The Belomor Canal Administrative building in Medvezhyegorsk, Russia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Medvezhyegorsk Resident Suspected of “Condoning Terrorism” over Posts on VK Group Page OVD Info
October 31, 2020
Yevgeny Gavrilov, a resident of Medvezhyegorsk and the admin of the public page Cocktail on the social network VK, is suspected of “condoning terrorism” (punishable under Part 2 of Article 205.2 of the criminal code) over posts about the bombing at the FSB’s Arkhangelsk offices [on October 31, 2018]. Gavrilov informed OVD Info about the case himself.
The criminal case was launched due to two posts about Mikhail Zhlobitsky’s suicide bombing of the Arkhangelsk offices of FSB, as published on the group page Cocktail (Kokteil’). In the first post, dated November 2, 2018, the author, identified as Yarey Tengri, argues that “Russia can look forward to People’s Will-style underground terrorism.” The second post is an attempt by the Telegram channel Awakening (Probuzhdenie) to analyze Zhlobitsky’s actions.
Gavrilov has no idea why these posts were classified as “condoning terrorism.”
“I’m not an expert. Apparently, they didn’t like something about them. They could have asked VK to delete them, and then launched criminal cases,” he said.
According to Gavrilov, the security forces searched his home, seizing all his computer equipment and devices. He is free on his own recognizance. He is a suspect in the criminal investigation.
“At first, in 2017, Cocktail was conceived as a humor project,” says Gavrilov about his group page. “Then, a year later, as there was nothing for people to eat, [contributors] started writing to me: ‘Let’s slowly switch [the page’s agenda] more to politics. Living on an empty stomach is not funny.’ We shifted to politics and the economy, and then to a focus on the news. Now, probably, we will refrain from all this, but we are not closing the group yet.”
Rewriting Sandarmokh Who Is Trying to Alter the History of Mass Executions and Burials in Karelia, and Why
Anna Yarovaya 7X7
December 13, 2017
The memorial cemetery with the mystical name Sandarmokh. The word has no clear meaning or translation: there are only hypotheses about its origin. But Sandarmokh definitely evokes associations with executions, suffering, and history. Many people are horrified by the place due to what happened there eighty years ago. The site of mass executions of political prisoners, a place where over seven thousand murdered people are buried in 236 mass graves, Sandarmokh is the final resting place of those whose odyssey through the concentration camps in 1937 and 1938 ended with a bullet in the back of the head.
Since 1997, when the cemetery was discovered, Sandarmokh has come to be a nearly sacred site for descendants of the victims, local residents, historians, and social activists. Since then, Sandarmokh has hosted an annual Remembrance Day for Victims of the Great Terror of 1937–1938, an event attended by delegations from various parts of Russia and other countries.
Nearly twenty years later, historians in Petrozavodsk have claimed that, aside from the executions of the 1930s, Soviet POWs could also have been killed and buried there during the Second World War. The hypothesis has provoked much discussion in the academic community, and attracted the attention of the Russian and Finnish media. People who deal with the subject professionally—historians, activists, and scouts who search for bodies of missing servicemen and war relics—are at a loss. What new documents have come to light? Where can they see the declassified papers? The people behind the sensation have been in no hurry to publish documents, thus heating up the circumstances surrounding Sandarmokh.
What are the grounds for the hypothesis that Soviet POWs were shot at Sandarmokh? Who has been pushing the conjectures and why? This is the subject of Anna Yarovaya’s special investigative report for 7х7.
Yuri Dmitriev: A Year in Pretrial Detention
There were only three court bailiffs last time. Sometimes, there have been five, sometimes, as many as ten. The number is always at the discretion of Judge Maria Nosova. The number of bailiff she orders is the number that are dispatched to the courtroom. Even when there are three bailiffs, Yuri Dmitriev, the short, thin leader of Memorial’s Karelian branch, now shaven nearly bald, is barely visible behind their broad shoulders. So, the best place to observe the procession is the little balcony on the third-floor staircase at Petrozavodsk City Courthouse. Knowing that people are waiting for him at the top, Dmitriev climbs the stairs with his head thrown back. He looks for his daughter Katerina, almost always picking her out of the crowd. Of course, she does not always appear on the staircase, because there are always lots of people who want to chat with her, inquire about her father’s health, and find out the latest news from the pretrial detention center, while there are only two people allowed to meet with Dmitriev: Katerina and his defense counsel Viktor Anufriyev. The latter is too businesslike to approach with questions about his client’s personal life.
A group of supporters has lined the walls of the corridor outside the courtroom. Last time, the support group was especially large. It included young students from the Moscow International Film School, old friends of Dmitriev’s and colleagues from Memorial, most of them out-of-towners, ordinary sympathizers (including such extraordinary people as famous Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya), local, national, and foreign reporters, and Petrozavodsk activists.
The support group outside the courtroom is always impressive. Photo courtesy of 7X7
“Four men in the cell. Normal treatment. Yes, he has a TV set. But TV is making Dad dumb. Russia 24 and the like are constantly turned on, and there is nowhere to hide from it,” Katerina relates to someone after the applause from the support group fades.
The trial is being held in camera: no one is admitted into the courtroom. Last time, the judge did not allow a staffer from the office of the human rights ombudsman into the courtroom, although a letter had been sent in advance requesting she be admitted. But people come to the hearings anyway, and they travel from other cities. They come to see Dmitriev twice (when he is led into the courtroom and when he is led out), chat with Katerina, and make trips to the two memorials to victims of the Great Terror that Dmtriev was involved in opening, Krasny Bor and Sandarmokh. Many people are certain that Dmitriev has been jailed because of Sandarmokh.
Bykivnia, Katyn, Kurapaty. Next Station: Sandarmokh
Many people see Dmitriev’s arrest and subsequent trial not as an outcome, but as the latest phase in a war not only against him but also against “foreign agents” in general and Memorial in particular. Until recently, the laws have been made harsher, the Justice Ministry has been pursuing “foreign agents” vigorously, and state media have been attacking “undesirables.” More serious means have now come into play. The “justice machine” has been set in motion in the broadest sense, including investigative bodies and the courts.
A year before Dmitriev’s arrest
The Memorial Research and Information Center in St. Petersburg was designated a “foreign agent.” In 2013, the status of “foreign agent” had been awarded to another Memorial affiliate, the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow. The International Memorial Society was placed on the “foreign agents” lists in October 2016, two months before Dmitriev’s arrest.
