Skeletal Remains and Soviet Violence


A review of State-Sponsored Violence in the Soviet Union: Skeletal Trauma and Burial Organization in a Post World War II Lithuanian Sample by Catherine Elizabeth Bird.

Studying the state has always been somewhat problematic for anthropologists. Even when we try to be global, studying in a village, instead of the village, as Clifford Geertz (The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973, p. 22) recommended, we are somewhat methodologically bereft when it comes to studying the state and its instruments of power (Michel Bouchard, “The State of the Study of the State in Anthropology.” Reviews in Anthropology, vol. 40, no. 3, 2011, pp. 183-209). Rarely do researchers have access to the inner sanctums of power, whether the state war rooms or corporate boardrooms. Moreover, state sanctioned violence is even more problematic as anthropologists would not, should not, be observing, let alone participating, in large-scale state executions of political prisoners. Anthropologists must thus rely on indirect sources to analyze the inner workings of power. Catherine Elizabeth Bird in her thesis “State-Sponsored Violence in the Soviet Union: Skeletal Trauma and Burial Organization in a Post World War II Lithuanian Sample” seeks to understand the behavior of the executioners, state security personnel, in order to understand their actions and motivations through physical and skeletal remains. Bird provides and innovative example as to how anthropologists can study the state; a model that could be applied to a number of contexts outside of mass executions carried out by agents of the state.

Central to the very definition of the state is the monopoly that the state has on violence, and as Bird’s research highlights that violence can be quite intensive and extensive when carried out as a form of state terror on a population. Though the state can rarely monopolize entirely violence, it can nonetheless ensure that other social actors who infringe on its monopoly are summarily sanctioned. Failed states are those who can neither curtail nor contain violence and quite often watch passively as violence is appropriated by others to serve their own agendas. Totalitarian states, in contrast, exercise their monopoly ruthlessly and invariably use state-sanctioned violence as a tool, usually coupled with ideology and propaganda, to ensure the primacy of the power of the state and its bureaucracy. Nonetheless, the control of the very agents tasked with carrying out the orders of the highest state officials is always problematic: the violence unleashed against individuals within the populace could be turned back against the very individuals identifying the enemies of the state and condemning them to death. Joseph Stalin who unleashed state terror on the populace of the Soviet Union, perhaps understood this too well. In the 1930s, the secret police would not escape the purges, as the NKVD director Genrikh Yagoda would be executed and the new director would execute all the higher agents that he feared were loyal to Yagoda. The NKVD was the latest incarnation of the “Chekists” or secret police established at the time of the Russian Revolution and the secret police forces would have a succession of reincarnations and acronyms to name it from VCheKa, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, KGB and in contemporary Russia FSB. Yagoda’s successor, Nikoay Yezhov would eventually be executed in turn and Stalin’s lieutenant Lavrenti Beria was arrested and executed following Stalin’s death. The Soviet leadership was ruthless in executing the executioners lest they seek to seize power.

Bird’s thesis provides an intriguing account seeking to analyze the skeletal remains of the victims to understand the idiosyncratic behavior of their executioners. It is somewhat unorthodox, but a compelling research project that seeks to better understand state sanctioned and managed violence. History examines the state officials who sign the orders, but the agents carrying out the orders at the behest of the state are invariably overlooked. Bird thus provides a timely account of the victims of state violence, precisely when state violence is on the rise and when words such as “genocide” and “Fascist” are being lobbied about in the growing conflict in Ukraine while the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II) is continually being sanctified to justify the contemporary actions of the Russian Federation, the Soviet Union’s de facto successor state. The millions who were victims of the Soviet state have been blocked out of the popular consciousness in Russia, while school children in this state continue to go out to disinter and identify fallen soldiers (Lucy Ash, “Digging for their lives: Russia’s volunteer body hunters,” Vol. 2014: BBC News) as they are sacred to the state narrative and certainly better represent the ideals of the state, the sacrifice of individuals for the state, and thus ensure the identification of the population with the state.

