The Search for Sandormokh

“Twenty years ago, it seemed to us that Sandormokh as a place and these acts of remembrance divided the present from the past,” said Irina FLIGE in August 2017, at the Day of Remembrance at Sandormokh. “Today, unfortunately, we must recognise that memories of the Great Terror have not become part of our [shared] memory …”

The previous year two historians at Petrozavodsk University had put forward a ‘new hypothesis’ as to who lay buried in the woods outside Medvezhegorsk; in the Karelian capital, Yury Dmitriev was spending his eighth month in jail.

It took years to locate Karelia’s largest killing ground of the late 1930s. Irina Flige’s account of that long, painstaking quest is described in her The Search for Sandormokh, which was launched in Moscow in July 2019. At the same press conference the proposed excavations by the Russian Military History Society were exposed and condemned. Meanwhile, Dmitriev, acquitted in April 2018,  was on trial for a second time and once again incarcerated in Petrozavodsk’s Detention Centre No 1.

Excerpts from Irina Flige,
The Search for Sandormokh (2019)

(Part 1)

“Where are our fathers buried?”

At the very end of the 1980s, people at last began to be given correct information about the death sentence passed on members of their family, when it was issued and when they were shot. Nothing was said about where they were executed or buried.

In cities throughout the USSR “Weeks of Conscience” were held. On improvised “Walls of Remembrance” people wrote the names of family members who had never returned home. Placards demanding to know “Where are our fathers buried?” appeared at different rallies. The first expeditionary groups were formed then, of people driven by a need to lay flowers on the grave of their loved one.


Ivan Chukhin’s archival discoveries

In Petrozavodsk, as in many Soviet cities by 1990, a Memorial society came into being. Its chairman and the person behind its creation was Ivan CHUKHIN, a colonel in the police and a senior investigator of serious crime for the Karelian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The reforming tide of perestroika led to Chukhin’s election that same year as a deputy of the Russian Supreme Soviet. He was one of the authors of the October 1991 “Law on Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression”. After the October 1993 events, Chukhin was again elected to represent Karelia in the new State Duma. His chief task, he believed, was to investigate the history of the Gulag and the Great Terror.

By the mid-1990s, Chukhin had located crucial materials documenting the history of the mass executions of the late 1930s in Karelia: the complete minutes of the meetings of the Karelian troika; and the decisions taken by the two-man commission in Moscow as to who was to be shot in the Karelian Republic (the decisions were then sent to the republic for the sentences to be carried out).

Drawing on these materials, Chukhin was able to compile a chronological table of all the executions, whether they were based on the sentences of the Karelian troika, the two-man commission in Moscow or the Special Karelian NKVD Troika set up in September 1938 in response to Yezhov’s order No 00606 for completion of all “ethnic” operations.

Ivan Chukhin (1948-1997)

Ivan Chukhin (1949-1997)

The tables listed the date of execution; the place of execution (i.e. the nearest population centre); the numbers executed; and the surnames of the NKVD employees who carried out the executions.

Eleven Karelian place-names occur in Chukhin’s tables: Petrozavodsk, Medgora, Kem, Segezha, Pudozh, Vodorazdel, Olonets, Rugozero, Sosnovets, Kandalaksha, Reboly, Kondopoga, Urosozero and Belomorsk. Unlike the overwhelming majority of other Regions and Republics in the Soviet Union, the area where the executions were carried out in Karelia was mentioned in reports that the task had been completed. Each one of these place-names could refer to many square kilometres of impenetrable Karelian forest. It was then that Chukhin and his helper Yury Dmitriev began to compile the Karelian Book of Remembrance of the Victims of Terror. By 1997, they had  gathered about 15,000 names with brief biographical details, of whom 12,453 were shot.

The abundance of killing grounds in Karelia is explained by the presence of Belbaltlag, a major camp system that spread across the entire territory of the republic. The construction of the Baltic White Sea Canal officially ended in 1933 but by the late 1930s Belbaltlag remained one of largest camp systems in the USSR: between 60,000 and 80,000 prisoners were being used to “complete” and service the canal. During the course of the Great Terror (August 1937-October 1938) no less than 2,500-2,600 of these convicts were sentenced to death by the Petrozavodsk troika.

