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The Novocherkassk massacre How the Soviet authorities murdered peaceful demonstrators in 1962 and kept it a secret for decades, until the victims fought back

Source: Meduza
Darya Dar for Meduza

On June 2, 1962, Soviet soldiers fired on a demonstration by workers demanding better living conditions and lower prices. The shooting took place in downtown Novocherkassk, an industrial city near Rostov-on-Don. More than 25 people were killed, and more than 85 people were injured. For decades, the Soviet authorities kept the incident a secret, executing another seven demonstrators and sentencing another 100 participants to 10 years in prison. The truth about the Novocherkassk massacre only started leaking to the media during Perestroika, and a formal investigation didn’t occur until after the collapse of the USSR. Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky visited Novocherkassk and met with people who have guarded the tragedy’s memory for 55 years. Turovsky also studied the criminal records, books, films, and archival documents related to the massacre, in order to retell the full history of the incident, from the terrible events on the day of the shooting to the efforts decades later to find the victims’ graves and bury their remains properly.

On the afternoon of June 2, 1962, twenty-four-year-old Anatoly Zhmurin, who worked as a driver in Novocherkassk, was discharged from a local hospital after a minor medical treatment. It was sweltering on the street, and he stepped outside wearing a straw hat, a shirt, and a pair of summer pants. Zhmurin decided to go see his wife, who worked downtown at the chemical institute. Along the way, he noticed some military trucks and assumed that the army was conducting some kind of training exercise. Then he boarded a city bus.

At the time, there were about 145,000 people living in Novocherkassk. In the early 1930s, the city opened the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant (NEVZ), which became the USSR’s biggest producer of train engines. The enterprise employed roughly 12,000 workers, many of whom lived in the factory barracks. The Tuzlov River divided the city into two parts: on one bank, there were Novocherkassk’s administrative buildings and its old town center, and on the other side there was an industrial zone with the barracks and a train station. Public transport between the two sides of the city ran irregularly, which meant that workers on the night shift often had to wait until the morning for a bus ride home. According to KGB records, NEVZ’s administration treated the staff “heartlessly,” making no efforts to ensure decent working conditions, foodservice, or even personal safety. The KGB also discovered problems with housing and medical care in Novocherkassk, where one hospital with 150 cots was located inside a residential building.

Before long, Zhmurin’s bus was suddenly stopped by a tank in the road. He jumped to the curb and soon ran into a friend and asked, “What’s going on, Vanya?” His friend told him that this was the second straight day of a workers’ strike at NEVZ against rising prices on groceries. He said people from the government — Frol Kozlov and Anastas Mikoyan, First Secretary Khrushchev’s deputies — were supposed to arrive at any moment, and he invited Zhmurin to come hear their speeches in the city’s main square outside the Novocherkassk administration building.

When he got to the square, Zhmurin saw that all the administration building’s doors and windows had been thrown open, and he could see soldiers inside. In the square, the protesters were standing around in groups, talking quietly among themselves. No one was carrying any banners, and many people were hiding in the shade of the surrounding trees, taking refuge from the hot summer sun. Then Zhmurin’s friend went off somewhere, and the two never saw each other again.

To get a better view of what was happening, Zhmurin climbed up the front steps of the administration building, where several machine gunners passed by and formed two lines. One of the officers addressed the crowd in the square, ordering them to disperse and threatening to open fire if they did not. When everyone ignored him, he ordered the soldiers to load their automatic weapons.

“I couldn’t believe they would shoot,” Zhmurin told Meduza, remembering the massacre, 55 years later. “There was no need. Everyone was totally calm. They were waiting for the bosses to come speak. Nobody was throwing rocks. Nobody was doing anything. They could have dispersed everyone with a firehose.”

Anatoly Zhmurin at the monument to the victims of the Novocherkassk shooting, October 2017
Darya Dar for Meduza

Zhmurin soon realized that it was time to leave. When he got to the center of the square, however, he suddenly felt as if he’d been clobbered in the shoulder with a log. He turned around and saw five people lying on the ground. Others were running, and some people were falling. The sound of automatic gunfire filled the air.

Zhmurin could no longer move his arm, which was now bleeding and limp at his side. He dropped to the ground and started crawling, like others, past the dead and wounded. At some points, someone else would crawl right over him.

The soldiers tried to fence off the square, but the crowd quickly knocked it down. Zhmurin crawled to cover, got up, and tried to flag down a car. The first driver refused to take him to the hospital, not wanting his interior stained with blood. The next driver agreed to help. Zhmurin lost consciousness on the way to the hospital — the same one that had just discharged him, two hours earlier.

Doctors found that he’d been shot in the shoulder, and they operated on him at once. The bullet passed straight through, splitting his bone at the elbow. While Zhmurin was unconscious, KGB agents came to the hospital and started asking about all the patients being treated for recent injuries. The head of medicine told them that Zhmurin was one of the hospital’s drivers and accidentally ended up in the square during the rally. The agents didn’t believe him, and after reviewing Zhmurin’s medical records they even accused the hospital of fabricating the documents. The KGB agents only left when the doctor refused to sign a discharge order.

The next morning, the hospital sent Zhmurin home, saying he’d only need to return a few times so nurses could change the dressing on his wound. The head of medicine advised him to tell no one what happened, and Zhmurin decided to tell everyone that he’d fallen down some stairs. For several decades, like hundreds of other witnesses to the massacre, he kept silent about the truth.

The gunshot changed Zhmurin’s whole life. He continued working as a driver, but it became grueling work because of his permanently damaged arm. In 1972, he took an agricultural job in the Altai Territory. When the locals found out that he was from Novocherkassk, they started asking him what had happened 10 years earlier. Zhmurin told everyone that he was out of town when the shooting happened.

His memory often takes him back to the events of that summer day, especially when the weather changes and his arm starts to ache. More than anything, Zhmurin says he remembers the sound of the gunshots and the sense of despair. The bullets were flying from all directions, and “every second it seemed like one would find your head.”

After the shooting, Zhmurin always avoided the central square in Novocherkassk. Whenever he was nearby, his arm started hurting.

chapter one


“Send Khrushchev to the butcher!”

On May 31, 1962, the radio announced that prices were going up: meat would be a third more expensive, and butter would cost 25 percent more. Soviet citizens were not happy about this. In her book, “Novocherkassk: The Bloody Noon,” historian Tatyana Bocharova published excerpts from KGB memos with quotes from conversations between ordinary people standing in food lines and at train stations and in factories. A driver in Arkhangelsk complained, “Life is getting worse and worse. Kennedy would be doing the right thing, if he dropped an atomic bomb on the Soviet Union.” A senior technician in Moscow expressed his frustration: “How are we supposed to believe these official public announcements, if the lecturer tells us that the rumors about rising prices in the USSR are enemy propaganda spread by the BBC, and then it turns out that the BBC was right?” A worker in Gorky concluded: “If this happens, we’ll have to draw up posters and go to the party’s regional committee.”

Early on the morning of June 1, during a short break, the workers at NEVZ in Novocherkassk were informed that the factory had revised its production quotas and wage rates. Because of this, some workers would now be earning a third less than before.

Before long, a group of about two dozen people came to the head of the steel plant for an explanation of the new policies. While he tried to persuade them to go back to work, the factory’s director came up and someone told him, “We’ve never even laid eyes on meat!” The director fired back, “If there’s not enough meat, eat liver pies.” The workers immediately started spreading word about what he’d said (in criminal case records from 1994, the phrase was said to be “eat cabbage pies,” and in Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” he mentions “jam pies”). Activists then set out for other shop floors in the factory, calling on staff to stop working and demand a meeting with the leadership of the party’s regional committee.

Soon, there were several hundred workers involved. Then someone tied up the guard and triggered the factory whistle. Machinist Vyacheslav Chernykh recalls today that everyone was doing what they thought was right, based on what they’d learned from Soviet propaganda films about labor strikes.