Following an analysis of skeletal remains from one burial site and comparing four mass burial sites for the victims of state violence (two in Lithuania, one in Ukraine and one in Russia), Bird succeeds in differentiating differences in the practices of the agents. Though the state seeks to ensure its standards in executions, Bird uncovers a shift in the evidence with improvisation of violence increasing in the site she studied directly, possibly due to factors such as training, prisoner compliance, sadism and desensitization to violence. Bird then reviews the literature on violence and the state and builds upon the work of Paul Gregory (Paul Gregory, Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin: An Archival Study. Yale University Press, 2009) who identifies principals (individuals issuing orders), agents (those who carry out those orders) and enemies. Bird (p. 35) notes how the Soviet security apparatus “identified enemies of the state,” but the real question is whether totalitarian states need enemies in the same way that violence is central to the success of expansionist states. Bird (p. 35) writes that “enemies” were “arrested for the social danger they posed” but perhaps enemies were simply needed to whip up the hysteria of the enemy at the gates, as a means to solidify the ideological power of the state. In essence, enemies were arrested not for any real danger they posed, social or political, but simply to prove the existence of posited counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs to rouse the masses. As Bird writes, “confessions of guilt proved more important than evidence of crimes” and enemies are thus oftentimes more important to totalitarian states than the winning wars as both external and the threat of fifth column internal enemies justifies the use of violence by the state. Yet, in spite of this need, the practice of executing these “enemies” was highly secretive as it was necessary for the populace to both know and not know of the state violence; the fear was necessary for discipline, but the state did now want the details to be known.

The challenge with analyzing the remains of those executed during Soviet times is the reticence of contemporary states to study past state violence. The contemporary Russian State and the FSB, for example, have blocked research into the mass grave site found close to the Rzhevsky artillery range near Toksovo, a small city some 20 miles north of St. Petersburg (Anna Badkhen, “Soviet Union’s past remains buried. Human rights group trying to uncover full truth behind Stalin’s bloody reign.” SFGate,  8 Aug. 2003) that could hold the remains of some 32,000 victims of state violence. Rarely is it possible to find both the physical remains of the executed and the documentation that can be tied to specific clandestine mass graves. Russia has little interest in pursuing such research and other states may find the remains, but will be unable to locate the paperwork tied to the interred remains. The case that Bird (p. 63) studied, the mass graves located on the Tuskulenai Estate in Lithuania was exceptional in that the graves were discovered after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the state security documents were discovered in 1994. The Lithuanian President then established a working group to investigate and the team included archaeologists, anthropologists and forensic experts. The Tuskuleniai site yielded a total of 724 individuals buried in 45 mass graves. This particular location featured burial pits that could be dated with precision and thus could provide researchers the ability to see if there were any changes between July 1945 and January 1947. Random samples of dated burial pits were analyzed and this material was then compared to skeletal data from three other locations analyzed in the 1940s and chronicled in the forensic literature: Vinnytsia (Ukraine), Katyn (Polish nationals executed and buried in the Katyn forest including thousands of Polish army officers, police officers, members of the Polish intelligentsia and others) and Rainiai (Lithuania). One of the goals was to determine whether the method of execution complied to state standards: full compliance being a gunshot to the back of the head versus partial compliance (shooting the victim but not in the back of the head) and non-compliance whereby another mechanism of force was used to execute a prisoner. Once the wounds were identified and recorded, the study sought to understand if the violence had changed over time and between the security personnel carrying out executions. In the case under study, the timeline and identity of the personnel was known and burial pits could be tied to one of two specific execution squads (pp. 100-101 and p. 124). Finally, a mortuary analysis was conducted to better understand how the executed prisoners were then interred. In total, the remains of 155 individuals from 12 burial pits were analyzed.

Following a thorough analysis and description of the skeletal remains, Bird provides an intriguing overview of the changing modus operandi over time at the Tuskulenai. Whereas the earlier burial pits conformed strictly to state directives, single gunshot to the back of the head, the victims in the latter burial pits are more likely to have been subject to blunt for trauma and were less likely to have been killed by gunshots. Thus, the earlier execution squad, Dolgirev’s squad conformed more closely to state directives, while the latter squad, Prikazchikov’s, was less likely to conform (p. 198).

