The Truth About The Mass Grave From Stalin's Great Purge

In August of 2021, workers doing exploratory digging for a potential expansion of Odessa International Airport unearthed a mass grave that could contain as many as 20,000 human corpses, according to France24. The exact count may never be known, but if it is that many, that would make it one of the largest mass burial sites in Ukraine. The bodies apparently date back to the 1930s, and the man responsible for them is exactly who you'd expect — a guy named Joseph Stalin.

During Stalin's Great Purge, this sort of thing was essentially par for the course — if the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, suspected you of harboring anti-Stalin sentiments, they would shoot first and ask questions later. Disposal of the corpses was an afterthought, as well. Until now, the land under Odessa Airport was thought to be simply a garbage dump. "They dug out pits in the garbage and threw these people in or shot them dead as they were standing there," says Tetyana Samoylova, an archaeologist tasked with exhuming the site. "And then they covered them with the same garbage."

Inside Stalin's Great Purge

The site is actually fairly typical of what happened during Stalin's Great Purge, in which at least 750,000 Soviet denizens were murdered. After Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin quickly ascended through the ranks, eventually declaring himself dictator in 1929. And Stalin considered any residual support for Lenin or his Bolshevik party to be a threat to his authority, so he tasked the NKVD with eliminating anyone even suspected of being a threat.

In addition to the deaths of nearly a million people — including an estimated one-third of the Communist Party itself — the Great Purge sent millions more to Gulag labor camps, where many of them died. At its height, the Great Purge went after not only men suspected of disloyalty but also their families, including wives and children as young as 12. After Stalin's death, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, condemned the Purge and admitted many of its victims were innocent (via History).

As with many of the Purge's mass graves, the motive for and extent of the violence that occurred at Odessa is unlikely to ever be truly known. According to All That's Interesting, the grave extends onto military land and lies beneath buried wires; further, any records of the mass execution are held in Moscow and remain classified.