The workers pulled down a fence and covered the train tracks with wood boards about 100 yards from the factory, blocking the railway that led to the southern USSR. When a passenger-train headed from Saratov to Rostov stopped at the barricade, the workers climbed into the front cabin and started tugging on the train’s whistle. On the sides of the train cars, the workers wrote in chalk, “Send Khrushchev to the butcher!” and from an electrical tower somebody hung a banner reading, “Meat, butter, and higher pay!” One of the factory’s engineers demanded that the train be allowed through, but the crowd grabbed him, and someone even suggested throwing him into the locomotive’s furnace.

The first day of protests: workers block the railway and hang from an electrical tower a banner reading, “Meat, butter, and higher pay!” June 1, 1962. Image displayed at the Novocherkassk Memorial Museum.

“I got worried when I heard the calls to seize government buildings,” recalled another machinist, Pyotr Siuda. “I remembered what happened in Hungary and Georgia, where attempts to seize government buildings brought about serious consequences. I urged everyone to assemble in town the next day, to work out a list of common demands.”

By noon, the next day, about 7,000 people had gathered in the square outside the factory. By that time, Khrushchev had already been made aware of the situation and ordered the Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry to restore order in the city. Next, two of the first secretary’s closest associates, Central Committee member Frol Kozlov and Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan (who once worked in Rostov-on-Don), set out for Novocherkassk.

In parallel with Kozlov and Mikoyan, dozens of KGB agents arrived in the city. Some of them changed into civilian clothes and infiltrated the crowd, in order to identify the protest’s instigators and photograph them (this information and further accounts by soldiers and KGB agents are based on records Meduza obtained from the criminal investigation launched in 1992). Every agent had his own backstory. For example, investigator Alexander Dunin had to pretend he was a historian. Dunin walked among the crowd and listened to what people talked about. He heard one person complain, for instance, that the authorities should have raised prices on carpets and televisions, instead of food. The investigator paid special attention to a speech by Pyotr Siuda, who called on demonstrators to keep their strike peaceful and avoid any property destruction.

At about three in the afternoon, police officers armed with megaphones ordered the protesters to disperse. In response, the demonstrators started throwing sticks and stones. Speaking from the factory balcony, Rostov Communist Party regional committee First Secretary Alexander Basov tried to calm down the crowd, but the rocks and even a bottle of kefir were soon flying in his direction, too. Basov went to hide in the factory’s administrative office, where he was soon trapped by protesters, who also refused to allow the police into the building. The authorities only managed to extract Basov by the evening, when several paratroopers broke through to the factory. Based on a documentary film about the Novocherkassk tragedy that aired on Russian television in 2012, the troops dressed Basov in ordinary worker’s clothes and snuck him out.

At some point, a locomotive reached the rear end of the train blocked by the workers and pulled it back toward Saratov. Some of the workers visited the nearby electrode factory and synthetics plant to try to persuade the staff to join their strike. When it got dark, the demonstrators who remained in the square made bonfires, burning portraits of Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders ripped down from the walls inside the factory. Eventually, people headed home on their own, and police officers dispersed the last 20 or so stragglers around midnight.

Overnight, the military blocked the bridge over the Tuzlov River with 15 tanks and three armored personnel carriers. Troops set up checkpoints along all the city’s main streets, and soldiers were placed on guard duty at various state buildings throughout Novocherkassk (the gas distribution station, the Communist Party’s regional committee, the post office, the prison, and the train station). By the morning of June 2, twenty-two protesters had already been detained. At dawn, KGB agents came to Pyotr Siuda’s home and arrested him.

Before the catastrophe

In the morning, another crowd assembled in the square, with everyone discussing the events of the day before and the overnight appearance of the military. Almost immediately, the demonstrators broke through the line of soldiers defending the railway and again blocked the tracks, stopping a train headed to Baku from Moscow.

Around 9 a.m., Frol Kozlov telephoned Khrushchev, who ordered him not to make any promises to Novocherkassk’s workers. The Soviet leader also asked Kozlov if he’d enjoyed his remarks earlier that morning to a group of Cubans. Roughly an hour before the phone call, at a meeting between Soviet and Cuban youth representatives, Khrushchev gave a long speech explaining the reasons for rising prices, declaring that “enemies remain among the people.” “The enemy isn’t just the man with a rifle in his hands. The enemy can be wearing the same work clothes as you,” Khrushchev warned. “We must remember that enemies have and always will exploit our hardships.”

Before long, the protesters decided to head for the Communist Party’s city committee building at the center of the old town, in order to demand answers from Novocherkassk officials. Along the way, locals from neighboring districts started joining the crowd, including some orphans and other children. The demonstrators (who according to KGB records numbered about 5,000) carried red flags, various Soviet symbols, a portrait of Lenin, and a banner reading, “[We want] bread, meat, and butter!”

Around 10 a.m., the protesters approached the bridge, where the military had established a checkpoint under the command of a locally-based general named Matvei Shaposhnikov. In the late 1980s, Shaposhnikov told American journalist David Remnick that he wanted to avoid bloodshed, so he told his men to empty the ammunition from their weapons and from the tanks. When Shaposhnikov’s commanding officer, Issa Pliyev, ordered him not to let the demonstrators pass, the general said his unit wasn’t capable of stopping 7,000 people. “Advance the tanks! Attack!” Pliyev told him. “Comrade General,” Shaposhnikov answered, “I see no enemy that our tanks ought to attack.” He would later recall that “thousands would have died,” if he’d obeyed the order.

Pliyev hung up on him. According to Pliyev’s aide, he turned to him and complained, “Am I supposed to teach them how to defend themselves? They need to fire up those tanks and wake up.”

The demonstrators ended up walking through the checkpoint. Some people even climbed directly over the tanks. Shaposhnikov got into his jeep and headed for the city’s administrative building, realizing that a catastrophe could be imminent. By the time he arrived, it was too late.

The massacre

Novocherkassk’s city committee was located in a two-story building that was once a Cossack Ataman palace frequented by traveling Russian tsars in the 19th century. The palace faced a square that was surrounded by other two-story buildings that housed, among other things, the city prosecutor’s office, the local Communist Youth League headquarters, military warehouses, and a planetarium.

As one KGB agent later remembered, when the protesters reached the square, none of the local officials wanted to speak to them. A few minutes later, the party members snuck out through a back door. When the activists started entering the building, the KGB agents prudently fled, as well, using a drainpipe to escape from the second floor.

The building was being guarded by unarmed soldiers and neighborhood watch volunteers, but they were unable to hold off the demonstrators. Two guards were even beat up, and a third was injured by glass from a shattered door. Protesters caught an employee from the prosecutor’s office who turned up nearby and tried to throw him from the balcony. Several people tried to grab one soldier’s automatic weapon (which had no clip). In the scuffle, they hit another soldier in the head and knocked him out. That man claimed he saw two other soldiers lying unconscious around him, when he came to. But he still had his gun.

When workers reached the city committee building’s long balcony, they announced that Novocherkassk’s party leadership had fled, and they started singing holiday songs. A woman in a traditional sarafan Russian dress then told the crowd that police officers had beaten her, and warned that officers were still beating the people they’d arrested earlier that day and the night before. Hearing this, about 300 demonstrators went to the city police department, which was located in the same place as the city’s KGB branch, just a few hundred yards from the square. When the military refused to let the crowd inside the KGB building, a handful of protesters tried to climb the fence. In response, the soldiers fired off several warning shots.

At the police station, officials told the protesters that they weren’t holding any prisoners, but this didn’t stop roughly 50 people from breaking down the doors and rushing inside. The demonstrators started crowding the soldiers into the stairwell, and two were cut off from the main group. Workers seized one of their automatic weapons and then a protester pointed it at the soldiers, leading one of the soldiers to fire a warning shot into the air and demand that the protestor drop the weapon. When the demonstrators tried to pull back the bolt lever, the soldiers shot him.

People became frightened and started running for their lives, and the soldiers started firing on them as they fled. A witness would later say he saw three dead bodies and several injured people near the police station. According to the eyewitness accounts recorded in Tatyana Bocharova’s book, “Novocherkassk: The Bloody Noon,” five people were killed at the station, including a 16-year-old student from the local technical school, who died before the crowd ever stormed the building. The young man was sitting in a tree, watching events unfold, when his head intercepted one of the authorities’ warning shots.

