Crews digging at a site for a new bear cage at the Moscow Zoo stopped work Friday after uncovering a mass grave of human skulls and bones that authorities believe could date from Josef Stalin's rule.
The discovery went unnoticed by the crowds of children and adults eating ice cream and pressing around animal cages just a few hundred yards away."Here's a skull," said foreman Vladimir Allik, pointing to a yellowish, half-preserved remnant and a small heap of bone fragments on a metal plate. "And there's another one, over there."
Allik's crew said they dug up at least 10 sets of remains Thursday, some with what appeared to be bullet holes. The site is at the edge of the grim, aging zoo compound in central Moscow.
Officials from the district prosecutor's office, who ordered work to be stopped, suspect the bones might belong to victims of Stalinist purges in the 1930s.
"It looks like it, but we cannot be sure. At the moment, we can't even say how old the bones are or whether these are actually bullet holes. We've sent the bones to forensic experts," said Igor Koniushkin, acting district prosecutor.
The Soviet dictator killed millions of people in labor camps and secret police dungeons. Tens of thousands were executed in city prisons, then dumped in unmarked mass graves or brought covertly to graveyards.
Mass graves have been turning up in recent years, including one found recently in an entertainment center in downtown Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. Authorities believe thousands of bodies of Lithuanians executed by Soviet secret police are buried beneath the street of Vilnius.
As many as 28,000 bodies of political prisoners are believed buried in Butovo, a former killing field on the southern edge of Moscow, and another 16,000 at the nearby Kommunarka state farm, according to Russian officials.
Those at Kommunarka were mostly employees of the KGB's forerunner, the NKVD, which turned against itself in the mounting wave of terror.
The workers at the Moscow Zoo say at least some of the skulls had single bullet wounds, an NKVD trademark.