On 19 August 2019, when the barbarous excavations of the Military History Society were well under way, a large group of students from the Moscow International Film School arrived at Sandormokh. They brought with them 16 unique plaques they had made themselves, listing those shot and buried there, from first Solovki transport and the prisoners of the White Sea-Baltic camp complex.
The students attached the plaques to the stakes, read aloud from the biography of these victims, and cleared up the rubbish from around the immediate area. This was part of their compulsory educational programme.
To compile biographical profiles and confirm the information they contained we sent questionnaires to those regions in the USSR where the prisoners on Solovki had been arrested and sentenced.
Meanwhile, we engaged in more active communication with the family members who took a keen and constant interest in our work – they longed to find out more about their relatives. They themselves began to draw up questionnaires and study the case files, bringing copies of the documents and photos to our archive at Memorial. Sometimes, on the contrary, we became acquainted with the children of executed prisoners from Solovki as a result of studying the case files of their relatives.
Veniamin Joffe and I were establishing what had happened not to abstract victims of the Great Terror but to real people, we were uncovering the circumstances in which they had met their end. Thanks to our contacts and friendship with the families of the missing Solovki prisoners, and thanks to memoirs — I found the recollections of Yury Chirkov (1919-1988)* particularly revealing — we also got to know men and women who had died years before. We knew what many of them looked like; we read their letters; we became familiar with their shortcomings and habits: we learned how their widows and children, their sisters and brothers, had lived without them.
Now we had to find the graves — the last resting place of 1,111 people, shot in October-November 1937, of 509 shot in December 1937, and of the 198 who were shot in February 1938.
“Twenty years ago, it seemed to us that Sandormokh as a place and these acts of remembrance divided the present from the past,” said Irina FLIGE in August 2017, at the Day of Remembrance at Sandormokh. “Today, unfortunately, we must recognise that memories of the Great Terror have not become part of our [shared] memory …”
The previous year two historians at Petrozavodsk University had put forward a ‘new hypothesis’ as to who lay buried in the woods outside Medvezhegorsk; in the Karelian capital, Yury Dmitriev was spending his eighth month in jail.
It took years to locate Karelia’s largest killing ground of the late 1930s. Irina Flige’s account of that long, painstaking quest is described in her The Search for Sandormokh, which was launched in Moscow in July 2019. At the same press conference the proposed excavations by the Russian Military History Society were exposed and condemned. Meanwhile, Dmitriev, acquitted in April 2018, was on trial for a second time and once again incarcerated in Petrozavodsk’s Detention Centre No 1.
“In August 1937 the most extensive and cruel period of political repression began,” wrote the late Arseny Roginsky in an Afterwordto the Kommunarka Book of Remembrance. “In July the NKVD departments across the USSR had already began to set aside special ‘zones’, areas for the mass burial of those they shot. For locals these usually became known, euphemistically, as army firing ranges.
“This was how the zones that we know today came into being: the Levashovo Wasteland near Leningrad, Kuropaty near Minsk, the Golden Hill near Chelyabinsk, Bykovnya on the outskirts of Kiev, and many others.”
For decades after the death of Stalin in 1953, these sites remained in the hands of the NKVD’s successor, the KGB, and only in the very last years of the Soviet Union did they become known as the burial sites and killing fields of the Great Terror. There were two such “firing ranges” on the outskirts of Moscow, at Butovo and Kommunarka.
On 29 October 2018, the annual “Restoring the Names” ceremony took place in Moscow, despite previous uncertainties. That day and the next, similar events took place in 19 other Russian towns and cities (and in several foreign cities as well).
In many more places, including Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor in Karelia, the 30 October was marked as the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repression. At the Zaretsky churchyard in Petrozavodsk and at Krasny Bor on the city outskirts, complained his daughter Katya, there was no mention of Yury DMITRIEV.
He was remembered, that day, when the Memorial Human Rights Centre in Moscow issued its updated List of Political Prisoners in Russia. As the compilers were careful to comment, it contained the minimum verified list of those who had been detained or prosecuted on political grounds or for reason of their religious beliefs. (Yury DMITRIEV was prominent among the political prisoners; museum director Sergei Koltyrin had not yet been added to the list.)
The most dramatic event proved to be the opening, a few days earlier, of the Wall of Remembrance at the Kommunarka execution site and burial ground outside Moscow. Within days other organisations (the Immortal Barrack, notably) were accusing Memorial of rehabilitating the executioners.