Six months before Dmitriev’s arrest
In early July 2016, the Finnish newspaper Kaleva published an article by a Petrozavodsk-based historian, Yuri Kilin, entitled “Iso osa sotavangeista kuoli jatkosodan leireillä” (“Most POWs Died in Camps during the Continuation War”).* The article is a compilation of findings by Finnish researchers, spiced up with the Kilin’s claims that Finnish historians, poorly informed about certain aspects of military history, had no clue Sandarmokh could have been the burial site of Soviet POWs who were held in Finnish camps in the Medvezhyegorsk area.
There is not even a casual mention of Memorial in Kilin’s article. However, the article “Memorial’s Findings on Repressions in Karelia Could Be Revised,” published two weeks later on the website of Russian national newspaper Izvestia, featured the organization’s name in its headline. And an article on the website of the TV channel Zvezda, hamfistedly entitled “The Second Truth about the Sandarmokh Concentration Camp: How the Finns Tortured Thousands of Our Soldiers,” not only summarized Kilin’s article but also identified the supposed number of victims of Finnish POW camps, allegedly buried at Sandarmokh: “thousands.” The article also featured images of scanned declassified documents, “provided to the channel by the Russian FSB,” documents meant to confirm Kilin’s hypothesis. They did not confirm it, in fact, but we will discuss this, below.
Somewhere in the middle of the Zvezda article, the author mentions in passing, as it were, that since Kilin’s article had been published in a Finnish newspaper “before the archives were declassified,” the “long arm of state security is irrelevant in this case.” Indeed, what could state security have to do with it? Professor Kilin merely voiced a conjecture, and supporting classified documents were then found in the FSB’s archives and immediately declassified. It could only be a coincidence. True, at some point, Sergei Verigin, director of the Institute for History, Political Science, and the Social Sciences, and Kilin’s colleague at Petrozavodsk State University, tried to explain to journalists that Kilin had been working in the FSB archives at the same time as Verigin himself (“independently from each other”). It was there Kilin found the relevant documents and studied them thoroughly. So, the story that Kilin had anticipated the FSB’s discovery holds no water. Why the FSB had handed over documents, documents confirming nothing, to Zvezda remains a mystery. Maybe so no one would get any funny ideas about the “long arm of state security.”
Another mystery is why Verigin decided to distract the attention of journalists and readers from the topic of alleged Finnish war crimes and focus it on Memorial.
“Memorial was not interested in the possibility that Soviet POWs could be in the shooting pits [at Sandarmokh],” the historian told Izvestia‘s reporter.
Five months before Dmitriev’s arrest
A month after Kilin’s article was published in Kaleva, on August 5, 2016, the annual events commemorating the victims of the Great Terror took place at Sandarmokh. For the first time in the nineteen years since the memorial had been unveiled, the authorities did not participated in the memorial ceremony: neither the Karelian government nor the Medvezhyegorsk District council sent anyone to the event. Some officials later admitted they had been issued an order from their superiors not to take part in Memorial’s events at Sandarmokh.
In September 2016, Sergei Verigin spoke at a conference in Vyborg, at which he first presented his theory about the mass burials at Sandarmokh. The conference proceedings were published in a collection that included an article by Verigin. The article cites documents from the FSB Central Archives, the same documents that had been scanned and published on Zvezda’s website.
Three weeks after Dmitriev’s arrest
Yuri Dmitriev was arrested on December 13, 2016, six months after Kilin’s incendiary article in theFinnish newspaper. Three weeks after his arrest, Rossiya 24 TV channel aired a long exposé on Memorial whose takeaway message was that an organization already identified as a “foreign agent” employed rather dubious people who had an appetite for child pornography. In keeping with the spirit of the “long arm of state security is irrelevant in this case,” the exposé featured photographs, allegedly from Dmitriev’s case file, unmasking the immorality of Memorial employees.
Six months after Dmitriev’s arrest
The assault on Sandarmokh began in earnest in June 2017, when Petrozavodsk State University’s fanciest and most well-equipped conference hall hosted a round table entitled “New Documents about Soviet POWs in the Medvezhyegorsk District during the Finnish Occupation (1941–1944).” The round table’s organizers, historians Yuri Kilin and Sergei Verigin, expounded their theory about the mysterious murders of Soviet POWs in Finnish prison camps in the Medvezyegorsk area. The scholars were certain that the murdered men, who might have numbered in the thousands, could have been buried in Sandarmokh.
However, like the author of the article on Zvezda’s website, who could not help but insert the phrase about the “long arm of state security,” Professor Verigin also made an involuntary slip of the tongue.
“We do not in any way cast doubt on the fact that Sandarmokh is a site where political prisoners are buried. There were executions and mass burials there. We admit that. But we argue that our POWs could be buried there as well. It’s like in Katyn. First, the NKVD carried out executions there, and then the Germans did. In the same place. And the burials were in the same place.”
The Germans did not shoot anyone in Katyn: the NKVD did all the shooting there. The Germans shot or, rather, burned people in Khatyn and a hundred villages in the vicinity. The confusion between Katyn and Khatyn, to which military historian Sergei Verigin has also fallen victim, is commonly regarded as a ruse devised by Soviet propaganda to confuse the hoi polloi. A memorial was erected in Khatyn, whereas Soviet authorities tried for many years to hide what had happened in Katyn. People at Memorial now have no doubt that authorities are trying to pull off the trick they once did with Katyn with Sandarmokh: water down the history evoked by the name, cast a shadow on the memorial as a place of historical memory associated with the Great Terror, and confuse people, not so much present generations as future generations.
Memorial, whose staffers and members are Russia’s foremost specialists on political crackdowns and purges, were not invited to the round table. The same day the round table on Sandarmokh was held in Petrozavodsk, Memorial was holding a press briefing on the Dmitriev case in Moscow. Sandarmokh was also recalled at the press briefing as well, and historical parallels were drawn.
“That way of framing the issues smacks heavily of Soviet times. When the burial pits were found at Katyn, outside Smolensk, the Soviet authorities palmed the atrocity off on the Germans to the point of introducing it as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. When the site at Bykivnia, outside Kiev, was found, the Soviet authorities claimed there had been a German POW camp nearby, that it was the Germans who did it. When the site at Kurapaty, near Minsk, was found, the Soviet authorities also tried to shift the blame on the Germans. Now we see the same thing at Sandarmokh, with the Finns standing in for the Germans. This innuendo about Sandarmokh is not new,” said Anatoly Razumov, archaeologist and head of the Returned Names Center at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.
