MOSCOW — Slowly, purposefully, on a quiet autumn afternoon in Moscow’s Donskoye cemetery, several dozen Russians came forward to read the names of people murdered during Stalin’s Great Terror. Their remains are believed to be scattered among three mass graves, though most of the victims were burned and no one can say for sure which ones they lie in.
“Sergei Mikhailovich Tretyakov is a poet, writer and playwright,” read a red-haired woman named Olga, 72, with a soft voice, as crows rustled in the barren trees overhead. “Special correspondent for Pravda newspaper. He lived in Moscow. Shot dead on September 10, 1937. He was rehabilitated in 1956,” she continued, using a term meaning his name was cleared. “Buried at Donskoye Cemetery.”
Three weeks after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and nearly a year after the Kremlin moved to liquidate it, the Russian human rights organization Memorial was carrying on with its annual tribute to Stalin’s victims — a ceremony known as “Returning the Names.”
It is normally a marathon reading of the names, ages, professions and dates of death of the people killed under Stalin’s reign, conducted for most of the past 15 years in Lubyanka Square, by the headquarters of what used to be the K.G.B., the notorious Soviet security services. But this year, Memorial was forced to jury-rig the tribute and break it into small gatherings, after the authorities banned the daylong reading planned for Saturday at Lubyanka, which typically attracts thousands of attendees.
The government cited public safety rules related to the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for canceling it, as it did in 2020 and 2021. Though Moscow has long moved past such virus-related restrictions, the rules are frequently invoked to prohibit protests or to jail those who express dissent in public.
“The point in returning the names is that we’re naming the victims,” said Yan Rachinsky, the chairman of Memorial’s board. “But the question inevitably arises: If there are victims of crime, then there are criminals, and there are reasons for the crime. These are no longer things that our authorities are ready to discuss.”
As President Vladimir V. Putin moves to restore what he perceives as the glory of Soviet-era Russia, the Kremlin has grown increasingly loath to discuss crimes committed by the Soviet government, or of portraying Stalin in a bad light. Mr. Putin has only intensified a more heroic portrayal of that era as he has sold his war in Ukraine to ordinary Russians.
In the West, Stalin is remembered mostly for the millions of victims who died of famine, purges and horrible conditions in the gulag. The Kremlin now prefers instead to focus on his role leading the Soviet Union to victory over the Nazis in World War II.
There are some signs that it is having an effect: The proportion of people who believe that Stalin played an “entirely positive” or “rather positive” role in the life of the country has grown from about 40 percent in the early 2000s to 70 percent in 2019, according to research from the Levada Center, an independent pollster.
It has been Memorial’s mission since its founding in the late 1980s to keep alive the memory of those who died in the gulags. The reading of the names — centralized in Moscow but carried out in smaller ceremonies across the country — was perhaps the most public display of that effort.
More than 30,000 people were shot in Moscow alone in 1937 and 1938, when the killings peaked, according to Memorial. The group has the names of 5,000 people who were shot and cremated at Donskoye during that time, their ashes dumped into collective pits. But “no one knows for sure” how many were killed then, said Pavel Parkin, a historian who gave a tour of the cemetery. “It could be 10,000 or 15,000,” Mr. Parkin said.
In the cemetery, a makeshift memorial bulging with plaques was constructed by family members who had never had any gravestone upon which to place them. Before leaving a candle in a red glass on the memorial, Olga, who declined to provide her surname for fear of retribution, recited the names of two more victims — both of her grandfathers.
She finished by saying: “Blessed memory to all those who were innocently tortured. Freedom for all political prisoners and no to war.”
Though Donskoye is the site of the brutal executions, the ceremony is typically held at the Solovetsky Stone, which was hauled to Moscow from the Solovetsky Islands, on the White Sea, the site of one of the first prison camps of the Soviet Gulag system. It was installed in the square in spring 1990 as a monument to victims of Soviet repression, including those tortured and killed in the secret services headquarters on Lubyanka Square.
This year, though there was no official action because of the government ban, a steady trickle of people came to lay flowers on the Solovetsky Stone all day, as several police officers stood watching in the rain. On the stone’s pedestal, some people left the names of victims, some handwritten, others covered in plastic to protect them from the rain.
“I have been coming to this every year since it started in 2007,” said Valentina, a retired engineer, who also declined to provide her surname. “So that it is never forgotten, and never repeated.”
She recounted how people used to wait for hours in line to read a name. No Russian officials came on Saturday, at least not publicly, to pay their respects. But ambassadors and representatives of European Union countries, along with the United States and Canada laid flowers in memory. Affiliates of Memorial also organized reading of the names in cities across the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe.
Mr. Rachinsky said it was disappointing that the names of the investigators who determined the victims’ guilt, often on fabricated evidence, remained a state secret.
“If you cover up these crimes, you become an accomplice to them,” he said. “Without realizing it, and distancing yourself from it, it is impossible to build any future.”
That was the premise upon which Memorial was founded in the late 1980s, during a period of openness under Mikhail S. Gorbachev. It grew to become one of the country’s most respected civil society organizations, helping those like Olga learn the fate of their family members through painstaking archival research across Russia’s regions.
It also spoke out against the wars that Moscow launched in Chechnya, Georgia and in 2014 in Ukraine.
But late last year, two Russian courts ruled that two of Memorial’s organizations — one that researches the victims of Stalinist terror, and one that promotes human rights — must be liquidated. The courts are trying to confiscate Memorial’s money and its offices, a vast warren of offices, archives and a basement museum. The lights are off in the entryway, and young male activists who worked there have fled Moscow to avoid conscription.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears its ninth month, with increased political repressions that have seen Russians being jailed for “discrediting” the Russian military, the parallels between the Soviet past and the present day have grown more ominous, Mr. Rachinsky said.
“This is really becoming similar to Soviet times, and in some respects it is worse,” he said. “There was less aggression in propaganda during the Soviet era.” The fact that institutions like Russia’s internet regulator and the Ministry of Justice have been endowed with “the broadest extrajudicial powers,” he said, reproduces “one of the most dangerous phenomena of the Stalin era.”
For the mourners who came to Donskoye, the small memorial ceremony was an important catharsis.
Svetlana Anatolyevna, 70, read the names she was given and then made one addition: her maternal grandparents, whose fate is still entirely unknown. But she did not know their names: Her mother was taken to an orphanage at the age of 3 or 4 in 1938, and was later told that her parents were killed during the Great Terror.
“We all come here to read very brief information about a person, name of birth and date of death,” said Evgeniya, 38, Svetlana’s daughter. “It is not a lot of information, but it has become a very important ritual for me. We read what was hidden for a long time. I do this for myself and for my family, because this is a such a common story.”
The government’s attempts to liquidate Memorial are “inhumane,” Svetlana said, and constitute an attempt to “trample on true history.” She said they were still looking for information about her mother’s parents.
“We know we’re unlikely to get help,” she said. “It’s just — my soul bleeds that so many people have died.”