Were the 2018 excavations at Sandarmokh legal?

As the prosecution continues to present its evidence of “new offences” by Yury DMITRIEV at his second trial in the Petrozavodsk City Court in Karelia, a related dispute is being pursued at the national level over the identity of those executed and buried at Sandarmokh.

In early February, the Kommersant daily newspaper reported on this “second front” in the Dmitriev Affair.

Sandarmokh, Solovki transport memorial (photo Kurilova)
Solovki transport memorial, Sandarmokh (photo, Anastasia Kurilova, August 2018)

In January 2019 there was an appeal for Yury Chaika, the Russian Federation’s Prosecutor General, to personally investigate the excavations at Sandarmokh last year by the Military History Society (MHS).

The request came from a deputy of the Karelian Legislative Assembly, Emilia Slabunova of the Yabloko Party. The authorities, she believes, had confused the status of memorial complex with “a site of interest” when granting permission for the MHS to carry out its exploratory excavations. She was referring to the archaeological investigation carried out by the Society at Sandarmokh between 25 August and 5 September 2018.

The local authorities gave the MHS permission to do the following:

  • define the extent of the memorial graveyard;
  • establish the density of the burials; and
  • search for buried prisoners from Finnish concentration camps, including Soviet POWs.

Their activities, Slabunova suggests, violated Federal Law 73 “Concerning the Russian Federation’s Sites of Cultural Heritage”.

The Directorate for “the Preservation of Sites of the Karelian Republic’s Cultural Legacy” considers that the graveyard is “a place of interest” and that excavations may, therefore, be carried out within its limits. In the nationwide Unified State Register of Culturally Significant Sites, however, the Sandarmokh Glade is listed as a “Historical Monument”, which means that earthworks anywhere on its territory are restricted (Article 5.1 of Federal law 73).

Deputy Slabunova disputes assertions by Karelian officials that the MHS were carrying out research, a form of activity aimed at conserving a site of cultural significance that includes the conduct of excavations. Such conservation work, says deputy Slabunova, is licensed and the MHS has not been granted such a license. Karelian officials also failed to announce that the MHS had been given permission to carry out archaeological work.

Deputy Emilia Slabunova urged Mr Chaika to deal with her appeal himself, and not refer it back to the prosecutor’s office of the Karelian Republic, as was the case with her previous applications to the RF Prosecutor-General’s Office. Those appeals were dismissed out of hand.

What I saw at the Sandarmokh Memorial Complex

The Military History Society states that the work at Sandarmokh was lawfully carried out, with the permission of the local authorities.

Let us remind readers that there is a memorial graveyard at the Sandarmokh Clearing of those executed during the Great Terror (1937-1938). In 1997, thanks to the efforts of local historian Yury DMITRIEV … [and others], it was established that more than 3,500 inhabitants of the Karelian Republic, over 3,000 imprisoned builders of the White Sea Canal and 1,111 prisoners from the Solovki Prison (including university lecturers, economists and historians) were executed and buried here. The names of those shot there were confirmed in the local FSB archives. It took five successive issues of a local newspaper to publish the list of all the inhabitants of Karelia who were shot at Sandarmokh by the NKVD.

In 2016 two researchers from Petrozavodsk University suggested that Soviet POWs were murdered at Sandarmokh by the invading Finns. In 2018 the Military History Society decided to test this hypothesis. Two burial pits were identified. They contained the remains of five individuals, shot in the back of the head, and bullets of various calibre and manufacture. Kommersant learned from the Investigative Committee for the Karelian Republic that the human remains had been transferred to the Forensic Medicine department for examination. The Investigative Committee did not respond  when asked what the results were.

Why does the Ministry of Defence assert that Soviet POWs
were executed and buried at Sandarmokh?

Finnish historians have no information, they say, about the shooting of POWs in an area that was contested by opposing forces during the Finnish occupation (1941-1944).

Relatives of those shot at Sandarmokh opposed any new excavations there, and in an open letter to the RF Ministry of Culture [the minister Medinsky is closely involved with the Military History Society, tr.] requested that the graves not be disturbed. Rights activists regard the activities of the Military History Society as an attempt to rewrite history and erase the memory of mass executions at Sandarmokh during the Great Terror of the late 1930s.


Meanwhile, the number of current criminal investigations and prosecutions linked to the memorial complex are increasing. In 2016 local historian Yury DMITRIEV was arrested on charges of making pornographic images and possession of a firearm. Early in 2018 he was cleared of the first charge, but in spring that year the Supreme Court of the Karelian Republic overturned the verdict and sent the case back for re-examination. In June 2018, new criminal proceedings were brought against the historian and charges of sexual acts of an enforced nature are now being heard during a second trial.

In October 2018 Sergei Koltyrin, director of the Medvezhyegorsk district museum, which oversees the Sandarmokh memorial complex, was also arrested. He was accused of paedophilia. The investigation into his case is ongoing.

Anastasia Kurilova
Kommersant, 9 February 2019

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