The organizers of the Petrozavodsk round table have established an international working group whose objective is not only gathering and discussing new information about Sandarmokh but also performing new excavations at the memorial to search for the alleged graves of Soviet POWs. Three months after the round table, Sergei Verigin gave me a detailed account of this undertaking, as well as the documents he has found.
Sergei Verigin: We Are Merely Voicing an Opinion
Sergei Verigin, director of the Institute for History, Political Science, and the Social Sciences
Historian Sergei Verigin, who was quoted by Izvestia saying new documents had been uncovered in the FSB archives and claimed that Memorial had ignored the issue of whether Soviet POWs were possibly buried at Sandarmokh, agreed to an interview almost gladly and invited me into his office.
He regaled me at length about his long career as a military historian: he has published a number of papers and books based on declassified FSB archival documents. His books, which had been published in Finnish several years ago, were still sold in Finnish bookstores alongside works by Finnish military historians, he said.
He began studying the new documents, containing information gathered by the military counterintelligence agency SMERSH from 1942 to 1944, in the archives of the Karelian FSB, immediately after they were declassified. Apparently, it was Verigin who uncovered the evidence that, according to him and his colleague Yuri Kilin, pointed to Sandarmokh as a site where Soviet POWs were buried. During our interview, Verigin was much more cautious with numbers, preferring to speak of “dozens and hundreds” of prisoners who had been shot.
“According to our evidence, hundreds of men were killed. The area was near the front lines, a place where civilians had no access, and you could bury people without being noticed. The Finns did not flaunt what they did. More POWs died from hunger, disease, and torture than from executions. Why have we concluded that POWs could have been buried at Sandarmokh? Because the Finns used the infrastructure that had existed in the NKVD’s prison camps. The documents even contain the names of several people who were imprisoned in NKVD camps, released, drafted into the Soviet army, captured by the Finns, and imprisoned in the exact same camps. Why have we voiced this hypothesis? Because the camps were large. There were six camps, containing thousands of people. Hundreds of people died of hunger, cold, and torture. But where are the graves? Clearly, a few could have been buried in the city, but where were dozens and hundreds of men buried?”
“Can these numbers, i.e., the ‘hundreds’ of men buried, be found in the documents you uncovered?”
“The numbers are there, but the burial site isn’t. That’s why I am asking the question. I am currently wrapping up an article entitled ‘Are There Soviet Prisoners of War in the Shooting Pits at Sandarmokh?’ The article contains lists, names, numbers. It names outright the names of the men who were shot.”
One of the arguments bolstering the hypothesis that many Soviet POWs probably perished is that Soviet POWs worked on building the Finnish fortifications near Medvezhyegorsk, since the Finns lacked their own manpower. What happened to these prisoners? The hypothesis is that they were shot. Verigin does not believe the Finns took Russian POW workers with them when they retreated. Under the agreement between Finland and the Soviet Union, mutual prisoner exchanges were carried out. Among the soldiers who were sent back to the Soviet Union, Verigin claims, not a single former POW who worked in Medvezhyegorsk has been discovered.
“I’m not casting a shadow on the burials of political prisoners. Sandarmokh is indeed a central burial site of victims of the Stalinist terror, of the political crackdown of the late 1930s, one of the largest in northern Russia. We have simply voiced the opinion that our POWs could be buried in these graves. We simply have to perform excavations. If we confirm the hypothesis, we will erect a monument to our POWs in the same place where monuments to Terror victims now stand.”
When discussing the work that must be done, Verigin returned to a familiar idea: a working group that included not only Russian scholars but also Finnish and German researchers must be established. (The Germans built POW camps in northern Karelia.) Verigin suggested that members of grassroots organizations, members of the Russian Military History Society, scouts who search for WWII relics and bodies, e.g., Alexander Osiyev, chair of the Karelian Union of Scouts, Sergei Koltyrin, director of the Medvezhyegorsk Museum, and basically everyone who disagreed with the hypothesis or was skeptical about it should be invited to join the working group.
“We are open. We invite everyone to join us. Maybe we won’t prove our hypothesis or maybe we’ll find another burial site. You can understand people: the notion that Sandarmokh is a place where victims of the political purges were shot is an established opinion, and they find it hard to get their heads around the idea there might be Soviet POWs there. The problem with Sandarmokh, you know, is that only five of the 230 graves there have been disinterred. Subsequently, the prosecutor’s office imposed a ban, and currently it is a memorial complex where all excavation has been prohibited. But if we establish an [international] group and argue [our hypothesis] convincingly, perhaps we will be allowed to carry out excavations with scouts and see whether there are POWs there or not. There are telltale clues: the dog tags of POWs and so on. If we could find such clues, we could carry out an exploratory dig there. We would be able to prove or not prove our hypothesis, but the hypothesis exists. The main idea is to pay tribute to the men who died in Finnish concentration camps during the Great Fatherland War [WWII] and erect a memorial of some kind. Because as long we don’t find a single [burial] site, there will be no monument to our POWs.”
Remembrance Day at Sandarmokh, August 5, 2017
Sandarmokh Shmandarmokh, or a Tribute to Perished POWS?
Have the historians from Petrozavodsk State University uncovered or comme into possession of documents testifying to the mass shootings and burials of Soviet POWs in the vicinity of Medvezhyegorsk? What other pros and cons can be advanced for and against the hypothesis? My search for the answers took nearly six months. During this time, I was able to examine the declassified documents myself and conduct a dozen interviews, in person and on the web, in Russia and Finland, with people who have researched Sandarmokh and the political purges, as well as the war and prisoners of war.
I was unable to find either direct or indirect evidence that the Finns engaged in large-scale executions and burials of Soviet POWs near Medvezhyegorsk. This account or, as the Petrozavodsk-based historians say, hypothesis, could not be corroborated either by the archival documents and published matter I studied nor by the specialists I interviewed.
Some of Kilin and Verigin’s historian colleagues flatly, even irritatedly refused to commment on their hypothesis for this article. According to one such historian, serious researchers would not take the accounts of escaped Soviet POWs and Finnish saboteurs, as provided to SMERSH, at face value as sources, as did the editors of a book about the “monstrous atrocities,” allegedly committed by the Finns in Karelia, which I discuss, below. Such sources should be treated critically.
“Issues like this have to be discussed in person, at serious academic conferences, with the documents in hands\, and not by leaking articles to the media,” said a researcher who wished to remain nameless.
