I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings among generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance. And it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second, and performed by wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.
At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”
The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of the Stalinist Great Terror.
The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.
Nikolai Zabolotsky In This Grove of Birch Trees
In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.
Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.
But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?
Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.
Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.
And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.
You can find the original Russian text poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover, when I find the time.
“I Only Want to Take a Bath, Nothing More”
Alexander Kalinin Rosbalt
May 15, 2017
Anna Yegorova is ninety-eight years old. She defended Leningrad all nine hundred days of the Nazi siege of the city during the Second World War. On the seventy-second anniversary of Victory Day, the combatant did not even get postcards from the government. But there was a time when she wrote to Brezhnev—and got a reply.
Anna Yegorova was born in 1918 in the Kholm-Zhirkovsky District of Smolensk Region. When she was ten, her parents decided to set out in search of a better life and moved to Leningrad with their daughter. They settled in a wooden house near the Narva Gates on New Sivkov Street, now known as Ivan Chernykh Street. Yegorova finished a seven-year primary school and enrolled in the Factory Apprenticeship School, where she graduated as a men’s barber.
“Oh, what beards didn’t I trim in my time,” the Siege survivor recalls.
After acquiring a vocation, the 19-year-old woman married Alexander Vesyolov, a worker at the Kirov Factory. As soon as the war broke out, her husband volunteered for the first division of the people’s militia. Nearly the entire division fell in battle during July–September 1941 on the southern approaches to Leningrad. Vesyolov is still officially listed as missing in action.
Yegorova was drafted into the air defense brigades at the war’s outset. The young woman served in a basement, equipped with seven cots, in one wing of the Kirov Factory. It was the headquarters of the local air defense brigade.
Yegorova still remembers the war’s outbreak, her military service in the besieged Leningrad, and victory in May 1945.
“How did the war begin? We were going to the cinema, but my mother told me I should go to the factory instead. Then I got a notice stating I had been drafted to serve in the headquarters of the local air defense brigade at the Kirov Factory. I spent all nine hundred days there. I was able to come home only once a month. My parents starved to death. Dad passed away on February 3, 1942. He was a first-class carpenter. His comrades made him a wooden coffin: they could not bury a carpenter without a coffin. Mom died a month later. They just carried her off to the Volodarsky Hospital in a blanket. I don’t even know where she is buried. Maybe at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, maybe in Moskovsky Victory Park,” says Yegorova.
Her duties included running to other parts of the city to deliver dispatches, carrying the wounded, and standing on guard at the factory, armed with a rifle. The young woman would look into the sky and watch what planes were flying overhead: planes emblazoned with red stars or planes bearing black crosses. Once, during a heavy bombardment, she was shell-shocked.
“I still remember how we chopped up houses in the Kirov District. Once, a girlfriend and I were dismantling a house near a railroad bridge, and a woman called out to us, ‘Girls, girl, come here, come.’ We didn’t go: we were scared. There were all kinds of people back then, you know. Once, this girl stole my food ration cards, and my mom’s earrings were also stolen,” recalls Yegorova.
The Siege survivor recounts how she would travel to the Krasnoarmeysky Market to buy linseed cakes and oilseed meal.
“The oilseed meal was like sawdust. Oh, how I gagged on that oilseed meal! But we had nothing to sell. We were poor.”
When Victory Day arrived, her house was nearly totally destroyed. Only an ottoman was rescued from the ruins.
Yegorova remarried after the war. Her new husband was a military officer, Nikolai Yegorov, who had fought not only in the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) but also the Finnish War (Winter War). In peacetime, Yevgorov became a first-class instrumentation specialist. In 1946, the Yegorovs gave birth to a daughter, Lydia. Yegorova worked as a secretary at the Kirov Factory, latter becoming head of a bread and confectionery department at a store.
In the late 1960s, Anna Yegorova wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The essence of the message was as follows.
“Leonid Ilyich, no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten. But it has so happened that I, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, awarded the medal For the Defense of Leningrad, and my husband, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, have to huddle with our daughter in a sixteen-square-meter room on Lublin Alley.”
Yegorova does not believe her letter reached Brezhnev personally, but she does think it wound up in the hands of a “kindly” secretary who helped the family move into a one-room flat in the far southern district of Ulyanka. She lived in the neighborhood for around thirty years. She was civically engaged, working with Great Patriotic War veterans. She says she even worked as an aide to Sergei Nikeshin, currently an MP in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who was then quite young. Nikeshin and she inspected the fields then surrounding Ulyanka.
In 1996, Yegorova took seriously ill. She was struck down by deep vein thrombosis. Her left leg “was like a wooden peg.” Her husband Nikolai died in 1999.
“After that, Mom stayed at home. I took care of her. This is my cross. We would take her to the dacha only in the summer. Otherwise, she would move about only in the apartment. She would get up in the morning and make her bed, come into the kitchen and sit down on the couch. She would turn on and call the station to request a song. She loved Boris Shtokolov’s “Dove.” Or she would request “A White Birch Weeps,” or something by Nikolai Baskov. But a month ago she took to her bed. Now all she does is lie in bed,” recounts her daughter Lydia Kolpashnikova.
Boris Shtolokov, “Dove” (a Russian adaptation of “La Paloma”)
Kolpashnikova is herself a pensioner. She has a third-degree disability. According to her, Petersburg authorities have practically forgotten her mother. True, three years ago, the Moscow District Administration called and said she could get a wheelchair. The women’s joy was short-lived. It transpired that the wheelchairs were used: they had been brought to Petersburg from Holland. To make use of the chair, they would have had to pay to have it repaired. The women decided to turn the gift down the gift.
Yegorova has received no substantial help from the local Siege survivors society. The organization can only offer trips to museums and theater tickets. This is not an option for Anna Yegorova, who is in no condition to leave her apartment. On memorial days—the Day of the Lifting of the Siege and Victory Day—however, cakes used to be brought to her. But this time around, however, she was completely neglected. According to the pensioner, the city did not even congratulate her.
Yegorova’s daughter Lydia decided to remind the authorities of her mother’s existence after hearing President Putin’s speech on TV. The president demanded that the heads of the country’s regions do a better job of caring for Great Patriotic War veterans.
“I clung to Putin’s words that veterans needed help, for example, if they needed help with home repairs. I called the district administration and asked them to repair our bathroom,” says Kolpashnikova. “Mom is completely ill. She is almost completely out of it. She has gallstones, heart failure, and atrial fibrillation. She is classified as a first-class disabled person. She survives only on sheer willpower. But now she cannot make it to the bathroom. I wipe her off in bed. She talks to me about the bathroom all the time, however. She wants to take a bath, but wants the bathroom repaired. The tile has crumbled in there. I called the Moscow District Administration and asked them to repair the bathroom, but I was told that ‘sponsors’ deal with these issues. Now, however, there is a crisis, and there are no sponsors. What sponsors were they talking about? Mom also needs medicines and diapers. There are social workers willing to run from one office to the next to get hold of diapers for free, but they also need to be paid to run around. The local Siege survivors organizations cannot do anything: they are the weakest link. I have no complaints against them.”
Anna Yegorova gets gifts from the authorities only on round dates. When she turned ninety, they gave her a towel, and they presented her with bed linens when she turned ninety-five.
“I called them in the autumn. I said that Mom would be turning ninety-eight on November 25. I suggested they come and congratulate her. They said to me, ‘We don’t have the right. When she turns one hundred, we’ll congratulate her,” recounts the Siege survivor’s daughter.
Anna Yegorova does not want to ask the authorities for anything.
“I have no strength. What should I do? I cannot stand up straight. I fall. I just want them to fix the bathroom. I want to take a bath. That’s it.”
All photos courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up
“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”
Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).
Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.
But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.
If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.
What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?
I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war. In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.
Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?
The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.
In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.
So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs, despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?
There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.
Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.
Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?
It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.
The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home. Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.
By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?
There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.
Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?
It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.
You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?
It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.
What if we return to Kerensky?
The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee. He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.
What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?
Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”
Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?
I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.
The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.
The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up
Life in One of Russia’s Largest Communal Apartments
Yulia Paskevich Gorod 812
March 23, 2017
Apartment No. 2 at Detskaya Street, 2, on Vasilyevsky Island, is Petersburg’s largest communal apartment. At any rate, its tenants think so. City officials cannot say for sure how large the apartment is. According to certain documents, its total area is 1,010.7 square meters; according to other documents, the figure is 1,247.7 square meters. All we know for certain is that is contains 34 rooms and 40 common areas. Gorod 812 visited the apartment, concluding it was not the sort of communal apartment where one would want to live.
Art Around the Corner
During my first visit to the apartment, I was horrified. The odors gave me a headache, and I could not understand how people could live in such conditions. I then made a repeat visit, and I discovered the apartment had another, civil half. It left me with a murky impression. The apartment dwellers would tell me things were good, but they would not open their doors, although most of the people I encountered were decent and pleasant.
