By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
The Washington Post
Front Page Story
Tuesday, July 23, 2002
ZHOVKVA, Ukraine -- For two years, the Rev. Volodymyr
Dolganyuk lived in the small, spartan room at a monastery here
studying the word of God. For two years, he had no idea that
just beneath his feet lay the work of unspeakable evil.
Then one day someone decided to unseal the basement of the
17th-century building and came across a few bones. And then
some more. And still more. By the time all the rubble and sand
had been cleared out of the catacombs, the remains of 225
people had been unearthed-- not those of ancient ancestors, but
of fathers and mothers and siblings of today's Ukrainians, probably
victims of a wave of killing by Soviet secret police after World
The discovery of the mass grave, announced last week in this
small town just 30 miles from the border with Poland, sickened
people in this corner of the old Soviet empire, but did not entirely
surprise them. While Ukraine and other countries once dominated
by Moscow struggle to build new societies, events periodically
intervene to remind them they have yet to fully catalogue the horrors
of the former era.
"We must confront the past for the sake of the future," said Yevgen
Gryniv, a local human rights activist who has been sifting through the
residue at the monastery. "Right now it's fashionable to talk about
terrorism. That's what it was -- terrorism against the people. Here
almost every place is connected to tragedy, to death."
The tomb of the unknown victims beneath the floorboards at
Vasilyansky Monastery is hardly the only mass grave found since
the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, but it is especially
grisly. Of the 225 bodies dug out, about 80 belonged to children;
workers discovered a few bones so small that specialists believe
they belonged to a fetus just four months after conception.
Some of the skulls have single, small bullet holes in the back, a
few still ringed with black from the gunshot. Others have cracks
down the front, apparently from an ax, or have been crushed on
top, possibly by a hammer.
The bodies were not found laid to rest, but rather crumpled as if
thrown in. No buttons or belt buckles or combs or shoe soles --
the parts of clothing that typically survive the longest -- were found,
suggesting the people were buried naked.
Who they were or precisely how they got here remains a mystery.
No one has come forward with information about what happened.
But older people in this town of 11,000 near the city of Lviv said
that after World War II the monastery was occupied by the NKVD,
which in 1954 became the KGB. And the crypt has yielded a few
clues about the timing of the killings -- kopeck coins minted in 1946
and 1949 and torn pictures of a May Day-style parade featuring
posters of a postwar local Communist leader.
In all likelihood, according to people investigating the discovery,
the bodies are those of Ukrainians executed by Soviet authorities
in a campaign to pacify the region following the defeat of Nazi
This part of western Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet Union
in 1939 when Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler carved up Poland.
During World War II, the Nazis captured it. After the war,
Ukrainian partisans who had battled the fascists refused to lay
down their arms and fought the Soviets into the 1950s.
Now some residents of Zhovkva wonder whether their long-lost
loved ones may have been found. "My brother disappeared and it's
still unclear where and how," said Bagdan Kondrat, 75, a retired bus
factory worker who spent four years in political exile in Siberia. "It's
possible he's here. Many people think they have people here. I know
more than 40 people who think their relatives might be here."
They may never know for sure. The local prosecutor has opened an
investigation, but without dental records or expensive DNA testing,
identifying half-century-old bodies will be very difficult. Unless a
credible witness turns up or Russia produces documents that people
here assume exist, the story of Vasilyansky Monastery may remain a
It has fallen to aging men such as Gryniv, the human rights activist,
and Myroslav Gorbal to keep pursuing the painful truth, here at the
monastery and at other sites where bodies from Soviet times have
Gryniv, 65, who founded the local chapter of Andrei Sakharov's
organization, Memorial, as the Soviet Union began falling apart in
the late 1980s, and Gorbal, 76, who fought as a Ukrainian partisan
against the Soviets and was later exiled for 14 years, have made it
their mission to track down the dead.
Gorbal lost two older brothers during the rebellion against the
Communists and has spent years combing through KGB files looking
for answers. In 1992, he found his brother Bagdan's grave, and three
years later he found documents disclosing the name of the informer
who led Soviet agents to Bagdan's hideout in 1945. Gorbal's other
brother, Yaroslav, has yet to be found.
