The Great Terror 1937-1938 in the USSR

19-28 August 2016, Landskrona Foto Festival, Sweden
Author: Tomasz Kizny
Curator: Dominique Roynette

Shown inside the citadel during the Lanskrona Foto Festival. The highlight of photography in Scandinavia. Ten days of exhibitions, photo books, seminars, portfolio reviews, artist talks, workshops and more.
The exhibition is devoted to the memory of victims of a crime against the humanity, committed in the USSR in 1937-1938. It presents contemporary pictures of places, where mass executions took place, graves of victims of the Great Purge, the collection of reproductions of 400 photos taken in prisons by political police NKVD, as well as contemporary pictures of people, whose parents have been murdered during the Great Purge and multimedia presentations.

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  • The Great Terror; Thomazs Kizny & Dominique Roynette
Look at the conference by Tomasz Kizny and Dominique Roynette


The Great Terror 1937-1938 in the USSR

April 2015, House of Brandenburg-Prussian History, Potsdam, Germany
Author: Tomasz Kizny
Curators: Dominique Roynette, Piotr Wójcik

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1. The Necropolis of Terror includes contemporary photos of places of mass executions, which by decades was kept as secret by communist authorities. Up till now about 100 mass graves were identified on the territory of the former USSR, but the location of the remaining 200-250 is still unknown. The idea of the author was to create photos as “pictures-against-oblivion”, taken in the spirit of thought expressed by Georges Didi-Huberman, that in the symbolic sense, “the most drastic act against the human dignity of victims is to deprive them of the right to the grave – the right to the remembrance”. (Mémoire des Camps, Paris 2001). The photographs, taken with studio photo camera on 10 x 12 cm negatives, are showing 30 places of execution and mass graves in: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Voronezh, Saransk, Ulyanovsk, Sakhalin, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Tomsk, Kemerovo, Kolpashevo, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Tyumen, Petrozavodsk, Medwezhyegorsk, Syktyvkar, Vorkuta, Kiev and Minsk.

2. Convicted. The second part of the project is the collection of reproductions of 400 photos of prison victims, taken by Soviet political police NKVD, in years of 1937-1938.The photographs were made during routine police procedures and were included in the dossier of the arrested people. These last images of victims, made a short while before the execution, are speaking in the language of emotions, expressed on faces of people confronted with the existential horror of totalitarian terror. On account of total character of terror, this set includes portraits of people of all social stratum of the USSR at the end of the 30ies. Contrary to the intent of murderers, who not only annihilated people, but wanted to wipe out every trace of their lives, these photographs, revealed in the 90ies, became the most vivid visual evidence of crimes of the Soviet communism, caught in the last glimpse of victims, which is reaching us after 75 years.

3. Witnesses. The third part of the project comprises contemporary photographs of the people, whose parents were murdered during the Great Purge. Portraits are accompanied by fragments of interviews, conveying the atmosphere of the time of a total terror, summoning the memories of parents, the day when they were arrested, telling the story of a long-term search for a family, which vanished without a trace, as well as the fate of people carrying the stigma of the “child of the enemy of the people” for the entire life. Faces of “orphans” of the Great Purge, with the expression of harm, helplessness and a broken life are images and documents in themselves. The Faces and relations of those witnesses, today at the age of 80 or 90, were written down in the last minute, already at the border between “lively” and “historical memory”.

Historical note
In 1968, British historian Robert Conquest introduced the title “The Great Terror” for determining the most intense period of Stalinist repressions at the end of the 30ies. It wasn’t neither first nor last terror campaign of the Soviet state against its own citizens. However versatility was a particular quality of the Great Purge. Previous repressions affected specific groups or people of specific social status, but in 1937 a society as a whole was subjected to terror. Terror was total also in the geographical dimension, in 1937-1938, mass repressions took place in the entire Soviet Union and as a result 1.7 million people were detained, of whom 750 000 were shot and, in the following years, according to the historical assessment, additional number of 350 000 of arrested died in lagers – Soviet forced-labor camps. The campaign of terror on an unprecedented scale was prepared in detail and managed personally by Joseph Stalin and a few of his aides from the Party Politburo. Classified order of the NKVD No. 0047, from the 30th of July 1937, determined “limits of terror”, which meant quotas of people, that should be arrested in particular regions, with the specification for what kind sentence should be pronounced. The “first category” indicated people subjected to immediate execution by shooting, the “second category” concerned people assigned to long-term sentences in forced-labor camps. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens were accused of preposterous, absurd crimes, as well as the participation in counter-revolutionary conspiracies, terrorist organizations or the espionage. Death sentences were consecutively issued by tribunals of three, so-called troikas. Executions were carried out at the day of pronouncing a sentence in basements of NKVD prisons or on established for this purpose “firing ranges of death” in forests. The bodies of victims were buried at unknown places. Families were told, that their relatives were sentenced to 10 years of lager without the right of correspondence.

“The Great Terror” ended the politics of the “purge” in the country witnessing the process of building the socialism. Stalin eliminated actual and potential enemies in the Party and produced a widespread fear, which terrorized the whole society. From 1938 he became an unquestioned dictator, both in the Party and in the state.

Contemporary photographs: Tomasz Kizny

Archival photographs: Archive of the “Memorial” Society, Central FSB RF Archive, State RF Archive in Moscow, State Archive of Film and Photo Documents in Krasnogorsk.

Partners of the project: Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur, Gerda Henkel Stiftung and Wissenschaftskollegzu Berlin – Institute for Advanced Study, The International “Memorial” Society in Moscow.

Organisers of the exhibition: Foundation “Opowiedz To – Picture This”, National Centre for Culture, Cultural Institution Katowice – City of Gardens, History Meeting House, Fabryka Trzciny Art Center.

Media Patronage: Gazeta Wyborcza, AMS, Tygodnik Powszechny.

Wielki Terror w Moskwie

The Great Terror 1937-1938 in the USSR

November 2014, Foto Doc Gallery at the Andrei Sacharov Museum and Community Center, Moscow, Russia
Author: Tomasz Kizny
Curators: Dominique Roynette, Piotr Wój

The exhibition was attended by Siergej Kovalev, the founder of the Memorial association, famous for his efforts in the field of human and citizen rights in Russia.

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Media review
by Veronica Dorman, Liberation corespondent in Moscow.

Libération, 8-9.11.2014 – read PDF (2,2 MB)


The Great Terror 1937-1938 in the USSR

2013 in Poland :
Fabryka Trzciny Art Center, Warsaw.
Gallery of City of Gardens, Katowice.
Gallery at the White Synagogue, Sejny.
TheArmy Museum, Białystok.
The National Museum – Culture Dialogue Museum, Kielce.
Author: Tomasz Kizny
Curators: Dominique Roynette, Piotr Wójcik