Most of the specialists we interviewed were happy to speak on the record, however.
Sandarmokh Discoverers Irina Flige and Vyacheslav Kashtanov: It’s Out of the Question
The Dmitriev trial has generated a lot of buzz. Journalists writing about the case have underscored the significance of Dmitriev’s work as a historian and archaeologist, the fact that he discovered Sandarmokh, was involved in establishing the memorial at Krasny Bor, and worked on excavations on the White Sea-Baltic Canal and the Solovki Islands. Dmitriev usually did not not work alone, however, but in large and small teams of like-minded people and often, which was not surprising at the time, with support from enthusiasts in the regional government and local councils. In the 1990s, secret service officers also often assisted in the search for victims of the Terror.
Irina Flige and Vyacheslav Kashtanov were involved in the expedition during which the shooting pits of Sandarmokh were unearthed. Director of the Memorial Research and Information Center in Petersburg, Flige went to Karelia in the summer of 1997 to work in the archives of the local FSB, where she met Dmitriev. At the time, Kashtanov was deputy head of the Medvezhyegorsk District Council and provided Dmitriev and Flige’s expedition with organizational support. He asked the local army garrison to lend them troops to dig in the spots where Dmitriev and Flige asked them to dig.
Flige emphasized the archival documents relating to Sandarmokh have been thoroughly examined on more than one occasion. She argued there could be no doubt the place was the site of mass executions during the Great Terror. The approximate number of those executed has been documented as well. Dmitriev has compiled a list of the surnames of those executed: there are over 6,200 names on the list.
Flige was reluctant to discuss new hypotheses about the executions in the Medvezhyegorsk District. According to her, superfluous mentions of the conjectures there could have been other executions at Sandarmokh played into the hands of Kilin and Verigin.
“They provide no documents, so we cannot refute them. If they provide documents, they can be studied and refuted, but denying the existence of documents is beneath one’s dignity. The only possible stance at the moment is to demand the documents be made public. Otherwise, this is a publicity stunt meant to downgrade Sandarmokh’s worth. It’s unproductive to demand evidence from them and discuss the question before they do so,” said Flige.
According to Flige, there is no possibility of getting permission to perform excavations on the premises of the memorial complex, which is what the Petrozavodsk-based historians want to do. More serious grounds are needed to justify the excavations than the hypotheses of two men, even if the two men are academic historians.
Irina Flige on the Search for Sandarmokh
We kept working on the case file under conditions in which we had to examine the documents [along with FSB employees], and they would permit us to make photocopies only of excerpts, of quotations from the case file, which was malarkey. In the next interrogation transcript, Matveyev [?] recounts that his apprehensions were not groundless, since once a truck had broken down near a settlement, a kilometer outside of Pindushi [in the Medvezhyegorsk District]. He then tells how afraid he was he had so many people in the truck, who knew where they were being taken, and he was stuck near a village and worried they would be found out. We thus located the second point, Pindushi.
Vyacheslav Kashtanov, who even now organizes people for volunteer workdays at Sandarmokh, is confident that no one except victims of the Great Terror lie in the execution pits there. Kashtanov has not only document proof that executions took place at Sandarmokh but eyewitness testimony as well.
“The Yermolovich family has done a great deal of work on Sandarmokh. Nikolai Yermolovich was editor of the Medvezhyegorsk newspaper Vperyod. He claimed to have spoken with an eyewitness who had been inside the restricted area where the executions occurred. Periodically, the old Povenets road [which passed near the memorial complex] would be closed, and gunshots would be heard in the woods. What we found in the shooting pits themselves, when we unearthed them, was quite recognizable: bodies that had been stripped of clothes and shoes, with typical bullet wounds [to the back of the head].”
Kashtanov is no mere district council employee. He was educated as a historian, and by coincidence, Sergei Verigin was his university classmate. Verigin’s account of executions and burials during the Second World War had come as news to Kashtanov. He admitted that individual Soviet POWs had been executed, but he could not believe mass executions had taken place. When they had visited Medvezhyegorsk, Kashtanov had spoken with Finns about the war and Finnish POW camps, and there was mention of such possibilities during their frank discussions.
“It’s out of the question!” said Kashtanov. “If you examine the layout of the camps, it could not have been a matter of thousands of soldiers executed, because several hundred men were housed there. If we look at the pits [at Sandarmokh], we see they are staggered. This is also evidence of the homogeneity of the executions. Of course, individual executions could have been carried out anywhere. But transporting thousands of people [to Sandarmokh] would have involved unjustifiable risks and costs.”
Kashtanov believes the whole story belittles not only Sandarmokh but also those people who were shot there.
Volunteer workday at Sandarmokh. Photo by Sergei Koltyrin
“Maybe They Want a Sensation?”: The Arguments of Scouts, Local History Buffs, and Historians
Alexander Osiyev, chair of the Karelian Union of Scouts, came to be interested in the topic of executions of POWs at Sandarmokh almost accidentally. He was involved in the round table at Petrograd State University in June. He showed the audience maps of the front lines and tried to persuade them no executions could have taken place at Sandarmokh during the war. Sergei Verigin rudely interrupted him, saying the scout did not have enough evidence. Osiyev did not give up on the idea, gathering that selfsame evidence in Karelia’s archives.
According to Osiyev, the hypothesis advanced by the university scholars had several weak points, and those weak points were underscored by the very same documents to which they referred. After carefully reading the interrogation transcriptions of former POWs from Camps No. 74 and 31, as cited by Kilin and Verigin, Osiyev concluded the prisoners could not have served in the battalions that built fortifications in the Medvezhyegorsk District.
“If you compare the descriptions of the POWs with the photographs of the people who built the fortifications, as preserved in the Finnish Military Archive, things don’t add up. A man wearing a hat and a cloak of some kind bears no resemblance to the description of POWs in the interrogation transcripts.”
Builders of fortifications in the Medvezhyegorsk District. Photo courtesy of SA-Kuva Archive and 7X7
In the above-mentioned transcripts, former inmates of Finnish POW camps who had been arrested by the Soviet authorities described in detail the outward appearance of Russian POWs in the camps of Medvezhyegorsk.
“What kind of clothing and shoes did the prisoners of have?”
“The prisoners mostly wore English overcoats and Finnish trousers and army tunics. In the summer, they went barefoot, but from September 1 they were issued shoes (Russian, English, etc.), wooden clogs, and shoes with wooden soles.”
