The Great Terror, 1937-1938

Over sixteen months (August 1937-November 1938), more than one and a half million people were arrested in the USSR and sentenced in their absence by regional tribunals — the extra-judicial troika (“three-member commissions”), dvoika (“two-member commissions”), and Special Board — or came briefly before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court in Moscow. No defence was offered.

Half of those arrested were sentenced to death. They were shot and buried all over the Soviet Union in killing fields like those discovered and investigated in Karelia by Yury DMITRIEV (Krasny Bor and Sandarmokh), or like Kommunarka and Butovo near Moscow. The other detainees were sent to the Gulag for up to ten years of forced labour.

For a long while the concurrent Show Trials of leading Old Bolsheviks (1936-1938) led many in the Soviet Union and abroad to believe that this unprecedented bloodshed was linked to a “purge” within the Communist Party. Archival research since the late 1980s has shown that the vast majority arrested and shot or imprisoned were picked up in accordance with regional quotas issued by the NKVD in Moscow, and were not Party members.

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The Search for Sandormokh

“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.

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The Kommunarka controversy

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.)

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Wall of Remembrance, Kommunarka (photo, Vlad Dokshin, Novaya gazeta)

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.

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In the archives (Golgotha, part 2)

Yury Dmitriev in his own words

“Then I became an aide to Ivan Chukhin, a deputy of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet [and the State Duma, 1990-1995]. He was a lieutenant-colonel in the police, a psychologist.

Ivan Chukhin (1948-1997)

Ivan Chukhin (1948-1997)

“Around that time, it was decided to compile a Book of Remembrance for Karelia. That’s to say, Memorial and Pertti Martelius were already on the job, but Chukhin  wanted to put the work on a sounder footing.

“He brought back a 1938 document from Moscow in which the Karelian People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs reported how many people had been shot in the republic, with lists of names: who, where and how. Memorial in Moscow made Ivan a set of cards with the basic information from that report. “You’re going to sit in the archives”, Chukhin told me, “and fill out these cards, in a form that we shall determine”. That’s how I first encountered that kind of work. Continue reading