Russians honour Stalin victims, urge release of graves researcher

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Moscow (AFP)

Russians gathered in central Moscow on Sunday to honour the victims of Stalin-era purges, with many calling for the release of a jailed activist who researched mass graves.

In an annual ceremony organised by the country's oldest rights group Memorial, hundreds of people took turns during the day to read from a list of names of those killed during Joseph Stalin's rule.

This year's ritual comes as Yury Dmitriyev, a respected Memorial activist who had researched and exhumed mass graves of Stalin's victims, remains in custody on what supporters say are trumped-up allegations.

"Freedom to Yury Alekseevich Dmitriyev," said one participant at the ceremony near the Solovetsky Stone, a monument in Lubyanka Square just across from the former KGB headquarters.

"Is history repeating itself?" asked another.

The 61-year-old activist, head of Memorial's Karelia branch in northwestern Russia, was arrested last year and accused of producing pornography, charges he denies.

Dmitriyev faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

His supporters say the case against him is an attempt by authorities to muzzle the outspoken historian.

- 'Huge blow' -

"It is a huge blow," one participant, 80-year-old Alexei Nesterenko, told AFP, referring to Dmitriyev's case.

"Our authorities consider every public activity to be a danger to themselves," said Nesterenko, who was just 25 days old when his own father was arrested under the Stalinist regime in 1937.

Historians estimate about one million people perished in Stalin’s Terror or Great Purge in the 1930s out of around 20 million who died under his three-decade rule before his death in 1953.

Rights groups have accused President Vladimir Putin of seeking to whitewash the Soviet dictator's crimes amid patriotic fervour whipped up by state propaganda.

Opposition activists say the Kremlin has stepped up a crackdown on dissent ahead of a March presidential election in which Putin is expected to extend his term to 2024.

Some participants drew parallels with the Stalinist era and modern-day Russia, noting the arrests of dissenters including opposition activists and artists.

"They are not executing yet but are already performing torture," said one woman at the ceremony.

The event, called "The Return of Names", also holds a special resonance this year as Russia prepares to mark the centenary of the 1917 Revolution which brought Bolsheviks to power and unleashed brutal repression against people of all walks of life.

Participants ranged from older Muscovites to young mothers with prams and even children, all reading from the victims' list.

"Pyotr Ivanovich Markov, 57, priest at a church in the village of Malakhovka, executed on February 21, 1938."

"Dmitry Aleksandrovich Samgin, 19, a history student at the Moscow State University, executed on December 10, 1937."

"Yan Yanovich Kovalsky, 40, watchmaker, executed on November 18, 1930."

Some attendees, clearly emotional, added their own personal tributes.

"My uncle, my mother's brother, Nikolai Grigoryevich Gurvich, 29, executed in 1938," said one female participant, adding that he worked at a factory in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.

The ceremony came ahead of Monday's Day of Remembrance for victims of political repression, an event established by Boris Yeltsin in 1991.