While officers arrested the demonstrators who’d tried to storm the police station, soldiers started forcing protesters from the Ataman palace back into the square (it was at this moment when our driver, Anatoly Zhmurin, arrived). There were about 1,000 people in the square. They were mostly standing around peacefully in the shade, talking among themselves. Few people paid any attention to the warning shots ringing out in the air. Demonstrators started to disperse only when they saw bodies falling to the ground.

When one protester was trying to crawl away, he says he noticed a girl running through the square. This was 15-year-old Valentina Kobeleva, a student at a nearby school. She’d come after hearing that a lot of people were gathering. Almost as soon as the shooting started, Kobeleva says she felt a searing pain rip through her left leg, as if it had been “torn off.” She fell to the ground, and a man rushed to her, picked her up in his arms, and carried her from the square. When they reached a bench, he put her down and bandaged her leg with a scarf. Another man offered to take Kobeleva home, believing that trouble would be waiting for her at the hospital, but she asked to be taken to the doctors, nonetheless. It turned out that the gunshot had ripped through her sciatic nerve. It would be another six months before surgeons could remove the bullet.

Kobeleva wasn’t the only young person on the square that day. “I was just a 12-year-old kid and they brought me,” said Pavel Gribov. “When they started shooting, I ran and hopped the fence. I saw a guy run into a salon, and I followed him inside. I stood up against the wall and I saw that the hairdresser was walking around and she kept bowing over and bowing over. I didn’t understand at first what had happened. Then I saw how she was holding her stomach with both hands, and a red stain was spreading from under her hands. She’d been hit by a stray bullet and ended up dying.”

During the shooting, a factory worker who took part in the demonstration (identified in police records as A. Korotkov) says he saw a woman running through the square with a baby in her arms. The back of her dress was covered in blood. He also saw people dragging a man with a bloodied leg and back. Another man had been shot in the shoulder. His arm hung at his side, inert. A few years later, he encountered this man again, but the individual didn’t want to remember that day, interrupting the conversation and asking him to tell no one about his injury.

One of the soldiers on the square that day saw a bullet hit a man’s head, “literally splitting it open.” In the soldier’s words, the shooting continued for three-to-four minutes, and about 50 people remained lying on the ground in the square. When the bullets stopped, observers rushed to those injured and killed. At this moment, soldiers started shooting again from the surrounding rooftops.

Protesters near the city committee building in Novocherkassk, June 2, 1962. Photographs from the KGB archive. Images displayed at the Novocherkassk Memorial Museum.
Darya Dar for Meduza

The smell of blood

All the soldiers later questioned by investigators claimed they’d only been authorized to use blank cartridges. None of them says he knew who exactly had fired on protesters with real bullets. Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Alexander Shelepin, also in Novocherkassk at the time, said the order to shoot the demonstrators had come from Frol Kozlov. (He also said Kozlov had called for a thousand people to be “loaded onto wagons and taken outside the city.”) Shelepin says he opposed Kozlov, who allegedly told him, “If you don’t agree, call Khrushchev.” Shelepin insisted that he actually called Khrushchev, and argued that Kozlov would never have been able to order the shooting without Khrushchev’s consent.

A few officers said KGB agents had encouraged them to leave the square, not long before the shooting started. The commander of a platoon guarding one of the buildings in the square was ordered to abandon his position and move his soldiers to a back courtyard, where he heard the sounds of automatic gunfire from the main square.

Together with the protesters on the square, there were almost 100 students from the Novocherkassk Party School, dispatched by the KGB to pacify the crowd. Around noon, KGB agents asked the students to move from the square to the basement of the city prosecutor’s office, where there were already 50 people taking shelter. No one was released until after the shooting.

One soldier said he saw machine-gun cartridges rain down from the roof of the city committee building. Another soldier said he saw two unknown soldiers carrying assault rifles leave the building after the shooting. A third soldier said he saw two men in civilian clothes use pistols to shoot at panicking protesters. A fourth said he saw a group of 10 snipers.

Cargo trucks and ambulances arrived at the square almost as soon as the shooting had ended. Soldiers later said in questioning that it was as if the vehicles “had been specially prepared.” One ambulance driver said he had indeed been instructed to come to the city’s center by noon. Unknown persons in civilian clothes loaded the dead and wounded onto the vehicles, and they drove off. An eyewitness said he watched women crowd around pools of blood in the square. One woman lowered her hands into the blood and smeared it over her face, screaming about her husband.

Firetrucks also showed up at the square, and firefighters started using their water cannons to wash away the blood, abandoned shoes, and other traces of the massacre. The soldiers were withdrawn from the buildings again and ordered to guard the square. One soldier later told investigators that it was a hot day, “so the smell of blood stayed in the air for a long time.” When the soldiers were given their lunch rations, many of them couldn’t eat.

Closer to the evening, locals started gathering again in the square. Some chanted the names of Soviet leaders, while others went inside the city committee building. One of these people was Valentina Vodyanitskaya, a 24-year-old crane operator at NEVZ, who’d followed her husband to Novocherkassk from her hometown, where she had worked as a milkmaid. By 1962, she was divorced and living with her son in a room at the factory barracks. She’d missed all the previous rallies, working on the construction of the factory kindergarten. On June 2, she came to work and found nobody there. Vodyanitskaya didn’t socialize much with her colleagues, and she didn’t know what was going on. She went to the factory to find out why nobody was working. After learning what had happened, she jumped on a passing truck and was downtown within a few minutes.

According to Vodyanitskaya, some general approached her inside the city committee building and encouraged her to go out on the balcony and ask the crowd to disperse. There was a helicopter flying over the square, and demonstrators below thought it was carrying Anastas Mikoyan. Waving at the helicopter from the balcony, Vodyanitskaya went back home, and soon forgot about the protests. At her barracks, nobody talked about the rally or the shooting. And there wasn’t a word about it on the radio.

By the evening, the crowd at the square dispersed. The next morning, steamrollers and road workers came and laid new asphalt where the fire hoses couldn’t wash away all the blood.

“That’s what demonstrating gets you”

On the day of the shooting, Stanislav Podolsky, a student at the Novocherkassk Polytechnic Institute, woke up around 7 a.m. Looking out from the fifth-story window of his dorm room, he saw soldiers in the street. The day before, demonstrators had come to his dormitory and called on students to join the protests. Soldiers were now guarding the building’s entrance, and military police were checking to see that all the dorm’s residents were in their rooms, but Podolsky and his friends nevertheless managed to get out and make it to the square.

They spent a few hours with the demonstrators and were about to leave when the shooting started. Podolsky recalled that many people hid from the bullets behind a statue of Lenin — the only shelter in the open square. The student tried to help the wounded (“Take me home, my old lady is a medic,” one man told him), and he returned to the dormitory covered in blood.

When Podolsky got back, teachers from the political economy department were telling students about “thousands of hooligans” who’d smashed store windows downtown. “And so it’s okay to murder people?” Podolsky asked, and then he went to his room to shower and change his clothes.

Many of the wounded were bystanders. Near the square, a man and his wife were leaving a store. A stray bullet hit his leg, knocking him to the ground, where he writhed in agony and clawed at the pavement. His wife stopped a passing truck to take them to a doctor. The truck would take on another four wounded people, two of whom died en route to the hospital. Surgeons ended up amputating the man’s leg. After the operation, the woman says KGB agents questioned her husband, telling him, “You’ve already been punished. You’ll tell your grandkids and great-grandkids what demonstrating gets you.”

Alexandra Pekush passed through the square that day on her way to work. She was wounded in the right thigh, and doctors had to terminate her pregnancy. Alexandra Molchanova, on the other hand, was coming home from work, and she wanted to cut through square the get to the bus stop. When the bullets started flying, she was knocked off her feet and then wounded in the thigh and the arm. “Before I could crawl 30 feet, I felt a powerful falling sensation and I passed out,” the woman recalled. “A friend ran up to me and I suddenly remembered that I owed money to this other woman. I thought I’d die with this unpaid debt, so I told my friend, ‘Give her 10 rubles for that slip.’” The doctors wanted to amputate Molchanova’s leg, but she refused, asking to be released for treatment in Voronezh, where she had relatives. The hospital agreed, on one condition: her medical records would not mention a gunshot wound. Molchanova had several operations over the next nine years, afraid to tell anyone what had really happened.

