Russian historian Yury DMITRIEV turned 64 on 28 January 2020. It was his third birthday detained on charges that bear no scrutiny, and, writes Halya Coynash, his arrest coincided with the beginnings of a campaign to rewrite the history of one of the darkest pages of the Soviet Terror – the mass killing by quota of Russians, Ukrainians and other prisoners of the Solovetsky Archipelago at the Sandormokh Clearing in Karelia in 1937.
Yury Dmitriev in April 2018; the entrance to the Sandormokh memorial complex
If the current regime in Russia was hoping to silence Dmitriev, it has failed. The historian and head of the Karelian branch of the Memorial Society has just published a book entitled Sandarmokh: A Place of Memory, providing information about both the victims and the perpetrators of the mass executions in the forest.
In a recent letter, Dmitriev wrote that
“it is memory that makes human beings human, and not a part of the population. […] While I’m alive, I won’t allow them to rewrite our common history. […] The attempt to rewrite the history of Sandarmokh is part of the strategy of the current regime, an attempt to return our country to a camp “surrounded by enemies”. The aim is to retain their power. A frightened population will always seek protection from a strong leader”.
In a preface to the book, Dmitriev repeats this central theme about the pivotal role of memory. He points out that, while Sandarmokh is a place of remembrance, for him it is also a place of education where people cease to be a faceless population and are transformed into a nation, conscious of their shared fate.
There are over ten different national remembrance signs at the memorial complex, including a Ukrainian Cossack Cross, and Dmitriev feels sure that there will be more.
“I am firmly convinced that a person, knowing the history of his or her family, even to the seventh generation, honouring his or her ancestors, is capable of building new relations with the State on totally different principles from those now seen.
A person does not exist to serve the State, the State exists to serve the person. That is my approach and it’s what makes me inconvenient.”
Under former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, Russia has increasingly concealed archival information about Soviet crimes, even punishing those who, quite correctly, state that the Soviet Union collaborated with the Nazis and invaded what was then Poland on 17 September 1939. A steady move towards rehabilitating dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin and other criminals has been accompanied by repressive methods against historians and activists from the Memorial Society.
Thanks to Dmitriev and his Memorial colleagues we now know the fate of 289 writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia among 1,111 prisoners from the Solovki Labour Camp [The Solovki Transport] executed by the NKVD between 27 October and 4 November 1937. These were killings by quota. A document of 16 October 1937, published for the first time in Dmitriev’s book, shows the head of the Solovki Prison Camp being told to immediately hand over 1,116 people to NKVD executioner Mikhail Matveyev to be shot. The list of those ‘sentenced’ is by categories, including “Ukrainians”. The NKVD reported back that they had ‘only’ executed 1,111: one person died before his execution date, and four other men were sent to Leningrad, Kyiv or Odesa for “investigative activities”.
Dmitriev’s new book is based on a volume he published twenty years ago, Sandarmokh: A Place of Execution. Despite its formidable length, it contains only victims whose surnames begin with the first letters of the alphabet — others were to be recorded in later volumes. Dmitriev collaborated with Anatoly Razumov on the new book, although there was no more than a brief period in early 2018 when the two men could meet and work together.Dmitriev’s new book is based on a volume he published twenty years ago, Sandarmokh: A Place of Execution. Despite its formidable length, it contains only victims whose surnames begin with the first letters of the alphabet — others were to be recorded in later volumes. Dmitriev collaborated with Anatoly Razumov on the new book, although there was no more than a brief period in early 2018 when the two men could meet and work together.
A political prisoner
Dmitriev has been imprisoned for most of the last three years, from December 2016 to January 2018, and again from June 2018 until the present. Russia’s leaders miscalculated, however.
The blatant charges against Dmitriev were clearly aimed at discrediting both him and the Memorial Society, especially after a propaganda film was broadcast on the State-controlled Rossiya 24 TV channel on 10 January 2017, less than a month after Dmitriev’s arrest. To destroy a person’s reputation, a criminal prosecution over the alleged creation of ‘child pornography’ must be at least remotely credible; these charges were not.