What Does the FSB Want from Russian Academics?

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What the FSB Wants from Russian Education and Science
Either Professors and Students Defend the Autonomy of Scholarship, or the Only Thing Left Will Be the “Science” of Russia’s Security in a Global World
Konstantin Gaaze
Vedomosti
November 28, 2019

On the evening of November 27, the FSB’s Border Service barred the well-known French sociologist Carine Clément from entering Russia. She was stopped at passport control in Sheremtyevo Airport and later informed that, as a “threat” to “national security,” she had been banned from entering Russia for ten years. Clément was slated to chair a panel on social stratification and the subjectivation of social status at a conference marking the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of the late sociologist Vladimir Yadov.

It is pointless to attempt to interpret the travel ban on Clement in the light of her planned lecture on resemblances between the so-called Yellow Vests [Gilets jaunes] and the so-called Quilted Jackets [vatniki]. The trouble is not with parallels, but with the fact that the FSB, the supreme authority on the life of the mind in Russia, has long ago decided that castrating the Runet is not enough to set people’s brains straight. It is time to strike—and strike hard—at the bourgeoning social sciences and the humanities.

We often forget that FSB has not one sword at its disposal—the Russian federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor—but two swords: Roskomnadzor and Rosobrnadzor, the Russian federal education watchdog. When my own university, the so-called Shaninka, was stripped of its accreditation in the summer of 2018, the only rumor that explained the absurdity and inconsistencies of the inspection procedure and the accreditation commission’s final report was that Lieutenant General Alexei Sedov, head of the FSB’s constitutional security service, had personally made the decision not to extend our accreditation.

The legendary spook realized back then, apparently, that the real enemies were not professional opposition activists, but young men and women with books by Bourdieu and Arendt tucked under their arms. One day you read the structuralists, the next day you record a video and post it on YouTube, and the day after that you take to the streets to show you exist and are still capable of acting. Who needs scholarship that has such a dangerous effect on people’s minds?

Especially since there is a different kind of scholarship, which churns out piles of monographs dealing with Russia’s “special path,” the country’s security in a global world, and the degradation of the west’s “spiritual culture,” and which dominates the universities where students are marked down for reading primary sources: they have to read the textbooks written by their professors, not the works of “foreign agents.” Such universities hold an endless stream of events celebrating the founders of allegedly original schools of thought who, in fact, are plagiarists and fools who have not bothered to crack open a new book since 1991, if not since 1980. They organize online conferences where 18-year-old bachelors of sociology have to discuss such burning topics as whether women can serve in the police and in what capacity with students from Interior Ministry academies in neighboring regions.

What is at stake for the FSB in this case is not isolating Clément from her Russian audience, but ensuring the victory of one type of education and scholarly production over another—the victory of textbooks over primary sources, the victory of rote phrases over real knowledge, the victory of articles chockablock with references to the president’s annual state of the union address over articles that quote Foucault and Judith Butler.

This decision has been ripening for a long time, but it was hampered by other players in the bureaucracy, including major universities, officials, and Kremlin-backed pollsters, who understood that Russia’s current model of governance could not countenance the total ideologization of the social sciences. But all these nuances lost their significance after the protests in Moscow this past summer. The enemy must be defeated. So, beginning this autumn, the Kremlin and the capital’s universities have been hotly discussing whether there are too many students studying sociology and political science. Wouldn’t it be better to send them all to culinary school?

It is time we understood that it is not a matter of who reads the classics correctly and who doesn’t. It is a matter of the very opportunity to read—not in a closed reading group, but in an open lecture hall; not under a blanket, but at the university, in the company of students. We cannot hide behind the walls of our oases—the Higher School of Economics, RANEPA, the European University in St. Petersburg, and the Shaninka, among others. Either faculty and students will join together and defend scholarly autonomy, or, ten years from now there will be nothing left except the indigenous “science” of national security.  It is clear we could all emigrate. It is equally clear this would be a betrayal not only of future students but also of scholarship itself.

