In 2019, the businessman Vladimir Davidi is planning to open an high-end store in the center of Moscow, in a building with a horrifying history, the so-called Execution House.
From 1933 to 1949, this building was occupied by the Military Collegium of the USSR Supreme Court that between 1936 to 1938 sentenced 31,456 victims to death, many which were executed in the basement of this building. Among them, there were famous Soviet and military leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the theater director Emil Meyerhold and the writer Isaak Babel. On the whole, 44 Commissars of various industries, 141 high-level military commanders, 100 professors, 300 factory directors, and numerous artists and writers were executed during that period as a result of Military Collegium sentencing. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his closest cronies personally approved the lists of the names of those who would be executed. In the archives, 383 of these lists have survived. The two huge rooms in the basement of the building where executions were carried out are still in place. Of course, today, the location of the building at Nikolskaya Street, 23, half way between the Kremlin to Lubyanskaya Square, with its infamous NKVD-MGB-KGB-FSB headquarters, is very desirable.
The attempts to turn this building into a memorial, a branch of the Museum of History of the Gulag, started just after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but ultimately failed. The fight to save the building, with Moscow authorities, businessmen and investors, has been going on since 2005 when a subsidiary of the Bank of Moscow, the owner of the building, decided to demolish it and build an entertainment complex with the cellars being during into underground parking. The public managed to defend the building. In 2008, Novaya Gazeta published an open letter to Andrei Borodin, President of the Bank of Moscow, suggesting “to compensate him for the losses incurred by the creation of the memorial museum” at the site.
A compromise was agreed upon and the Bank of Moscow was ready to organize a museum in the cellar. But then Borodin was accused of embezzling 7.4 billion rubles ($ 249 mil) and he escaped from Russia and his name was put on the wanted list. In 2013, Borodin received political asylum in England. The Bank of Moscow was acquired by VTB Bank, via the Limited Liability Company (LLC) “Versek” (“Heather”).
In 2012, the building received the status of Cultural Heritage Site of regional importance after a long public campaign to save the building. In 2014, the Memorial Society organized an exhibition of photos of people sentenced to death in the Execution House in front of the building. In 2014, the office of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin promised to to purchase it for the city and open a branch of the Museum of History of the Gulag there. This promise was never realized.
In July 2016, the Perovski District Court of Moscow fined the LLC “Veresk” 100,000 rubles ($3.300) for mismanaging the building. And in September 2016 it became known that Vladimir Davidi, one of the largest suppliers of luxury perfumes, intended to open a “Premium Department Store” in it. Retail experts have been critical of this idea. One of the knowledgeable Moscow businessmen commented: “In my opinion, the creation of a luxury department store in the center of Moscow is now almost impossible, since most of the brands are distributed among the key market players who develop them on their premises.”
At first Davidi claimed that he knew nothing of the horrifying past of the building when he bought it. It hard to believe this because Davidi has been in big business in Moscow since 2001 and should have been aware of the controversy about the building. After Davidi’s claim Roman Romanov, director of the Museum of History of the Gulag, provided him with detailed information on the history of the building and its owners, beginning from the 17th Century. Apparently, the businessman was not moved.
In April 2017, the City Planning and Land Commission chaired by Mayor Sobyanin, without publicity in the press, approved a plan of restoration of the Execution House. In the official statement of Mayor’s Office, it was reported that “during the work the house will be adapted for modern use.” Since then, renovation has been going on in the building.
It’s not surprising that Mayor Sobyanin supports business and not the memory of Stalin’s victims. He was born in 1958 in Siberia and until 2005, he was a functionary there (in the Khanty-Mansiysk Region) and one of the leaders of Putin’s party “United Russia.” In 2010, he became Mayor of Moscow. Before that, from 2005 to 2008, he headed President Putin’s Administration, and from 2008 to 2010, of President Dmitry Medvedev’s Administration (and was a Vice President). In 2006, as a high-level state bureaucrat he was given an apartment in the center of Moscow in an apartment building that belonged to the Presidential Administration. In 2010, Sobyanin privatized this 308.1-square-meters (3316.4 ft2) apartment in the name of his then 12-year old daughter Olga (b. 1997). The value of the apartment was about 5.3 million dollars. As Alexey Navalny, one of the Russian political opposition leaders, stated, “the value of the apartment owned by state employee Sobyanin is approximately 6 times higher than his possible income over the past 10 years.”
