“Light in the darkness” (II)

On Wednesday, 22 July at 2.30 pm (Moscow Time), Judge Merkov will announce the verdict in the Dmitriev case at the Petrozavodsk City Court. Yury DMITRIEV was arrested in December 2016 and has spent most of the time since then in prison.

As shown by The Search for Sandarmokh, a book published last year,  the background to the trial reaches back more than 80 years into Soviet history to the late 1930s. Its author Irina FLIGE outlines and analyses the unfolding drama of that history. An excerpt from Tatyana Bonch’s review in Novy mir (January 2020) has already been published here. In this excerpt she describes how Flige divides the unresolved struggle between remembrance and enforced amnesia into five acts of unequal duration.

Act One, 1937-1987

The first act of this historical drama lasted half a century.

Flige refers to it as “hidden” (or “concealed”). The memory of that time, writes Oleg Nikolayev in the preface to Flige’s book, was thrice concealed and forgotten: the sentence was a secret, the execution was carried out in secret, and the place of burial was kept secret. Very few people knew the location of those killing fields. The execution reports were lost in the archives or deliberately destroyed: from the outset a top secret instruction ordered that the place of burial should not be indicated in the reports.

This was a forgetfulness deeper than that affecting the victims of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. No bodies survived the mass murder of the Nazi extermination camps; there were no named graves where relatives of the dead might lay flowers. “When one knows nothing – not the time, nor the day, nor the place – and only the sky serves as a grave,” wrote Catherine Clément in 1979, “when there only remain empty places in the eyes of the millions who perished there [Auschwitz], then that is disappearance. It is unbearable.”[1] Yet a place of memory and remembrance did exist for those victims.

For the executed inmates of the Solovki Special Prison there was no such place. Nowhere or everywhere — all the expanse of the Russian North was their resting place. Its woods and meadows, hills and marshes and, yes, the sea as well: one of the most persistent legends about the missing prisoners was that of the “sunken barge”, that they had all been deliberately drowned. Even in the late 1980s, when information about the fate of Stalin’s victims became available, at least to their relatives, the place of execution remained a secret. Restoring that memory was what drove the first exploratory groups, “people who wanted, before all else, to lay a flower on the grave of their loved one.”

Act Two, 1987-1996

The second act in this drama, according to Flige, ran from 1987 until 1996.

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