The apartment probably holds the record not only for sheer size but also for utter neglect. Visitors are usually shown the floor, which is caving in, the rotten wiring hanging overhead, and the crumbling walls. They are usually asked not to take off their coats and shoes at the entrance, as is the custom in most Russian homes, because the stroll down the hundred-meter-long hallway is cold and dirty. Some residents agree to speak with reporters only off the record. They do not want workmates to find out where they live.
The building the apartment occupies was erected in 1958, and is now surrounded by so-called elite residential estates. The Erarta Contemporary Art Museum is nearby. It is not a big hit among the residents.
The building’s first story was originally an outpatient medical clinic. In 1983, the clinic acquired a new building, and its old digs were remodeled as a dormitory for medical staff from the nearby Pokrovskaya Hospital and Children’s Infectious Disease Hospital No. 3. The numbers of doctors’ surgeries are still attached to the doors of some of the rooms in the apartment. There is not a single, thick load-bearing wall inside the apartment. The entire space has been divided by partitions, so voices and noises carry.
“When a neighbor in the next room sneezes, you say ‘Gesundheit’ aloud,” remarks Elena Pogor. “He thanks you.”
Nadezhda Khondakova, an employee at a medical center, took up residence on Detskaya Street in 1989, when three to four people lived to a room.
“I was born and raised in Karelia,” she says. “After graduating from medical college, I was assigned to the children’s hospital and got a place in the dormitory. The room had always been neglected. It was temporary housing, so no one paid much attention to maintenance. Besides, renovations were not carried out there right away.”
Outwardly, the apartment has seemingly been divided in two. The right half is cleaner and brighter, while the floor is sinking in the left half.
“As a technician said, the heating main runs under this half of the apartment,” Khondakova explains. “Every three years, we install a new floor, but they all rot.”
On March 1, 2005, the dormitory was officially designated an apartment, giving residents the right to privatize their rooms. But little has changed. The entry doors are still unlocked, so anyone can get into the apartment. Previously, homeless people would venture into the apartment to warm up or wash up, sleeping right in the kitchen. Residents try and avoid letting not only children into the hallway but cats as well. Who knows what might happen to them.
In 2011, the apartment was declared unfit for habitation. Two years later, Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko signed an eviction and resettlement notice. At the time of the signing, 27 families (62 people) officially resided in the apartment.
Old-timers recall the queues for the showers and toilets. There were two of each, and people started queuing for them at five in the morning. They also remember showdowns in the kitchen and rats. They lived modestly. If you ran out of something, you could borrow it from a neighbor without asking.
“You would leave detergent in the kitchen and someone would use half the bottle,” recalls Tatyana Pogor. “Spoons were stolen, people had their trousers swiped from the clotheslines. Half a chicken once vanished from the oven. That was unpleasant, but they left a note saying whether they found it tasty or not. Once, there was a knock-down-drag-out fight over the shower.”
When ten families had received authorizations for new apartments, the housing authority ceased issuing the authorizations.
“The apartments were issued chaotically,” says Khondakova. “It was not only people whose housing was subsidized who were affected. My neighbor Tatyana privatized her room and was resettled in a one-room apartment. I’ve been in the queue for separate apartment for twenty years, and I’ve never been offered anything.”
The residents tell me about about a drunken neighbor lady who was moved into a one-room apartment in the Moscow District, about a women who did not want to move out, and a family who happily took up a new life in the Petersburg suburb of Pushkin.
The activists argue the apartment should be resettled completely and everyone should be moved into separate accommodations.
“It’s not the district that issues us apartments. The city has been handling the resettlement,” Khondakova underscores. “We know where residential buildings are being built: Parnas, Veterans Avenue, and Shushary [in the far north and far south of the city, respectively.] But we have not said we want to live only on Vasilyevsky Island.”
After the ten families departed, the residents who were left behind divvied up the remaining space among themselves, including around 40 common spaces, such as washrooms, hallways, and the laundry room. Tatyana Lobunova’s 24-square-meter room includes 40 square meters of hallway and kitchen space, for which she pays the city’s housing authority 4,000 rubles a month [approx. 63 euros]. Khondakova pays rates between 7,000 and 8,000 rubles a month. However, a table in the apartment’s kitchen is littered with bills left unpaid by debtors. Some residents demonstratively refuse to pay the maintenance and cleaning fees for their rooms.
Residents are reluctant to let visitors into their rooms. As you gaze at the dilapidated kitchen and toilets, you imagine this shambles reigns throughout the apartment. But you would be wrong. The residents’ own rooms are clean and tidy. Many of them have equipped their rooms with small kitchens and cook food there. The doors to the different rooms vary as well. Residents sequestered behind more expensive doors do not want to chat with reporters, while the activists who demand total eviction and resettlement live in the part of the apartment where the floor caves in.
The author of a petition on Change.Org to resettle the apartment, a petition that has gathered nearly 18,000 signatures, has lived in the apartment six years. An actress at the Ne-Kabuki Theater, Tatyana Lobunova bought her room from builders. They had purchased the room for a song, plastered the walls, and resold it. Lobunova had lived in a communal apartment before. She grew up in a nine-family apartment on Konnogvardeiskaya Boulevard, in the city’s downtown. So the idea of living in a communal apartment did not intimidate her.
The cosmetic repairs in her room quickly crumbled. The new wooden window turned black and rotted, a crevice emerged under the wet wallpaper on the outside wall, and the room smelled moldy. A sofa was tossed out by way of combating cockroaches. Now the room is chockablock with cockroach traps. When I asked her whether she was really unaware of the investment she was making, she shrugs.
“I had to live on Vasilyevsky Island,” she explains. “A family theater means working nonstop. I get four hours of sleep a day. If I lived a ways from the theater, I would probably get no more than two hours of sleep a day.”
Lobunova stores letters from various officials in a folder. She produces one from the presidential administration, who advised tenants to exercise their right to turn to the local authorities to redress their grievances.
Currently, the number of proprietors who actually live in the apartment is not so great. People prefer to let their rooms for eight to twelve thousand rubles a month. It is hard to tell one renter from the next. There are people knocking about, and the heck with it.
A native of Pskov Region, Elena Pogor has lived in Petersburg around six years. Initially, she and her husband rented a room, but then friends suggested they live in the apartment at Detskaya, 2, up money to buy her own apartment or room.
“In Dedovichi, where I grew up, there are no jobs at all,” she explains. “The wages there run from seven to ten thousand rubles a month. You can earn twelve to fifteen thousand rubles a month at the regional power plant. We consider the people who work there wealthy.”
The room where she and her husband live is in the better-maintained part of the apartment.
“It all depends on people and upbringing,” argues Pogor. “We have made friends with the neighbor lady Roza and her daughter. They’re good, tidy people. It’s a shame the repairs were started and not finished. On the one hand, I could not care less. I’m not planning to stay here long in any case, but I want to live decently.”
A Potential Squat
The Vasilyevsky Island District Administration has its own plans for the apartment. In 2015–2016, an overhaul of the common property was undertaken. Workers showed up, removed the toilets, stripped off the tiles, poured cement floors in the bathrooms, and left. Tenants had to parquet the floor in the hallway themselves. The district administration has dubbed this exercise “works toward eliminating the apartment’s hazardous condition.”
The district administration told us that the “paperwork affirming the elimination of the hazardous conditions [was] currently being vetted.”
Eliminating the apartment’s hazardous status would facilitate its being sold as real estate. The question is, who would buy it and for how much. There is little hope the city’s communal apartment resettlement program would come to the rescue. It has being going sluggishly in the district: in 2016, it resettled a mere forty apartments there. So there is virtually no chance a huge communal apartment will up and vanish by itself. For the time being, the only prospect is that, as conditions worsen, the rent will grow cheaper.
Then the apartment will undergo its latest metamorphosis and turn into a squat.
For Your Information
Communal apartments will celebrate their one hundredth anniversary in the summer of 2018. There are 78,534 communal apartments in Petersburg, housing 250,027 families. 4,816 such apartments were resettled in the city during 2016.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Yulia Pashkevich/Gorod 812
I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.
Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.
An American Salesman’s Religion
The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.
A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.
The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.
Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.
Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.
The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.
Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.
If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN. At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.
The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.
As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipediaprovides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”
The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.
Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.
Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.
In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.
Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.
Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.
“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”
This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.
In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.
This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.
The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.
Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.
By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.
After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others. Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless.
Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.
In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings. Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.
Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.
Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.
By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years. The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows, there won’t be much point to what they are doing.
Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.
The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.
I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way of rescinding the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.