—Excerpt from the interrogation transcript of Stepan Ivanovich Makarshin, dated October 21, 1943 (POW from May 1942 to September 1943)
“The uniforms of the prisoners in the camp were varied. There were hand-me-down Russian and English trousers and jackets, new and old Finnish jackets, boots, and shoes, and English shoes as well. Except for the Karelians, Finns, Latvians, and Estonians, all the POWs wore special insignia: a white letter V on the fold from the collarbone down on both […]. There were also stripes on both sides of the trousers.”
—Except from the interrogation transcript of arrestee Georgy Andreyevich Chernov, dated July 9, 1943 (POW)
We have to admit either that the Soviet POWs did not work in the places the Petrozavodsk State University historians claim they worked or their interrogation transcripts contain false information. In this case, the question arises as to whether serious scholarly hypotheses can be based on such information.
Osiyev was particularly bothered by the fact that not a single former Soviet POW mentioned that mass executions had occurred there. In the Finnish databases there is a list, keyed by surname, of the POWs who died in the Medvezhyegorsk camps from 1942 to 1944.
fiSoviet POWs who died in the Medvezhyegorsk camps from 1942 to 1944, as listed in a Finnish database
It transpires that only individual cases are mentioned. But even if we assume that executions did occur after all [in fact, there are eight Soviet POWs whose “cause of death” (kuolintapa) is listed as “shot” (ammuttu) or “death sentence” (kuolemantuomio) in the four screenshots depicted above—TRR], what would have been the point of transporting the POWs or their corpses two dozen kilometers away?
“It was the front line. There was long-range artillery in place there. To bury prisoners [at Sandarmokh], they would have had to have been brought from Medvezhyegorsk, nineteen kilometers away. Who would move a murdered POW along a road leading to the front? All the more so when the archives mention a cemetery in Medvezhyegorsk, that is, in Karhumäki [the town’s Finnish name]. Why would they have moved the dead from the city to Sandarmokh? So, I don’t know why these people [Verigin and Kilin] are doing this. Maybe they want a sensation?” wondered Kashtanov
Map indicating the locations of WWII Finnish POW camps in the Medvezhyegorsk District and the Sandarmokh Memorial
Sergei Koltyrin: Nothing of the Sort Happened at Sandarmokh
Sergei Koltyrin is director of the Medvezhyegorsk District Museum, which has overseen the Sandarmokh Memorial since it was established. When a particular religious confession wants to erect a monument at Sandarmokh, they go through the district council, which forwards the matter to the museum. The museum also monitors the state of other monuments, holds volunteer workdays, and organizes the annual Remembrance Days on August 5 and October 30. Koltyrin calls Sandarmokh an “open-air museum,” a place where popular lectures on the Gulag and White Sea-Baltic Canal are held. But Koltyrin does not see Sandmarmokh only as a museum but also as a place of memory, a cemetery where, he says, he silently converses with the people buried in the ground there every time he visits.
Koltyrin was involved in the July round table at Petrozavodsk State University. His arguments dovetail with those of Kashtanov, but with several additions. Koltyrin is convinced the Finns would not have been able to locate a top-secret, then-recent burial ground, and there was no one who could have told them about it.
“When the first five graves were unearthed [in 1997], there was evidence the people in the graves had been shot in the same way. The Finns did not operate this way. They did not shoot people in the back of the head with a pistol. They had a much simpler system: they sprayed their victims with machine-gun fire and killed them that way. The NKVD had concealed and camouflaged Sandarmokh so thoroughly that everyone was afraid to talk about it. Besides, the majority of the local residents retreated beyond the White Sea-Baltic Canal during the Finnish occupation. People would hardly have been to tell the Finns there was a killing field in these parts, a place where they could kill people. And the front line ran through here. What would the point of bringing people to Sandarmokh have been?”
Koltyrin insisted that to continue pursuing the “Finnish” hypothesis, quite weighty arguments were needed to make the case that such shootings and burials were possible at Sandarmokh. For the time being, however, no one had bothered to show him any documents backing up the theory advanced by Kilin and Verigin. Since there was no evidence, Koltyrin called on researchers not to push “hypotheses for the sake of forgetting the place and obscuring the memory and history of the executions.”
Irina Takala: If the Finns Had Found Sandarmokh, All of Europe Would Have Immediately Known about It
Irina Takala, who has a Ph.D. in history from Petrozavodsk State University, was a co-founder of the Karelian branch of Memorial. One of her principal researcch topics has been the political purges and crackdowns in Karelia during the 1920s and 1930s. Takala was a university classmate of Kashtanov and Verigin. After looking at the documents her colleagues cited, Takala summarized them briefly as follows, “They refute claims about ‘thousands of soldiers tortured’ in the [Finnish] camps, rather than vice versa.”
Takala also had doubts about her colleagues’ true intentions.
“To wonder where POWs are buried, you don’t need ‘newly declassified archival documents,’ especially documents like those. Why weren’t the professors asking these questions ten or twenty years ago? They have been researching the war for a fairly long time. If their objective was to find the dead prisoners, they should have started looking for them near where the camps were located, not along the front lines. So, how is Sandarmokh relevant in this case? So that thousands of executed political prisoners can be turned into thousands of Soviet POWs?”
Takala voiced another important thought about the possible burials of Soviet war prisoners at Sandarmokh. Later, Finnish scholars also echoed this thought in my conversations with them. The thought, it would seem, smashed to smithereens all the possible hypotheses or “sleaze,” as Takala dubbed them, the people attacking Sandarmokh have been spreading.
“I am convinced that if the Finns had discovered Stalin’s mass burial sites, super secret sites, during the war, all of Europe would have known about it immediately. What fuel for propaganda! [Burial sites of Great Terror victims] were located all over the Soviet Union, but they were not found anywhere in the occupied territories. In short, if there are no other documents that have not been shown to anyone, Kilin and Verigin’s claims smack more of political sleaze, sleaze based on nothing, having little to do with historical research, and aimed at Memorial, rather than at paying tribute to the memory of Soviet POWs.”
“I Hope You Don’t Hate Us”: Finnish Historians on the Unlawful Executions of Soviet POWs
In his article in Kaleva, Yuri Kilin claims, “Finland knows very little about POW camps.” It is a serious charge, a swipe at Finnish historians. However, it turned out Finnish researchers had dealt seriously with the problem of the camps, and the academics who have written about the topic teach in various parts of the country, including Turku, Tampere, and Helsinki. They include such scholars as Ville Kivimäki, Oula Silvennoinen, Lars Westerlund, Antti Kujala, and Mirkka Danielsbacka. I was able to interview some of them personally, while I corresponded with other or simply examined their works.
