Al Jazeera Close Up

I dig up skeletons of Stalin’s victims to give families closure | Close Up

“When you open a gravesite, the bodies, how they are organised, they tell the stories by themselves… they can tell us about how they disappeared, how they were killed,” says forensic anthropologist Meri Gonashvili.

Gonashvili is a woman on a mission. Through detective-like work, the young Georgian anthropologist at Tbilisi State Medical University is hoping to identify victims executed by the Soviet secret police during the Reign of Terror, also known as the Great Purge of 1936-1938. The totalitarian campaign led by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin targeted anyone accused of plotting against the state. Many ordinary citizens were exiled, imprisoned or executed.At least 700,000 are estimated to have been executed throughout the USSR including some 15,000  in Soviet Georgia. “For this regime, human life didn’t have any value,” says Meri as she reconstructs the skeleton of a victim shot in the head.

Most families never knew what happened to their loved ones. But now, six mass graves containing the remains of people executed during Stalin’s Reign of Terror have been discovered in western Georgia. The families of the missing have teamed up with Gonashvili and other experts to find and identify the victims of Stalin’s ruthless operation.

Will Meri be able to identify some of the victims who disappeared during Stalin’s Great Purge and reunite their remains with their living relatives? Watch Georgia’s Missing People by Robin Forestier-Walker to find out.


A film by: Robin Forestier-Walker

Producer: Nino Shonia

Cinematographer: Iago Gogilashvili

Editors: Robin Forestier-Walker, Antonia Perello

Sound Editor & Mixer: Linus Bergman

Senior Editor: Donald Cameron

Executive Producer: Tierney Bonini

Special Thanks: Special Thanks: Rustavi 2, IDFI & SovLab