The Dmitriev Affair
Anna Yarovaya 7X7
March 1, 2017
March 12 is, technically, the last day of historian Yuri Dmitriev’s term in police custody during the investigation of the accusations made against him. The 61-year-old researcher has spent nearly the last three months in Pretrial Detention Facility No. 1 in Petrozavodsk. During this time, solo pickets supporting Dmitriev have been held on the streets of the Karelian capital, his case has been discussed at a traveling session of the Presidential Human Rights Council, and the republic got a new governor.
According to Dmitriev’s attorney, the historian will probably be indicted and his case sent to court. Yuri Dmitriev has been accused of producing pornography.
Neither his colleagues, friends or people who have worked at some time with Yuri Dmitriev believe the charges are true. Many link his arrest to the work he has done his whole life: searching for the places where political prisoners were shot, compiling lists of victims of political crackdowns during the Soviet period, and heading Memorial’s Karelian branch.
But this article is not about the criminal case, which falls within the jurisdiction of law enforcement. Hoping for a objective investigation, we can only wait for a fair resolution to this situation. We decided it was important to tell readers about the cause to which the arrested historian has devoted his life.
This article might be called a series of interviews about Dmitriev. It has transpired we knew almost nothing about him. On the other hand, it has become clear why a man like him might have been seen as “inconvenient” by the current regime.
From the Author
I met Yuri Dmitriev in 2012. I was on assignment, shooting a story about the construction of houses on the site of a former cemetery, and it led me to the historian. The story first grew into a ten-minute TV program, and then ballooned into an investigative film. We visited archives and former burial sites, traveled to working cemeteries, sat at a computer for hours on end searching for documents, read articles from conventions and laws, and basically worked on the film, Northern Point, together.
What always struck me about Dmitriev was his enthusiasm, which materialized less in the help he gave me and more in his attitude to history, to events that had occurred many years ago. For example, in the same cemetery where I shot the film, he found the remains of a POW. None of the local authorities was in a hurry to bury the exhumed “youth,” as Dmitriev called him. So Dmitriev put the bones in his garage. A while later, he secured a spot in Peski Cemetery, found a sponsor to help him buy a gravestone, and asked the philologist Valentina Dvinskaya to translate the phrase “To the victims of war, disappeared but not forgotten” into German so that it could be engraved on the headstone. He did all this for an unknown man who had been killed over sixty years ago.
The news of Dmitriev’s arrest was a shock to me. We had not communicated in a long while. A couple of years ago, we had planned to make a film about the burial of prisoners in the locks of the White Sea-Baltic Channel and the so-called Solovki execution transports. Dmitriev is indefatigable and has always been researching numerous topics. But it turns out that I’m not writing about them now.
Anatoly Razumov: The Solovki Quotas Anatoly Razumov came to Petrozavodsk from Petersburg on Dmitriev’s birthday, January 28. His longtime friend and colleague was not allowed to visit Dmitriev in the pretrial detention facility.
“I am here, nearby, and he knows it,” Razumov said to me then.
Indeed, he was nearby. He held a solo picket in support of his arrested comrade. For over an hour, Razumov stood on Petrozavodsk’s main street holding a placard that read, “Happy birthday, Yuri Dmitriev,” enthusiastically telling passersby about what his friend had worked on his whole life. It would have been an unpardonable mistake to turn down such a conversation.
Razumov and I spoke on the phone a couple of days later. I had a sense of déjà vu. The same thing had happened when Dmitriev had told me about the military cemeteries in Petrozavodsk. He had not just spoken, but had asked me a lot of questions whose answers I hadn’t known. “Ig-no-rance,” he would kindly drawl, ordering me to jot down the title of yet another book I “should have read before meeting” with him.
Razumov did not point out the gaps in my knowledge, but I heard about many things for the first time during our conversation. That was probably why the conversation did not turn into a proper interview. It was more of a monologue, a story about his friend, his cause, and his contribution to history. I decided it was vital to reproduce it verbatim, as Razumov told it to me, so readers could understand what a difficult and profound business Dmitriev had been involved in before his arrest.
The Book of Remembrance
I have worked in the Russian National Library (the Publichka) since 1978, and for over a quarter of a century I have been compiling and publishing The Book of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression. In 1987, I started gathering material, and in 1990, compiling a card catalogue based on the published lists of the victims. I retyped biographical information about them in their birthplaces: Minsk, Tallinn, Pskov, Petrozavodsk, Murmansk, Tver, Novgorod, Kiev, etc.
The first books of remembrance were published in the late eighties and early nineties. Books of remembrance were only taking shape as a genre then. There had always been lots of talk about the war, about the Great Patriotic War: as a topic it was always at the center of attention. But to compile books of remembrance about the war that included lists of the dead and missing in action was permitted only during the second thaw, in 1985. Prior to this, the names of the dead and the missing were not published. The first books of remembrance about the war were usually quite modest in terms of structure: surname, first name, patronymic. They didn’t even always include information about the place of death, and of course there was no personal information about these people.
But a mere four years passed, and we had permission to publish the names of the victims in newspapers, magazines, and books. We were permitted to clean up the burial sites of those who had been shot or died in captivity that had been found. It had been forbidden to write and say anything about the millions of those who had been killed and gone missing during the purges and crackdowns. Whatever person you asked about, nothing was known about him. Then suddenly we could publish this information.
Different people in different parts of the country were compiling books of remembrance. There were lots of enthusiasts, like me and Yuri Dmitriev, albeit not in every region of Russia. None of us had thought we would live to see this great day.
The first book published, in 1989, was The Book of Remembrance of Soviet Diplomatic Corps Workers, victims of purges during the thirties, forties, and early fifties. There were 130 names in the book.
Other books of remembrance were gradually published, regional books, books dealing with particular ethnic groups, with crackdowns against believers of different faiths, with particular sites where those had been shot were buried.
I kept track of all the new publications on the history of the Soviet purges and crackdowns. We also needed a bibliography for Pages of History, a digest, published by Lenizdat, of which I was a co-editor. I kept track of the search for sites where the executed had been buried. I was educated not only as a historian but also as an archaeologist. Of course, I knew about the famous site of the Katyn massacre near Smolensk, which had been found long ago. But it was not common knowledge in the Soviet Union or, rather, you were not supposed to know about it, much less about other burial grounds. Of course, there were such burial sites near every major town and city in the Soviet Union.
In 1988, it was a bombshell when they found Kurapaty, an execution site from the time of the Great Terror near Minsk. I published the Belarusians’ story of the find in the Leningrad newspaper Smena, and we wrote wrote about Kurapaty in the Pages of History digest. Everything was read hot off the presses. The reporters at Leningradskaya Pravda called on Petersburgers to report all suspicious areas and find “our local Kurapaty.” Thus, in the spring of 1989, a special security facility was found in the village of Levashovo near Leningrad. It was the largest burial site of executed prisoners in the Soviet Union.
I followed all these developments closely. I knew, of course, about the work in the Karelia. Even before we had met, I had heard about Yuri and what he was doing.
In 1996, I was editing the second volume of The Leningrad Martyrology, which dealt with October 1937, and I needed to publish a list of the prisoners at Solovki Prison who had been shot. Where were they executed? Even state security officers in Petersburg didn’t know: they had no information about it. Yeah, they had been shot somewhere, and it was clearly not in Leningrad, because there was a record showing that one of the regular executioners, NKVD Captain Matveev, had been seconded to Kem in connection with this list of prisoners. That was all.
The second volume was published in 1996 with a preface by Dmitry Likhachov, and in July 1997 Sandarmokh was found. My Lord! There was no doubt prisoners transported from Solovki had been shot there in October and November 1937. That was the first time I heard Dmitriev’s name: in the reports about the find and from Petersburg members of Memorial, whom I knew quite well.
But I met Dmitriev later, as part of the Returned Names project. In 2000, an attempt was made to compile a single database containing the names of all victims of political persecution in the Soviet Union. It was an international project: we were supported by the Ford Foundation. During an academic conference in Nizhny Tagil, my colleagues asked me to be the project’s regional coordinator for Northwest Russia. I surveyed the entire region, and that was when I met Yuri personally.
Like Yuri, I’m from a military family. Our family wandered a lot. My father served in different places, mostly in his homeland of Belarus, but also with the Soviet troops in Germany. We lived for a time in Berlin, and then Eberswald. I was never able to make friends with my agemates, and I lost track of many of them. I started to make friends at university, and then on the job, the job I got at the library after finishing university. It was God’s will that I do this, that I found a vocation in life that totally suited me.
I had always been disturbed by the question of why it was wrong to think freely and ask questions, why a person’s life was so little valued that it could be ended just like that. A person should live a long life. Why are the tormented deprived not only of life, but even of a grave? You can imagine how I felt when it was possible to talk about executed prisoners. Nothing had been known about them. Not even their relatives said anything about them: either they lied or didn’t know. I took on the job of restoring memory. All the colleagues I met in this new life became kindred souls, but a select few became close friends. Yura was a close friend from the moment we met.
