“Alternative” excavations at Sandarmokh. Photo by Irina Tumakova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta
Sifting through History: The “Alternative” Excavations at Sandarmokh Are Meant to Shift the Public’s Attention from Great Terror Victims to WWII Casualties
August 20, 2019
The ongoing excavations by the Russian Military History Society (RVIO) at the Sandarmokh site in [Russian] Karelia, where political prisoners were shot during the Great Terror, reflects the desire of Russian officials to switch the public’s attention to the Second World War.
In August, RVIO employees and a Defense Ministry search battalion resumed digging at Sandarmokh. Karelian Culture Minister Alexei Lesonen said the objective was to “separate artifacts having to do with different layers of history and different circumstances.”
It is a matter of words matching deeds. In 1997, local historian Yuri Dmitriev discovered the mass graves of people shot by the NKVD in 1937–1938. Thanks to Dmitriev’s efforts, Sandarmokh became a symbol of the Great Terror.
International Memorial Society board member Sergei Krivenko puts a number on it: archival documents have confirmed that over 6,100 people were shot and buried at Sandarmokh during the Great Terror.
In keeping with the Kremlin’s policy of “inculcating pride in the past,” the authorities have attempted, in recent years, to diminish Sandarmokh’s status as a memorial site. The authorities have tried to discredit Dmitriev and, by his extension, his work by charging him in a notorious “pedophilia” case [in which two men have already been convicted and sentenced, including Sergei Koltyrin, former director of the Medvezhyegorsk Museum and an ally of Dmitriev’s]. They have claimed Memorial’s figures for the number of victims are inflated. They have pushed an alternate account that the Finnish Army shot and buried Soviet POWS at Sandarmokh between 1941 and 1944.
The RVIO’s August–September 2018 expedition turned up the remains of five people. Historian Sergei Verigin said they corroborated the hypothesis about Soviet POWS because the executed people had not been stripped before they were shot and foreign-made shell casings were found next to them. This proves nothing, however. The NKVD used foreign-made weapons when it executed its prisoners [22,000 Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia] at Katyn, nor have the RVIO established when exactly the people whose remains they found were killed.
The Karelian Culture Ministry has asked the RVIO to keep digging. Officials there are convinced that “speculation about events in Sandarmokh […] reinforces in the public’s mind a baseless sense of guilt towards the alleged [Great Terror] victims […] becoming a consolidating factor for anti-government forces in Russia.”
The RVIO did not respond to our request to comment on the claim that the people shot and buried at Sandarmokh were “alleged victims.” They keep digging In early August, the remains of five more people were found.
Memorial has demanded an end to the excavations, fearing the mass graves will be disturbed. Archaeologists have also sounded a warning because the traces of dwelling sites used by prehistoric people have been found at Sandarmokh as well and they could be damaged.
The problem, however, is not that artifacts could get mixed up. The problem is there is no comparison between the maximum possible number of Soviet POWs executed and buried at Sandarmokh, as estimated by the Karelian Culture Ministry, and the confirmed numbers of victims of Stalin’s terror campaign who are buried there: 500 versus over 6,100.
The digs at Sandarmokh are a clumsy attempt by Russian officials to alter the meaning of the memorial site and rewrite the past with shovels. More importantly, officials want to juggle the numbers of victims and thus gaslight the Russian public.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Without Fathers, a video made by Anna Artemieva and Gleb Limansky, and published by Novaya Gazeta on August 7, 2017. The annotation reads, “The orphans of Sandarmokh remember their executed relatives. Historian Yuri Dmitriev did not attend memorial day ceremonies there for the first time in twenty years. He is on trial, charged with ‘manufacturing child pornography.'”