Konstantin Gaaze is a sociologist who lectures in the Fundamental Sociology program at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (the Shaninka).

Photo courtesy of Stern. Translated by the Russian Reader

The War on Academic Free Speech in Russia

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Why Should Professors Have Free Speech?
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
November 10, 2019

The desire of certain universities to control the things the public intellectuals they employ as professors say about socially important issues teeters on the verge of censorship and can hardly benefit their reputations, demonstrating only the growing fears of their administrators.

On Friday, the Higher School of Economics made public the decision of its ethics board, which voted seven to one in favor of recommending that Gasan Gusejnov, a linguist employed in the university’s humanities faculty, apologize for his “ill-considered and irresponsible” remarks on his personal Facebook page regarding the “cesspool-like” Russian used by the Russian media. The majority of council members found the statement had caused “serious harm” to the university’s “professional reputation.”

In particular, the ethics board referred to recommendations for university staff members regarding public statements: “If the public statements of employees touch on issues that are matters of considerable public controversy […] it is recommended they refrain from mentioning the university by name.”

However, Gusejnov did not mention his position at the university in the Facebook post that sparked a witch hunt against him on social media and in pro-Kremlin media outlets. Gusejnov said he did not intend to apologize, as he had not yet received an official request to apologize from the university. This triggered a new wave of invective against him.

The persecution of university lecturers and students for political reasons cannot be called something new. In March 2014, MGIMO terminated its contract with Professor Andrey Zubov after his statements about the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In April 2015, the Smolny Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University fired political scientist and human rights expert Dmitry Dubrovsky for his public remarks. In November 2016, Alexei Petrov was fired from his post as deputy dean of the history faculty at Irkutsk State University, allegedly, for disciplinary violations, but it was actually a complaint to the prosecutor’s office by a member of the National Liberation Movement (NOD) that led to his dismissal. In March 2018, the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyarsk forced philosophy lecturer Mikhail Konstantinov to resign after he had shown students Don’t Call Him Dimon, a 2017 video exposé by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

The right to one’s opinions, even critical opinions, cannot be made dependent on a person’s job. Even with regard to civil servants, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that their official positions could not be tantamount to a total ban on the public expression of critical opinions, including in the media. It is all the more impossible to train and educate professionals without critical thinking, free discussion, and the exchange of opinions: without these things, learning turns into scholasticism. Lecturers capable of lively, unconventional thought make the reputations of universities.

There have been other such examples in the history of the Higher School of Economics. The university did not react when, in October 2013, Vladimir Putin called Professor Sergei Medvedev a “fool” for arguing that the Arctic should be administered internationally. Now, however, its administrators have probably been forced to yield to the pressure, hoping that by sacrificing individuals it can maintain control over its professors. But this is a precarious path to a questionable goal.

Image courtesy of democraticunderground.com. Translated by the Russian Reader

Spooky Knowledge and the Russian Police State

gabyshevOpposition shaman Alexander Gabyshev was detained while walking to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of yakutia.info

Superstitious Democracy
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
September 20, 2019

The arrest and possible criminal prosecution of self-declared shaman Alexander Gabyshev, who was en route to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin, whom the shaman had dubbed a demon, is less a consequence of Gabyshev’s involvement in protest rallies and more the outcome of a serious attitude toward superstitions and occult practices on the part of high government officials and the security forces.

On Thursday, Gabyshev’s traveling companions reported that security services officers, armed with machine guns and billy clubs, had raided their tent camp on the border between Buryatia and Irkutsk region, where the shaman was spending the night. The siloviki detained Gabyshev and spirited him away on a police bus that took off towards Ulan-Ude.

In the afternoon, the Buryatia Interior Ministry reported, without naming a name [sic], that Gabyshev had been detained by order of a police investigator on suspicion of his having committed a crime in Yakutia, and he would be extradited to Yakutsk. According to sources cited by news agencies and TV Rain, Gabyshev could be charged with extremism.

Gabyshev’s trek to Moscow had already been marred by the arrest of his traveling companions, which partly sparked the unrest in Ulan-Ude that led to a protest rally at which protesters demanded a recount of the recent mayoral election in the city and generated a tactical alliance between shamanists and the Communists.

