I first met students from the Moscow Film School, it seems, at Sandarmokh. They had come for the Day of Remembrance on 5 August. As it happened, one of the buses I’d laid on was empty and they travelled on it to the graveyard and back. They were greatly impressed and began asking me about local history.
Later they wrote me a letter: “Let us help you in some way.” I took up the offer and we went to Peter the Great’s arms factory. The next year they said: “We’d like to help again.” We worked at the Badger’s Hill graveyard. They wanted to help again, and that’s when we started going to Solovki.
At Badger’s Hill we organised and tidied the graveyard of prisoners from the BelBaltLag camps, next to the 8th lock on the White Sea Canal. The factory is one of the four cannon foundries works set up in Karelia on the orders of Peter the Great. The blast furnaces are still there: you can touch them. We cleared up the surrounding area and put up a notice: this was the site of a factory that produced shot, tackle and swords for the young Russian fleet. The weaponry was manufactured here; the ships themselves were built on the River Dvina – “Vivat Rossiya!” and stuff like that. There was a historical and military romance about the spot. And then we went to Solovki.
I’d already been helping the Solovki Museum with some archival research. Olga Bochkareva, a senior research associate at the Museum, came to Petrozavodsk on business and dropped by to get acquainted. She saw what I was doing: “People were shot on Solovki as well, but we don’t know where they were buried. We must mark out the area. Please, come and visit. Here’s a contract for you to sign …” And that was how I first went there. Well, Solovki is such an extraordinary special place. I was entranced.
If I take someone with me then, like the head of any expedition, I am fully responsible for them: food, health, safety, and so on. If I invite the students from the film school or ask them to help then apart from the teachers who accompany them, I also take care that they can cope with the work. Somehow, we manage to work in such a way that the kids don’t feel afraid or hurt or find the work difficult. They do not open the graves. They help to clear and tidy.
Then we come back in the evening and I say: “today, with your help, we have tidied up yet another grave: it contains so many men and women, of approximately this and that age.” They begin to understand that we are not just digging up the earth; they can see what happened here. It’s not just a hole in the ground, it’s a grave and those lying there were shot.
Will I stop what I’m doing? I’ll carry on, but elsewhere. If I stay here [in Russia] everything will be lost. And I’ll be done for, too. Yet even if I die my work will be preserved.
The person who needs these materials will get them all from me. There’s so much that I can barely keep up. I can’t do everything – I’ve already realised that. But I’d like to get the main work done, if I can grasp what it is. Things that don’t seem important now will be at the top of the list in five or ten years’ time. Will I be able to work for the next 5-10 years? Perhaps. I don’t know. It’s all in the hands of the Almighty.
How we dig the earth or hammer in nails – or draw lines on a drawing-board — are not the most difficult problem we face in our lives. The most complex challenge is to find our own path. We don’t appear on this earth by accident. Each one of us has his or her own task or goal in life, and we are led towards that goal by a foreordained path. We have a good understanding of ourselves before we are born. And no matter what potholes and bumps, twists and turns lie ahead of us on our chosen path, we know where they are and how to avoid them. As soon as we come into this world, however, we forget all we knew.
Then for a long and painful period we seek the right path. Because it is the only one leading us forward, that can inform or educate our souls. For some their whole lives are spent in searching and uncertainty. They rush here, there they stand and wait, but they do not follow their own path. Happiness comes when you find your path and can travel along it, at least for a little way.
I’m fortunate because I’ve understood what I should be doing. It’s my path, my cross, and I have accepted it as the way to my own Golgotha.
Concluding excerpt from “My Path to Golgotha“,
an interview with Irina Galkova (Memorial)