“Light in the Darkness” (I)

This website has already published two excerpts from Irina Flige’s 2019 book about Sandarmokh: the Search for Sandarmokh, parts One and Part Two. What follows is the opening of a review in the January 2020 issue of Novy mir, the literary magazine (Moscow).

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“Two themes run through Irina Flige’s book,” writes Tatyana Bonch-Osmolovskaya. “One is the quest, pursued across many years, for the ‘lost transport’, a search to locate 1,111 inmates of the Solovki Special Prison who vanished in October 1937.”

The other theme, which “embraces and deepens the first”, describes Sandarmokh today, as a place of commemoration and remembrance.

The lost transport

For years researchers, among them Flige herself, sought documents explaining where the “lost transport” had gone and identifying the place where those victims of the Great Terror were buried. In a small clearing in the Karelian forest is a place where executions were regularly carried out. Not just the “lost transport” died there, but also prisoners of the BelBaltlag Camp complex, forced settlers and inhabitants of Karelia. Working with records in closed archives the researchers — Irina Flige, Veniamin Joffe and Yury Dmitriev, among others — restored the names of the victims.

This documentary history is sketched briefly in Flige’s book. The main stages are outlined, several terrible testimonies are quoted, the names of the executioners are given in reports of the shootings, indicating how many people they had shot that day. In a brief 57 lines over two pages, Flige lists executions from 11 August 1937 to April 1938, on the orders of the troika for the Karelian NKVD, the names of those who carried out these death sentences, and the total number (3,479) of their victims.

An account of the shooting of the “lost transport” and others is constrained within the limits of Classical Drama. Unity of Action: the shooting of the prisoners from Solovki. Unity of Time: executions from 27 October to 4 November 1937 on the orders (issued 9-14 October 1937) of the Leningrad Special Troika. Unity of Place: the Sandarmokh Clearing not far from Medvezhegorsk.

The Victims and their Executioners make up the cast. Numbers, facts, official statements.

A place of remembrance

Flige then describes Sandarmokh as a place of remembrance or commemoration: not an open wound, but an endlessly aching scar.

She defines “a place of memory” (French scholar Pierre Nora’s “lieu de memoire”) as a location “where the memory of a community is formed and takes shape”. These places of memory are understood, furthermore, to encompass “not just geographical locations but also people, events, books and artefacts”.

Time abruptly halted for the prisoners in 1937 becomes a time of memory and remembrance for their descendants and people concerned with the victims. Acts of remembrance endow that memory with meaning. The cast is now made up of those who did everything to ensure that all memory of the victims disappeared (as the executed themselves vanished) and those who resist this forgetfulness, restoring the names, the individuals and their history, thereby resurrecting the memory of that place, making it a place of remembrance. The two sides are unequal. The balance between them shifts and changes and Irina Flige shows us these changes.

Tatyana Bonch-Osmolovskaya
(Sydney, New South Wales)

Novy mir, January 2020

“A Light in the Darkness” (I)