At the time of the shooting, the Novocherkassk morgue was located in the city’s infectious diseases hospital. A nurse on duty that day recalled that she went out into the courtyard and heard screams. There were corpses on 10 stretchers near the doors, and from behind the front gates she could hear the voices of people saying they were the victims’ relatives. The nurse identified one of the men based on his widow’s description. Before the evening, the bodies were brought to the morgue.

At 9:30 p.m., a curfew was announced in the city, and hours later Novocherkassk’s final victim died when a patrol officer shot and killed a man in the street. In total, according to the KGB data presented in Tatyana Bocharova’s book, the government shot and killed 26 victims (two of whom were never identified) and injured 87 people.

In his memoirs, Pyotr Siuda recalled how he was told that a man covered in dirt and blood came to the factory dormitory after midnight on June 3. The man said he’d been mistaken for a corpse, thrown into a car, and taken to the morgue, but he jumped out along the way and made a run for it. After changing his clothes, the man left the city that night.

Four months pregnant. Bystander.

On the night of June 4, 1962, in the woods about 13 miles from Novocherkassk, flashbulb bursts of light illuminated the dead. Beside a hastily dug ditch, about 16 by 16 feet, a group of policemen stood around carrying flashlights. As they later recalled, they’d received orders around 1 a.m. to pick up three corpses from the police station’s boiler room and then drive to the morgue, where they’d get another seven bodies (one of which was a 16-year-old boy). In the morgue’s courtyard, there was another truck. The cadets from the Novocherkassk Police Academy changed into civilian clothes and loaded the new bodies onto the second vehicle. Then they covered the dead with straw and left for the woods. In the forest, as the police dug, they could smell the cadavers in their trucks.

The burial places of victims in the shooting in the Rostov region. Photographs from the KGB archive. Images displayed at the Novocherkassk Memorial Museum.
Darya Dar for Meduza

The authorities dumped 20 bodies into the ditch — 18 men and two women. A photographer dispatched from Rostov-on-Don was on hand to photograph each victim, but the bodies weren’t faced upwards or undressed. A forensic scientist accompanied him, recording the nature of the victims’ wounds and clothes, and if they were carrying any identification. The negatives for these photographs would spend the next several decades at an Internal Affairs Directorate archive in Rostov.

The police records on these fatalities read like this: “In the morning he was going to register for a new job. Through-and-through gunshot to the head. Bystander.” “Four months pregnant. Chest wound with damage to the thoracic organs. Bystander.” “Trauma to the skull and brain. Bystander.” “Was sitting in a tree. Fell, like a pear. Started to run, but fell again. The bullet entered the back of the head and ripped out part of the face. Bystander.” “Went with friends to watch the demonstration. Trauma to the neck, damaging main arteries. Killed by automatic gunfire. Active participant.”

According to an investigation carried out by the military prosecutor’s office in the early 1990s, the bodies were dumped on orders from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Officials decided not to turn the remains over to relatives “to avoid possible disturbances and new protests,” and instead buried them in different cemeteries throughout the region. KGB agents made all police officers sign state-secret non-disclosure agreements, and officers who violated the terms faced execution.

After inspecting the bodies, the authorities started delivering them to cemeteries in Taganrog, Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, and Novoshakhtinsky. Police officers found old graves without enclosure walls, dug them up, dumped the new corpses, and reburied everything. Some victims were hidden in rural cemeteries, others at a Roma cemetery, and others at a miners’ cemetery. One of the police officers would recall that his group drank two crates of vodka after dealing with the bodies. Livestock later dug up some of the graves, and the officers had to bury them again.

On June 20, Leonid Shulga, a 16-year-old man wounded during the shooting, finally died. On the chief physician’s advice, Shulga’s mother appealed to the Novocherkassk police department for permission to hold a funeral. Law enforcement offered to bury the teenager outside the city in the village of Grushevsky, “to avoid demonstrations.” Police officers themselves constructed the coffin and dug the grave. On June 21, they brought Shulga’s mother to the morgue, where she dressed her son. The family was warned that any crying or wailing during the ceremony was forbidden.

For decades, no one knew where Novocherkassk’s dead were buried. Some people thought the bodies had sunk in the river, and others guessed that they’d been thrown into the mines. Among the relatives of those killed, there were rumors that the KGB buried the bodies at a local military base, covered the area with asphalt, and built an athletic field above it.

chapter two

Burying the memory

Those tattooed criminals

In the weeks, months, and years later, the central task of Soviet intelligence agents was to hide the fact that the shooting took place and to stop the dissemination of information about its victims. About 150 KGB agents were dispatched to Novocherkassk and its neighboring cities. According to historian Tatyana Bocharova, some of these officials were charged with pinpointing any radiowave attempts to transmit information about the shooting to foreign sources.

Despite these efforts, Time magazine ran a story in October 1962 titled “And Then the Police Fired.” Based on rumors, the report stated that unexpected price hikes provoked “a wild night of rioting and pillaging,” ending with police shooting and killing “several hundred young Russian students and workers.”

By October, management at factories in Novocherkassk were calling workers together for discussions about “the hostile actions of hooligan elements.” At the same time, an anonymous letter was circulating throughout the city demanding that the authorities reveal the burial sites of the victims, threatening to leak details to the West about the shooting, if the government didn’t comply. Another leaflet read: “What’s your aim here? Stalin and his supporters were always headed toward communism, leading everyone there, and they did it without their eyes on capitalists’ dirty tricks and without always pointing the finger, like you liars.”

One witness said that local officials met with the students at the city’s polytechnic institute, a few days after the shooting. The secretary of the Communist Party’s Rostov branch explained to the group that the killings were an accident. “A soldier dropped his gun, it hit the ground, and the weapon opened fire by itself,” he said. The witness recalled that the second official, a man from the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, “spoke even more snidely.” “He vividly described tattooed criminals who climbed atop tanks, knocked back bottles of ‘Moskovskaya’ vodka, and shouted anti-Soviet slogans. When the lecturer asked, ‘Was it necessary to shoot at these people?’ the room answered, ‘Yes.’”

KGB agents also went after the people who participated in the demonstration and managed to escape. Agents patrolled the streets, showing photographs to passersby of people at the protest, asking if they recognized any of the faces. According to Tatyana Bocharova, intelligence agencies called factory managers and demanded that they reveal who went to the protest. By June 12, a KGB report indicates that officials had identified roughly 150 of the most active demonstrators, 53 of whom they arrested.

Portraits of several people convicted following the events in Novocherkassk. Photographs from the KGB archive. Images displayed at the Novocherkassk Memorial Museum.
Darya Dar for Meduza

Twenty-seven KGB agents worked the investigation against the Novocherkassk demonstrators, whose trials were held in the police academy building, behind a fortified brick wall. Moscow allowed the Communist Party’s city committee to carry out workers’ rallies at some factories, demanding that the riots’ perpetrators be punished severely. After the verdicts, the committee held more workers’ rallies, celebrating the prison sentences.

On August 20, seven of the arrested activists were sentenced to death. They were convicted of banditry and organizing riots. One of these people, 25-year-old Sergey Sotnikov, was sentenced to be shot because he called on other factories to join the protests and wanted to cut off the gas to some enterprises.

Another 110 people were convicted of participating in riots. Most of these individuals were sent to prison for 10 years.

Five years later, in 1967, KGB investigators charged General Matvei Shaposhnikov (who had refused to order his tank unit to fire on demonstrators) with inciting crimes against the state. Two years earlier, he’d been forced to resign from the military. In 1967, during a raid on his home, officials found anonymous leaflets from 1962 with anti-Soviet statements about the Novocherkassk shooting. Beginning about a month after the incident, Shaposhnikov started distributing the literature himself, signing the leaflets as “The Furious Belinsky.” He even mailed a letter about the Novocherkassk shooting to the Writers’ Union, hoping that writers “as true humanists” would help him. “People need to start thinking instead of having blind faith that turns them into living machines,” Shaposhnikov wrote. “Our people have been turned into a disempowered farmhand.”

