The remains of what the human-rights group Memorial says are approximately 30,000 victims of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s that the group has discovered outside the Leningrad Oblast town of Toksovo may include those of prominent Russian philosopher, theologian and scientist Pavel Florensky, representatives announced on Thursday.
Florensky is widely regarded as Russia's greatest 20th-century theologian and has been referred to as the Russian Leonardo da Vinci. He joined the Russian Orthodox priesthood in 1911 and remained deeply involved in cultural, artistic, and scientific studies up until he perished in the terror of the 1930s.
"There is a certain degree of indirect evidence that Florensky might have been executed in that area on Dec. 8, 1937," said Irina Fligye, the head of Memorial's historical section in St. Petersburg.
Fligye said that, in December 1937, Florensky was brought from his place of exile on the Solovetsky Islands, in the White Sea, to Leningrad, and then shot at the Rzhevsky artillery range, near Toksovo, which is located about 30 kilometers south of St. Petersburg.
"We know that he was on the list of 509 people who were murdered in that area on the same day" Fligye said.
Memorial has been carrying out a search for the mass graves over the last five years and found the first evidence of their whereabouts - the remains of about 20 people - in a forest at the artillery range this August.
Forensic examination of nine of the skulls found at the site determined that they are those of men and women, ranging from 15 to more than 60 years of age. All of the remains indicate that the victims died from gunshots to the base of the skull - standard procedure for the NKVD, which was the precursor of the KGB. The caliber of the weapons used was 9 millimeters and 11.43 millimeters, which were standard issue for NKVD officers in 1920s and the 1930s.
Before Memorial's discovery, just one mass grave of victims of the terror had been confirmed in the St. Petersburg area by Federal Security Service (FSB) officials, located near the village of Levashyovo, which is also located in the Leningrad Oblast. The FSB today maintains responsibility for the archives of both of its predecessors, the KGB and NKVD. While relatives of the victims of the purges may gain access to documents containing the charges against the victims and the dates of their executions, the FSB maintains that it possesses no information relating to the location of the executions or of the remains of the victims.
However, Memorial has information that, when interviewed in the 1960s, drivers of trucks that were responsible for bringing the bodies to the Levashyovo site put the number there at about 8,500. Over 40,000 people were executed in Leningrad and the Leningrad area during the terror, leaving the whereabouts of the remains of over 30,000 of those who perished a mystery.
Father Andronik Trubachyov, Florensky's grandson, who teaches at the Theological Academy in Sergiyev Posad, near Moscow, said that the official assumption of his grandfather's burial site is in Levashyovo, though he has never seen any archival documents specifying this.
"I'm sure that the FSB will deny the existence of any other mass graves right to the very end, because it is a state secret," Trubachyov said.
Fligye said that Memorial's strong belief that Florensky is buried near Toksovo comes from the fact that victims that were buried at the Levashyovo site were executed in the cellars of the so-called "Big House" - the NKVD headquarters in Leningrad, located on Liteiny Prospect - from which they were transported to mass graves.
The artillery range near Toksovo, conversely, was used both for the executions and subsequent burials.
"There's no question that it was inconvenient, if not impossible, for the NKVD to murder the entire group of 509 people of which Florensky was part, in the cellars on the same day. That's why we are sure they brought them to Koirangakangas," Fligye said.
"Of course, we can't be 100-percent sure that Florensky is buried in Koirangakangas, even though he was on the list of the people executed there," she added. "We don't know that something didn't happen to him on the way. It's very likely that he is there, though."
Florensky's internment on the Solovetsky Islands was not the first time he served time in Stalin's camps.
He refused to give up his church work after the 1917 October Revolution, continuing to wear his priest's clothing and standing up for his convictions, which ultimately led to his arrest in 1933.
He was sentenced to 10 years of corrective labor in Siberia under Article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code (propaganda and agitation calling for overthrow or weakening of Soviet power).
While in Siberia, Florensky continued his scientific work on construction on permafrost sites and a project to extract iodine from seaweed. He patented 10 different scientific discoveries in relation to the second project.
In 1937, he was sentenced to death by a special NKVD tribunal in the Leningrad Oblast.
Florensky's major theological work, entitled "Stolp i utverzhdeniye istiny" ("The Pillar and Ground of the Truth") (1914), conveyed the teaching on Divine Sophia (Feminine Wisdom) as the basis for the comprehension of the integrity of the universe. He explored the various meanings of Christian love, which he described as a combination of friendship and universal love.
"Friendship bestows the greatest joy, but it also demands the greatest effort. Every day, every hour, every minute, as the ego sorrowfully loses its life for the sake of a friend, it joyfully finds that life restored," Florensky wrote in his work.
Modern researchers often cote Florensky's thought in relation to modern phenomena.
"Florensky was one of the first thinkers in the twentieth century to develop the idea of the Divine Sophia, who has become one of the central concerns of feminist theologians," wrote Richard Gustafson in the introduction to an English edition of Florensky's work.