Yura immediately took me in his jalopy to Sandarmokh. We barely made it to Medvezhyegorsk in that wreck. From time to time, he would roll down the window for Veda (aka the dog Ved’ma, “Witch”), and she would happily bark at everything in the vicinity, thus replacing the horn, which didn’t work in that car, I think.
Yura showed me Sandarmokh. That was important to me. By that time, his book The Karelia Memorial Lists was nearly ready. I soon attended the book’s presentation. I opened up the packages from the printers (Yura taught me not to cut the plastic tapes but undo them), handed copies out to people, and made my own speech. It was a wonderful presentation. Everyone spoke very well, including the relatives of the victims, who regarded Yura as an important, valuable person. Since then he has been one of my greatest friends, and a wonderful person with whom to speak when I want to talk frankly.
He would come to Petersburg for presentations of successive volumes of the Martyrology and do what I had done at his presentation.
I liked Yuri’s position. I absolutely understood him. He would just say, “Old women need to know where their dead are buried, and I’m going to do everything to make that happen.” And he did what he could, and he still does that. I’m more in the habit of listening rather than asking questions, which complements his outgoingness and talkativeness.
The Solovki: A Common Cause
Until the summer of 1937, Karelia was administered by the NKVD’s Leningrad Regional office, meaning that Karelian folk were persecuted here, and people from Leningrad ended up there: their lives crossed. Yura and I exchanged information about the victims: he gave me info about his victims, and I gave him info about mine. Finally, we set about comparing the information about the Solovki execution groups of 1937 and 1938. Sandarmokh had been found, but that was the first group of executed Solovki prisoners. It was the first execution plan, the first “quota.” 1,200 people were supposed to be shot, and 1,111 were shot outside of Medvezhyegorsk. When was the next detachment of executed prisoners? December 1937, the group of prisoners in which Pavel Florensky was shot. Where they were shot remained a mystery. There was no mention of it in the papers I had found in the state security archives in Petersburg. It was forbidden to include information of this sort in the instructions.
Here is an execution order, issued to Commandant Polikarpov: “509 persons [in fact, three people on the list had already been sent to Moscow] from the Solovki Prison should be shot.” But where? Seemingly, since Polikarpov was commandant of the Leningrad office, they would have been sent to Leningrad. At our own peril and risk, when we were editing the fourth volume of the Martyrology (dealing with executions in December 1937), we wrote that the Solovki prisoners had been shot in Leningrad. We published the fourth volume, but questions still remained. After all, there were no documents with accurate information.
A third group of Solovki prisoners, another 200 people, was shot on February 17, 1938. The details about what happened to them were even murkier. If the second group had been transported to the mainland for execution in early December (it was a warm year, and the shipping season ended late), it was altogether unclear where the 200 people were shot in 1938.
In 2004, I decided to go on an expedition. It is each individual’s plight that matters to Yura and me, not statistics. When you read the files, the person appears right before you, and he doesn’t let you go.
Yura and I agreed to travel to Solovki. I couldn’t find a more knowledgeable and closer person to help me look for something on the islands. We were armed with a description of the execution, drawn from the testimony of former Solovki Prisoner officers, interrogated during the Thaw: they claimed the 200 prisoners had been shot on the way from the Solovki Kremlin to the lighthouse on Sekirnaya Hill. I had never been to Solovki. I knew the local places names from looking at maps and papers. So we arrived there in 2004. It was the first tentative expedition. We walked around looking. Yura would immediately stop at any suspicious spot. We would pitch tent in some places and try to probe the soil, but we didn’t find anything.
We went again the next year. By then we had become friends with Father Matfei, rector of the Holy Ascension Hermitage, and he showed us all the suspicious spots on Sekirnaya Hill, drawing our attention to the vegetation, trees, and depressions. But I took ill then, and Yura wouldn’t let me go into the field. Yura is the sort of guy who is endlessly concerned about the people around him, albeit sometimes in a rough way. He laid me down with a temperature in a cell in the hermitage, and he went off with the writer Vasily Firsov, who had come along with us on the trip, to investigate one of the suspicious spots. Suddenly, they came running in: “We’ve found them!” Of course, I ran out to have a look and help them with the work. We then uncovered the remains of two prisoners who had been shot.
I was unable to make the trip in 2006: editing the forthcoming volumes of the Martyrology was taking up all my time. Teachers and students from the Moscow International Film School went to Solovki that year. They helped Yura clear the burial site of dry branches, undergrowth, and deadwood, and discovered many more pits. So the discovery of the cemetery where the executed prisoners were buried dates back to then.
And yet our long-standing goal of finding the site where 200 people were executed, the so-called third Solovki quota, has not been fulfiled. There were no more such mass executions on the islands. The site should be a trench or gigantic pit or series of pits. We haven’t found the place, but we’ll find it someday, just like the place where the group in which Florensky was shot, the so-called second Solovki quota. I think we should search near Lodeynoye Field, because the highly decorated executioner Shalygin was dispatched to the vicinity of the Lodeynoye Field Camp. I have told all this to Yura.
This arrest, you see… Not only did they trash his nest, his apartment, brazenly, tramping all over it in their boots, but they also dealt a blow to the work. I’d been helping Yura edit two new books of remembrance and had been sending him information from time to time. Yuri has edited another book of remembrance long ago: it just needs to be printed.
And when it comes to the search for the execution sites, the only hope lies with Yura’s expeditions. I have outlined the range of places to search, and Yura had set about searching. He had got his film school kids involved in the work. Yura and I have work to do together. I hope he will be released in a good frame of mind and finish the two books of remembrance, and I’ll persuade him to publish the third. And if we have the manpower, we will find the places where the second and third Solovki quotas are buried.
My Friend’s Arrest
Despite the fact Yuri is easy to get along with, he has keen insight into human nature. He is quite good at sizing up a person, sensing the direction his thoughts are moving. When he comes to Petersburg for the presentation of the latest volume of the Martyrology, what with his speeches, jokes, and irony, people here are just ready to idolize him.
I have thought about why this has happened to Yura now. I have my own opinion on this score, of course: how things were going in that direction, how everything was shaping up. I remember the Brezhnev era. I thought then I would not outlive the Soviet leadership, because I tried to speak my mind. Sometimes you’ll end up sweating like a pig, but if you can, you should try and speak your mind. Yura also acts that way and speaks that way, often in an absolutely denuded, harsh form. I imagine lots of people really don’t like either what he does or how he talks and acts.
Basically, it somehow happened the decision was made to shut him down, to knock him out of his work and life. For Yura is one of a kind, there is no one else like him anywhere else in Russia. And if he is shut down in this way, and it’s done a little more dirtily than usually, everyone else will hunker down. I won’t bother speculating about the specifics, but I’ve read my share of Soviet-era investigative files from the archives, and our modern justice system is based on that Soviet system, alas, not on the old Russian system. I know the clichés, we all remember them. “People don’t go to jail in this country for nothing.” “The prosecutor and the police see eye to eye on the case, and that’s how it should be.” “Our courts are the most humane and fairest in the world.”
I think all this will definitely start to recede someday in connection with some case. Will it be Yura’s case? I don’t know. But there is a chance they hung all this on the wrong man and don’t understand the strength of his spirit.
“They Always Existed”
I think about the horrible purges and persecutions of the Soviet era. I don’t think the crackdowns were harsher during one period and less harsh during a different period. They always existed. Only they existed relative to the political moment, and the persecutions were modified only in those terms. However the regime wanted to crack down on its enemies that was how it cracked down on them.
The current Russian legal system can be described as follows. If we call pre-revolutionary Russia Russia 1, it was followed by the Soviet Union, which wasn’t even Soviet Russia, but let’s call it Russia 2 for argument’s sake. Where do live now? At best, in Russia 2+, because there is no Russia 3. It hasn’t come into being. It hasn’t understood or realized itself. It has its roots in the Soviet past and grows out of that past.
The legal system of the current Russian state doesn’t hold a candle to the system that existed prior to 1917. It’s flesh of the flesh of the Soviet system. I have been interviewed on the subject several times, on the question of whether the purges could happen again and whether they could be even worse. But they are already happening: we have crackdowns right now. Could they intensify? Could they become scarier? You can never say never, but our job is to take a stand against political persecution and stand firm.
Dmitriev’s Daughter Katerina Gleb Yarovoi, my husband and colleague, was the first to meet Katerina. He was the first reporter with whom Yuri Dmitriev’s eldest daughter agreed to talk about her father’s arrest. We then communicated through social networks, and there were money transfers for Dmitriev, which different people sent to Katerina through me. Then we finally met in person at Dmitriev’s house.
“When they came for Dad, they made such a mess there. They ripped out all the wiring, so now the lights don’t work and you have to bring your own,” Katya says by way of explaining the lamp sticking out of her bag.