In our age of smartphones and supercomputers, the attempt to exorcise demons from the Kremlin seems like a joke, just like the possible charge of extremism against Gabyshev: it transpires that occult rituals are regarded as real threats to the Russian state.

We should not be surprised by this, however. Many of our fellow Russians have lost faith in the rational foundations of the world order and the state system. The paucity of scientific explanations in Russian society has been compensated by superstitions and conspiracy theories, which are broadcast by national TV channels, among others.

But that is only half the problem. Such explanations of reality and occult methods are widespread among the highest ranks of the security services, that is, among people who have the ear of the country’s leaders. Cheka officers were intensely interested in occultism in the 1920s and 1930s, an interest shared, later, by the NKVD and the Nazi secret services.

In post-Soviet Russia, arcane practices were promoted by the late General Georgy Rogozin, who served as deputy chief of the president’s security service.

“There are powerful techniques that reveal psychotronics. This is the science of controlling the brain. […] In order to see the trajectory of a person’s life, their ups and downs, it is enough to know when they were born,” Rogozin told Komsomolskaya Pravda in an interview.

In December 2006, General Boris Ratnikov of the Federal Protective Service (FSO) told Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the secret services had tapped into the subconscious of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and detected a “pathological hatred of Slavs” and dreams of controlling Russia. In 2015, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev reproduced this as Albright’s “statement” that Siberia and the Far East did not belong to Russia.

We can only guess what threats the current security forces were able to “scan” (concoct, that is) in Gabyshev’s subconscious.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Three Years in Prison for Touching a Policeman’s Helmet

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Kirill Zhukov was sentenced to three years in prison for touching a Russian National Guardsman’s helmet. Photo by Yevgeny Razumny. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Number of Guilty Verdicts in the Moscow Case Reaches Five
Anastasia Kornya and Svetlana Bocharova
Vedomosti
September 5, 2019

On July 27, 2019, during an “unauthorized” rally in support of independent candidates to the Moscow City Duma, Kirill Zhukhov raised the visor of a helmet worn by a Russian National Guardsman. Yesterday, September 4, he was found guilty of violence towards a government official, as punishable under Article 318.1 of the Russian Criminal, and sentenced to three years in a medium-security prison colony. The verdict said that Zhukov, acting intentionally and fully aware he was dealing with a government official who was performing his duties, struck him a single blow to the head with his left hand in an attempt to tear off the helmet, causing the victim physical pain.

State investigators conducted a special forensic test establishing, allegedly, that even a slight, upward blow with the hand to the helmet’s visor causes the head to tilt back and the strap to make full contact with the skin in the chin area [sic].

Zhukhov, on the contrary, tried to prove he had only waved his hand in front of the guardsman’s visor since he wanted to draw his attention to a woman injured during the rally. But the court reacted to his testimony “critically.” As the judge explained, Zhukhov’s purpose in testifying in this way had been to mitigate the severity of his crime.

On Wednesday, the Meshchansky District Court sentenced Yevgeny Kovalenko to three and a half years in a medium-security prison colony. He was found guilty of violence against two law enforcement officers. Allegedly, he pushed one of the officers and threw a garbage can at the other.

“Fully cognizant that the man before him, Tereshchenko, was performing his duties, [Kovalenko] pushed him on the right side of the torso with both hands, causing him to lose balance and fall from the height of his own height [sic] on the granite steps and experience physical pain,” the verdict stated.

Continuing to act with criminal intent, Kovalenko grabbed National Guardsman Maxim Saliyev by the body armor with both hands, abruptly pulling him and dragging him towards himself and thus causing him physical pain. After Tereshchenko pushed Kovalenko away, Kovalenko grabbed a trash receptacle and threw it at the guardsmen, hitting Saliyev in the lower back. According to the verdict, the guardsman experienced not only physical pain when falling but also emotional suffering since, at that moment, he remembered he had to perform his duties [sic].