Ville Kivimäki, a researcher at the University of Tampere, studies the social and cultural history of the Second World War. He admits he is no expert on the conditions in which POWs lived. As someone who studies the history of the war, however, it was no secret to him that Soviet POWs had been kept in terrible conditions. A third of Soviet POWs held by the Finns died or were executed, and they had to be buried somewhere.
“I recently visited the mass grave of Soviet POWs in Köyliö: 122 soldiers are buried there. There must be an awful lot of such graves, considering the huge numbers of Soviet POWs who died in Finnish camps. I admit some of the dead could have been buried at Sandarmokh.”
Why were Soviet POWs killed? Why were they treated so badly? Kivimäki hass answered these questions unequivocally in his articles.
“There was no better enemy for Finnish soldiers than the Russians. Since the Civil War of 1918, Russians had been typically dehumanized, imagined as ‘others,’ ‘aliens,’ and ‘savages,’ the opposite of the humane Finns. Finnish wartime propaganda spread these stereotypes, thus sanctioning the murder of ‘monsters.’ This also explains the treatment of their corpses, dismemberment, photography, etc. This was the outcome of propaganda, and it helped maintain the martial spirit, serving as a unifying factor.” (See Ville Kivimäki, Battled Nerves: Finnish Soldiers’ War Experience, Trauma, and Military Psychiatry, 1941–44, PhD dissertation, University of Tampere, 2013, p. 438.)
The historian Lars Westerlund has written about the numbers of POWs executed in his works. He directed a project, entitled POW Deaths and People Handed Over in Finland in 1939–55, carried out by a team of researchers at the Finnish National Archives from 2004 to 2008.
Books edited by Lars Westerlund
In Westerlund’s article “The Mortality Rate of Prisoners of War in Finnish Custody between 1939 and 1944,” published in the edited volume POW Deaths and People Handed Over to Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939–55: A Research Report by the Finnish National Archives, mortality figures for POWs are provided per camp. [In fact, no such figures are provided in Westerlund’s article—The Russian Reader.] We read that 6,484 POWs died in the large camps, none of which were located in the Medvezhyegorsk District. Another 3,197 POWs died in medium camps, small camps, and “camp companies” (p. 30). We could probably try and search for the alleged “mass executions and burials” at Sandarmokh among these statistics. The same article cites causes of death (pp. 35–36). 2,296 POWS died “violent deaths” while another 1,663 died of “unknown causes.” Westerlund also mentions that “at least dozens and dozens of prisoners of war were probably killed in prison of war camps without just cause” (p. 76).**
Thus, Finnish researchers do not deny that illegal executions (meaning carried out in the absence of an investigation and trial), including mass executions, took place. But the figures per camp [sic] testify to the fact that “thousands of POWs” could not have been shot and then buried at Sandarmokh, because there were only small camps and POW companies in the Medvezhyegorsk District. [In fact, Westerlund reports that a total of 1,412 Soviet POWs died of all causes in the small camps and POW companies—The Russian Reader.] For this account to sound plausible, we would have to believe that of the probable 4,000 people shot [sic], more than half would have had to have been shot at Sandarmokh, which was only a small part of the long front lines, and moreover not the most tense part.
Since I was unable to locate Lars Westerlund in the summer of 2017 (colleagues said and wrote that he no longer works at the University of Turku and rarely visits the archives), I turned to his colleagues in the POW project, Antti Kujala and Mirkka Danielsbacka.
Mirkka Danielsbacka and Antti Kujala
In 2008, University of Helsinki historian Antti Kujala published Vankisurmat: neuvostovankien laittomat ampumiset jatkosodassa (The Unlawful Killings of POWs during the Continuation War). The book was the outcome of five years of work on the above-mentioned project POW Deaths and People Handed Over in Finland in 1939–55. Kujala is, perhaps, Finland’s foremost specialist on unlawful executions of Soviet POWs. He admits there were incidents in whihch Finnish soldiers shot Red Army soldiers who had surrendered or been wounded. The victims numbered in the dozens. He gives three examples off the top of his head, since while he worked on the book, he researched the archives of Finnish courts, where for several years after the war had ended, alleged [Finnish] war criminals were tried. In several cases, the trials resulted in guilty verdicts, but more often than not the defendants were acquitted. The main reason was a lack of arguments and evidence. Soviet POWs, whom Finland repatriated under the terms of its peace treaty with the Soviet Union, were given the opportunity to testify against Finnish soldiers and officers before they were sent home in 1944. But the information received in this way was not brimming with details, and although it was admitted into evidence in court, it did not lead to the recognition of mass crimes, executions, and the like. Moreover, many Finnish soldiers who were called as witnesses at these trials testified against their former army commanders, and if they had known about such incidents, they would have been revealed in court. On these grounds, Kujala has argued it would be wrong to talk about systematic mass shootings and burials.
At the same time, having thoroughly studied the crimes committed by the Finnish military during the Continuation War, Kujala began our conversation as follows, “I hope you won’t hate us after what we discuss today.”
From the very outset of the conversation, it was clear Kujala was irritated by what he had read in Kilin’s article in Kaleva. (Before our conversation he had only heard about it, but not read it.) He was even more irritated by how the Russian national media had pounced on the Karelian historian’s conjectures.
“The article in Kaleva refers to my  book [on unlawful executions] and interrogations of Soviet POWs who had escaped from Finnish camps. I think the escapees somewhat exaggerated an already unpleasant situation [in the camps], which is understandable. But claiming the German, Finnish, and Japanese camps were the worst is not quite right, and I don’t understand why the author serves up this half-truth. In reality, the highest mortality rates were in the German and Soviet POW camps, while the Finnish camps ranked third. The evidence of mass executions [of Soviet POWs by Finns], as presented in the article, is quite unreliable. The author seemingly follows the simple rationale that the Stalin regime’s crimes were terrible, but other regimes committed crimes as well.”
According to the information Kujala had assembled, the official number of Soviet POWs in Finnish camps, 64,000, was artificially low. Three or four thousand Red Army soldiers who were not officially registered as POWs should be added to this figure. Kujala believes they were executed during or after battles, right on the front lines. The causes of these war crimes were various, from the trivial fear of being shot in the back by a wounded Soviet soldier to a reluctance to deal with prisoners, especially wounded prisoners. Another reason for unlawful executions, on the front lines and in the camps, was the hatred Finns felt toward Russians. In the camps, this was exacerbated by the fact “second-rate” soldiers predominantly served as guards.
