“The Mysteries of Sandarmokh”, A book review

Even before Yury DMITRIEV was arrested in December 2016, an alternative explanation of the mass burials at Sandormokh had appeared (see below, Appendix).

Promoted by two historians at Petrozavodsk University, Sergei Verigin and Yury Kilin, it suggested that among those executed and buried in the forest near Medvezhegorsk were not only victims of Stalin’s Great Terror (1937-1938) but also Red Army soldiers shot by the Finns during the Continuation War (1941-1944).

Recent books about Sandarmokh by Yury Dmitriev and Sergei Verigin

Late last year a slender 86-page volume (with illustrations) by Professor Verigin and fellow author Armas Mashin appeared. Entitled The Mysteries of Sandarmokh: Part One, What lies Hidden in the Wooded Glade, it was published by the controversial Finnish author Johan Backman.

In a review on 27 February 2020 on the Karelia News website, Irina TAKALA of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Karelian Centre discusses this brochure as a piece of historical research, and assesses its contribution to the ongoing debate about the past reality and current meaning of the Sandarmokh killing fields.

What follows is a summary of Dr Takala’s review. The full text, in Russian, is available above.

A New Way to Write History

Professor Sergei Verigin, D.Phil. (history) is author of the first part of the book (32 pp) but, Takala comments, since he fails to provide any indication of his sources, it “cannot be regarded as a serious study”. The Petrozavodsk professor opens by offering well-known facts about the POW camps organised by the Finns for captured Soviet soldiers. He presents carefully selected statistics about mortality rates in those camps, drawing on the work of Finnish historian Antti Kujala. This is a gesture of recognition, perhaps, towards a specialist who has subjected Verigin’s “scholarly hypothesis” to fierce criticism.

In the run-up to publication it was promised, in a series of interviews, that the book would contain the evidence for Verigin’s hypothesis. It is based, we have been told, on an analysis of unique documents from the Central Archive of the Russian Federation FSB. These confirm that:

  • mass executions by shooting took place in the POW camps,
  • Soviet POWs who helped build the military defences around Medvezhegorsk were killed and worked to death, and
  • the Finnish occupying forces shot captured Red Army soldiers at Sandarmokh.

Six wartime interrogations and a report

The “unique documents” are papers, declassified in 2015, of the SMERSH counter-espionage directorate on the Karelian Front in 1943-1944. They refer to the Finnish camps for Soviet POWs during the Great Patriotic War [1941-1945] and consist of the interrogation of six men and a report about five POW camps, based on their testimony.

The SMERSH documents became available online over three years ago. Irina Takala expressed her view of this source at the time.

Records of an interrogation conducted by Soviet wartime counter-espionage, she notes in this review, are a distinctive type of source that demands thorough verification. (The title SMERSH derives from the slogan, “Death to Spies!”) Yet even these documents indicate that the shooting of POWs in the Finnish camps around Medvezhegorsk was a rare atrocity, not a mass phenomenon. Moreover, there is no indication where these shootings took place.

All that the documents provide is a description of life in the POW camps by the six men being interrogated: the location and layout of the camps, changes in the numbers of POWs, the daily regime, the food and clothing they were allocated, the workplace of the prisoners (there is no reference to military defences) and information about the administration and guards in the camp.

The only way serious generalisations could be drawn from these documents, says Takala, is by comparing them to other sources. Journalist Anna Yarovaya began to make such a critical assessment in “Rewriting Sandarmokh”, her 2017 article, where the documents are quoted in full.

The authors of The Mysteries of Sandarmokh (2019) ignore the views of other specialists concerning their source. They pay no attention to the vast amount of research by historians in Finland who, in 2008, posted an online database listing 19,000 Soviet POWs who died in Finnish camps.

A disappointment

After a detailed examination of the Verigin brochure and its many shortcomings, Takala concludes:

“Even a reader uninterested in the finer points of this new style of historical writing will be disappointed. For he or she receives no solution to the mystery dreamed up by Verigin and Kilin.”

The second half of the Mysteries of Sandarmokh (40 pp.) was written by journalist Armas Mashin. It is, in Takala’s restrained phrase, a “very subjective piece of writing”. It “exposes” the critics, e.g. Memorial, Yury Dmitriev, Sergei Koltyrin and others. There is no point, remarks Takala drily, in analysing what it says.


Dr Irina TAKALA is a senior research associate at the Institute of Linguistics, Literature and History of Karelian Research Centre, Russian Academy of Sciences


An early report of the “new hypothesis”

In early July 2016, the Finnish newspaper Kaleva published an article by a Petrozavodsk-based historian, Yury Kilin, entitled “Iso osa sotavangeista kuoli jatkosodan leireillä” (“Most POWs Died in Camps during the Continuation War”).

The article is a compilation of findings by researchers in Finland, spiced up with Kilin’s claims that Finnish historians, poorly informed about certain aspects of military history, had no clue that Sandarmokh could have been the burial site of Soviet POWs who were held in Finnish camps in the Medvezhyegorsk area.

Anna Yarovaya, Rewriting Sandarmokh
7×7 website, 13 December 2017