Loading Events

« All Events

  • This event has passed.

Cate Bird – Doctoral Dissertation Defense

April 26, 2013 @ 10:00 am - 12:00 pm

State Sponsored Violence in the Soviet Union: Skeletal Trauma and Burial Organization in a Post WWII Lithuanian Sample

The Stalinist period represented one of the worst eras of human rights abuse in the Soviet Union. Millions of victims at dozens of sites were executed by the state during Stalin’s 30 years of power.  This dissertation investigates both the victims and perpetrators of violence in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period through a site specific and regional evaluation of burial treatment and perimortem trauma.  Specifically, it focuses on a sample (n = 155) of prisoners executed in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (L.S.S.R.) by the Soviet security apparatus from 1944 to 1947, known as the Tuskulenai case. However, the Tuskulenai case does not represent an isolated event. Numerous other sites of state-sponsored violence are well known. In order to understand the temporal and geographical distribution of Soviet violence, this study subsequently compares burial treatment and perimortem trauma observed in the Tuskulenai case to data published in site reports for three other cases of Soviet state-sponsored violence (Vinnytsia, Katyn, and Rainiai).

This dissertation discusses state-sponsored violence in the Soviet Union in the context of social and political theory advocated by Max Weber and within a principal-agent framework.  Historical data characterizes the Soviet security apparatus as an efficient bureaucracy, which specialized in the identification, detention, and punishment of enemies throughout the Soviet Republics. In particular, Soviet authorities mandated that the only legitimate means of execution was by fusillade, or gunshot to the back of the head. While historical data has largely focused on state officials who organized violence, less attention has been given to agents who actually performed violence in the name of the state. Evaluation of archaeological data and skeletal trauma permit researchers with the opportunity not only to study the death experiences of victims, but also to evaluate the behavior and motivation of violence workers.

Bioarchaeological and forensic methods were employed to address a number of research goals, including 1) to understand how execution and interment procedures changed over time in the Tuskulenai case; 2) to evaluate how execution and interment procedures varied between two of the execution squads in the Tuskulenai case; and 3) to investigate how execution and interment procedures varied temporally and geographically in four Soviet cases of violence (e.g. Vinnytsia, Katyn, Rainiai, and Tuskulenai).  Mortuary variables examined included pit features, arrangement of prisoners’ bodies, material culture, concealment materials, and bindings. Skeletal variables assessed included preservation, victim demographics, and perimortem trauma (e.g. mechanism of trauma, anatomical location, and direction of force).

Results of mortuary analyses in the Tuskulenai case demonstrate that most mortuary variables did not significantly differ over time or between execution squads in the Tuskulenai case, except for the orientation of victims’ heads and the presence of bindings. Results of skeletal analyses over time in the Tuskulenai case reveal that the number of gunshot wounds decreased over time, while non-gunshot mechanisms increased. Furthermore, compliance with state standards generally decreased over time. Results of the skeletal analyses between execution squads in the Tuskulenai case demonstrate significant differences in the mechanisms of trauma and compliance with state standards.

Finally, results of mortuary analyses between Soviet cases of violence revealed that burial treatment was relatively consistent across all cases, except for the organization of bodies in burial pits. Results of the skeletal analyses between Soviet cases demonstrated that while perimortem injuries were consistent between the Vinnytsia and Katyn cases, they were significantly different at Tuskulenai and Rainiai.  Furthermore, the Rainiai case demonstrated the greatest difference in perimortem wounds and compliance with state standards from the three other cases.

In conclusion, non-compliance with state standards or the improvisation of violence in the Tuskulenai and Rainiai cases are attributed to greater degrees of threat and uncertainty, as well as possible differences in the training of state agents, sadism, and functional concerns. This dissertation demonstrates that while violence may be ordered at the top by state leaders, the implementation of violence relies on the discretion of individual agents.  As data from additional sites in this period become available they too can be included in this regional index of violence.  In turn, it is hoped that results from this study can be used by other researchers to locate Soviet violence within a global framework of state-sponsored violence during the twentieth century.


April 26, 2013
10:00 am - 12:00 pm


Patenge Room C102 East Fee Hall

Michigan State University

East Lansing,