Kurapaty is a woods on the outskirts of Minsk. Between 1937–41, over 250,000 people were murdered by the NKVD and dumped in mass graves there. In 2004, it was named a cultural heritage site of Belarus.
Before the Great Terror, Kurapaty was a popular place for picnics, day trips, and hikes. The hills were covered in beautiful white flowers.
When the Great Terror began, there were three massacres a day—dawn, 2:00 PM, and dusk. The condemned were lined up by twos, bound and gagged, and shot into already-dug pits. A layer of sand was thrown over each layer of the dead and dying, and then the process began all over again.
Sometimes saplings were planted on top.
In the second half of 1937, a fence was built around Kurapaty, making the astronomically low odds of survival and escape even more impossible. Anyone who did manage to survive and escape was almost always quickly discovered and murdered, or died soon afterwards.
Nearby villagers could see the trucks rolling up the flat road into the forest, and could hear the shootings. When no gags were used, they could hear screaming, moaning, and weeping. After the shootings began taking place all night in the second half of 1937, many villagers found it hard to sleep.
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Daring children snuck inside the fence and saw the dead and dying under the top layers of sand in the mass graves.
After the Nazis invaded the USSR in June 1941, the massacres stopped and the villagers pulled down the fence for the wood. They also cut down the trees in the forest. Today’s Kurapaty trees were planted after WWII.
Every year on 2 November, Dziady (a Belarusian remembrance of the dead, whose name means “grandfathers”), hundreds of people visit Kurapaty to pay their respects.
In 1994, Pres. Bill Clinton visited and gave the Belarusian people a small granite monument which was placed in Kurapaty. Sadly, it’s been vandalized thrice.
My characters Rustam Zyuganov and Roman Safronov, Sr., are taken to Kurapaty in April 1937. A third intended victim, Fyodor Nadleshin, the adoptive brother of Roman’s wife and Rustam’s cousin Inessa, is out of town.
Rustam’s crime was telling a joke about Stalin at work, while Ph.D. film studies student and junior professor Roman is writing a paper on Vera Kholodnaya, a declared enemy of the people.
Rustam manages to survive and escape, due to keeping his wits sharply about him the entire time, and not immediately panicking like Roman. He also gets a very dark blessing when their assigned assassin puts his Nagan revolver to Roman’s head instead of his.
Rustam immediately jumps into the pit to make it look like he fell from being shot, claws out an air pocket, and unties the rag over his mouth and removes the gag with minimal movements. He was “only” gagged, not bound as well.
Rustam lies there among the dead and dying, struggling to breathe and becoming soaked with blood, until the butchers and their dogs leave the forest. He softly calls Roman’s name, but there’s no answer. When he was holding Roman’s hand earlier, he felt the pulse fading.
To give Roman some dignity in death, Rustam removes the gag. He kisses his cousin-in-law goodbye before he claws his way to the top of the pit. Rustam is covered in blood, sand, dirt, and sweat when the ground is finally beneath his feet again.
Rustam smoothes the sand over the top of the pit, to make it look like nothing were disturbed, and goes to his father’s house to hide. The new Moon in the sky gives him the protection of extra darkness.
Rustam, most of the younger members of his family, and his old father escape to Poland in four small groups. His father stays in Kraków with two of Rustam’s expatriate siblings, but everyone else goes to America.
For years, Rustam suffers with PTSD and has several strong triggers. To try to get it out of his system, he creates a graphic novel about his experience.