Finally, Bird’s comparison of her forensic analysis of the material from Tuskulenai with the three other sites, demonstrates a great deal of variety between locales when it comes to conforming with state guidelines in executing prisoners. Though Katyn is excluded as it was impossible to judge whether there had been blunt force trauma, virtually all the prisoners seem to have been executed with one gunshot to the back of the skull. In Vinnytsia, there was close to complete conformity with the recorded skeletal trauma with little evidence of blunt force trauma and once again all the victims having been killed with one gunshot. In the Rainiai burials, conformity to state standards was close to inexistent. There is much evidence for sharp force trauma (47%) and close to all the victims (93%) exhibited blunt force trauma and many over 4, 5 or 6 episodes (p. 255). Finally, in this site, there is a significantly higher number of gunshot wounds to the body and not solely to the head as was the case in the other locales (p. 254). This raises interesting questions as to why there was such discrepancy in this particular site.

Though the research is focused on the scientific forensic analysis, Bird does venture into providing some possible explanations as to differences that were seen in the remains that were analyzed. In the case of the Tuskulenai case, she notes that the partisan war was intensifying and that “it was expected that agents would improvise violence rather than comply with state guidelines” (p. 286). The challenge when seeking to prove such hypotheses is that the agents may have been acting on verbal commands and instructions given to them, so it is not possible to prove conclusively that the variation was based on the agency of individual agents or even execution squads. Bird then provides some of the explanations that could account for the Rainiai case. She notes that given that the German invasion was unexpected that the Soviet authorities had not developed a clear plan for the prisoners and that agents were forced to improvise and that the prisoners were killed in the chaos following an order to evacuate (pp. 290-291). Also, it is possible that the executioners in this site were not solely the secret police, the NKVD, but also the Red Army. The soldiers, not constrained by the same rules, would have resulted in a greater variation in the violence seen in the human remains excavated.

Bird certainly set about on a challenging task, which was to push the forensic anthropology envelope to extrapolate her research findings to analyze the behavior and potential agency of individuals. It does highlight some of the weaknesses of anthropology when it comes to the analysis of states and state violence. There is a theoretical gap as Bird (p. 304) had to seek a way to proceed beyond a Weberian model of bureaucracy. However, this thesis provided a telling example as to how to proceed in researching the state and actions of the state. Bird (pp. 306-307) sought to compare the evidence from one site to a larger regional collection and then sought to develop hypotheses to explain the variation. It examined the larger history and politics, while not evacuating the agency of individuals in carrying out the policies set by the highest political organs of the state. The research does demonstrate “that while violence may be ordered by state leaders, its implementation relies on the discretion of individual agents.” Anthropologists studying the state and state violence must thus embark on a multidisciplinary study that cut across geographic zones and seeks to understand the behavior of individuals across the ranks. This research would entail both the direct study of the agency of individuals, but would also seek to study the indirect evidence of actions and policies that are taken by the state, often in secret behind closed doors. Thus, but continually navigating between the individual, the national and, increasingly international, while examining both policy (contemporary and historic) and how individuals implement the rules that are established, sometimes ignoring them, occasionally improvising to implement policies set by the rulers and policy-makers. This research strategy spearheaded by Bird to study the human remains of victims of state violence and the actions of their executioners working within the framework of the state could be applied to a variety of other topics both in the past and in the present.

Michel Bouchard, PhD
Department of Anthropology
University of Northern British Columbia

Primary Source

Primary skeletal and archaeological material from the Tuskulenai (Lithuania) site and published literature that documents the skeletal and archaeological data from the mass grave sites of Vinnytsia (Ukraine), Katyn (Russia) and Rainiai (Lithuania).

Dissertation Information

Michigan State University. 2013. xx and 332pp. Primary Advisor: Norman J. Sauer.  Available online at:

Image: Angle of Trajectory of a Single Gunshot Wound on Skeleton 19 (Figure 36, p. 143).

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