Imprisoned for memorialising Sandormokh, refusing to forget the Great Terror

Halya Coynash

Russian historian Yury DMITRIEV turned 64 on 28 January 2020. It was his third birthday detained on charges that bear no scrutiny, and 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 after his acquittal in April 2018,
The stone at 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 memory, 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.

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Verdict expected in February 2020

YURY DMITRIEV’s lawyer expects a verdict in his second trial at the end of February 2020. The prosecution and defence are currently giving their final statements.

The present trial began in October 2018 and has proceeded even more slowly than the first. Less is known about what has been going on behind closed doors at the second trial, also held in camera. One strategy pursued by Victor Anufriev, the defence attorney, has stressed his client’s high reputation among academics, rights activists and other professionals, for example, Anatoly Razumov of the National Library in St Petersburg. They have testified in his defence. In November 2019 a petition in English (and Italian) was circulated among academics overseas and the resulting list of signatories was presented as evidence in court.

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Free Yury Dmitriev! (November 2019 Petition)

The following petition has been organised by historian Andrea Gullotta of Glasgow University (Scotland) to support the defense and secure the release of Yury DMITRIEV (Italian text):

Free Yury Dmitriev!

Historian, archaeologist and chronicler of the Gulag and Great Terror

Since the late 1980s, Yury Dmitriev has actively investigated the history of the Gulag in his native Karelia (northwest Russia).

His work on the White Sea Canal, built between 1931 and 1933 by camp prisoners and exiled peasants (“special” settlers), is invaluable and of the highest academic quality. Dmitriev has not simply researched the history of forced labour: he has also compiled several Books of Remembrance, recording the names of thousands who died in the camps or were shot and buried by the Soviet regime in Karelia.

As leader of archaeological expeditions seeking the killing fields of Stalin’s Great Terror, Dmitriev has located several sites of mass execution and burial. In July 1997, with Veniamin Joffe (Iofe) and Irina Flige of St Petersburg Memorial, he found the largest of them all, Sandormokh near Medvezhegorsk, where more than 7,000 victims of Stalin’s Great Terror were shot and buried in unmarked graves in 1937 and 1938.

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