Today Gorbal's life revolves around old records. He has compiled
them into a thick, 1,000-page book listing the victims of the Soviets
in western Ukraine from 1944 to 1954. He has collected 8,000
names and said he believes they represent only a fifth of the region's
Half a century later, Ukraine remains torn in its attitude toward the
Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the armed wing of the Organization of
Ukrainian Nationalists. The Ukrainian government in Kiev recently
proposed granting pensions to former partisans, just like veterans
of the Soviet Red Army. The suggestion has provoked considerable
criticism from some quarters still sympathetic to the Communists,
as well as from Russia, which finds the idea appalling.
"These people were fighting for independence of the country against
Poles, against Germans and against Communists," Gorbal said. "And
now this is an independent government. All the logic says these people
should be recognized, if not as heroes, at least as respected people."
For his part, Gryniv did not fight with a gun. But he has scoured the
hidden graves in the Lviv region for years. Since 1990, he and his
group have found 16 mass graves in western Ukraine, some with
hundreds of bodies, and have identified nine other sites to examine.
Gryniv has organized ceremonies to rebury the dead and dreams
of building a museum in their memory.
He gets little help from a government that wants to move forward.
He has to use his own car, his own money. "We've never had any
support except from the people for pulling the past up to the surface,"
he said. Over dinner recently, he offered a toast to "the success of
our hopeless business."
For all the work done already, the discovery at Vasilyansky
Monastery stood out. Never before had such a large mass grave
been found by accident.
The bodies at Vasilyansky were found only because some
Moldovan monks came to the Greek Catholic monastery seeking
the crypt of a favorite saint. While searching the basement, they
found a sealed passage and began chipping away. The first bones
were found in late March. As more turned up, the monks realized
they needed to call in the authorities.
Ultimately, three rooms in the damp catacombs were excavated.
The remains have been moved to a vault and organized as well as
possible into complete bodies and piles of random bones. The
priests sprayed holy water on the site and prayed for the souls
of the dead.
"We were trembling a little," said Miron Ivanyuk, 42, one of the
workers who dug through the sand and concrete. His brother, Ivan,
47, saw the small bones and thought of his children. "I want them to
find out who did this. I want them to take care of this. There must
be somebody who knew. They must still be here."
Few were more shocked than Dolganyuk, the 33-year-old priest
who lived right above the secret tomb. "I don't understand the cruelty
that people had, the hate people had. They didn't love children, they
didn't love Ukraine. They didn't have any kindness." But he added,
"We don't have the right to have hate against the people who did
this because Jesus said in the Bible to forgive and forgive again."
The development has stirred the older generation in Zhovkva, but
not their children. The older people "know about the troubles and
they're full of pain," said Brother Anthony, 35, a monk at Vasilyansky.
"Most young people don't think about it too much. They just think
about business, about how to make money."
Gorbal, the old freedom fighter, thinks about little else. But his
capacity for shock has ebbed. As he wandered through the vault
studying the bones over the weekend, he said he had no feeling.
"Absolutely nothing," he said. "My emotions have atrophied. I've
dug out so many that -- "
He paused and left the thought incomplete, returning to the safe
ground of forensics. "Of course, I wish I could complete all the
skeletons and take everything out of the ground. Look at that one."
He picked up the lower jaw of a child. "It has almost all the teeth in
it but when we pulled it out of the ground, they fell out. This one
doesn't have wisdom teeth -- they grow after 18 so we know this
one was younger than that."
He turned back to the personal impact. "I don't have any disturbing
emotions. When I was 13, I witnessed the death of my friend when a
drunk policeman killed him in 1939. We went to the railroad storage
area to look for something. Three policemen rushed in and kicked us
out. They were all drunk. One of them raised his gun and shot him
through the heart. I lifted my friend's head. His eyes rolled back in his
head and he died. They just looked and walked away."
He paused again and looked back at the table of bones. He picked
up a small one, no more than a couple of inches long.
"You know what this is?" he asked.
It was the shoulder bone of a child.
To view the original article, go to:
ArtUkraine Information Service (ARTUIS)
The Crimes of Communism Against Ukraine
The Art of the Long, Bitter Struggle for Independence
E. Morgan Williams, Publisher
Washington, D.C. and Kyiv, Ukraine
202 437 4707