A city built on bones

A city built on bones

Historians are unearthing one of the darkest periods of the city’s past at the Peter and Paul Fortress

Published: June 1, 2011 (Issue # 1658)


So far, excavation work at the Peter and Paul Fortress has been done by volunteers.

The Museum of the History of St. Petersburg has unearthed more than 100 skeletons while conducting archeological excavations at the Peter and Paul Fortress on the spot where the mass graves of victims of the Red Terror are located. Now, however, the project has been refused financing for the continuation of the work.

The museum has appealed to various authorities, including the Ministry of Culture, to provide the necessary funding for the excavations, but has yet to receive any reply. Historian and archeologist Vladimir Kildyushevsky says that the two million rubles ($71,300) that are needed to continue the work would cover not the excavation itself, which is usually done by volunteers, but “the processing of materials that have already been discovered, and those that we are planning to find.”

“It is for conservation, restoration, working with bone fragments, anthropological and, if necessary, DNA examinations,” said Kildyushevsky.

So far, seven graves have been discovered, containing the remains of no fewer than 110 people showing traces of violent death — usually bullet wounds. Most of those shot were men aged 25 to 40, but the remains of at least five women and one teenager have also been found. In addition to human remains, fragments of uniforms, belts, buttons, silver and gold baptismal crosses and icons have been found, throwing new light on some of the darkest secrets from the turbulent time following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.


The remains at the fortress are of victims of the Red Terror who were generally shot in the head.

The term Red Terror is used to refer to the period in which Russian counterrevolutionaries and monarchists were arrested and shot en masse, beginning at the start of September 1918 and ending with dates ranging from the following month right through to the end of the Civil War in 1922. The Peter and Paul Fortress was used as a prison at that time, and locals reported regularly hearing the sounds of gunshots from the fortress.

The remains of some of the Grand Dukes of the imperial Romanov family may be among the finds, people involved with the project say. Olga Palei, the wife of Pavel Alexandrovich, a younger brother of Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, managed to escape from Soviet Russia after her husband’s death and later published a book of memoirs in which she described her husband’s last moments in detail, as told to her by a doctor who was imprisoned with the Grand Duke and from an old servant who witnessed the murder.

“He [Pavel Alexandrovich] was told that he was going to leave, but that all his luggage was to remain there. They took him in an automobile to the Peter and Paul Fortress; the other Grand Dukes were taken there direct … They were shut up in the black dungeons of the Trubetskoi Bastion. At three o’clock in the morning, two soldiers named Blagovidov and Soloviev made them go out, stripped to the waist, and led them onto the Place de la Monnaie within the fortress, in front of the cathedral. They saw a huge, deep common grave in which thirteen bodies lay already. The soldiers made them stand in line near the grave and the abominable crime was accomplished. Some moments before, the old servant heard the Grand Duke utter out loud the words: ‘God forgive them, they know not what they do…’

“All the radiant happiness of former times passed before my dazed vision,” Palei wrote in her book. “Then the paper arrived, [and] after a long martyrology of people assassinated on January 17/30 [the calendar used in Russia at that time was 13 days behind the one used in the West], I read these words: ‘Shot. . . the ex-Grand Dukes, Pavel Alexandrovich, Dmitry Konstantinovich, Nicholas and George Mikhailovich,’ and I remember nothing more of that day.”


Seven graves containing the remains of 110 people have been found.

Kildyushevsky says that officials do not seem particularly interested in the issue, and that it appears they believe they have more important things to do. “The museum would like to continue the work, but it does not have the necessary funds,” Kildyushevsky said during an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio station.

One third of the territory of the graves has been explored so far, and since summer is the most suitable time for excavations, the question is now more pertinent than ever. Resumed work would also involve working in archives, looking through old newspapers and collecting various kinds of data. If such work was undertaken and assembled, the efforts would make it possible to identify at least some of the people buried in the mass graves, the project’s supporters say.

It is eventually planned to erect a memorial plaque on the site of the mass graves.

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