The last time I had been in the apartment was three years ago. Cigarette smoke, the buzz of the computer, a cup of coffee, and a bar of Osobyi chocolate: that is how I remember working on Northern Point. I cannot imagine how I would have managed without Dmitriev. It was he who showed me an entire period in the history of Petrozavodsk, a time of POW camps, POWs who died in the postwar city from being worked to death and were buried, and the modern residential buildings erected a short time later on top of their remains.
The apartment is completely different now: empty, quiet, gloomy. Disturbed by the police, Dmitriev’s workplace is no longer cosy. A lone pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes lies amidst papers, cables from the computer equipment dangle from his desk, and amongst other books I see the blue cover of The Memorial Lists of Karelia, which Dmitriev and Ivan Chukhin worked on for many years. The apartment’s owner, torn on December 13 from his customary working atmosphere, gazes on the scene reproachfully from a portrait hung on the wall.
“He had a dog then, Veda, short for Ved’ma [“Witch”]. She was with him on all the trips, on all the digs. He found her on Friday the thirteenth, so he called her Ved’ma. He never went anywhere without here. When she died, Dad cried over her,” Katerina tells me, showing me a photo of a dappled mongrel, seated at Dmitriev’s feet.
There are lots of photographs, a whole album. We had come to Dmitriev’s apartment to get them.
Did your father tell you and your brother what he did, where he would go, what he was investigating?
Of course. I remember that Dad was constantly going on different digs. He was constantly studying skulls, bringing them home. I was still in kindergarten then. We probably didn’t pay much mind to the particulars of his work. But as long as I can remember, he would sleep a couple of hours day. He would sit poring over those cards, he constantly had to dictate something. When we were a bit older, he tried to explain things to us. For example, my great-grandfather, Mom’s grandfather, had been shot. Dad found Great-Granddad’s burial site in a memorial book: the Zaretsk Cemetery next to Exaltation of the Cross Cathedral in Petrozavodsk. I cannot speak for my brother, but I’m a daddy’s girl, and I have always been around him. We would be sitting together, and he would tell me about the plights of people, how they were arrested, and why they might have been arrested then. He was always interesting to be around. His work has always interested me from a personal viewpoint. It’s frightening and, at the same time, interesting.
Did you help him?
It depends. I think sometimes he would have gladly refused our “help.” Say, when my brother and I were teenagers, we were terribly curious about what was on Dad’s computer. We got on the computer and poked the keys. Dad came in, and he was totally shocked: we had accidentally deleted all his files. So then we had to sit there and help him restore everything. It was interesting at one time, but at a certain point it irritated me. Imagine: I was fifteen years old, my friends were waiting to go for a walk, and he would say, “Help me.” And I would sit and dictate to him, and he would be looking for each letter with one finger, hammering out the dates. I would freak out then.
The trips were probably more exciting? Did you often go on the expeditions?
I can’t say I went that often. But as they say, seldom but to the point. One day, Dad said to us, “Who’s going with me tomorrow to Medvezhyegorsk?” My brother and I immediately said neither of us was going, we didn’t want to. But at six in the morning, for reasons I can’t explain, I jumped out of bed when Dad was getting ready to go and said, “Wait! I’m going with you.” And so we set out for the digs. We lived in a cottage on the shore of a lake. Dad’s colleagues from Petersburg and a group of soldiers were with us. The amount of walking we did then was inexpressible. We were constantly on foot. Dad and his colleagues would split up and discuss things amongst themselves. Dad understood, of course, that I needed to eat, that I needed breaks, that it was hard for me, but all the same we walked and searched a great deal. Ultimately, we found what we were looking for. We found Sandarmokh.
How did a teenage girl react to such a find?
Probably because Dad was calm about it, I reacted to the remains more or less calmly. The soldiers chuckled nervously when they found bones, and there were people who fainted, wailed, and felt sick. I remember there were very many gadflies and horseflies. The mosquitoes seemed like paradise compared with them. I then had the impression (maybe I believed in the transmigration of souls) that the horseflies were the people we had found. And I felt peaceful and scared at the same time. It’s hard to convey the emotions.
Did you understand why your father did this work?
It came with time. I would often ask him why he was always sitting at the computer and writing or retyping something. He would say, “I don’t know who I was in my past life, but I’ve understood the meaning of my life now, and I know I have to do this.” When I was older, I would constantly tell him to relax and ask him how he could spend so much time sitting poring over the lists and working at the computer. He would say, “I can’t relax. I have to finish the book. They’re waiting for me.” Yet he didn’t do it for money. When The Book of Remembrance came out, people would tell him that he could sell it, maybe even for good money. But he would always reply, “I can’t make money off of people for whom these memories matter, because everyone should know where their loved ones are buried.” I came to a new awareness after his arrest. I knew that Dad had a lot of acquaintances, but I didn’t expect such support. When I told him how much his friends and colleagues had supported him, he even shed a tear.
Did you go on any more trips with your father after Sandarmokh and those finds? Do you have any desire to continue his work?
It’s very difficult. Not everyone is psychologically capable of coping with it. After Sandarmokh, I was in Krasny Bor Forest when the cemetery there was opened. We went there several years ago. They had this program: children sang songs, there was a portable belfry that people played, and very poignant poems were recited. I haven’t been to Sandarmokh for a long time. A lot of people used to go there, crowds of people. But nowadays fewer and fewer people make the trip. The last few years, however, my son has gone there. He is now the same age I was when we found Sandarmokh. So the baton has been passed, as they say.
Valentin Kaiser: The Work Is His First Wife Valentin Kaiser is a longtime friend of Yuri Dmitriev. The news of his friend’s arrest certainly shook him, too. Kaiser has been setting up a shipping museum in a basement room at the River Academy. Now he recalls that he once helped Dmitriev establish a Museum of Victims of Political Repression, but city hall evicted it due to the tenant’s utter pennilessness.
Yura and I met in the 1980s, when the Popular Front formed. Back then, Yura cried, “Clobber the Communists!” He was an assistant to Ivan Chukhin, a deputy to the USSR Supreme Soviet. In his book The Practice of Terror in Karelia, Chukhin wrote, “I took up this question to rehabilitate my father, because I found his signature on thirty-four execution orders.” After Chukhin passed away, Yuri continued his cause.
Have you helped Dmitriev in his work?
I have tried to help Yura, but it’s quite difficult to help him. Working with this stuff, especially digging, is quite difficult. I once traveled with him to Krasny Bor Forest, where we found Japanese spies in a common grave. There were these green lacquered shoes in the grave: there was one Japanese woman in the city then. There were also twelve pairs of leather shoes: they belonged to the Japanese spies. I watched the soldiers digging and dragging them out. It’s not my thing. It’s quite heavy psychologically. There are many investigative files where the pages are covered in blood or torn. Only he alone could cope with this specifics of this, as well as the digging and reburials. Moreover, he did it in keeping with the scientific method, measuring and describing everything.
At one time, Yura had a Museum of Victims of Political Oppresion, at 25 Lenin Prospect, in a basement. He had collected wheelbarrows there, hardware, and God knows what else. But then the mayor’s office leased the space commercially, and Yura dragged everything in bags to a garage.
Recently, Dmitriev said something was about to happen. Did he share his thoughts and worries with you?
A year ago, Yuri said they were trying to put the squeeze on him. It’s my opinion, but I think the top brass really didn’t like what he was doing. The children of the people involved in the executions are usually amongst the top brass. They really don’t like it when people start making names and surnames public.
There was this incident. When Ivan Chukhin passed away, his last book, The Practice of Terror in Karelia, was published. The book’s final chapter is untitled: it contains the surnames of the men who did the shooting. During the book’s presentation at the university, a young man expressed his outrage: “Who gave you the right to mention my father’s surname?” Yuri said to him, “First, I didn’t write the book. Go to the cemetery and ask Ivan Chukhin why he did it. Second, if you had any brains, you’d keep your mouth shut. If you had a conscience, you’d hang yourself from a rope for having a dad like that.” Yura is an abrupt fellow by nature. He can tell anyone to go frack himself, even a minister.
You think it’s revenge for being too active?
Well, they sentenced someone from Moscow Memorial to seven years in prison [?], and now they’re trying to get at the rest of them to put an end to their cause. But I don’t think it will work out for them, because human souls are immortal. I’ll give you an example. When we took people to Sandarmokh for the first time, we had just stepped onto the path, and it was quiet in the forest, not a hint of a breeze, and suddenly the crowns of the trees stirred so furiously that this roar resounded over the whole forest. Yura said then that people’s souls had waited so many years to be remembered.
I certainly don’t believe Yura could do the things of which he has been accused. First, he’s not stupid: there’s no point being involved in this nonsense. Second, when I spoke with the police investigator, I told him that in order to do what Yura has been accused of, one would need lots of time, but when would he have managed to do the huge amount of work he was doing? Women avoided him because the work was his first wife.
