Politically-motivated excavations

Russia has turned to politically-motivated excavations to rewrite the history of the USSR in the late 1930s, writes Halya Coynash, after jailing a major historian of Stalin’s Great Terror yet again.
A new attempt to rewrite the history of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union appears to be under way in Russia. This renewed offensive is ominously linked with the re-arrest and imprisonment on fabricated charges of Yury Dmitriev, a world-renowned historian and the head of the Memorial Society in Karelia. Dmitriev and colleagues from Memorial played a key role in uncovering and identifying the mass graves in eastern Karelia that have since become known as Sandarmokh. Unsubstantiated claims that Sandarmokh could hold the graves of “thousands” of Red Army soldiers taken prisoner by the Finnish Army in 1941-1943 have coincided, over the last two years, with attacks on both Dmitriev and Memorial.

Despite the lack of any hard evidence, and pleas from the children and grandchildren of those whose remains lie buried at Sandarmokh, Russia’s Military History Society has begun to carry out excavations at the site.

“Distorting” Russia’s past

President Vladimir Putin created the Military History Society in December 2012, to “consolidate the forces of state and society in the study of Russia’s military-historical past and counter efforts to distort it”.  It is headed by Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, and has initiated such controversial moves as the creation of a museum and bust of Stalin in Khoroshevo (Tver Region).  Medinsky’s article on that occasion is part of a mounting tendency by the Putin regime to whitewash a mass murderer, and has resulted, in January 2017, in a record 46% of Russian citizens viewing Stalin in a positive light.

A museum at the site of Perm-36, one of the most notorious political labour camps of the later Soviet period, has been turned into a bitter parody, with attempts to remove all mention of repression.  The NGO which previously ran the museum has, in turn, been added to Russia’s “list of foreign agents”.

Russia may now be seeking to rewrite history, even at Sandarmokh.  Since the 236 mass graves were discovered in 1997, the site has become a place of pilgrimage where  an International Day of Remembrance is held each year on 5 August to commemorate the Victims of the Great Terror. Until recently the event was fully supported by the Karelian authoritiess, even with help from the FSB [security service]. During the past four years no official representatives of federal, republican or local authorities have taken part in the commemorative  events. In August 2018, even the head of the local museum, who has worked closely with Memorial, was prevented from attending.

It was in June 2016, six months before Dmitriev’s arrest, that two historians from Petrozavodsk State University, Yury Kilin and Sergei Verigin, asserted that Soviet Prisoners of War (POWs) held in Finnish concentration camps and then killed and buried at Sandarmokh during the Second World War migh be among those buried there. While an article by Kilin for a Finnish newspaper did not mention the Memorial Society, pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia was swift to report Kilin’s unsubstantiated assertion as suggesting that Memorial’s findings might need revision.  It claimed, for example, that the remains, thought to be of victims of Stalin’s repression, “could turn out to be Red Army soldiers murdered in Finnish concentration camps”.  TV Zvezda, a channel linked with Russia’s Ministry of Defence, reported Kilin’s article, embellishing it with the claim that “thousands” of Soviet POWs might be buried at Sandarmokh, and also showing recently declassified documents provided to the channel by the FSB.

Rewriting Sandarmokh

In a long article, published in December 2017, “Rewriting Sandarmokh“, Petrozavodsk journalist Anna Yarovaya has outlined many suspect ‘coincidences’: Kilin’s article, expressing a mere hypothesis, was swiftly followed by the FSB’s ‘sudden’ discovery of apparent evidence, which they then hurriedly shared with television reporters.

Verigin asserts that he and Kilin worked independently to reach essentially identical conclusions.  It was Verigin who suggested, in a commentary for the above-mentioned Izvestia article, that Memorial had not been interested in discovering the alleged remains of POWs.

Three weeks after Dmitriev’s arrest, a 15-minute programme was broadcast on the government-controlled Rossiya-24 TV channel.  Most of the film was an attack on Memorial, with five minutes about Dmitriev and the photos clearly aimed at spreading dirt and convincing the audience of his guilt.  There too, it was evident that the FSB or ‘investigators’ had provided the channel with file material that should not have been disclosed.

In June 2017, Kilin and Verigin jointly called a round-table discussion, to which members of Memorial were not invited.  They presented their claims, both now speaking of “several thousand” POWs possibly buried at Sandarmokh. They were not denying that there were also graves of political prisoners there, the two historians said. Verigin came out with one telling inaccuracy.  “It’s like Katyn,” he said. “First it was the NKVD who carried out the executions, then it was the Germans.  In one and the same place”.