Searching for the burial sites

The first execution burial site was discovered in May 1989 by local historian E.G. Nilov  near Chernaya rechka (Black River) in the vicinity of the town of Pudozh. He determined the location of this killing ground from the tales of local inhabitants. Then a further two burial sites were found within the Petrozavodsk city limits. Workers excavating near Sulazhgora, next to the brick factory, came across one site. The other, near the Besovets settlement, was found by local historians from Petrozavodsk: the tales of the older generation were confirmed by excavations there.

As for “Medgora”, a place of central importance to our story, a major killing ground near the modern city of Medvezhegorsk remained unknown to the public and even to researchers, despite Chukhin’s archival discoveries. Naturally, Yury Dmitriev knew what information Chukhin had obtained and was planning to investigate the surroundings of Medvezhegorsk so as to locate a mass execution site there.


The grieving families

In 1987, Moscow film-maker Marina GOLDOVSKAYA visited the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. Soon she began to film there. Former inmates of the Solovki Special Camp (later Special Prison) such as Academician Dmitry Likhachev, writer Oleg Volkov, worker Yevgeny Lagutin and memoirist Olga Adamova-Sliozberg* took part in The Solovki Regime: Testimony and Documents.

At the end of 1988, the film was widely released in the Soviet Union, introducing the Solovki Camp to the public as a whole. Work began within the Solovki Museum and

Olga Adamova-Sliozberg

Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (1902-1991)

Conservation Area to create an exhibition about the Special Purpose Solovki Camps, the first exhibition in the USSR to focus on the Gulag. The exhibition was based on the materials and documents gathered during the preparation of the film.

When we travelled to the islands we got to know the families of 126 prisoners from Solovki who had “disappeared”. As those taking the journey became acquainted with one another and compared their relatives’ rehabilitation certificates and dates of death, Veniamin JOFFE, the head of the St Petersburg Memorial society, put forward a suggestion. Comparing a number of different sources, and noting how close the dates were, he suggested that there had been mass executions of Solovki inmates in the autumn of 1937.

Joffe’s supposition was confirmed in 1994 when a group of documents were found in the archive of the Arkhangelsk Region FSB. Copies were found of the minutes of sessions of the  Leningrad Region NKVD Special Troika (Nos 81-85, 124, 189, 199 and 303), which contained lists of 1,825 Solovki Prison inmates who were sentenced to death.

From a list to biographies

Work began to compile biographical details of the people included in that list.

There was an amusing episode when it came to photocopying the materials of the Solovki case files. The staff at the Arkhangelsk Region FSB archive would not allow us to copy reports by informants and memoranda based on their information, because these documents concerned undercover work by the security services and there was no statute of limitation for materials documenting such secret methods.

More than a year passed. The burial site at Sandormokh was discovered and a memorial complex was opened there. Ukrainian researchers began to work with the Solovki case files. For them the executions on Solovki were a part of Ukrainian history that had not lost its contemporary relevance: the flower of Ukraine’s intelligentsia was shot on Solovki. Historians in Ukraine were already working with the archivists of the Ukraine Security Service and both historians and USS archivists visited Arkhangelsk and Petrozavodsk. Staff at the regional FSB archives could not refuse colleagues from the Near Abroad full access to these documents. Another year passed and all these top-secret reports and memoranda from the agents of the NKVD, exposing the methods used in 1937, began to be published in Kiev in three volumes under the title Last Addresses: On the 60th anniversary of the Solovki Tragedy (Ukr. Ostannya adresa, 1997-1999).

[To be continued …]


The existence of Olga Adamova Sliozberg‘s memoirs was known in the USSR and the West as soon as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago began to circulate in samizdat and be published abroad. Hers was one of only four authors of memoirs about the camps to be named there.

A lengthy excerpt from her memoirs My Journey was published in the Soviet Union in 1989 in the anthology Till My Tale is Told («Доднесь тяготеет», т. 1) and a first edition of the full work followed in 1992.