“I lived practically under house arrest, and people in dark sunglasses followed me everywhere,” Shaposhnikov recalled in the late 1980s. “People tried to avoid me. So they wouldn’t have to say hello, they’d cross to the other side of the street.” In the end, the case against the general was closed, but he was stripped of his rank and expelled from the party. Afterwards, he wrote a “passionate letter” to KGB chairman Yuri Andropov, and this apparently saved him from prison. In the late 1980s, he appealed again to the country’s leaders, sending five letters about the Novocherkassk shooting to Mikhail Gorbachev. Once again, nobody answered him.

“There's nothing meaner than a woman”

On June 12, 1965, crane operator Valentina Vodyanitskaya came to work with her three-year-old son, Zhenya. At the steel plant, an unfamiliar man approached her. She says he was wearing a long trench coat. “Vodyanitskaya? I’ve been waiting for you. We need to speak,” he said. When they stepped outside, the man grabbed her by the arm, shoved her into a nearby blue car, and shouted at the driver, “Step on it!”

Vodyanitskaya remembers looking through the car’s rear window at her son; he was standing at the factory’s entrance and she was screaming his name. “What are you howling about? They’ll ask you two questions, and then you’ll see him again,” the man told her. As they drove, he slipped his hand under Vodyanitskaya’s blouse and groped her.

Once they got to the Novocherkassk KGB building, the agents took Vodyanitskaya straight to the basement, where they told her that she’d been photographed at the square during the protests and on the city committee’s balcony. They’d finally identified her.

She spent the next several days at the local KGB facility, before she was transferred to Rostov-on-Don, where investigators accused her of inciting the crowd to kill Mikoyan and said she told demonstrators how police officers injured her. During her interrogation, when Vodyanitskaya grew nervous and started rocking in her chair, one of the KGB agents told her, “Keep squirming and I’ll knock your teeth in.”

Vodyanitskaya was charged alongside another woman and eight men (she said everyone was convicted in groups of ten). During the trial, the men tried to cheer her up, but many of them started crying when they heard their sentences. Like everybody in her group, Vodyanitskaya got 10 years in prison. Before she was sent off to serve out her time, the KGB forced Vodyanitskaya to sign the same non-disclosure agreement foisted on the police cadets who buried the dead outside Novocherkassk. If she talked to anyone, she, too, risked being shot.

Speaking about her life in prison camps, Vodyanitskaya says, “Nothing happened, and everything happened.”

By 1962, the Stalinist Gulag system had formally ceased to exist, but the prisons themselves had changed relatively little. Vodyanitskaya’s first prison was in Omsk, where she was trained in sewing, in strict accordance with Soviet prison officials’ recommendations on the productive use of women’s labor, first drafted in 1941. During her training, Vodyanitskaya had to perform hard labor, carrying wood, heating stoves, and cleaning. Later, she became a foreman on the assembly line, manufacturing pants.

Valentina Vodyanitskaya (in the last row, second from the left) in a prison camp. Omsk, 1965. Photo from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation

Each time she was transferred to a new prison, Vodyanitskaya says the same story repeated itself: when changing trains, the inmates were ordered to undress and sent to a bathhouse, while guards watched as naked women were forced to run between them. Vodyanitskaya served time in three different prisons, in Omsk, Chelyabinsk, and Mariinsk.

To start each workday, inmates would shout out their names and prison sentences. A few times during these roll calls, someone yelled about Vodyanitskaya, “She’s still fair game!” and the other inmates laughed. Prison officials nicknamed her “Button,” because she was short. A couple of times an administrator called her to his office and suggested that she “spend the night.” Vodyanitskaya says a prison supervisor once made advances on her during a night shift, but he let her go after she told him firmly that he was holding up work on her assembly line.

Once, however, it was Vodyanitskaya who fell for a prison official. It was in Omsk, and he often attended the inmates’ concert performances, where prisoners recited poems and sang songs. She says she thought, “He was born in 1934, and I was born in 1937 — just a three-year difference! In another life, we could have been together. Why is he sitting there, and I’m here?”

Vodyanitskaya paced her prison cell, counting the number of steps it took to walk its perimeter, but time passed quickly when she was working. On the weekends, she’d take her clothes and other inmates’ clothes and go spend the whole day washing them. “The main thing I learned in the camps,” Vodyanitskaya says, “is that there’s nothing meaner than a woman.” She says some of the inmates forced people to knit a hundred mittens for them.

But not all the other women were cruel. Vodyanitskaya befriended one prisoner — a former kindergarten principal — who’d landed in the camps for secretly raising three piglets to give to malnourished children.

More than anything, Vodyanitskaya missed her son — all the more so because she knew nothing about his life (throughout her time in prison, she received only two parcels from her mother, and her cellmates grabbed away both of them). Twice, she tried to kill herself, waiting until everyone on the factory floor left for lunch, and then trying to shove her hand into an electric socket. She was stopped both times.

About two and a half years into Vodyanitskaya’s incarceration, the prison administration summoned her unexpectedly. In the warden’s office, as was customary, she called out her name and sentence. “Huh, how many years?” the warden asked, adding, “Listen, there’s been an order to reduce it to five years.” Vodyanitskaya fainted on the spot.

Two and a half years later, before the KGB released her, they forced her to sign another document agreeing not to tell anyone anything about her time in prison. Vodyanitskaya says many of her cellmates didn’t want to go free. On the outside, they didn’t have a kopeck to their names. “There were wild laws [in prison],” she recalls. “People went for each other’s throats when they argued, and they were buddy-buddy after they made up.”

Returning to Novocherkassk, Vodyanitskaya discovered that her mother had turned her son over to an orphanage, not expecting her daughter to come back from prison. The neighbors told her that her mother often beat her son for little things, like accidentally staining a white shirt while out on a walk. Vodyanitskaya moved in with her mother at the apartment given to them instead of a room at the factory barracks, but her mother nagged her constantly. Once, when Vodyanitskaya came home from a night shift and went to use the bathroom, her mother told her, “You couldn’t do that at the factory? You have to bring that stink here?” Before long, the old woman left her daughter and grandson and moved to the countryside.

When Vodyanitskaya returned to Novocherkassk, her son Zhenya was already about nine years old. When she came to the orphanage to see him, she didn’t recognize him, even when he was standing right in front of her. She persuaded the officials to give her back custody, but for a long time no school would accept him, and the neighbors’ children weren’t allowed to be friends with him.

Vodyanitskaya struggled after prison, as well. One of the engineers at NEVZ told her that she wouldn’t be offered her old job back. Then she turned to one of the factory bosses, an old friend who’d been a foreman in 1962. “He saw a familiar surname, and he thought, ‘There’s no way that’s my girl! But it was you!’” he told Vodyanitskaya. When they met, he jumped out of his seat and said, “Let me smack that tush of yours! C’mon, you’ve already been through it all. So what will we do?” Vodyanitskaya told him that she was looking for work, and he picked up the phone and called the neighboring plant. “Do you need any crane operators?” he asked, and she heard a voice on the other end say, “We’re fucking desperate! What about it?” Her friend then said, “A girl from not that far off just came in. She’s been without anybody to lift up her dress and fuck her ass.” Telling this story today, Vodyanitskaya laughs. Before long, she was back at work as a crane operator.

A few weeks after her return, police officers came to Vodyanitskaya’s apartment, offered her a seat in one of her own chairs, and asked her to tell them about her time in prison. She refused, and the officers left. In the morning, she called the local KGB office, which had given her its phone number, and asked if her non-disclosure agreement also limited what she could tell the police. It did.

Valentina Vodyanitskaya at home, October 2017
Darya Dar for Meduza

In the years that followed, Vodyanitskaya changed jobs more than once, loading wagons for some time and later working as a janitor. She remarried and gave birth to another son, but her husband treated her like an ex-con, and they divorced. In 1976, she traded her career for a small house. For the next 15 years, she wouldn’t speak a word to anyone about the events of 1962, until she was contacted by Tatyana Bocharova.

chapter three

Memory’s return

A son of a Bolshevik

In the late 1980s, one of Novocherkassk’s cultural centers held evening gatherings twice a week where locals met to discuss Perestroika, the revival of the Cossacks, and the fight against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Rostov. Between 20 and 30 people would attend, and they called the group “the Novocherkassk Cultural Center” and sometimes “the Search.” Critics called it “the Scheme.”