Olga Kerzina: They Have a Pure, Cheerful Relationship Olga Kerzina is director of the Moscow International Film School. Like many of the people with whom I spoke, she was drawn to Yuri Dmitriev by a passion for history and, specificially in her case, an interest in Solovki. But Kerzina is not simply an associate of Dmitriev’s but also the godmother of his youngest daughter.
Everyone with whom I’ve spoken while writing this article has told me about they met Dmitriev? How did you meet?
In the early 2000s, we had a project entitled Freedom. We were trying to understand how freedom was understood by people imprisoned in the 1930s, for these were people from the aristocracy and the intelligentsia, and how the process works nowadays. We made a film about the Solovki Camp, interviewing the convicts who were still alive then. As part of the expedition, we went to a juvenile penal colony in Vologda. That was our itinerary. But there was one other stop, Petrozavodsk. We were trying to figure out who worked on history here, and that’s how we found Dmitriev. He immediately amended our itinerary and took us to Sandarmokh. Thus, in 2000, the first generation of students met him. That’s when we got the idea to make trips to Solovki. All we knew then was that it was the first camp established under Lenin. So of course when we met Yuri in Petrozavodsk, his stories made a big impression on us. He inspired us with the idea of erecting a monument on Solovki. In 2002, we erected a memorial cross (produced in the Solovki cross-making workshop of Georgy Kozhokar) in the Philipp Pustinya. We regard it as an echo of the inspiration we felt after meeting Dmitriev.
Meaning your relationship began as a working relationship?
Yes, and with stories about how to work with history, what its peculiarities and features are. But we really got to know each other and became friends later. In 2005, Yuri found an burial site on Sekirnaya Hill on Solovki. It was a really serious place for us. In 2006, he asked us to work on a memorial. In the summer of 2006, we had seven days of intense work with Dmitriev on Sekirnaya Hill. We had a lot of help from Father Matfei. He and Yuri supervised the work. So you could say our real collaboration began with the establishment of a cemetery on Sekirnaya Hill in 2006.
The film school kids, as many people call them, are in fact teenagers, children, basically. What was their attitude to work that was anything but childish? Even many adults cannot cope with this work psychologically.
The film school students weren’t involved in the digs, because it’s a serious business. A prayer has to be performed, and the whole thing is complicated. But you should realize this place on a hillside was an impenetrable forest, a pine and spruce forest. It was hard even to walk through it without scratching yourself. Basically, we cleared the whole place from scratch. We pruned the dry branches, carried away fallen trees, and made stairs from the boulders. Then we set up benches, dragged sand from a quarry to fill in the graves, and helped erect the crosses. Vasily Firsov and Yuri were doing the excavations then, and we did everything else, but under Dmitriev’s guidance. For example, we marked the premises of the cemetery. First, we wrapped tape around the trees, and then we drafted a map so the cemetery would be included on the map of Solovki.
As far as I understand, work on the Solovki memorial went on for many years?
And it’s still underway. In 2007, we put up a stand there, and then a chapel. In 2008, a memorial cross in memory of the Solovki neo-martyrs was erected next to the cemetery. That cross was also built in Georgy Kozhokar’s studio. The main breakthroughs happened in 2006 and 2007: they were the most dynamic years. Then we took a break, because Yuri adopted Sveta [name changed] then. We resumed work in 2011. But the cemetery is a burial site from 1929, and Dmitriev was looking for the third group of Solovki prisoners transported off the islands and shot, and then the second group as well, the group in which Pavel Florensky was shot.
Meaning there have been other expeditions to find the Solovki quotas?
After Anatoly Razumov hypothesized that Lodeynoye Field was the next place where prisoners were transported and shot, we organized an expedition there. Yuri and Sveta joined us then, and after that she took part in all our summer expeditions. So it turns out that since 2011, we have gone on two summer expeditions, to Lodeynoye Field and Solovki. Yuri tried to be involved in both trips.
We have somehow impercetibly segued to Sveta’s appearance. I know that you’re her godmother, and this choice mattered a lot both to Dmitriev and to the girl herself. How did you make this decision?
He introduced Sveta to us in 2009. She was still small then, and he wasn’t traveling anywhere then. He just came to see us in Petrozavodsk. And when he took her on an expedition for the first time, our kids made friends with her right away, of course. She’s a wonderful child. Yuri had long spoken of the fact he want to baptise her, and he wanted to do on Sekirnaya Hill, because the place meant so much to him, it was so bound up with his work. It was Father Matfei who baptised her. He took it seriously. I know he discussed it with Katya. And the choice was a serious one to him, an important aspect, partly due to the fact that he had been adopted himself, and as long as he had the strength he wanted to give another person the same chance. At the same time, he took great care of her during these trips, and yet it mattered that she be able to do everything herself: cook, dress herself, and clean up. He raised an independent lady.
The decision was obvious for me. After the Solovki expeditions, after all the hard work we had done (hard both physically and emotionally), when you experiece such extreme moments, you come to know a person and get closer.
We have found out what Yuri Dmitriev is like as a friend, colleague, and father. What is he like to you?
Of course, he’s amazing. What do our students find interesting? His determination to pursue his cause, the fact he fears nothing, that he seeks the means to do something even when obstacles arise and things don’t work. Well, and the goal itself is noble. He has a very profound understanding of his cause. Also, you can always count on him. The summer of 2007 was quite chilly. It was raining buckets the whole time, the temperature was around ten degrees Centigrade, and we had to work in the rain, but the bathhouse hadn’t really been set up yet. The students were really freezing. He then fired up the stove and showed how to caulk the windows, how to start a fire in the rain when the firewood is damp, and how to chop firewood generally. Basically, he was an exemplar of how to survive in difficult conditions. And despite the fact that outwardly he seemed harsh and abrupt, it was only outwardly. In fact, he’s a quite sensitive person on the inside, and a truly good father.
I’ll tell you an interesting story. In 2014, when we worked in Lodeynoye Field, he and Sveta came. He was then still working as a guard at a factory. He got his pay once and brought it home, but Sveta took it to school and handed it out to the children. I was stunned by his reaction. He was glad that the child was growing up to be a generous person, that she didn’t take it all for herself, but gave it to her friends. Meaning he wasn’t angry or upset. He was genuinely glad that his child was generous. And the kids gave nearly all the money back.
In a nutshell, how can you call this a father-daughter relationship?
It’s impossible to convey. They have a pure, cheerful relationship. It’s amazing how one can strike out against a loved one like that. It’s hard to live that down.
Are you planning an expedition to Solovki this summer?
Yes, and we hope to be going with Yuri.
Irina Flige: Sandarmokh Irina Flige is head of Memorial’s Petersburg branch. In 1997, she was a member of the expedition to the Medvezyegorsk District during which she, Venianim Iofe, and Yuri Dmitriev discovered Sandarmokh.
When I found out that Flige was coming to Petrozavodsk with the commission from the Presidential Human Rights Council, I had to see her. We met not just anywhere, but in Sandarmokh. It probably could not been any other way.
Irina, tell me how you met and worked with Yuri Dmitriev. We could probably say that Sandarmokh introduced you?
Quite right. The fact is that Sandarmokh was found thanks to the work of two search teams. Starting in the late 1980s, Veniamin Iofe and I searched for huge number of people who had gone missing on Solovki in 1937. Our search was gradual, and by 1997 we were led to the Medvezyegorsk District by different sources, to this place. But what does it mean to be led to a place by archival documents? It means being led to the place with the accuracy of a single square kilometer. And at that moment, the spring of 1997, we met Yura. He and Ivan Chukhin had been working together for many years searching for people shot on verdicts rendered by the so-called Karelian NKVD troika.
Did he have more accurate information about the execution sites?
It wasn’t quite that way. Basically, the execution site was not listed on certificates of implemented death sentences in all regions. Karelia is an exception in this sense. The place of execution is listed on nearly all the certificates, but to the nearest settlements, for example, Petrozavodsky, Segezha, Medvezhyegorsk, and so on. By the time we met, Yura had been searching for the burial sites of people shot after being sentenced to death by the Karelian troika for many years. He had found Krasny Bor, and different points in the vicinity of Petrozavodsky. And he had his own notions of where this place was located in the vicinity of Medvezhyegorsk. When we met, we immediately had a common research interest and we agreed to make a trip here. That was July 1, 1997. The three of us, Yura and I, led by Veniamin Iofe, came here. Although in fact there were five of us, because Yura’s daughter Katya and his dog were with us.
How much time did you spend searching and digging?
One day. You wouldn’t believe it: one day! The fact was that we were fantastically well prepared. We had found this spot in the archive documents and came here. So set to work. In May, however, Iofe had made an agreement with the Medvezhyegorsk District administration. Its head supported the expedition and had agreed with the nearest military unit, which sent soldiers to do the work of uncovering the burial pits.
