Friday, April 20, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Botched Reburial of Veterans in Moscow Prompts Russian to Ask: 'Why are We Complaining about the Estonians?'

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 20 –Officials in the Moscow suburb of Khimki used bulldozers on Monday to disinter the bodies of six Soviet heroes from World War II this week and then left some of the veterans’ remains lying about in the weather for three days, outraging many Russians and prompting questions about Moscow’s criticism of Estonia.
Today’s “Novyye izvestiya” published a detailed article about the case, including interviews with local residents and officials but also photographs of the disturbed ground from which the bodies had been taken, the bones left behind, and the war memorial itself quickly refurbished after public complaints (
In the paper’s coverage of what they described as “a scandal around the actual tearing down of a monument to the defenders of Moscow,” Lyudmila Nazdracheva and Viktor Tkachev described the way in which officials had carried out the botched reburial operation and the feelings of local residents.
On Monday of this week, Nazdracheva and Tkachev wrote, the Khimki administration send in a bulldozer to dig up the graces as well as an ambulance to carry them off, three militiamen to guard the operation, and several Tajik workers with shovels to dig up what the bulldozer could not.
One eyewitness told the journalists that the bones had been gathered up and placed in black boxes but the Tajiks shouted at the time that “they had forgotten two bones. For three days, these graves stood open. And only on Thursday, when people raised a scandal did officials put the monument in order as if nothing had happened.”
The “Novyye izvestiya” journalists provided one grizzly picture of one of the bones but pointedly noted that they would turn over the remains to those responsible for providing these dead heroes with what should be but so far has not been a dignified reburial.
Pressed by the public and the journalists to explain why this had taken place, the Khimki administration said that they had approved plans to move the graves because they wanted to widen the road and had secured the agreement of both the relatives of those buried there and local groups of veterans.
A leader of one veterans’ organizations confirmed that his group had approved the measure: there was simply no alternative to reburial given that the road was going to be widened, he said. “Even according to the norms of Christian morality,” he continued, this was what had to be done.
As for the refurbishing of the war memorial itself, Khimki officials said they had to clean it up because prostitutes had frequented the area – but the “Novyye izvestiya” journalists said that they had been told by one local resident that the prostitutes had left that spot after a militia post opened there two years ago.
But as appalling as all this clearly is to the residents of a country where World War II is one of the few things all residents honor, there is another side to this case that may cast an even longer shadow.
Over the past year, Russian officials have conducted an intense propaganda barrage against Tallinn’s plans to relocate a Soviet war memorial and the graves of Soviet soldiers out of the center of the Estonian capital. Russian officials have suggested that such steps show that Estonia wants to dishonor those who fought against Hitler.
But as one Khimki resident told the “Novyye izvestiya” journalists, “it is not clear why we are fighting with the Estonians who have decided to rebury Soviet soldiers [when officials in Moscow] are doing the same thing.” So far, the Estonian media have not picked up this story, but they or at least Estonian officials are certain to do so.

UPDATE ON APRIL 23: On Sunday, April 22, a group of members of the Union of Communist Youth and related movements staged a protest at the site of the reburial. The militia dispersed the meeting because participants did not have a permit. Several of those taking part were arrested, beaten, and have now declared a hunger strike ( In a related development, last Wednesday, April 18, Duma vice speaker Vladimir Katrenko asked a parliamentary question to RF Procurator General Yuriy Chaika concerning the decision of the Stavropol' authorities to tear down a monument to Cossacks who fought in World War II. Katrenko told journalists that such actions by Russian officials were especially troubling given their criticism of Estonia (

UPDATE ON APRIL 27: Even as Russian officials continue to denounce Estonia’s removal of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn and Russian prosecutors consider two suits brought by those who protested against the exhumation of the graves of World War II heroes in Khimki, officials in that Moscow suburb acknowledged that they currently have no idea where the remains had been taken, Moscow’s “Gazeta” newspaper has reported (

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