One of the people who came to these meetings was Tatyana Bocharova, a research associate at the Don Cossacks Historical Museum who got her education in history and followed her husband to Novocherkassk. Gathering at the cultural center, Bocharova met Pyotr Siuda, now a 50-year-old bearded anarcho-syndicalist who could speak passionately about nearly anything.

Siuda was proud of his biography. According to Bocharova, he often said, “My father joined the Bolsheviks in 1903. The Communists are wrong, but the Bolsheviks were right.” Siuda was born in 1937 — the same year his father (a member of a revolutionary cell in Batumi, where he knew Stalin) was tortured to death in a Rostov prison. His mother was sent to the camps during the Second World War, and Siuda was placed in an orphanage. He worked in the mines in Kazakhstan, studied at a technical school, and later found a job as a mechanic at NEVZ in Novocherkassk. On June 1, 1962, he was the one who called on protesters to keep their demonstration peaceful. After being detained the night before the shooting, he was taken to a KGB prison in Rostov. Several months later, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison and sent to a camp in Komi, where he worked in timber harvesting and helped build light railways.

Tatyana Bocharova at the office of a Rostov television station, October 2017
Darya Dar for Meduza

Siuda’s mother managed to get a letter to Mikoyan about the role Siuda’s father played in the Revolution. In 1966, Siuda was released from prison (after Khrushchev’s ouster and Kozlov’s death, officials started reviewing and reducing the prison sentences of everyone locked up for the unrest in Novocherkassk). A year later, Valentina Vodyanitskaya would come back from prison and move into an apartment not far from Siuda’s home.

In the late 1970s, Siuda mailed Pravda a public statement against the deployment of Soviet troops to Afghanistan. In 1983, he tried to kill himself, after failing to convince the government to rehabilitate his father. He petitioned the Communist Party’s Central Committee, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Soviet Presidium for his own rehabilitation and the rehabilitation of others in Novocherkassk. Then he started sending Pravda and Literaturnaya Gazeta evidence of the 1962 massacre. Siuda’s wife, Emma, wrote that her husband was followed around by “fascists who shot at unarmed people.”

By the late 1980s, Siuda was convinced that Communist Party leaders, despite condemning Stalin’s personality cult, “had left Stalinism solidly in place, with society under the control of the KGB and the Interior Ministry.” He became a devout anarchist, believing that a “nonpartisan workers’ movement” could lead the country. He even attended an anarcho-syndicalist conference in Moscow. When Siuda and the dissident Alexander Podrabinek set up newspaper stands on the Old Arbat, handing out leftist and human rights literature, police detained them and didn’t release them for two days.

Siuda started printing an anarchist magazine called Obshchina (“Community”), and in one of the first issues he wrote extensively about the Novocherkassk massacre. “He was interested in the history of the wounded. There must have been a large number of these people, given that they fired automatic weapons at the crowd,” recalled Vlad Tupikin, one of Siuda’s fellow anarchist activists. “They were taken to the hospital, and then they just disappeared. He searched for them, but he never found anyone. They were all probably finished off somewhere.”

When he first met Bocharova at one of Novocherkassk’s community meetings, Siuda told her everything he knew about the 1962 shooting. She’d already heard about the incident from a colleague at the museum, who’d mentioned that “they’d ordered tanks against the people.” Bocharova hadn’t believed her colleague, but she believed Siuda, who knew far more details because he’d been in jail with people who were on the square that day. Siuda collected evidence from eyewitnesses and recorded their stories about machine guns on the city committee’s rooftop and murdered children. Based on Siuda’s work, Literaturnaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda published some of the first stories in the USSR about the Novocherkassk massacre. In June 1989, the Associated Press published its own short piece.

By this time, the Soviet Union’s reclamation of historical memory was in full swing. Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” which mentions the Novocherkassk massacre, had been published, and Anatoly Sobchak, in a speech to the Congress of People's Deputies, had advocated an investigation into the shooting. Soon, the city’s executive committee organized a special commission “to gather information” about the incident.

Suddenly people were allowed to talk publicly about the massacre. Members of the special commission reached out to Valentina Vodyanitskaya, who says it was then when she decided that telling her stories and others’ stories from the shooting was the most important thing she could do with her life.

In April 1990, the General Prosecutor’s Office launched an official review of the circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force against demonstrators in Novocherkassk on June 2, 1962. Activists from the city’s “Cultural Center” group decided to stage a memorial rally on the massacre’s 28th anniversary.

On the morning of May 5, 1990, a passerby found Pyotr Siuda in the street, about two blocks from the NEVZ factory. He’d been beaten unconscious. Siuda’s wife, Emma, said paramedics told her, “This is a murder.” They took Siuda to intensive care, but the doctors wouldn’t admit him. Siuda died in the ambulance.

When Emma came to the hospital, the police were already there. Her husband’s upper lip was still bleeding, and his left eye had nearly been knocked from its socket. She was told to come to the morgue on Monday for the autopsy, but when she showed up on time, she learned that the autopsy and examination had already been performed. “No one can convince us that this wasn’t a political assassination,” Emma Siuda wrote. “The first night after the murder, [Siuda’s] activist friends came from different cities across the country, following the evidence and questioning eyewitnesses. People had seen that this was a professional killing — not some fight. That night after it happened, they yelled at them [at the witnesses], ‘We’ll burn down your houses and kill everyone, if you squeal.’”

“They opened some kind of case, but they never found anything,” Bocharova told Meduza. “The whole thing is shrouded in secrecy. They found a briefcase in the street containing documents about where the disappeared had been buried.”

Pyotr Siuda’s funeral, May 1990
Photo from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation
Pyotr Siuda
Photo from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation

Siuda was buried in a local cemetery. One of the people who attended the ceremony was Andrey Isayev, a fellow member of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Confederation (today, he’s the first deputy chairman for the State Duma faction of United Russia, the country’s ruling political party). During the funeral, Siuda’s comrades raised anarchist flags and vowed to continue his search for the burial sites of those killed in the Novocherkassk shooting.

Bocharova says it was then when she decided that it was her turn to “pick up the baton,” too. She believed that the moment had finally come. “That regime was already gone, and this one wasn’t yet in place,” she says, “Today, of course, this kind of thing would be impossible. There was a brief window, and we didn’t miss it.”

Searching for the graves

Ahead of their memorial rally in 1990, activists handed out leaflets about how the “new era” of Perestroika and Glasnost was “lifting the veil over the Novocherkassk tragedy.” The demonstration began around 11 a.m., and most of the people who came felt extremely uncomfortable. For some, the last time they’d set foot in the square was in 1962. A few of the mothers who’d lost children 28 years earlier broke down into tears. The demonstrators resolved to create a memorial and begin tracking down the victims’ burial sites. The next May, a grey marble pyramid was erected in the square. Novocherkassk’s new local officials supported the activists.

In the summer of 1991, after the second memorial rally, Novocherkassk got a visit from Anatoly Sobchak, who was traveling the country, campaigning for Russian presidential hopeful Boris Yeltsin. An unremarkable aide named Vladimir Putin made the trip with Sobchak, but nobody paid him much attention at the time, says Bocharova. The politicians laid flowers at the memorial.

In 1991, most of the people convicted of crimes related to the Novocherkassk massacre were rehabilitated, and “the Novocherkassk Cultural Center” gradually transformed into the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation. During the first police investigation, Pyotr Gromenko (one of the officers who helped bury the bodies in secret at night) said, “I’ve been waiting 28 years for you.” In May 1992, the Supreme Soviet issued a decree acknowledging for the first time that “the authorities brutally suppressed a peaceful workers’ demonstration.”

