Were last year’s excavations at Sandarmokh legal?

As the prosecution continues to present its evidence of “new offences” by Yury DMITRIEV at his second trial in the Petrozavodsk City Court in Karelia, a related dispute is being pursued at the national level over the identity of those executed and buried at Sandarmokh.

In early February, the Kommersant daily newspaper reported
on this “second front” in the Dmitriev Affair.

Sandarmokh, Solovki transport memorial (photo Kurilova)

Solovki transport memorial, Sandarmokh (photo, Anastasia Kurilova, August 2018)

In January 2019 there was an appeal for Yury Chaika, the Russian Federation’s Prosecutor General, to personally investigate the excavations at Sandarmokh last year by the Military History Society (MHS).

The request came from a deputy of the Karelian Legislative Assembly, Emilia Slabunova of the Yabloko Party. The authorities, she believes, had confused the status of memorial complex with “a site of interest” when granting permission for the MHS to carry out its exploratory excavations. She was referring to the archaeological investigation carried out by the Society at Sandarmokh between 25 August and 5 September 2018.

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Memory Wars?

A lengthy article about the POW execution theory in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper (7 September 2018) is even-handed and thorough. It needs little more than the following passage, however, to show the “new hypothesis of Karelian historians” for what it is:

“Officially, there is no data to show that the Finns carried out mass executions at Sandarmokh. Mr Verigin also confirmed for us that Finland has not transferred any information to Russia about sites where shot POWs are buried in Karelia. The historian further confirmed to Kommersant that he has not yet examined Finland’s historical archives”.

Bodies of 5 Soviet POWs, supposedly, at Sandarmokh (Sergei Markelov)

Five bodies are discovered, allegedly Soviet POWs shot by the Finns,
during the Continuation War, 1941-1944 (photo, Sergei Markelov)

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Everyone has now heard of Sandarmokh

“The events of the last few weeks have been depressing, but it’s true to say that almost everyone knows the word Sandarmokh today; before it was only known in Karelia. No excavations by the Russian Military Historical Society can change that. Only people who do not see the significance of the subject are inclined to believe that Red Army soldiers lie buried there.”

Yury Mikhailin, Moscow International Film School

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Who wants to rewrite the history of Sandarmokh—and why?

A memorial graveyard known as Sandarmokh. It is a word without precise meaning or translation: there are only different accounts of its origins. The associations are unmistakable, however. It calls to mind a history of suffering and death.

For many what happened there eighty years ago stirs feelings of horror to this day. Mass executions of political prisoners—more than 7,000 of them in 236 common graves. People whose years in the Gulag ended in 1937-1938, in the forests of eastern Karelia, with a bullet to the back of the head.

Since its discovery in 1997, Sandarmokh has become a place of pilgrimage for the descendants of those killed in Stalin’s Great Terror, for local villagers, for historians and for public figures. An International Day of Remembrance has been held at Sandarmokh every year since then, attended by delegations from various parts of Russia and from abroad.

The “new” hypothesis

Yet in 2016, almost twenty years on, certain Petrozavodsk historians announced that, in addition to those shot in the 1930s, Soviet POWs might have been killed and buried at Sandarmokh during the “Continuation War” with Finland (1941-1944). This suggestion prompted a great debate among academics and was reported in both Russian and Finnish media.  Continue reading