“Light in the Darkness”

The background to the DMITRIEV trial lies more than 80 years back in Soviet history. In The Search for Sandarmokh, published last year, Irina FLIGE outlined and analysed that quest and subsequent efforts to turn a place of execution into a place of remembrance and commemoration.

Excerpts from a review in Novy mir (January 2020)

“Two themes run through Flige’s book,” writes the reviewer 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 — retrieved 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”.

address the 5 August 2016 Day of Remembrance gathering at Sandarmokh

(Dmitriev’s grandson Daniel stands to his right)

Time which 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.


In this excerpt Tatyana Bonch 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.

A search began, in the archives of the secret police and in expeditions across Karelia, for places where the victims had been buried. The first acts of remembrance appeared. Marina Goldovskaya began preparing to film The Solovki Regime: Testimonies and Documents [Vlast Solovetskaya]. The artist Alexander Bazhenov and the photographer Yury Brodsky, together with Antonina Melnik and Antonina Soshina of the Solovetsky Museum, put on an exhibition: “The Solovki special labour camp”.

Finally, in July 1997, the search for the burial place of the missing prisoners was crowned with success. This stage in the drama reached its denouement when the burial place of the 1,111 executed prisoners of the “missing transport” from Solovki was found and given a name, Sandarmokh.

Memorial at Sandarmokh to the Lost Transport

Act Three, 1997-1998

The researchers began to search for the names of all the victims, and they found them. Unlike many other burial sites of the Great Terror, we learned who lies in the mass graves at Sandarmokh, thanks to the work of Yury Dmitriev:

“4,955 people were shot and buried in the clearing at Sandarmokh in 1937-1938 (this excludes the Solovki transport): 1,988 were Belbaltlag prisoners, 624 were forced settlers, deported to the republic some years earlier from other parts of the USSR; and 2,338 ‘free’ citizens of Karelia. Dmitriev managed to name them individually.”

The names of those who murdered these people also became known. One was Shondysh, deputy director of the 3rd department of the White Sea Canal; another was Bondarenko, who headed the 5th section of the 3rd department. They shot dozens and hundreds of people each day. They were under the orders of NKVD Captain Matveyev, who instructed them to prepare birch clubs to beat their prisoners before shooting them, and himself took part in those beatings. In 1938, the perpetrators were themselves arrested, interrogated and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. As were other executioners, troika members, and NKVD officers. The criminals were punished. Had justice triumphed?

Flige makes no such categorical assertions.

Act Four, 1998-2014

During the fourth act of this drama Sandarmokh became a place of remembrance with numerous identities. Days of Remembrance took place there; memorials added by individuals and various diasporas appeared spontaneously; one official monument was opened.

The Memorial Society published Sandarmokh: A Memorial Burial Ground, Vol 1, 27 October to 4 November 1937, which contained short biographies of the 1,111 members of the Solovki transport. Yury Dmitriev published Sandarmokh, A Place of Execution (Petrozavodsk, 1999), a volume listing the names from various transports taken to be shot at Sandarmokh. Dmitriev’s book includes a list of the Finns shot in 1938, as well as memoirs and letters from the prisoners, and items from newspapers and magazines in Karelia.

In this place of memory and remembrance the relatives of the victims, their compatriots, public figures, representatives of various diasporas, and foreign diplomats all gathered. It was a crucial stage in the evolution of Sandarmokh as a place of memory and remembrance. Its meaning varied from one group of participants to another; there was a search for shared links and opportunities for discussion that ranged from the personal to the national and universal.

The memory of Sandarmokh, writes Flige, speaks in many voices. Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Judaic services of remembrance are held there. Monuments have been erected: “the images and traditions customary in various ethnic and religious cultures together express the memory of the all-encompassing character of the Terror”. There are memorials to Muslim and Jewish victims, a Cossack Cross and Estonian, Lithuanian, Polish and Vainakh (Chechen-Ingush) monuments; an Arel cross and a cross commemorating the residents of the Chupa settlement; the foundation stone for a future monument to the executed Finns; memorial crosses for the Moldavians shot at Sandarmokh and monuments for the Tatar, Georgian, Mari and Azerbaijani victims of the Great Terror. They all contribute to a quest for “the meanings attached to this place, meanings that at times may be contradictory and even inimical to one another.”

Genocide and Crimes against Humanity

Were those executed at Sandarmokh – Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Cossacks, Estonians, Lithuanians and Finns – the victims of genocide? And, if so, who carried out that genocide? In his astounding book East West Street (2016),[2] the lawyer Philippe Sands lays out in some detail the differences between two judicial terms: genocide and crimes against humanity.

