The Search for Sandormokh, Part 2

(Part 1, “Where are Our Fathers Buried?”)


From a list to biographies (contd)

To compile biographical profiles and confirm the information they contained we sent questionnaires to those regions in the USSR where the prisoners on Solovki had been arrested and sentenced.

Meanwhile, we engaged in more active communication with the family members who took a keen and constant interest in our work – they longed to find out more about their relatives. They themselves began to draw up questionnaires and study the case files, bringing copies of the documents and photos to our archive at Memorial. Sometimes, on the contrary, we became  acquainted with the children of executed prisoners from Solovki as a result of studying the case files of their relatives.

Solovetsky Islands (map)

Veniamin Joffe and I were establishing what had happened not to abstract victims of the Great Terror but to real people, we were uncovering the circumstances in which they had met their end. Thanks to our contacts and friendship with the families of the missing Solovki prisoners, and thanks to memoirs — I found the recollections of Yury Chirkov (1919-1988)* particularly revealing — we also got to know men and women who had died years before. We knew what many of them looked like; we read their letters; we became familiar with their shortcomings and habits: we learned how their widows and children, their sisters and brothers, had lived without them.

Now we had to find the graves — the last resting place of 1,111 people, shot in October-November 1937, of 509 shot in December 1937, and of the 198 who were shot in February 1938.

The search for the “missing transport”

In 1995-1997, Joffe and I focused on the search for traces of the first and largest transport of prisoners from Solovki — 1,111 individuals who were executed, according to the documents, between 27 October and 4 November 1937.

Veniamin Joffe (1938-2002)
Veniamin Joffe (1938-2002)

To begin with Joffe thought we must search near Kem, the closest point on the mainland to the Solovetsky archipelago. Here, on Popov island, today the town of Rabocheostrovsk, were the wharf and the Kem transit camp from which transports of prisoners were sent across the White Sea to and from Solovki. In any case, the missing transport could not avoid passing through Kem. It was, Joffe considered, the final destination of those sentenced to death. Indeed, why take them any further?

In summer 1995, during excavations to enlarge the stone quarry near the 6th kilometre of the former Ukhta Road (today the Kem-Kalevala Highway) a burial containing the bodies of 22 executed people was found. Further excavation work was halted, and the remains of the victims were reburied in the Kem town cemetery. The following summer Joffe and I examined the area  where those remains were found but did not discover any more burials.

The case of Captain Matveyev

In 1996, a collection of essays titled The Executioners’ Hands аre Clean was published in St Petersburg. The author, Colonel Yevgeny Lukin, headed the press service of the city’s FSB department. This racy account of what happened to Captain M.P. Matveyev — but with reference to archival documents! — contained interesting and relevant details.

On 18 March 1937 two men were arrested: Shondysh, deputy head of the NKVD 3rd department on the White Sea Canal, and Bondarenko who headed the 5th section of the same department. According to the minutes of the Karelian troika meetings, first located by Ivan Chukhin, Shondysh and Bondarenko had themselves taken part in executions near Medgora (Medvezhegorsk). They were charged, among other things, with not having been sufficiently humane in carrying out the death penalty. The arrested men said they had resorted to such methods, following the example of Captain Matveyev from Leningrad. On 11 March 1939, Matveyev himself was arrested.

The charge sheet reads:

“At the end of October 1937, MATVEYEV, former deputy head of administration and management for the Leningrad Region NKVD, was put in charge of a team sent to Medvezhegorsk to carry out sentence on those condemned to the supreme penalty.

“On his arrival in Medvezhegorsk, MATVEYEV ordered two wooden clubs with which he began to beat the convicts himself or permitted his subordinates to do so. These beatings took place in the room where the condemned individuals were bound before being loaded into the motor vehicles, during the journey, and [at the place] where the sentences were carried out. In some cases, prisoners were killed with such a club in the room where they were bound; others were suffocated there.”