During the trial, Kovalenko explained he had not intended any harm. He had only tried to frighten off policemen who were beating up protesters. However, the judge said the court was skeptical of his claims. They were refuted by the evidence in the case file and were an attempt to avoid punishment.

“The court notes the consistent and purposeful nature of the defendant’s actions, testifying to his criminal intent to employ violence,” the verdict stated.

The judge emphasized that arguments about police misconduct could not be considered during the trial and were not evidence of the defendant’s innocence.

Kovalenko’s defense counsel Mansur Gilmanov pointed out that the crime with which his client had been charged was a crime against the normal functioning of government. It thus followed that beating up peaceful protesters was one way in which the government normally functioned, he argued.

Svetlana Bayturina, Zhukov’s lawyer, called the sentence handed down to her client unprecedentedly severe: usually, such cases had resulted in fines for defendants or, at most, suspended sentences. The speed with which the case was investigated and tried was also unprecedented: the investigation took three days; the trial, one. Bayturina promised the defense would appeal the verdict and intended to take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

This was the second “judgment day” for arrested protesters. The day before, blogger Vladislav Sinitsa was sentenced to five years in prison for posting a tweet the prosecution had described as a call to harm the children of law enforcement officers. Technician Ivan Podkopayev was sentenced to three years in prison for spraying pepper spray in the direction Russian National Guardsmen, while businessman Danila Beglets was sentenced to two years in prison for grabbing a policeman’s arm. Their cases were tried under the special procedure: neither man denied his guilt.

Gilmanov noted there was no significant difference between the sentences given to defendants who made deals with the prosecution and those handed down to defendants who pleaded not guilty. This testified to the fact the verdicts were political. The sentences were decided by more senior officials and legal nuances did not matter much, he argued.

Protesters arrested and charged under Article 318.1 after a similar “unauthorized” rally in Moscow on March 26, 2017, were given much lighter prison sentences, between eight months and two and a half years. For example, Stanislav Zimovets, convicted of throwing a brick that hit a riot police commander in the back, was sentenced to two years and six months in prison, while Dmitry Krepkin, who kicked a riot policemen’s hip or his billy club, was sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Only Andrei Kosykh, convicted of punching one policeman’s helmet and kicking another policeman in the neck and lower jaw, was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison, but he was convicted under Article 318.2, which covers violence that could result in death or grievous bodily harm.

The sentences in the so-called Moscow case have been roughly the same as those handed out in the Bolotnaya Square Case in 2012, only this time the protesters had not resisted law enforcement officers at all, political commentator Alexei Makarkin noted. According to him, the sentences in the current cases were dictated by the new rules of the game.

“Whereas before if someone hit a policemen in the teeth and damaged the enamel, he would do hard time, now people are getting similar, slightly shorter sentences for lifting the visors on riot policemen’s helmets, while people who grabbed a policemen by the arms are getting two years in prison,” Makarkin said.

In the Bolotnaya Square Case, the official charges looked more serious, Makarkin argues. The confrontation on the square was much rougher. In some ways, it harked back to the 1990s, when people fought with policemen without incurring such long sentences, he noted.

“The Bolotnaya Square Case marked a new phase. We realized the state had made it a rule that if you raised your hand against a police officer, you would go to jail. If a policeman raised a hand against you, he would be commended,” Makarkin said.

This time, the security forces also wanted to punish a certain number of people, but they failed to put together a new Bolotnaya Square case.

“So they decided anyone who had raised their hand and somehow touched a policeman should go to jail. But since they failed to dig up anything serious, they chose from what they had to work with,” Makarkin said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Is Smart Voting So Smart?

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Experts Disagree on Effectiveness of Smart Voting: Some Candidates Recommended by Navalny Could Win, But the Strategy Has Split the Opposition
Yelena Mukhametshina and Svetlana Bocharova
Vedomosti
September 4, 2019

On Tuesday, politician Alexei Navalny published on his website a list of candidates running in the elections to the Moscow City Duma, scheduled for this Sunday, September 8, whom he has recommended for “smart” voters. They are invited to visit the website and enter their home address to see the name of the recommended candidate in their voting district.