The soldiers were digging. It was one empty pity after another, and at the same they were giggling. Yura was dubious that we should search near the quarry mentioned in certain documents. He began running around in circles. Then he walked up and said, “I think I’ve found them!” He showed us two saucer-like shapes on the ground. In summer, they were quite visible: as time passed, the mass burial pit was sinking. We moved to this spot with the soldiers. They dug just as cheerfully, giggling as they did. Then suddenly they jumped out of the two-meter-deep pit (the burial was quite deep) as if they were on springs, frightened. That same day we summoned the prosecutor’s office, and the site was designated a mass grave.
Was the decision that there would be a memorial cemetery here taken promptly?
Yes, a memorial was opened here on October 27. 1997 was the sixtieth anniversay of the Great Terror, the sixtieth anniversary of the executions. At that time, we regarded October 27 as the day the first verifiable executions took, the first executions of the Solovki quota. Later, in 1998, and this is quite important, at Memorial’s behest, the Karelian government and the Medvezhyegorsk District administration established a International Day of Remembrance here at Sandarmokh. Its date, August 5, marks the beginning of mass punitive operations of the Great Terror in 1937. People travel here from every region of Russia and from other countries. This commemoration has gone on for almost twenty years.
How does Sandarmokh differ from other mass execution sites?
Many execution grounds have been located, but many of them do not have clear boundaries. We don’t where they begin and end. Here the entire grounds have been reliably identified and fenced off. The second things is that now we know all the names of the people executed and buried at Sandarmokh.
Are days of remembrance held at all the execution grounds?
Yes, days of remembrance of the victims of the Soviet terror are held in various parts of the country. But these are usually regional commemorative days, attended by people from that region. This is how they are held in Petersburg, Moscow, and all the major cities. Sandarmokh is different, because here there are lots of people who were not inhabitants of Karelia. There were the convicts of Solovki and the Belbaltlag, who were shot in 1937. These people were not free. They were either convicts or so-called special settlers who had remained in Karelia after serving their sentences. So the memory of these people draws people from different parts of Russia and different countries.
Sandarmokh is a unique piece of completed research. It is to Yura’s tremendous merit that he collected all the information, and today we know by name all the people who lie here. In October 2016, we launched the Sandarmokh website and produced a mobile app. We really hope the site will be popular. Indeed, the number of views of the site already shows that it’s popular.
Sandarmokh is unique in another way. When we speak of memory, quite often at many historical commemorative sites these two notions—history and memory— diverge a bit. History and memory only partially intersect, because of traditions, because of legends, because of incomplete historical date, incapable of refuting these legends. This is how it is at Levashovo in Petersburg. If we speak of Levashovo as a commemorative site, it is the Great Terror in Leningrad that is commemorated. If we speak of the historical aspect, it’s all quite confusing. Of the 19,450 people interred there, we can identify only eight thousand. The others are unknown. In this sense, Sandarmokh is also a unique place. The names attached to the site have been completely verified.
You have said that in the past two years the Karelian leadership has either been prejudiced against or has just ignored the days of remembrance held in Sandarmokh. What is the reason for this?
It’s difficult for me to say why this is. I don’t know what motivates them, and I find it hard to assess it. But I can say for certain that the tradition of holding the International Day of Remembrance on August 5 at Sandarmokh cannot be broken. This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the Great Terror and the twentieth anniversary of the discovery of the cemetary at Sandarmokh. So this year the days of remembrance will be especially solemn. In any case, round figures are quite important in human memory. The children of the victims, who are old and have been herew many times, attach a special importance to coming this year. For them, it will be eighty years since their father or grandfather was executed. We’d like to thionk that this year the commeroration will be organized properly, up to par, with the support and involvement of the authorities.
Can you imagine the day without Yuri Dmitriev?
It’s quite hard to imagine. But I’m an optimist, and I think that Yura will be involved in the commemorations on August 5.
There is a rather heated discussion on the political aspect of the case against Dmitriev going on right now in Petrozavodsk, and in Russia per se. What do you think about this?
Like all of us, I am sure that everyone realizes the case is a frame-up. And when a case is a frame-up, it becomes political for that reason alone. But we won’t be guess who ordered the frame-up, although it will come to light sooner or later. Right now we have to do what we can and what we’re able to do: mount a public campaign in defense of Yuri Dmitriev.
Sergei Krivenko: Memorial I had not planned to write about the arrest, but as I wrote the article, the idea that the Dmitriev case was the yet another demonstrative flogging of free-thinking people grew more and more firmly in my head. Many people link Dmitriev’s arrest to Memorial. Memorial itself links the Dmitriev case to the organization’s work.
As Sergei Krivenko, a board member of the International Memorial Society, told me, after the film on nationwide television in which Dmitriev’s case smoothly segued into an account of Memorial, almost no doubts remained that the arrest was linked to the organization’s work.
After Dmitriev’s arrest, there was talk that the Karelian branch of Memorial had not been active, and that Dmitriev himself, allegedly, had nothing to do with the organization’s work. We realize that this is far from the case. As a member of Memorial, tell us how Dmitriev ended up in Memorial?
Yuri Dmitriev has always been in the Memorial movement. We communicated with him, and he took part in events and conferences. There has always been a branch head in Karelia, but in recent years this person was not particularly active since he was elderly. In 2014, however, we underwent re-registration, and we needed a presence in the regions. Dmitriev took over this work in Karelia. He went through the formalities of establishing a Karelian Republican Branch of the Memorial Society and headed it.
So it turns out the opinion that Dmitriev’s arrest is consciously directed against Memorial is not groundless?
You would reach this conclusion based on the segment shown on Rossiya 24. Since two topics, Dmitriev and Memorial, are linked in the segment, you could say there is an underlying cause having to do with Memorial’s work.
At the meetings of the Presidential Human Rights Council in Karelia, when we talked about preserving memory, I detected two clear trends. On the one hand, the local authorities support all commemorative work. Even Dmitriev himself has been awarded a certificate of appreciation from the Republic of Karelia for his work in preserving historical memory. They are grateful for this work. At the same time, however, officials let it slip that this work should not be politicized. We don’t need foreign delegations or any interest on the part of foreigners. We’ll deal with it ourselves. But Dmitriev was quite active. Many foreign delegations went through him. Apparently, this didn’t suit the authorities entirely. At any rate, that was the impression I had.
In mid 2016, the Finnish newspaper Kaleva published an article by Petrozavodsk State University Yuri Kilin, which was subsequently cited by Izvestia and Zvezda TV. These publications argued that Sandarmokh was a place where Finnish invaders executed Soviet prisoners. So again the rhetoric leans toward the notion that Memorial had distorted reality.
I think this is a general trend. There is no single coordination center, where the conspirators sit and lay their plans: now we’ll publish this article, and then we’ll do something else. The article was published in line with the zeitgeist, which is marked by the rehabilitation of Stalin’s name and anti-western rhetoric generally. I think everything has just converged. It resembles the situation in Soviet times when the authorities tried to draw attention away from Katyn, where Polish officers had been executed. The Soviet authorities found a tiny Soviet village called Khatyn, which had been burned to the ground by the Nazis, and they talked about it. It really was burned to the ground: that’s a fact. But subsequently Memorial’s researchers found documents in the archives that confirmed the Central Committee had pushed this news in order to blur the public consciousness: Khatyn/Katyn, either the Germans killed people there or they hadn’t. It is the same thing in this case. They are foisting a certain current of opinion on Sandarmokh. Maybe it was the Finns who did the shooting, maybe not. It produces an ambiguous perception.
What do you know about any changes in Dmitriev’s case after the Human Rights Council’s visit?
I know that during our visit, they sped up the case: they wanted to submit it for trial. That was what the defense attorney said after talking with the police investigator. But after our visit, the case was again sent back for further investigation. They had not filed charges yet. As for Sandarmokh, there will be a request in our recommendations, which are still being drafted, a request we will also send under seperate cover, that the council and the government of Karelia jointly participate in the August 5 International Day of Remembrance at Sandarmokh.
It was interesting to observe society’s reaction after Yuri Dmitriev’s arrest. People seemingly split into two camps, all vying with each other to assert they didn’t or did believe the accusations. Everyone tried to remember something that would tip the majority in his or her favor.
Interestingly, in the arsenal of those who tried to mock Dmitriev, there were no arguments, while many people had never met Dmitriev and knew nothing about him or his work. Yet for some reason they considered it their duty to come up with something and voice it to the public. But let these thoughts remain with the people who thought them.
I decided it was important to publish letters of support from people who knew Dmitriev personally, people who were not afraid to speak out personally in their defense. Of course, these are only a few of them. [The original Russian article contains a selections of such letters — TRR.]
This was where I should have ended the article, and I had finished it and nearly published it. But for some reason I put it off. After I found this letter in my mailbox, I understood why. Apparently, it was a sign.
