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The history of the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

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Before the revolution, this 30-hectare piece of land was owned by Ivan Piskaryov. And his name became that of this landmark. Half a century on, the word “Piskaryovka” became the synonym for one of the biggest crimes against humanity.

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Maria Evsyukova, reporter: “This small burial ground became the foundation for that Piskaryovka which is known to the whole world. Before and after the revolution, only residents of the adjacent village were buried here. Up until 1937. The Leningrad City Council decided to close several cemeteries within the city limits and allocate land in the northern part – from Piskaryovsky farm’s territory. In 1939 the cemetery was expanded – when soldiers who died in the Soviet-Finnish war were brought here. And in 1942 Piskaryovka became the primary burial ground of besieged Leningrad”.

Every resident of St. Petersburg knows this voice. Nikolay Burov has been conducting solemn ceremonies at Piskaryovskoye for 15 years. He remembers the Memorial Complex from his childhood years.

Nikolay Burov, renowned artist of Russia: “The cemetery – as we know it today – was formed in the early 1960s. And, for instance, the Motherland statue had been here much earlier than the one in Volgograd. Even earlier than the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. When I was a pioneer, I encountered Olga Fedorovna Berggoltz – without realizing she was the Voice of the Blockade. To us she was just an elderly woman, who wasn’t actually old – but she survived the Blockade. Like all people around us. So me and another girl pioneer walked with her”.

This room won’t catch one’s eye – it looks like just another office storage room. But it actually keeps the main evidence of the mass murder. In this safe locker. And only two people carry the keys to it – the head of Piskaryovsky Memorial Complex and head of archive Olga Bolshakova. Those are the records of burials during the Blockade.

Olga Bolshakova, head of archives: “Because of high mortality, there was a principle at all cemeteries – to make records based on a number, not the name. So we can see records like “10 children”. What children? Where were they from? It is so hard. Such a hard job”.

The Piskaryovsky Memorial Complex is the biggest mass grave in the world, never seen in history before. More than half a million residents of Leningrad are buried here. Nameless. It’s virtually impossible to determine their identities. Only 12 thousand names were discovered over 75 years. Another sixty last year. In order to find relatives, you have to make personal inquiries to the archive. The search is conducted in several databases, record books, sometimes you have to make calls too. It’s not simple at all.

Every year, in September, Elena Plyushikova joins thousands of our city’s residents in coming to Piskaryovka. To remember her loved ones – in silence.

Elena Plyushikova: “I remember my mother’s stories. How small children were dying during the Blockade. All at the same age. Her brothers and sisters. Petya, Tanya, Tolya, Anya, Masha, Borya. Eight children in total”.

4th bomb squad of NKVD was in charge of digging up graves at Piskaryovskoye cemetery. Soldiers were brought here every day at 6 am.

Maria Evsyukova, reporter: “From the recollections of Grigoriy Yurkin – often we had to walk on foot through the entire city to Moskovsky Gates, due to gasoline shortage. Let’s see the navigator app. It says that it would take more than 3 hours. And that was January 1942 with minus thirty degrees outside and sixteen-hour work days. So exhausted and hungry soldiers took much longer to walk these 15 kilometers”.

In the days of anniversaries, the cemetery is on a special schedule. While regular work days begin at 7am – and all days are the same.

Rustam Yuskayev, deputy director of Piskaryovsky Memorial Complex: “We have our own micro-climate. Just so you understand, the Piskaryovskoye cemetery takes 26 hectares of land, even more. You have to maintain this territory not sporadically, but constantly. But here you don’t have to urge anyone”.

There are 45 people on staff here. And every single one of them believes that it’s not a coincidence they are working here. Few have the moral strength to remain at this job.

  • I heard stories that some people are not accepted by a cemetery. How did it accept you?

Alexey Andreev, tour guide: “My colleagues tell me that it accepted me. But I cant evaluate it really. The Piskaryovskoye Cemetery chooses the people who are capable of working here. Some are not”

Alexey Andreev is a tour guide. He has been working at Piskaryovskoye for two years. Says he often finds letters of repent here. It is like Leningrad’s Wall of Tears.

We find toys like these. Germans left it by Tanya Savicheva’s picture. The writing says “To Tanya and all children slain during the Blockade. To all victims of the war. Loyal friend from Germany”.

January 27th at Piskaryovskoye Cemetery is always cold – like a reminder of those severe Blockade winters. Nikolay Burov always prepares for this day with a special responsibility. Just like today – he came over to set himself into the right state. So that on Sunday he would speak in unison with all the voices of the Blockade Leningrad.

  • Here stood a microphone stand in the snow. They put several cartons under my feet, so I don’t freeze to death. It has always been happening outside, irrespective of the temperature. Now I regard this as a humanitarian mission. Because working inside a booth is warmer and there’s no wind. But it’s only easier physically, but it cannot be easier morally here. It is hard to speak – because this is a special place, with its own energy. But not uplifting – it is crushing. It is against the nature, when hundreds of thousands of lives were taken. That’s what these places are for – to remember”.

Piskaryovka’s history began in St. Petersburg, then it was Petrograd, Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg. But no matter how our city’s name changes, the essence of this place will remain unchanged for centuries – the symbol of the horror and grief which Leningrad lived through.

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