The list covers all forty-five voting districts in Moscow and includes thirty-three Communist Party candidates, five candidates from A Just Russia, all three Yabloko Party candidates who have been allowed to stand in the elections, and one independent candidate.

In particular, in District 5, where ex-MP Dmitry Gudkov was not allowed to stand, Navalny has recommended voting for Anastasia Udaltsova (Communist Party). In District 37, where the Yabloko candidate, Elena Rusakova, was disqualified, he urged voters to cast their ballots for Nikolai Gubenko (Communist Party), the Moscow City Duma’s incumbent deputy chair. In District 43, where Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, was not allowed to run, he advised people to vote for Yabloko candidate Sergei Mitrokhin. Finally, in District 45, where Ilya Yashin, head of the Krasnoselsky Municipal District Council was disqualified, Navalny has recommended supporting Magomet Yandiyev from A Just Russia.

The smart voting strategy argues that opposition-minded Muscovites should vote in a consolidated manner for the recommended candidates in order to prevent as many covert and overt United Russia party candidates and other pro-regime candidates from being seated in the City Duma as possible. The idea is to seat forty-five different MPs in the City Duma.

As Navalny explained, “Five or six will be okay, one to three will be just great, and the rest won’t be from United Russia, at least.”

All of United Russia’s candidates and candidates supported by the mayor’s office are running as independents in the current elections. As our sources close to the mayor’s office and the party explained to us earlier, this was due to United Russia’s low popularity ratings in the capital.

On Tuesday, TV Rain quoted Valery Rashkin, leader of the Moscow branch of the Communist Party, as saying they intended to welcome Navalny’s call to vote for Communists in most of Moscow’s voting districts. When he was asked how the party’s national leadership would react, Rashkin said the Moscow branch was independent.

Political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko pointed out there were candidates in Navalny’s list who already had a good chance of winning. It was doubtful, he argued, whether Navalny’s recommendations would have a direct, large-scale impact on their vote tallies.

“The number of activists who are willing to respond to Navalny’s recommendations is not great,” Minchenko said.

In addition, there was the question of how to measure the effectiveness of the recommendations since it would be impossible to establish reliably why people voted the way they did, argued Mincheko.

The situation was a delicate one for the Communists, he noted.

“They have been trying to tune Navalny out any way they can,” he said.

Since the Communists were stronger electorally than Navalny, it was more advantageous to him to enlist them as his ad hoc allies.

Minchenko did not expect the regime to crack down on the candidates recommended by Navalny.

Judging by the attention rank-and-file voters have been paying to the current showdown, according to Levada Center polls, smart voting could prove to be the kingmaker in most voting districts, political scientist Abbas Gallyamov argued.

“People are wound up, not so much because of the refusal to register opposition candidates, but because of the aggressive actions of the security forces. The percentage of voters who show up to the polls as a way of voicing their protest will be quite high,” he said.

Many of the candidates supported by Navalny were not at loggerheads with the regime, but neither were they “regime people,” Gallyamov added.

“As soon as they feel they have the backing of real voters, especially protest voters, they will quickly become self-sufficient and the authorities will have to negotiate with each of them,” he said.

Smart voting had split the opposition, separating its more radical members from the moderates, noted political scientist Alexei Makarkin.

“The more radical politicians have the same principle: the worse things are, the better. If a Stalinist ends up in the Moscow City Duma, that would be okay, too. In reality, however, such people are usually quickly co-opted by the regime,” he said.

Besides, Makarkin said, Dmitry Gudkov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky had published their own lists of recommended candidates.

“Smart voting has not helped consolidate the opposition. It has generated more conflict among people whose relations were already far from sunny,” he said.

In addition, there were problems with specific candidates recommended by Navalny. For example, his list included Leonid Zyuganov, grandson of regime loyalist and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, said Makarkin.

Navalny’s recommendations would not do the Communist Party any harm, nor did Makarkin anticipate crackdowns against the party members on his list.