I publish the following letter with the permission of its author, that is, Yuri Dmitriev.
Good day, Anna!
Thanks for your kind words of support.
I could never imagine that such a trivial event as the arrest of Old Khottabych would cause such a public outcry. What matters is the reaction of normal people to the destruction of our family. The family is the most important thing. It shapes the personality and prompts a person to action. Any encroachment on the family by the state causes outrage among normal people. The enormity and impudence of the accusations against me only confirms the “human” essence of our current government.
I’m not afraid of the future. The worst thing that could happen has already come to pass: Sveta [name changed — Anna Yarovaya] has been taken away from us. She has again been deprived of a family and, at the whim of the state, plunged back into the life from I wrested her with great difficulty eight years ago.
Over the eight years spent in our family, Sveta went from being a tiny, sensitive girl to a completely independent young lady with a well-formed worldview, a variety of interests, the capacity to help people, and quite hardy health. Sveta independently chose the Orthodox faither as her main support in life, and she independently made the decision to take up sport. That was also quite a happy decision. In a year, she won three medals and won the city championship in her weight category. Sveta merged so organically with our family that we had forgotten she hadn’t been with us since birth, and Sveta responded to us with the same love.
How to return Sveta to the family? How to raise her and give her a good education? These are the questions that worry me more now than how many years the state is preparing to send me down for my civic stance. I see no other reasons for my “sudden” prosecution. Whose toes did I step on? I haven’t found an answer yet. But I realize that everything happens according to God’s will.
So far I cannot understand what role the Lord has given me for several years of my next life. Either I have been chosen to be a martyr or preacher or some kind of unifying element. The time will come and I will find out for sure. And then He will show me my way. But for the time being my attorney and I are fighting for our rights, fighting against the bias of the investigators and the blatant lies of the charges.
The meetings with Katya, the kind letters of support that have been arriving from different corners of the country, and daily conversations with God have helped me remain a reasonable, sensible person.
I follow the events in Russia with great anxiety. Unfortunately, the worst predictions are coming true, and I’m afraid that a great sorrow (for everyone) is not long in coming.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Anna Yarovaya and7X7
More Dubious Charges against Jailed Russian Historian of the Terror & Memorial Activist
Halya Coynash Human Rights in Ukraine
March 11, 2017
Three months after Yuri Dmitriev, a Russian historian and head of the Karelia branch of the Memorial Society, was arrested and remanded in custody on bizarre charges, the investigators have come up with two new indictments. There is no evidence to substantiate the original charge, and total mystery over the new accusations. The fact that the prosecutor was originally supposed to have acted on the basis of an anonymous denunciation brings a chilling flashback to the worst Soviet days, as does a great deal about this case. A recent slanderous attack on state-controlled television has only compounded the suspicion that the prosecution is part of a mounted attack on Memorial and its work exposing perpetrators of the Terror.
Everything about Dmitriev’s arrest and the charges elicit concern, and it is no surprise that the Presidential Human Rights Council announced on February 12 that they were taking the case, which appears fabricated, under their personal supervision.
The 61-year-old was originally accused of producing child pornography, with the charges based solely on a folder filed away on his computer with 49 photos of his adopted (in legal terms, fostered) 11-year-old daughter Natasha.
The photos record her height and weight and certainly appear to confirm his explanation that the photos were like a medical journal kept until 2015. The little girl had been painfully thin and in poor health when taken from the children’s home and the authorities had themselves advised him to monitor her development. The photos show her naked, which is logical if you need to see whether her ribs are protruding, etc. It was also, however, to ensure that the authorities saw that she was well-looked after and that there were no suspicious bruises.
Visits are frequent when children are growing up in foster families. Sergei Krivenko from the Human Rights Council spoke with officials from the childcare department involved who had carried out such monitoring over the entire eight years and had never once found any reason for concern. This was confirmed at the child’s school and clinic.
It is impossible to believe that Natasha’s interests have been considered at all. She has been prevented from seeing Dmitriev’s children and grandchildren whom she views as her family, and has now been sent away to live in a village with a grandmother she had not set eyes on for eight years.
The sudden arrest in the absence of any kind of background of concerns, Krivenko stresses, is one of the reasons for immense scepticism about this supposed blitzkrieg reaction to a single anonymous denunciation.
If one of the new charges is linked with Natasha, then it has been made too late in the day to arouse anything but suspicion. At a closed hearing on March 9, Dmitriev was remanded in custody for a further month with the prosecution citing not only the claim of producing pornographic material using a minor, but also charges under Article 135 of the Criminal Code (depravity without the use of force) and Article 222 (illegal possession of a firearm).
Dmitriev’s lawyer Viktor Anufriev believes that the new charges are meant to acquit Dmitriev on the original charge, which has served as pretext for three months in detention to demonstrate ‘objectivity’ while ensuring a hefty prison sentence. He says that the prosecution are taking a tough line, and that this case has obviously been agreed “at all levels”.
All of this supposedly arose from a highly suspicious denunciation regarding only the photos. Elaborate efforts were taken to ensure that Dmitriev spent a few hours at the police station on December 10 and that his partner was suddenly admitted to hospital for an operation she had long been waiting for. Dmitriev immediately understood on his return that somebody had been there, and had been on his computer.
It became clear why on December 12. An anonymous letter informing police of the photos had supposedly been received and this was deemed sufficient to arrest Dmitriev and take him away in handcuffs.
A background steeped in history
Dmitriev is well-known far beyond Karelia, particularly for his discovery of graves of victims of the Terror at the Sandarmokh Clearing (Karelia). It is thanks to him and his colleagues that we know the fate of 1,111 prisoners of the Solovki Prison, including 290 prominent Ukrainian writers, artists, scientists and others, who were executed ‘by quota’ between 27 October and 4 November 1937.
Over the years since Vladimir Putin first became Russian president, there has been a marked increase in the power of the FSB, Russia’s security service, and a deliberate shift towards emphasising the ‘positive’ features of the Soviet Union and downplaying the crimes committed by the Soviet regime. It is no accident that recent Levada Centre polls have shown a record number of Russians viewing bloody dictator Joseph Stalin positively, and found only 22% of respondents seeing the repression and crimes as something that arouses shame.
All of this has set the Memorial Society and the current regime on a collision course. We see, on the one hand Putin’s choice for education minister, Olga Vasilyeva, questioning the scale of Stalin’s crimes and Putin himself having issued a decree keeping huge amounts of documents about Soviet repression secret for another 30 years. Memorial and historians like Dmitriev, on the other hand, are continuing their work in disclosing not just the victims of the Terror, but those directly involved in implementing it.
Katerina Klodt learned after her father’s arrest that he had long received calls, with the main question being whether he would be publishing material about the perpetrators. She told Novaya Gazeta that she believes Dmitriev’s arrest is linked solely with his work: “repression, Sandarmokh, books about the victims and the executioners.”
There seems to be nobody in Karelia who believes in the charges against Dmitriev. Those who know him mention that he can be difficult, stubborn and direct in his efforts to expose crimes of the past and that he is very much a thorn in the side to local officials and FSB officers.
This is not just about personal scores, however. One of the reasons for resistance to publication of information about perpetrators throughout Russia is the fact that some of the people who wrote anonymous denunciations or arrested innocent people are still alive, or their children or grandchildren are in positions of authority and don’t want the information to be made public.
Attack on Memorial
The scale of the attack and the real target can be gauged from a 15-minute program broadcast on Jan 10, 2017, on the government-controlled Rossiya 24 TV channel. Most of the film is in fact an attack on Memorial, with the five minutes about Dmitriev and the photos clearly aimed at spreading dirt and convincing the audience of his guilt. Such films have been produced about Ukrainian political prisoners, like filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, and they demonstrate a profoundly disturbing level of collaboration between the FSB, the Investigative Committee and state-controlled media.
Challenged after the broadcast, an Investigative Committee official, Vitaly Konovalov, denied any leak from his department and said that the photos shown on the program were not from the investigation.
The photos are accompanied by commentary clearly aimed at ensuring that the audience are convinced of Dmitriev’s ‘guilt’, with this serving to discredit Memorial. Like most of the propaganda on Russian media, the film is very effective. Those who know Memorial are disgusted; others, perhaps not convinced, but influenced by the dirt flung about.
Fellow historian of the Terror Anatoly Razumov says that he immediately understood that all of this could not be the work of some local officials. With respect to the film, he was told by media people in Petrozavodsk that “this is not out material, it’s a Moscow matter”.
Memorial’s publication of 40 thousand former NKVD workers was published in 2016 and was widely reported in the international media. Since then Memorial has been forcibly labelled a ‘foreign agent’ and Dmitriev arrested. The charges, like the film on Rossiya 24, serve to spread dirt among those who know nothing of the historian and Memorial’s work. For those who do, their absurdity is doubtless also a warning of what they too could expect.