Kujala’s colleague Mirkka Danielsback knows a lot about the relationships between guards and prisoners, and the living conditions in Finnish POW camps. In 2013, with Kujala serving as her adviser, she defended her doctoral dissertation, Vankien vartijat: Ihmislajin psykologia, neuvostosotavangit ja Suomi 1941–1944 (Captors of Prisoners of War: The Psychology of the Human Species, Soviet Prisoners of War, and Finland, 1941–1944).
“I don’t believe that mass shootings of hundreds or thousands of [Soviet] POWs took place. First, everyone was aware that shooting prisoners was illegal. Second, if there really had been incidents of mass shootings, we would know about it for certain, because someone would have talked about it. After researching the archives about conditions in the camps, I can confirm the principal causes of death were not executions at all, but hunger, disease, and hard labor. All this has been documented in sufficient detail.”
Kujala agreed with his colleague and elaborated on her arguments.
“If a considerable number of POWs had been shot somewhere simultaneously or over a brief period of time, this would have necessarily surfaced during the war, although no one could have been punished for it at the time. But it definitely would have come up during the postwar trials. Of course, we cannot rule out anything, if we have no documents [confirming or refuting the hypothesis of mass shootings]. However, we also cannot claim there were mass shootings of POWs. Of course, there were shootings. A dozen POWs could have been shot at the same time, but not hundreds and, especially, not thousands. I don’t believe it. Besides, Finns ordinarily do not solve problems this way.”
When I asked directly whether Kujala believed mass shootings had taken place at Sandarmokh and, therefore, we should look for mass burial sites there, Kujala answered in the negative.
In his article, Kujala quotes what Finnish researchers know about the numbers of POWs who perished. The Finnish National Archives produced a database on all POWS, including POWs who died. The causes of death have been indicated. Shooting is indicated as the cause of death of 1,019 people listed in the database. Kujala argues we could easily add another 200 people to that number. Thus, a total of approximately 1,200 POWs or 5.5% of all Soviet servicemen who died in while imprisoned in Finnish camps were shot. It would be wrong to suggest or assert that the majority of them were murdered near Medvezhyegorsk and buried at Sandarmokh. In addition, the greatest number of executions of unregistered prisoners, as witnessed by the archives of the Finnish courts, occurred in 1941. The number of shootings dropped off in early 1942, and when Finland came to have grave doubts about the possibility of its winning the war, in 1943, it took better care of the POWs.
Both researchers unanimously affirmed that Finnish historians have done a quite good, finely detailed job of studying issues relating to Soviet POWs and could make reasoned conclusions. One of these was the extremely low likelihood of mass killings and burials of Soviet POWS in occupied territories, i.e., behind the front lines. The largest such incident occurred right after the war broke out, when, in a matter of a few months, tens of thousands of Soviet POWs fell into the hands of the Finns on the southern front, especially on the Karelian Isthmus. It is there, most likely, that it would worth looking for burial sites containing three or four thousand unregistered POWs, that is, prisoners unlawfully shot before they were imprisoned in camps. The possibility there were mass graves of Soviet prisoners at Sandarmokh wasquite low, and the likelihood that mass killings of Soviet POWs took place there was close to zero.
In any case, according to Kujala and Danielsbacka, the camp wardens would not have dared to transport prisoners twenty kilometers away from Medvezyegorsk to shoot them in the midst of constant battles and with the front lines near at hand, and they would have been even less inclined to transport the bodies of murdered prisoners there for burial. All dead prisoners would have been buried right outside the camps. No one would have bothered with the extra work. They would have been buried, if not in the camps themselves, then in places where inmates worked and often died or could have been shot. Kujala and Danielsbacka argued that the hypothesis of mass killings and burials of Soviet POWs at Sandarmokh could not be ruled out entirely if only because there were no archival documents clearly indicating the absence of graves containing the executed inmates of the POW camps in Medvezhyegorsk.
“Finnish Researchers Have Got to the Bottom of the Question”
Kujala and Danielsbacka claimed that Finnish researchers had examined the issue in detail. Despite the fact a portion of the documentary evidence had been destroyed in 1944, the main set of documents had survived, and they could be studied freely. In addition, Finnish researchers had also worked in Russian archives and published matter. One such published works is the book The Monstrous Crimes of the Finnish Fascist Invaders in the Karelo-Finnish SSR, published in 1945. The book, however, contains mere references to individual crimes against Soviet POWs, to executions and incidents of torture, reported from the entire front. Researchers are aware that the Medvezyegorsk POW camps are likewise mentioned in the book, but they are certain this is not grounds for making conclusions about mass shootings, and this despite the fact the book should be seen more as propaganda, and less as documentary proof of crimes.
“Repatriated POWs were treated as criminals, in keeping with the Soviet Criminal Code. So the testimony they gave was the testimony of defendants, not of witnesses. In such circumstances, people could have said exactly what authorities wanted to hear them say. I believe the Soviet Union missed the opportunity to obtain really valuable, objective information,” Kujala said.
Silvennoinen agreed with Kujala. In her article “The Limits of Intended Actions: Soviet Soldiers and Civilians in Finnish Captivity,” published in the book Finland in the Second World War: History, Memory, Interpretations (2012), which is used as a Finnish university textbook, she evaluates Monstrous Crimes.
“This report, published in 1945 by a commission headed by General Gennady Kupriyanov, includes eyewitness testimony and documents. It is impossible to credibly affirm the truthfulness of the shocking stories recounted in the report, but the process of assembling the report seems to be a very disturbing sign. In any case, the incidents related in the book did not serve as grounds for actual criminal cases. It seems the report was compiled mainly as domestic propaganda, hence the large print run: 20,000 copies were distributed around the Soviet Union.”
Cover of the book The Monstrous Crimes of the Finnish Fascist Invaders in the Karelo-Finnish SSR (1945)
Kupriyanov’s report does indeed contain many account of torture and cruelty visited on Soviet soldiers and war prisoners. Many of the stories (see, e.g., pp. 203, 221–223, 257–259, 261–262, 290, 294, 297) were recorded in the Medvezhyegorsk District and include details of numerous executions, some of them mass executions, but these incidents occurred on the battlefield, and those killed were most often were Red Army soldiers wounded in battle. Not even General Kupriyanov’s report contains direct evidence the Finns could have shot hundred or thousands of Soviet POWs in the camps of the Medvezhyegorsk District or buried them en masse twenty kilometers from the city.