Image courtesy of Back in River City. Translated by the Russian Reader

Bortko Jumps Overboard

bortko (gleb morev).jpgCampaign poster for Vladimir Bortko in downtown Petersburg: “Bortko: The City Has a Choice. September 8. CPRF.” Photo by Gleb Morev

Bortko Withdraws from Petersburg Gubernatorial Election, Ensuring Beglov Victory in First Round: Northern Capital’s Acting Governor Now Faces Only Two Opponents
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
September 2, 2019

Filmmaker and Communist Party MP Vladimir Bortko has withdrawn from the governor’s race in Saint Petersburg. He announced this on Friday during a televised debate. Experts said his departure was necessary to secure a victory for acting governor Alexander Beglov in the first round of voting, scheduled for September 8.

At a press conference, Bortko said he asked the other candidates to withdraw due to possible vote-rigging after it transpired polling stations would be opened in Leningrad Region and Pskov Region.

“If I had not withdrawn, the methods for rigging the vote would have been employed to the hilt and we would have been looking at 200,000 to 250,000 extra votes. But I don’t want to get seventeen or eighteen percent and an honorable mention for second place.”

Admitting the Smolny [Petersburg city hall] had helped get him through the so-called municipal filter, Bortko said his withdrawal had been his own spontaneous decision and that the president’s first deputy chief of staff, Sergei Kiriyenko, had tried to talk him out of it.

Meanwhile, last week, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky wrote on Instagram that he and Bortko had discussed the idea for a new TV film about the 1812 war against Napoleon.

Bortko is the second parliamentary party candidate to withdraw from the Petersburg elections. Earlier, Oleg Kapitanov, an LDPR member of the Petersburg Legislative Assembly, accepted Beglov’s offer to take up a post in the city government. The acting governor now faces only two opponents: Mikhail Amosov (Civic Platform) and Nadezhda Tikhonova (A Just Russia).

Bortko said the Communist Party did not know about his decision. But our source inside the part said Bortko had informed party chair Gennady Zyuganov about his intentions early last week. The Communists had talked Bortko out of withdrawing but he changed his mind.

Our source admitted it was possible that Bortko had been used “without his knowledge” as “an emotional person,” but thought it was unlikely that Beglov could not have won in the first round without his help. He did not believe Kiriyenko had tried to talk Beglov out of it.

Zyuganov said the party would evaluate Bortko’s actions after the elections.

Earlier, a source close to the Kremlin told Vedomosti that Bortko’s support rating had climbed to nearly thirty percent and thus increased the likelihood of a second round.

Another source close to the Kremlin said Beglov did not have enough support to win in the first round: fewer than fifty percent of Petersburgers who were polled said they would vote for him.

Two other sources close to the Kremlin told us about the danger of a second round.

“The expectation is some older voters who supported Bortko could switch their support to Beglov,” one of them said.

Bortko’s name will now be manually stricken from the ballots. Dmitry Krasnyansky, a member of the Petersburg City Elections Commission, said the electronic ballot boxes set up at a quarter of polling stations provided for this option.

“However, this has to be done with maximum precision. If it’s a little crooked, it won’t read. It’s a real problem. In such cases, the electronic ballot box would simply be turned off,” Krasnyansky said.

One of our sources argued that, in this case, there would be “great opportunities for adjusting the final vote tallies.”

Political consultant Grigory Kazankov argued Bortkov’s withdrawal would not help Beglov in any way since Beglov was his own worst enemy.

“Beglov has no strong opponents. The situation is similar to the one faced by Governor Svetlana Orlova in the Vladimir Region in 2018. She lost to the LDPR candidate. Whether the election is legitimate or not will depend on whether it is run properly. So the question is whether the votes will be counted honestly or, as is usually the case in Petersburg, there are controversies,” Kazankov said.

Bortko’s withdrawal suits the powers that be since it will lower voter turnout. If the turnout was around thirty percent, the majority of Petersburgers who come to the polls would be pro-government voters, argued political consultant Valentin Bianchi.