For decades, the Soviet Union denied its role in the murder of 22,000 Polish army officers in April 1940, claiming that the Nazis had committed the atrocities.  Russia has since officially accepted that the NKVD were responsible, but this historian still came out with a falsehood. There are no Nazi victims at Katyn.

As Yarovaya points out, the Soviet Union deliberately tried to create confusion between Katyn and Khatyn, a village in Belorussia where the inhabitants were undoubtedly murdered by the Nazis. Memorial believes that a similar attempt is now being made at Sandarmokh, to blur what happened there and, once again, to pin the blame on someone else.

Russian and Finnish historians whom Yarovaya contacted dismiss the new hypothesis as politically-motivated, and not based on any credible evidence.  This is in sharp contrast to the evidence about graves of the victims of the Terror.  It is known, for example, that from 27 October to 4 November 1937, 1,111 prisoners from the notorious Solovki Prison in the White Sea were executed at Sandarmokh by the NKVD, including 289 Ukrainian writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia [a plaque commemorating the “Last Transport” has long been displayed at Sandarmokh, see right-hand sidebar, ed.]

Excavations in the absence of Dmitriev —
or any independent monitor

The news in August 2018 that excavations were to begin by the end of the month aroused immense concern among relatives of those killed at Sandarmokh.

An open appeal, entitled “Leave the graves alone!” was addressed to the Ministry of Culture, the Russian Military History Society and the head of the excavation Oleg Titberiy, demanding that the excavations be cancelled. There are no grounds, nor any new documents, casting doubt on the 1997 conclusions as to the identity of those shot and buried at Sandarmokh.  No documentation exists to back claims that Soviet POWs might also be buried there.

“Do not disturb the graves of our relatives. Do not destroy this memorial site. We call on all relatives from all over the world of the innocent people murdered in the Sandarmokh Clearing to join with us in this appeal,” the authors write. It seems unlikely that their appeal will be heeded.

Neither will there be independent participants in this ‘excavation’, making it conceivable that efforts could be taken to ‘find’ realia apparently identifying those buried as soldiers, rather than as victims of the Great Terror. This new narrative about Sandarmokh, pushed for the past two years, coincides with the refusal of the authorities to take part in acts of commemoration, the attack on the Memorial Society and, most chilling of all, the politically-motivated prosecution of 62-year-old Yury Dmitriev.

Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016 and charged with “preparing pornography involving a minor” (Article 242.2 of Russia’s Criminal Code) and “depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11” (Article 135).  Both these apparently serious charges pertained solely to a directory on his computer, never shared with others, containing 114 photos of his adopted daughter Natasha.  The little girl had been painfully thin and in poor health at three years old, when he and his former wife took her from the children’s home, and the authorities themselves advised him to monitor her development.  Each of the photos, taken between 2008 and 2015, recorded her weight and height.

It was hoped that a case involving “child pornography” would turn people against Dmitriev and discredit Memorial.  It did nothing of the kind.  As opposed to the mathematician, teacher and art historian who obligingly perceived ‘pornography’ in nine of over one hundred photos, the defence called proper experts.  They dismissed the allegations outright, detecting no whiff of ‘pornography’ in the photographs, and confirming that it was common practice to take such photos for monitoring development.

A renewed attack

Whoever orchestrated this prosecution from behind the scenes decided, perhaps, to back off briefly when faced by such damning expert opinion and worldwide publicity for the case.  On 5 April 2018, Dmitriev was acquitted of the ‘pornography’ charges. The acquittal was overturned on 14 June, however, and the case sent back for ‘retrial’.

The aim was clearly to convict and imprison Dmitriev. On 27 June, he was re-arrested, and this time the ‘investigators’ charged him with ‘violent acts of a sexual nature’,  against his adopted daughter.  Dmitriev has not seen her for almost two years, and there was never any suggestion before of such charges.

Russia is hoping, probably, that people have now forgotten about this internationally condemned case and that they can convict Dmitriev with impunity.  It is vital that they see that they are wrong, both with respect to their persecution of Dmitriev and their attempt to rewrite history.

Human Rights in Ukraine
28 August 2018


Early in July 1997, with Irina Flige and the late Veniamin Joffe of St Petersburg Memorial, Yury Dmitriev identified the killing fields near Medvezhegorsk in eastern Karelia, subsequently known as Sandarmokh.

Among the thousands shot and buried there were the “Last Transport” from the Solovki Special Prison in the White Sea, which included almost three hundred representatives of the Executed Renaissance, leading Ukrainian writers, actors and other members of the intelligentsia, taken to the mainland to be shot dead.

Since 5 August 1998, when an annual Day of Remembrance was instituted at Karelia’s largest killing field, Ukrainians have been prominent among the the various national and confessional delegations gathering at Sandarmokh to commemorate the victims of Stalin.

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