“A light shining in the darkness”

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.

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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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Russia destroys child’s life and jails historians to rewrite darkest pages of Soviet history

Halya Coynash

Two hundred prominent Russians have come out in defence of Russian historian of the Soviet Terror, Yury Dmitriev, and the child whose life the FSB is destroying for the sake of a grubby and politically-motivated trial. They express distrust in the official position taken by the prosecution and the unlawful methods being used, including the pressure being exerted on Dmitriev’s adopted daughter.

Dmitriev at Krasny Bor

The authors of the appeal, posted on 28 October, point out that Dmitriev had been arrested initially on ‘child pornography’ charges pertaining to photos securely stored in his computer and detailing the young girl’s weight, height, etc. over the years that her physical development after the orphanage had aroused concern.  The defence had brought in highly qualified experts and with the publicity that the case had aroused both in Russia and abroad, he was acquitted on 5 April 2018.

Acquittals are virtually unheard of in Russia, and it was feared from the outset that the aim was merely to deflect unfavourable publicity and then overturn the acquittal. This is effectively what happened.  Dmitriev was remanded in custody again on 28 June 2018, just two weeks after a court revoked his acquittal on the first evidently flawed charges and ordered a retrial.

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Film school put up new plaques as excavations continued

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.

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Kommunarka Controversy (Pt 2)

“In August 1937 the most extensive and cruel period of political repression began,” wrote the late Arseny Roginsky in an Afterword to 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.

golden hill chelyabinsk

Golden Hill (Zolotaya gora) Chelyabinsk

“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 “firing ranges” on the outskirts of Moscow, at Butovo and Kommunarka.

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