The Night of the Executed Poets

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Minsk, late in October, on a slate-grey Monday of impenetrable gloom. Over the course of the day dawn has blended seamlessly into dusk with little in between, save for stair rods of rain to flood the streets. I’m on my way to remember the victims of Stalin’s murderous purges.

Riding the rails through the cavernous halls of the Metro in the evening rush hour, I’m reminded of the factory scenes in the early frames of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. It seems all of humanity is on the move, yet when we emerge from the subway at the end of the line there is calm, and we are alone. A car is waiting at the rear of the Belorusneft gas station. It is our lift to the forest on the edge of town and its flashing headlights beckon us across.

For 30 minutes we are cocooned in a bubble of condensation, the driver’s nose pressed to the windscreen, and then we are parking up. Beneath the highway an underpass is harshly lit by haphazard arc lights. To the left, lines of trees rise to a mound in the centre of the woods.

We have come to Kurapaty forest and tonight, 29-30 October, is the Night of the Executed Poets. This is the site to which many of Stalin’s victims were brought in the dead of night, some after show trials, when a pretence of ‘justice’ was horrifyingly and grotesquely seen to be delivered, many others after the dreaded NKVD knock on the door in the early hours, all to be dispatched with a bullet to the back of the head. Some believe that this forest hides the remains of up to 200,000, while others place the figure at around 20,000. The truth inevitably lies somewhere between the two.

On this night in 1937, 103 members of the intelligentsia (scientists, civil servants and writers, including at least 22 poets) took their last ride in this world. They were conveyed from all over the city to this place of death, in the backs of cars and vans. What must they have been thinking? Did they know their fate? Almost certainly they did.

We get out of the car to turn our faces from the wind and the driving rain. Soon we are stumbling through muddy pools and sodden grass. In the middle distance there are readings and there are speeches in the underpass away to our right, but I am only here to pay my respects to the Dead. There are guys standing on the bank beneath the road with video cameras panning the crowd and I want there to be no ambiguity and no misunderstanding as to my presence in this place.

Into the darkness we pick our way, our eyes slowly becoming accustomed to the gloom. Here and there beams of light appear, from torches and bicycle lamps.

“Go this way to avoid the potholes” says an old lady pushing her bicycle through the quagmire. “They are full of water”.

Shadows flit in and out of the periphery of my vision. I love borderlands. This part of Europe still has border fences, and armed border guards, and tracts of no-mans-land, but tonight the borderlands are different. Here is the blurring of the edges between reality and imagination. Is it only the Living who walk amongst the trees? I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that there is something wrong here. Offences against the natural order of things have been perpetrated in this place. The sanctity, the sacred majesty of this ancient woodland has been violated. I feel overwhelmingly sad, and unutterably bleak.

Either side of the track leading upwards into the heart of the forest are crosses, mostly of metal. Some are six feet tall, some are much bigger. Carefully we pick our way through them until we reach the main memorials in the small clearing at the top. On all sides the trees drop gently away into the darkness. Shadows and shades and pinpoints of light are all around.

Earlier we stopped by at the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on Rakovskaya Street to buy candle lanterns for five roubles each (less than two pounds). Standing now in the wind and the rain we struggle to light them, but soon the flames are burning brightly and strongly as we place them on a memorial where no other candles are alight. We bow our heads to remember. The girls intone a sad lament. The rain, backlit by the arc lights, is coming down at an angle of 45 degrees.

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Softly one of my two companions begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer. She stumbles, unsure of the words and without thinking I take the lead. And soon three voices are steadily reciting the venerated phrases through the gloom and the downpour.

There is silence as we stand with heads bowed for a moment more, then in a final act of respect we all mark the sign of the cross before setting off, back down the path. Overt displays of religious observance don’t usually come easily for me. Tonight, in this place, they do.

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We hurry past the assembled gathering without a glance, our feet and legs sodden from the knees down. We are silent on the drive back into the city. We are cold and we are wet, but we have paid our respects to the Dead. May they somehow find rest, and peace.

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