The condemned prisoners, evidently, were being taken in motor vehicles to the place of execution from somewhere in Medgora, the capital of the Belbaltlag Camp complex. Only one building could serve as such an “accumulator”, the interrogation centre for the White Sea Canal. There are, in fact, direct indications in the case files.

The accused Mironov deposed that

“From 10 November 1937 up to January 1938, on the orders of Bondarenko …  I was recruited to work in the special team headed by Bondarenko and Shondysh … to carry out sentence on those condemned to the supreme penalty.

“The conditions in which I and others worked during the operation were not fit for purpose, since the interrogation centre where the condemned individuals were prepared to be sent to the usual place was a wooden structure. As a result, the slightest cry of the condemned could affect those held at the interrogation centre who had been condemned to the supreme penalty.

“It was a very busy road along which we drove the condemned to the place where sentence was carried out: buses, motor vehicles and pedestrians passed that way.”

Mironov goes on to say

“Once, when I was put in charge of the convoy accompanying the condemned the vehicle developed problems and broke down in Pindusha village. It stood there for about 1 ½ hours.”

Acquaintance with the contents of this file, No 11602, proved a turning point in our search for the missing transport. The “usual place”, the killing ground for Belbaltlag, was 16 kms from Medgora and beyond the village of Pindusha, i.e. it was somewhere near the 16th kilometre along the Povenets Road on which the village lies. From the case files, it was evident that the pits were deeper than human height. Now all we had to do was find those burials.

In early June 1997, we continued to fill out the biographies of the list of 1,825 executed prisoners. This involved photocopying the Solovki case files that had ended up in the archives of the Karelian FSB. There, when I went out for a smoke, I first met Yury DMITRIEV. After the death of Ivan Chukhin in May he continued work on the “Karelian Book of Remembrance” and searched for material that might help him find where the victims of the Karelian troika had been buried.

We exchanged information about the shootings near Medvezhegorsk. We had come across references, I told him, to the Belbaltlag place of execution in our search for the Solovki transports and invited him to join us on our already planned expedition.

Sandormokh is found and named

We arrived in Medvezhegorsk on 30 June 1997. Dmitriev came in his own car, accompanied by his 12-year-old daughter Katya and his dog. He had rented a shack until the end of the summer on the shores of Lake Onega. We were all convinced our search would continue for several months.

young Dmitriev
Yury Dmitriev

On 1 July we began probing the ground. The officers of the local military unit, as promised, provided a group of soldiers under the command of Senior Lieutenant A. Zhdan. We started with a sandy area in the old part of the quarry next to the road. Work proceeded quickly. The soldiers took shallow probes, 70-80 centimetres (2-3 feet) in depth. I checked the samples to see if the layers of soil had been disturbed. They had not, so we moved on. By midday all the probes had given a negative result. We decided to check the entire perimeter and exhaust the suggestion that the quarry was the most likely location. Only then would we widen our search and move further into the forest.

To begin with all the members of the expedition were on tenterhooks. Any moment now we’ll find some remains! Gradually, the work became routine and the garrison commanders drove off, leaving the soldiers behind. The rest spread out to mark the next spots for test drilling. Quite soon Dmitriev reappeared from the forest: “I’ve found it!”

Approximately 500 metres north of the quarry, 900 metres away from the highway, in a pine grove to the left of a road leading deep into the forest, Yury Dmitriev had discovered the characteristic depressions in the earth, measuring 4 by 4 metres with a depth of between 10 and 30 centimetres. They were of an almost regular rectangular form with flattened edges. We began digging there.

The top layers of soil were disturbed and at a depth of two metres in the very first place we dug the astounded soldiers found human bones. We could not establish how deep this layer of human remains was since the probe did not strike firm ground. We called a halt and summoned representatives of the district prosecutor’s office.

[to be continued …]

An excerpt from Irina Flige‘s
The Search for Sandormokh (2019)


Yury Chirkov is mentioned in Stalin’s Meteorologist (2018) and in Leona Toker’s Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (2000).

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