“No matter what anyone says now, everyone will assume the government got Bortko to withdraw. This is a minus sign for the authorities, and for Beglov in particular. Although Bortko is a creative type, he’s a rational man. His meeting with Medinsky could be the piece of the puzzle that explains what happened,” Bianchi said.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Sandarmokh: Rewriting History with Shovels

content_IMG_9455“Alternative” excavations at Sandarmokh. Photo by Irina Tumakova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Sifting through History: The “Alternative” Excavations at Sandarmokh Are Meant to Shift the Public’s Attention from Great Terror Victims to WWII Casualties
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
August 20, 2019

The ongoing excavations by the Russian Military History Society (RVIO) at the Sandarmokh site in [Russian] Karelia, where political prisoners were shot during the Great Terror, reflects the desire of Russian officials to switch the public’s attention to the Second World War.

In August, RVIO employees and a Defense Ministry search battalion resumed digging at Sandarmokh. Karelian Culture Minister Alexei Lesonen said the objective was to “separate artifacts having to do with different layers of history and different circumstances.”

It is a matter of words matching deeds. In 1997, local historian Yuri Dmitriev discovered the mass graves of people shot by the NKVD in 1937–1938. Thanks to Dmitriev’s efforts, Sandarmokh became a symbol of the Great Terror.

International Memorial Society board member Sergei Krivenko puts a number on it: archival documents have confirmed that over 6,100 people were shot and buried at Sandarmokh during the Great Terror.

In keeping with the Kremlin’s policy of “inculcating pride in the past,” the authorities have attempted, in recent years, to diminish Sandarmokh’s status as a memorial site. The authorities have tried to discredit Dmitriev and, by his extension, his work by charging him in a notorious “pedophilia” case [in which two men have already been convicted and sentenced, including Sergei Koltyrin, former director of the Medvezhyegorsk Museum and an ally of Dmitriev’s]. They have claimed Memorial’s figures for the number of victims are inflated. They have pushed an alternate account that the Finnish Army shot and buried Soviet POWS at Sandarmokh between 1941 and 1944.

The RVIO’s August–September 2018 expedition turned up the remains of five people. Historian Sergei Verigin said they corroborated the hypothesis about Soviet POWS because the executed people had not been stripped before they were shot and foreign-made shell casings were found next to them. This proves nothing, however. The NKVD used foreign-made weapons when it executed its prisoners [22,000 Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia] at Katyn, nor have the RVIO established when exactly the people whose remains they found were killed.

The Karelian Culture Ministry has asked the RVIO to keep digging. Officials there are convinced that “speculation about events in Sandarmokh […] reinforces in the public’s mind a baseless sense of guilt towards the alleged [Great Terror] victims […] becoming a consolidating factor for anti-government forces in Russia.”

The RVIO did not respond to our request to comment on the claim that the people shot and buried at Sandarmokh were “alleged victims.” They keep digging In early August, the remains of five more people were found.

Memorial has demanded an end to the excavations, fearing the mass graves will be disturbed. Archaeologists have also sounded a warning because the traces of dwelling sites used by prehistoric people have been found at Sandarmokh as well and they could be damaged.

The problem, however, is not that artifacts could get mixed up. The problem is there is no comparison between the maximum possible number of Soviet POWs executed and buried at Sandarmokh, as estimated by the Karelian Culture Ministry, and the confirmed numbers of victims of Stalin’s terror campaign who are buried there: 500 versus over 6,100.

The digs at Sandarmokh are a clumsy attempt by Russian officials to alter the meaning of the memorial site and rewrite the past with shovels. More importantly, officials want to juggle the numbers of victims and thus gaslight the Russian public.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Without Fathers, a video made by Anna Artemieva and Gleb Limansky, and published by Novaya Gazeta on August 7, 2017. The annotation reads, “The orphans of Sandarmokh remember their executed relatives. Historian Yuri Dmitriev did not attend memorial day ceremonies there for the first time in twenty years. He is on trial, charged with ‘manufacturing child pornography.'”