Investigators were able to locate the alleged burial sites, and in 1992 activists decided to try to rebury the victims. Bocharova sought help from the city’s only professional archeologist, Mikhail Kraisvetny, who worked at the Don Cossacks Historical Museum. By that time, Kraisvetny says, he’d worked on burial grounds, mounds, and mass graves with “no less than 2,000 buried remains, or as we call them skeletons.”

“We were lucky that one of our sympathizers turned out to be Gromenko, the former deputy head of the Kamensk-Shakhtinsky police, which had been directly involved in the burials,” Kraisvetny said. “He very precisely showed us where we needed to excavate.” Meduza was unable to track down any of the police officers or soldiers who participated in the burials. Many of these people are now deceased, too.

On May 15, 1992, the activists boarded a bus and drove to the number seven mine cemetery in Novoshakhtinsk, about 30 miles outside Novocherkassk. Documents handed over by the prosecutor’s office indicated that the bodies of several victims had been wrapped in a sack and dumped in a single grave at the cemetery. A forensic expert from the city accompanied the group, which included Valentina Vodyanitskaya, who brought her custom-made gloves and facemask. Her sewing skills were now top-notch, thanks to her training in prison.

At the cemetery in Novoshakhtinsk, there was a large wooden cross installed above the alleged burial site of the Novocherkassk victims. Two activists pulled it up and laid it on the ground. The men then got to work with shovels, but the site proved to be full of many tree roots, and axes were needed to remove the top layer of vegetation. The ditch turned out to be smaller than expected: it was a child’s grave, and the activists started searching for other burial sites nearby, excavating other graves. “They dug down almost 10 feet, and sometimes they had to lower an especially eager digger down into the ditch by the feet,” wrote Bocharova. “Often it was skinny Valentina Vodyanitskaya performing this role.” The first trip was a bust, and the group returned to Novocherkassk in the late evening. “They came home depressed,” Bocharova recalls. “The activists thought they’d never find their own people.”

The first excavations in search of victims buried in Novoshakhtinsk, May 15, 1992
Photo from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation
Victims’ remains exhumed near the village of Tarasovsky, May 1992
Photo from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation
Victims’ remains discovered in a Roma cemetery being transferred into coffins, May 1992
Photo from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation

Five days later, the activists traveled to the next site: a Roma cemetery near the village of Tarasovsky, about 110 miles outside Novocherkassk. According to Bocharova’s memoirs, the group was given a public bus, but no state officials accompanied them, and the city’s forensic expert wasn’t permitted to come along this time, after the first failure. When they reached the village, the group went to the local administration head. They didn’t have formal permission to dig, and they wanted to get it there and then. The administration head tried to blow them off, suggesting that they take a little topsoil as a memento “without disturbing the dead.” Vodyanitskaya says she looked at him and asked, “It was okay to bury them like dogs, but you interfere when laying them to rest?”

In the end, everyone agreed that the activists would file paperwork documenting their exhumation work.

The alleged burial site was a small pond surrounded by willow trees. Nearby, there was a Roma baron’s grave and a plaque atop a small hill that read: “Here lie people from Novocherkassk, who died in an accident in 1962.” The activists brought in a bulldozer for the hill, and then they went to work again with shovels. At first, all they found was a size-nine boot. Then they unearthed a large tarp containing mummified human remains, piled in a “layer-cake.” They pulled the bones from the ground and placed them in bags. “I felt like I’d freed them from captivity,” Bocharova remembers.

The activists brought the remains to the museum in Novocherkassk where Bocharova worked. The next day, she went to the local prosecutor, but he refused to examine the bones, saying it would be best if she put them back where she found them. The city’s morgue also refused to accept the bones without official documentation. Two days later, the activists managed to convince a pathologist at a children’s hospital to conduct an examination.

The bones were laid out on a table covered with copies of the newspaper Demokratichesky Novocherkassk. They placed the ribs and vertebrae atop an article with the headline “There’s No Place for Such Things in the Deputy Corps.” It took the pathologist four hours to reconstruct four skeletons. When he was done, they moved the remains to four coffins.

According to Bocharova’s book, the activists had previously agreed to store the coffins at the Novocherkassk Ascension Cathedral, after convincing the priests that the bodies weren’t “infectious.” When they were ready, however, the church refused to take the coffins, and they ended up back at the Don Cossacks Historical Museum. In an effort to get some traction, Bocharova went to Moscow, where she met with the deputy attorney general. When he saw the photographs of the remains, he sighed and said, “A second Katyn. We’ll take care of it.”

In mid-June 1992, the Novocherkassk Prosecutor’s Office and North Caucasian Military District’s 124th forensic laboratory finally started examining the remains recovered by Bocharova’s group. The prosecutor’s office also joined the activists on subsequent searches for more victims. A second trip to the Roma cemetery was unsuccessful, but on a third search they found the remains of another four Novocherkassk victims. The activists later returned to Novoshakhtinsk, where they learned they’d come within two feet on their first dig of a grave containing the bones of four people. Next, they turned to the village of Martsevo outside Taganrog. In 30 years, the local cemetery had changed dramatically, and researchers had to dig up many of the graves. In one, they found the remains of eight people.

Experts spent more than a year and a half examining the recovered remains, and it wasn’t possible to hold funerals for the victims until the massacre’s 32nd anniversary in 1994. In a ceremony that year, in the square where the shooting took place, activists erected a small stage covered in black and red cloth and arranged 20 coffins on stools. After a few short speeches, the coffins were taken to the cathedral for a memorial service. Then the dead were buried in the city cemetery beside a marble slab that reads, “In memory of the victims of the Novocherkassk tragedy.”

“For 30 years, nobody thought the burial sites would be found,” Bocharova said at a press conference after the funerals. “They told us we’d never find them. They said it was frightening and dangerous work. But nobody dies without a trace.”

On September 13, 1994, Alexander Solzhenitsyn came to Novocherkassk. Bocharova showed him documents and photographs about the massacre, but she says he was more interested in meeting with local Cossacks. Two years later, Boris Yeltsin visited the city. This time he was touring the country himself, running for re-election. But Bocharova wouldn’t meet with him. “After the Chechen War, I just couldn’t,” she says.

Vodyanitskaya did meet with Yeltsin. When she saw the president, she asked him, “Mr. Yeltsin, they’re not going to shoot me, are they?” “Why would they shoot you?” Yeltsin said, not understanding. “In 1962, I also wanted to see the government,” she answered. “And did you get a look?” Yeltsin asked her. “No. I got 10 years,” she said.

Then the president grabbed her and kissed her, Vodyanitskaya says.

On April 8, 1996, Yeltsin signed an executive order awarding one-time reparations to the victims of the Novocherkassk shooting. The same decree also recognized the relatives of repression victims to be victims themselves. In 2017, these people receive about 5,000 rubles ($85) a month in extra state assistance.

Anatoly Sobchak in Novocherkassk, June 1991
Photo from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation
Russian President Boris Yeltsin lays flowers at the memorial to the victims of the Novocherkassk massacre, June 1996
Alexander Chumichev / TASS / Getty Images

“It's amazing”

Back in 1991, Novocherkassk activists tried to find out from the KGB where seven people had been buried after they were executed by court order. A high-ranking police chief told them that the bodies had been laid to rest at a “top secret” cemetery. The head of the Rostov KGB office said, “Don’t go looking for it. You won’t find it.” To this day, the location of these graves remains a mystery.

Bocharova believes these seven people aren’t the only victims whose remains still haven’t been found. “There were children among those killed,” she says. “The demonstration passed down a central street with several orphanages. For children, it seemed like an ordinary rally. Just a month earlier, after all, there was a similar march on May Day, where people also carried portraits and flags. After the shooting, eyewitnesses said they saw several child-sized bodies piled together. I think they were orphans. It would have been all too easy to erase any record of these children, and nobody would come looking for them. Or maybe relatives kept their mouths shut out of fear, realizing that they’d never get their children back, and needing to go on living.”

The investigation conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office mentions a child just once: a paramedic found a 10-year-old boy with a through-and-through gunshot wound to his left leg. He put him in a car with other injured victims.

