeated Nazi Germany and transformed a backward nation into a nuclear superpower. In the 20 years that he has been in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II into a celebration of national pride, raising Stalin’s stature at the same time. On the Victory Day holiday in May, the Communist Party erected a bust of Stalin in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
A civic initiative called Posledny Adres or “Last Address” is doing its part to defend the memory of the voiceless victims of Stalin’s crimes. Supported by the human rights organization Memorial, it has put up more than 900 plaques on buildings across the former Soviet Union, memorializing those who were unjustly arrested and murdered by Stalin’s security services.