Located in southern Moscow, this is one of the main burial sites discussed in the book. Butovo Polygon functioned both as an execution site and as a secret burial ground. It is frequently mentioned in conjunction with fellow NKVD (secret police) “special object” Kommunarka Polygon.
In the 16th century, the site was part of a village estate named Drozhkino in honor of the local boyar. In 1889, estate owner N. M. Solovev had horse stables and a hippodrome built near the present-day polygon.
During the Russian Civil War, the farm was acquired by the Red Army and later given to the OGPU, an earlier iteration of the Soviet secret police. In 1935, the NKVD nominally turned the territory into a firing range, or a “polygon” in military terminology. The space was enclosed with a tall fence and continually guarded from any curious members of the public that came too near.
Butovo Polygon operated as a “special object,” which was code for secret execution site, from August 1937 to October 1938. During this time, nearly twenty-one thousand people, including clergy and common citizens, were killed and buried here.
Butovo Polygon remained shrouded in secrecy for the duration of the Soviet Union. The territory was taken over by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1995 as part of a broader effort to properly commemorate the many martyrs for the faith that died during Stalin’s Great Terror.
Today, Butovo Polygon is a historical monument and place for contemplation. Visitors unaware of the site’s history might initially mistake the well-kept grounds for a park, given the numerous walking paths, benches, and flowers.
Several raised mounds mark the mass graves that cross the territory. A small, red-roofed church stands near the gates. Two tall memorial crosses, one within the Polygon and one across the road near the Cathedral of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors at Butovo, were transported to Moscow from Solovki Monastery. (Solovki Monastery was once one of the most infamous prison camps within the GULAG system and, like Butovo, is an important player in the movement to commemorate victims of political repression.)
Plans are currently underway to build a permanent memorial wall with the names of all 20,760 known victims buried at Butovo. The new memorial will replace the current one located along the back wall of the territory.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the new memorial wall occurred on August 8, 2015 – 78 years after the first mass shooting at Butovo Polygon. A video of the ceremony can be viewed below.
Commemorative events are held throughout the year both at the Polygon and across the road in the Cathedral of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors at Butovo.
Given its distance from the city center and the fact that it’s only open on weekends, Butovo Polygon is more difficult to visit than most other locations from the book. However, the following route served us reliably:
Take the Metro south on the gray line to the station Annino. After exiting the metro, find the nearby bus stops along Varshavskoe Shocce. Board bus 819 and ride seven stops until Novonikol’skoe. Cross the highway using the underground crosswalk and start walking east until you reach Berezovaya Alley, a narrow, tree-lined highway that runs southeast. Follow it directly to the entrance of Butovo Polygon. (Look for the tall white Cathedral on your right, and then take a left down the path.)