In 2017, Bocharova first heard from Pavel Afonin, who witnessed the Novocherkassk massacre when he was just ten. Afonin says he came to the square on June 2, 1962, and climbed a tree with his friends — other boys who lived in his building. After the shooting started, Afonin says he saw two of his friends fall from the tree, covered in blood. Afterwards, his mother hid him under the bed for three days, not even letting him out for meals. He never saw those two boys again. Their parents, he says, also disappeared from the building.

“After the massacre, the government’s methods of suppressing [dissent] changed,” Bocharova says. “They started using psychiatric hospitals. Things were no longer allowed to reach the point of mud and blood. They just isolated people. Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse.” In her book, she shares an excerpt from the minutes of a Communist Party Central Committee Presidium meeting on July 19, 1962, about six weeks after the shooting. The records include an order from the chairman of the KGB on “strengthening the intelligence and operational work of the state security agencies against hostile manifestations of anti-Soviet elements.” The need for such reinforcements, he claimed, was tied to “rioting in certain cities throughout the country, accompanied by pogroms against administrative buildings.”

Bocharova says some victims felt guilty for having participated in the demonstration. In the mid-1990s, one of the people wounded in 1962 told the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation that he was ashamed when he was shot because he was a neighborhood watch volunteer, not one of those “hooligans.” In 2000, the foundation got a visit from a woman named Galina Polunina, who’d been sentenced to 10 years in the camps for getting caught up in Novocherkassk’s unrest. When she came home from prison, Polunina said she tried to put the past behind her. When she had to tell new employers about why she’d been incarcerated, she lied, telling people that she’d murdered her husband. It seemed like a more prosaic, understandable crime. Polunina only turned to Bocharova’s group at the urging of her children, who persuaded her that she wasn’t guilty of anything.

Bocharova says she’s certain that there are victims living in different parts of Russia (somewhere south of Irkutsk, according to some rumors) who are still too afraid or guilt-ridden to speak about the 1962 massacre.

On September 11, 1994, Yuri Bagrayev, an assistant to Russia’s Chief Military Prosecutor, signed a decree closing the criminal investigation into the Novocherkassk incident. Roughly 100 pages long, Bagrayev’s decree is the most detailed document the government ever published about the massacre. Investigators questioned several dozen witnesses, including state officials, soldiers, and demonstrators. “In 1962, the USSR lacked legal norms governing or prohibiting the use of the army during mass unrest,” the document said. In other words, the investigation concluded that Khrushchev had not exceeded his authority when he ordered the military to crush the protests.

Investigators determined that the main decisions by the authorities in Novocherkassk were made by Frol Kozlov, who ordered soldiers to use their weapons against the people gathered in the square. Bagrayev’s decree doesn’t say who exactly opened fire. Some of the documents from 1962 have been lost. Investigators couldn’t find written orders related to the incident in the government’s archives, and the medical records of many wounded victims have also disappeared, making it impossible to say exactly how many people were killed and wounded in the massacre.

Russian prosecutors said they closed the case because Kozlov was deceased (he died almost 30 years earlier, in 1965) and because Khrushchev, Mikoyan, and other top officials hadn’t technically committed any crimes.

For the past 16 years, Tatyana Bocharova has worked as a television correspondent in Rostov, reporting on rural news. She says she’s especially proud of a recent story about the revival of previously lost strains of wheat. In the 2000s, she became fascinated with astrology. Today, Bocharova has an account on Twitter, where she retweets posts about the Gogol Center after the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov (“But how are they going to jiggle their dicks on stage without their art director?”), photographs of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden following his cancer treatment (captioned “Now I know what a reused condom looks like”), and tweets by Russian defense analyst Igor Korotchenko stating that “Russia would be torn to pieces and tolerantly colonized [sic] were it not for a strong army and navy.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that we’ve finished the job,” Bocharova says. “I don’t think I ever will. But my conscience is clear. An imperfect understanding of life’s lessons is what causes feelings of incompleteness. If people want to return to the past, and many do want to go back, then they should repent and promise that everything won’t repeat itself — the Gulags and the massacres. They didn’t invite me to meet Putin, when he visited in 2008, but if they had called me, I would have told him, ‘Never fire on your own people.’ And I would have asked him to open the archives revealing where we can find the remains of those executed by court orders. And I’d have asked him to open other archives about other graves and about the special forces who opened fire. It’s amazing, but we’re the only ones who seem to care about this historical memory. There’s no public interest, and nobody is initiating new investigations.”

Anatoly Zhmurin, who’d been shot in the arm during the Novocherkassk massacre, says he still misses the Soviet Union. “They destroyed everything,” he says. “Everything has gone to the Tatars. They said it was bad then, but what is it now? Better? For whom?”

Room number 20

To this day, Valentina Vodyanitskaya still lives in Novocherkassk. Her one-story blue house is a five-minute drive from the very square where officials gunned down her co-workers 55 years ago. All the floors and walls of Vodyanitskaya’s home are covered in carpets. “I bought them specially,” she explained, “so it’s not so painful when I fall in my old age.” Hanging on the wall beside her portrait from the mid-1970s, there’s a photograph of Vladimir Putin laying red carnations at a stone memorial to the victims of the Novocherkassk shooting.

Vodyanitskaya often refers to herself as a zychka (an ex-con).

Until mid-September 2017, she worked as a guide at the Novocherkassk Memorial Museum. Vodyanitskaya created the facility with other activists from the Novocherkassk Tragedy Foundation in the late 1990s. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin signed an executive order asking the government to consider allocating federal funds to the museum, but it was a grant from the George Soros Foundation that actually made the museum possible. It started with a small exhibit, and later they were given two rooms in a building near the former city committee. In the 2000s, the museum moved to a small space inside the Don Cossacks Museum, in the same building that protesters had once occupied and from which they were later fired upon.

Valentina Vodyanitskaya in the Novocherkassk Memorial Museum, October 2017
Darya Dar for Meduza

The Don Cossacks Museum’s administrators opposed the idea of hosting the memorial exhibit. Vodyanitskaya says the director didn’t like that the memorial was moved to the room where the staff usually “got drunk together.” In September 2017, the museum didn’t offer to renew her annual employment contract. Vodyanitskaya says losing her job has meant losing her life’s work, and now she “sleeps 24 hours a day.”

The Novocherkassk Memorial Museum can be found in room number twenty. The exhibit is usually locked shut, and there are no signs about an exhibit dedicated to the 1962 massacre anywhere inside or outside the Don Cossacks Museum, whose staff are surprised if you ask them how to see it.

In the room itself, there are no historical artifacts on display, except for archival documents. On one of the walls, there are photographs of those killed in the massacre, but you’ll only find pictures of 15 of the 26 known fatalities. Researchers couldn’t find photos of everyone. There’s no additional information about these people.

On the next wall, there are photographs of some of the 110 people who were convicted of rioting. Again, there are no details about anyone in the pictures. There’s also a screen that used to show a VHS tape, but the museum lost the power cable, and now it doesn’t show anything.

The exhibit also has photographs from the KGB archives of the June 2, 1962, demonstration itself. Vodyanitskaya doesn’t think the exhibit could be any bigger. There just aren’t enough materials, she says. She also believes that the only film footage of the shooting was taken to the U.S., and it’s supposedly stored at a foundation named after some American president, but she doesn’t know any further details. After Vodyanitskaya was fired, another woman at the museum started supervising room number twenty. She says the whole memorial exhibit is unnecessary. “Nobody comes here, and there’s nothing to exhibit,” she complains.

Of the 110 people sent to prison for involvement in the Novocherkassk unrest, there are only eight living survivors. Of those wounded by the gunfire, there are even fewer still alive.

“Now people in Novocherkassk, if they see a gathering of more than three people, they just keep walking,” says Vodyanitskaya. “It seems it’s innate now.”

Russian text by Daniil Turovsky in Novocherkassk, translation by Kevin Rothrock

Sources: Tatyana Bocharova’s “Novocherkassk: The Bloody Noon”; the Russian Military Prosecutor’s Office; V. A. Kozlov’s “The Unknown USSR”; Pyotr Siuda’s memoirs; Stanislav Podolsky’s memoirs; David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire”; and the films “Krest,” “Pulya-Dura,” and “Namedi

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