Flige writes about a monument to the Russian nation recently erected at Sandarmokh in an attempt, apparently, to defend the country’s most numerous ethnos from accusations that it committed genocide against the other nations and ethnic groups of the USSR. A cross erected in 2013 by the local Medvezhegorsk Cossacks is an aggressive rather than a mournful emblem, that speaks of innocent victims killed by certain “enemies of the Russian Land”.

The attitude of Ukraine to Sandarmokh as a “place of memory and remembrance” is distinctive, says Flige. The delegation from Ukraine perceived it as a place where only Ukrainians were exterminated: “all the others were of no interest to them – let others remember them,” she writes. The delegation stressed its nationality, decked out in national costume and playing Ukrainian music, and took no interest in the personalising of the monuments at Sandarmokh, in placing individual memorials on Karelian soil. Crimes against humanity were not as important as the genocide of the Ukrainian people.

As to the crime of genocide it’s not a clear-cut matter: there can be no doubt that crimes against humanity were committed at Sandarmokh. The killings, the lack of a trial, the mistreatment before execution, the concealment of information about the executions, followed by the lies of the State and closed archives: these represent a crime against humanity originating in a time before the 1930s, as Flige shows in her book – a crime that has not yet come to an end.

Leading figure in Ukraine’s Murdered Renaissance, shot at Sandarmokh 3 November 1937

The place of remembrance itself has come under attack and suffered from the effects of an aggressive entropy. Within a year the memorial erected in Sandarmokh had been damaged by the loss of the metal letters forming the words: “People, do not kill one another”. The bas-relief of the guardian angel was taken down for repair in 2006 and has still not been restored. Yury Dmitriev reached agreement with the Karelian Government’s Rehabilitation Commission for the Victims of Political Repression for another monument. This large granite boulder should have carried the words, “Here in the Sandarmokh clearing, in this place of mass murder, the executioners of the NKVD killed more than 7,000 innocent people between 1934 and the end of 1941 …” As the text was being prepared the words “NKVD executioners” disappeared. Once again, it seemed, there was a tragedy and there were victims, but no crime or criminal: only a black, impersonal fog that had nudged the hand of the sculptor.

As Flige puts it,

“Today there is no memory in Russia of the State Terror of the Soviet era. Instead, we have inherited a past and some assume the legacy of the victims and others the legacy of their killers. And for as long as that situation persists, Sandarmokh is not a place of remembrance. It is the place where a crime was committed that remains not only unpunished but, in essence, unnamed.”

And again the debate begins. Was the Terror a “purge of elites” or a process of “socio-political selection, a weeding of the country’s entire population”? Historians who have worked with archival documents have proven that mass extermination of people of all nationalities and occupations took place, but the idea that the Great Terror was a purge of elites continues to surface. It has not been conceptualised as a whole and, as a consequence, has not been brought to a halt.

Act Five, 2014 to present

In 2014, the fifth act of this historic drama began. From that year the memory of the victims of the Great Terror of 1937-1938 changed from simple remembrance of a long-past historical event and became a form of civic resistance.

Delegations from Ukraine no longer attended the annual commemorative gatherings in August. The Karelian government reduced its involvement until, in 2016, it totally ignored the 5 August Day of Remembrance. The district administration reduced the length of the rally where speakers sharply criticised Russian government policy.

Petrozavodsk, 2019. Andropov Street, Engels Street, Lenin Avenue …

Unlike classical drama, the Fifth Act only appeared to mark the conclusion. No genuine catharsis was achieved, and further twists to the plot were inevitable. The main protagonists acted off-stage. Flige writes

“In Sandarmokh, as elsewhere, the defining characteristics of our popular memory of the Terror in Russia are that a tragedy and its innocent victims existed, while the crime and the criminals do not. International Days of Remembrance, speeches that attempt to present the Terror as a history of crimes committed by the State, and talk of taking responsibility for the past, have not altered this outlook.”

The tragedy will continue, and new complications will arise, following another incomplete denouement. In an endless circle …

Darkness consumes the victims and our remembrance of them. Thousands were secretly murdered and buried at Sandarmokh. The 1,111 victims of the missing Solovki transport have been named; and a further 5,240 who were shot there. Yet there has been no official investigation or condemnation of those who were members of the troikas, or who concealed the executions and burial places.

Tatyana Bonch-Osmolovskaya
(Sydney, New South Wales)

[1] “L’Auschwitz, ou la disparition”, Revue de l’Arc, 1979, No 76, pp. 87-90. The French critic was writing of the fate of her grandparents.

[2] In East West Street: the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (2016) barrister Philippe Sands provides an account of two lawyers from the West Ukrainian city of Lvov, Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who contributed key concepts to the Nuremburg Tribunals. (A Russian translation of Sands’ book has just been published by the Knizhniki publishers.)