A critical attitude towards Soviet sources does not preclude a critical evaluation of of the crimes perpetrated by Finnish soldiers against prisoners. In the same article, Silvennoinen recounts incidents of cruel treatment of POWs and reports of executions. She quotes a directive issued by General Karl Lennart Oesch: “Treatment of war prisoners should be quite strict. […] Everyone should remember that a Russky is always a Russky, and he should be treated appropriately. […] It is necessary to mercilessly get rid of [Red Army] political instructors. If prisoners are executed, they should be marked as ‘removed.'”
Silvennoinen also knows that treatment of certain groups of POWS, not only political instructors but also Jews, for example, was the worst, and it was they who were often marked out as victims of unlawful mass murders. At the same time, Silvennoinen acknowledges that the rank-and-file “imprisoned [Soviet] soldier, finding himself at a place where POWs were assembled and registered, in a transit or permanent camps behind the front lines, was in relatively safe circumstances.” It would therefore be inaccurate to speak of mass executions.
During the Winter War of 1939–1940, 135 Soviet POWs out of a total of 6,000 died, i.e., 2.5% of all prisoners. The figure shows that, despite the attitude of Finns to Russian, which in those years was no better than during the Continuation War, there were no mass shootings of POWs. Indirectly, this might go to show that such shootings could not have become systematic in 1941–1944, either.
When Kujala and Danielsback heard about the idea of assembling an “international working group,” that would engage in affirming or refuting the hypothesis of mass burials of Soviet POWs at Sandarmokh, their reaction was extremely clear.
“I cannot speak for my [Finnish] colleagues, but I would definitely not be involved in the work of some ‘international group.’ After reading the articles published in Russian [on the websites of Zvezda TV and Izvestia], I understand the main idea of the authors or the people who commissioned the articles was to show that the Stalin regime’s crimes were awful, but others committed awful crimes, too. So, we are no worse than anyone else, and they are no better than us. I think that Finnish newspapers, including Helsingin Sanomat, who have quoted Kilin’s article in Kaleva, do not understand these intentions. People who write in articles about mass executions simply invent the truth rather than relying on the facts. Thus, I would place this ‘Sandarmokh incident’ in a broader context. And this context tells us that some people in your country are try to prove that all foreigners and foreign governments are enemies of Russia, which is really quite wrong,” Antti Kujala said.
When the conversation turned to the thought that if the Finns had accidently discovered Sandarmokh, we would not have had to wait until 1997 for it to be discovered, the Finnish researchers nodded approvingly. There was no doubt that the Finnish military command would not have concealed prewar mass burial sites. On the contrary, they would informed the international community, as it would have been a powerful boost to anti-Soviet propaganda. The same thing would have happened as happened at Katyn, which the Germans discovered and immediately reported to the whole world. Therefore, the Finns had been unaware of Sandarmokh’s existence.
Instead of an Epilogue
At the end of a long, detailed conversation, Kujala returned to the beginning of the interview, in which he had spoken about hatred.
“I would write my book a bit differently now. After it was published, other works on the topic, Mirkka’s dissertation and Oula Silvennoinen’s articles, came out, containing new information about the camps and the treatment of POWs. I would now put more emphasis on how the attitude of Finns to Soviet prisoners resembled Nazi Germany’s. It’s disgusting.”
In order for the reader to make up his or her own mind about the hypothesis advanced by Kilin and Verigin, we add to all the pros and cons voiced here images of the scanned declassified documents from the Russian FSB Central Archives.
The rest of the scanned documents, amounting to a couple dozen pages or more, can be downloaded from the article’s page on 7X7 by clicking on the series of little black dots that appear in sequence below the first scanned document. TRR
Translated by the Russian Reader
* A search of the Kaleva website turned up 24 mentions of “Juri Kilin,” but not the article in question. Following the practice of many Finnish newspapers, however, it could have been published in the Oulu-based newspaper’s print edition, but not posted online. It would, however, have been fitting to provide readers with the date of the article in question in case someone wanted to find and read it. TRR
** According to Westerlund, the total number of Soviet POWs who died in Finnish captivity from 1941 to 1944 (whether in large camps, medium camps, small camps, POW companies, military and field hospitals, and “other” locations) was 19,085. However, of the Soviet POWs who died violent deaths, he identified only 1,019 as having been shot, while 21 were murdered as the result of “death sentences.” Thus, I do not understand what Yarovaya has in mind in the following paragraph, in which she mentions “mass shootings” and “the probable 4,000 people shot.” The word “shot” is mentioned 16 times in the book edited by Westerlund: one of those mentions occurs in connection with the figure of 1,019 Soviet POWs shot in all Finnish camps, hospitals, and other places of detention during the entire period in question. Nowhere in the book is there any mention of a “probable 4,000 people shot.” Meanwhile, a search of the word “executed” in the same book garnered 18 mentions, but nearly all of these were made in connection with Soviet and German POWs who, after they were repatriated by Finland, were executed by their own governments, not by the Finns. Finally, I should point out, as Westerlund does in his article, that all executions of prisoners of war are unlawful under the Geneva Convention. But that is not the focus of his article. On the contrary, as the heading of one section of the article reads, “The Mass Mortality of Soviet Prisoners of War between 1941 and 1942 Stemmed from Neglect.” In the paragraph that follows, Westerlund explains what he means by neglect: “Signs of this neglect were the insufficient rations for the people in the camps, deficient accommodation, partially inferior equipment, the unsatisfactory hygienic conditions in the camps, inadequate health care, and the harsh and occasionally inhumane treatment of Soviet prisoners of war.” The careful reader will note that Westerlund does not mention “mass executions” among the causes of “mass mortality” among Soviet POWs in Finnish custody. Even “violent deaths” (which included suicides, accidents, bombing, etc., not only summary executions) taken together accounted for only 10% of all deaths among Soviet POWs. Yarovaya’s reference to “4,000 people shot” is all the more surprising because, later in the article, in her discussion with Finnish historians Antti Kujala and Mirkka Danielsbacka, she quotes Kujala, who cites the figure of 1,019 prisoners shot, as arrived at by Westerlund. TRR
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 Petrozavodsk. 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.