Among those who signed were famous Soviet-era dissidents, including Aleksandr Podrabinek, Pavel Litvinov and Vladimir Bukovsky, as well as Mustafa Dzhemilev, a longstanding Tatar leader in Crimea who was exiled after opposing Russia’s 2014 annexation.
Others, however, called the new monument an important step.
Elena B. Zhemkova, chief operating officer of Memorial, a beleaguered organization founded to establish a record of the repressed, called a state-backed national monument significant.
“When this monument is unveiled by the top figure in the state, being created on behalf of the state,” she said at a news conference before the unveiling, “it will mean our state says: ‘Terror is a crime. Mass terror, unfair murders of individuals are a crime, and it is bad.’”
Roman Romanov, the director of the Gulag Museum, which helped raise money for the memorial, said there had been frequent struggles over remembering. The museum itself has been picketed by opponents who label the entire Gulag experience “fiction.”
“The fact that it is taking place by presidential decree and it is supported by ordinary citizens, who gave money for the monument, indicates to me that this is a new point of reckoning,” Mr. Romanov said.
The monument was built on an old parking lot on a prominent crossroads in the center of Moscow, but it is distant from pedestrian traffic. It sits at the end of a street named after Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet nuclear physicist, Nobel laureate and human rights campaigner.
The placement of the dark, shadowy bronze sculpture at an ordinary intersection was meant to emphasize that repression could happen anyplace, said Georgy Frangulyan, the artist who spent two years creating it.
The central part consists of a curved wall, almost 100 feet long and 20 feet high, made up of what appear to be human figures. The overall shape, Mr. Frangulyan said, represents the grim reaper’s scythe, given that victims were mowed down indiscriminately, while the lack of recognizable faces or figures underscores the victims’ anonymity.
The artist said working on the piece continued to haunt him. “It is very hard to escape this state of mind,” he said. “Do not look for beauty here: It is a state of tragedy.”
The city of Moscow donated much of the approximately $6 million cost, while corporate donors and individuals gave another roughly $800,000.
It is not the first such monument, but it is the first built by presidential decree. A chunk of rock from the Solovki labor camp, the first in what became the national gulag system, sits in front of the Lubyanka Square headquarters of the secret police.
In September, at Butovo, an estate near Moscow, a wall bearing the names of about 20,000 victims shot there was opened as part of a memorial garden.
Confronting the harrowing legacy of government repression, especially the labor camps, has long been a contentious issue.
Those who want a full vetting of the crimes of the past argue that the future will be hobbled without a thorough reckoning. Opponents call the subject too divisive and say it is best forgotten. They include, in particular, members of the Communist Party and a growing number of people who consider the bloody purges under Stalin a necessary if harsh means needed to modernize the country.
An estimated 750,000 people were executed during the height of the Great Terror, in 1937 and 1938, but the victims number in the millions when the labor camps, forced collectivization, famine and other horrors are taken into account.
Given that the machinery of state repression was run by the ancestor agencies of the Russian security service, the F.S.B., which still controls Russia, historians and others hold out little hope for a thorough examination.
The struggle is constant. The administration of the Gulag Museum said it was currently wrestling for control of a building near Lubyanka whose new owner has plans to turn it into a high-end perfume store.
In Stalin’s time it was called “The Shooting House” because more than 31,000 people were sentenced to death there at the height of the terror campaign, according to Mr. Romanov, the museum director.
Others point to the persecution of Yuri Dimitriev, a historian who, working for the local chapter of Memorial in the northern region of Karelia, discovered extensive mass graves. He faces child pornography charges over images found on his computer, a not uncommon accusation made in recent years against those the government wants to silence.
Some people doubt just how far down memory lane the government wants to go.
Sergei Lebedev, a writer whose novel “Oblivion” treats the turmoil of a descendant grappling with the legacy of the camps — both the oppressed and the oppressors — said he was concerned the Russian government would consider its work done with the monument.
It has never opened the archives from the period, and actively fought against Memorial as the group tried to catalog the victims. And it has never acknowledged that some who ran the machinery of repression should bear criminal responsibility.
“The first thing you want from them is to make complete lists, to try to understand the full scale, to name all the names,” Mr. Lebedev said. “This was never done by the state.”
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