The next 2011 year Sobyanin’s other daughter Anna (b. 1986) bought an apartment in the historical center of St. Petersburg, two weeks after her 25th birthday. The size of this apartment was 204.9 square meters (2205.5 ft2), and the value was about 3.5 million dollars. Additionally, as Navalny’s investigators found, in 2010 Anna Sobyanina was a founding member of the company Forus-Group that builds houses for executive offices and repairs them. Forus-Group also established a separate company called Rosinterio in the Moscow region Reutovo, which produces furniture for executive offices. Another founder of the companies was her neighbor in the building, 27-years-old Vyacheslav Kalashnikov. The activity of the companies is in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Khanty-Mansiysk–the cities of Sobyanin’s influence–and works exclusively with state facilities.
Jan Rachinsky, Chairman of the Board of the International Memorial Society, commented on the situation with the Execution House: “In a building with such a history, a luxury shop will look like a dance floor in Auschwitz.”
At the end of July 2018, the editorial board of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta offered to buy Execution House from Mr. Davidi for the public. The businessman rejected the proposal.
To attract attention to the history of the building, on August 18, 2018, the Memorial Society installed stands with portraits of the victims executed in the Execution House in front of the building.
The destruction of this most horrifying reminder of Stalin’s Soviet Union will be the next step in the continuing effort by Vladimir Putin’s regime to erase the past.
Possibly, the most unconscionable previous erasure was the reconstruction by the Orthodox Church of Sukhanovo Prison, which functioned from 1939-1953 in a small former 17th Century monastery. This was the most terrifying Moscow investigation NKVD/MGB prison, where dozens of torture methods were used to force political prisoners to “confess.” There was also an oven in this prison to burn bodies of those prisoners who died during investigation. In the early 1990s, President Putin transferred the ownership of the prison buildings to the Orthodox Church. During the reconstruction, all traces of the terrible Stalin’s past, including the personal offices used by Lavrentii Beria and Viktor Abakumov and the torture chambers, that still existed at the time, were destroyed. No record of the architectural plans of the former prison was made.
Also, there is no historical marker on the execution annex of the OGPU/NKVD/NKGB/MGB, in whose basement thousands of political prisoners were executed. This annex is located in the yard of a 19th-Сentury building in Varsanofiev Lane, 7, behind the main building of the FSB,the infamous Lubyanka.
From 1926 to 1953, Vasily Blokhin, the Lubyanka Commandant (Chief Executioner) ordered the carrying out executions in that building, and personally killed from 10,000 to 15,000 political prisoners with shots to the back of the head. Among them were Marshal Tukhachevsky (the infamous USSR Prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky and Chairman of the Military Collegium Vasily Ulrikh were present at the execution) and even Blokhin’s former boss, Nikolai Yezhov (NKVD Commissar in 1936-38). In 1940, Blokhin and his squad of executioners shot 6,311 Polish POWs in 28 days, i.e., almost 230 prisoners daily, in the city of Kalinin. In 1945, he was promoted to the rank of Maj. General. During his 29-year career as an executioner, Blokhin received numerous civil and military awards. However, in 1954, after Stalin’s death, Blokhin was deprived of his rank of General because he “discredited himself during his service in the [state security] organs […] and is unworthy of the high General rank in connection with that.”
Blokhin died in 1955, but in 2003, soon after KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin became Russian President, a new monument appeared on Blokhin’s grave in Donskoe Cemetery in Moscow–a large expensive marble slab with an image of the executioner in a State Security Major General uniform and numerous orders and medals attached to it.
Currently, the Lubyanka execution building is occupied by one of FSB garages. The infamous NKVD/MGB toxicology laboratory headed by Grigory Mairanovsky, in which political prisoners sentenced to death were used for experiments with poisons, was located in another annex of the same building.
Vadim Birstein. The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science. Boulder (CO): Westview Press, 2001. Pp. 81-176.
Vadim Birstein. SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII. London: Biteback, 2012. Pp. 63-68, 125-27.
Nikita Petrov. Exectioners: They Carried Out Stalin’s Order. Chapters “A Man with a Leather Apron (Vasily Blokhin)” and “He Boasted of Executions: Notes to the Portrait of Vasily Ulrikh.” Moscow: Novaya Gazeta, 2011. Pp. 69-85, 191-203, 215-24 (in Russian).
P.S. For those who is interested in Russian archival documents of Stalin’s time: