“In the detention centre where I was held, everything strictly followed the regulations: a step to the left, a step to the right—means practically being shot on the spot. My rights were not violated inasmuch as I’m a pliant person. They give me a bunk and I lie down,” Yury Dmitriev recounts.
“But twice they ransacked my cell because I’d refused to shave my beard. Because according to the law, until you’re convicted you don’t have to, but they started pressuring me and I wouldn’t give in. Well, since I wouldn’t take their fatherly advice, shall we say, they turned everything we had upside down. But, you see, it’s too late to change my soul, even with prison.
The fact that I’d read before about the people who’d done time in that prison, this experience helped me understand their worldview and their experiences: how they walked down these corridors, how they were kept in these cells, and what was done with them afterward—I know that, too. That’s probably why I simply felt everything they felt more deeply. And I hope that one day this will pour out into a few lines not plucked from nowhere but coming out of what I have experienced personally. . . .”
When you first arrived in Sandarmokh, what was there?
“When we arrived there the first time, there was no Sandarmokh. When we realized that this was the place, believe me, there was no joy whatsoever because there were graves, graves, and more graves, all through the woods. You could picture the full depth of the tragedy.
And then what? Then there was simple labor. We dug, and people from the Prosecutor’s Office and FSB stood over us on all sides, but we kept digging, retrieving, and tallying. A dreary business. . . For the time being I can’t go to Sandarmokh or any other burial sites. I’m under travel restrictions and I’m not supposed to leave Petrozavodsk, I’m not supposed to violate anything. I’ve had time to think about all this because things remain undone and I’m drawn there (to the burial sites — Radio Svoboda). I’ve already put together an approximate plan of what I’m going to do now — this year at least.
“I have to finish the manuscript I didn’t get to finish before my arrest. These are 126,000 people about whom our State unfortunately doesn’t want to know anything. Approximately 20 percent of these ‘specially resettled persons’ and ‘resettled working persons’ have descendants living in Karelia to whom I now want to give information about their great- and great-great-grandparents: where they came from, why they were sent here to us, and what happened to them here in the first years of their Karelian exile. If they died here, then where they’re buried, since apart from my work with documents I’ve also travelled around of Karelia and found all the cemeteries in the special settlements. I give the GPS coordinates and whether these settlements can be reached and how, so that each person who finds the strength within himself can visit the graves dear to him.”
According to court statistics, 0.5 percent of people put on trial are acquitted. If this all follows a bad scenario and you’re convicted, who will carry on your work?
“People will come forward. No one has to be taken by the hand for this, explained or shown anything. If someone feels the need, if it grows inside him, he will find a way. As for the trial, I don’t engage in fortunetelling. In these instances, I always quote Varvara Brusilova, who in her final word at the Moscow tribunal that sentenced her to execution (she was twenty-two and had a babe in arms), said this: ‘I’m not asking for mercy or quarter. I will accept any decision you make with perfect calm because according to my religious beliefs there is no death.’
And here it’s the same thing. My family, relatives, friends and comrades believe in me — and thank God, the rest holds little interest for me. I know what this regime did before. If they want to go on doing the same thing, oh well—I am one of the characters in my Karelian Book of Remembrance. There were 14,500 and now there will be 14,501, that’s all.”
When you were arrested, information went around that your unfinished book [about Karelia’s “special settlers”] had been lost…
” I have no comment on that for now, simply because I have not yet had the chance to sort everything out and figure out where things are. There was no time for anything; I didn’t even have time to fix the light before you arrived.”
The year 1937 has been brought up lately, both with reason and without. Nowadays, people are put in prison for reposts, arrested for taking part in protests that have been officially permitted, and so on. How would you define our times?
“Our times are defined easily and simply. Open our current Constitution and try to abide by it from the first article to the last. If you go unnoticed, then it’s not 1937. But if people say to you: Who cares what’s written in there? What’s that little book you’ve got there, anyway? Think for yourself.”
While you were on remand, did people often talk to you about politics?
“Who in there can you talk about politics with? I had all different types of cellmates, but in the remand prison where I was, 70% of people grew up in orphanages, they’re children from disadvantaged families with a sixth-grade education, or seventh-grade, at best. They received me normally. If anyone was interested in what I did, then yes, I would talk about what I know: both the history of the executions in Karelia and the fates of specific individuals.
In prison with me was a descendant of one of my very oldest acquaintances, Arvar Myakel, from Kondopoga. I talked to him about his great-grandfather. Karelia is a small republic, with the population of a large village. Everyone has heard something about everyone else, even about another person’s relatives. I am a religious man, and I began to lay down conditions: guys, when I’m praying, and that’s in the morning and evening, your cursing is unwelcome. “Or what?” they would ask. “God will fly down and give you a whipping!” – and at that everything settled down somehow, and it was quiet and peaceful. And then, lo and behold, others began searching for God, some more than others.”
How do you feel about the fact that the Church is growing closer and closer to the government?
“Do you believe in God, or do you believe in the Church? God should be in the heart. Everything else was invented by people to make money.”
What do you think, when will we stop fearing our past? Banning movies about it, rewriting history?
“All of our rights are written in the Constitution. When we reach a point when people are abiding by the Constitution, then we shall stop being afraid, most likely. Or maybe it will be the other way around: first we shall stop being afraid, and then we’ll start abiding by the Constitution, all of it – from top to bottom. After all, it’s possible in other countries, so why don’t we seek to achieve that in our own?”
While you were in the remand prison, did you lose a lot of weight?
“At first the weight really fell off, but then it stopped. The food, well, hmm, it’s alright. Katiushka (Dmitriev’s daughter – Radio Svoboda) brought me sausages, I would cut them up, and it made the food edible. Normal sausages,” says Dmitriev.
For his birthday, friends and associates from different cities chipped in and bought Yury Dmitriev a new computer. The one he used to write his books had been seized during the search; he had nothing to work with anymore. On the desk are old black-and-white photographs of his adoptive mother and father.
“My father was a soldier, a mortar operator on the front line just outside Leningrad, and then he rose to colonel of the tank forces,” Dmitriev says. Next to the photographs are quotes from Ehrenburg, whom Dmitriev considers to be the best writer of his time. “Maybe it’s easy to live without memory, but such a life is hardly worthy of a human being. As difficult as memory may be at times, it is precisely what distinguishes humans from butterflies and culture from primitive existence” – reads the quotation displayed on his desk.
Eight-year-old Sonya runs up to her grandfather, hugs him around the neck. “What a pretty girl,” his friends tell him.
“Whatever else, I know how to make grandchildren,” Dmitriev laughs. “Yes, I smoke I lot, only Belomor since I was fourteen. I did some research and learned who thought up that name. It turns out it was a collective effort. In 1934 the workers of Klara Tsetkin Factory went on an excursion along the Belomor [White Sea] Canal, and after a few months these cigarettes appeared—although I haven’t yet figured out who drew the design on the carton.”
He approaches the wardrobe, which holds mountains of various boxes and papers instead of clothing.
“I want to show you a map of the Karelian special settlements,” he says. He looks for a long time, but doesn’t find it. Instead, he gets out a small box with medals and shows it to us. “These are mine, and none of them are from the government but from those they now call foreign agents. And there are some from people who, by the very nature of their work, can’t stand me.
“From communists, for example: they definitely don’t like me, but they come to me and I help them, help them with reburying our soldiers whom I find in the Karelian forests, or with confirming the list of the dead from the Onega Flotilla. And this award is from, judging by the current climate, God knows what kind of enemy: the Union of the Officers of Ukraine gave it to me for returning several dozen names to them from oblivion. There’s a Polish medal, and back then we had very difficult relations with Poland, but I still gathered a lot of information about their citizens and gave it to them. All these awards are equally valuable to me. But do you know which of our awards I’d like to get? The medal “For Courage.” The others don’t count.”
But is it true that you found your first skull when you were only a child?
“Yes, I was eleven, we lived in Bobruisk then. I was playing soccer with the boys, it just happened they were digging up the ground for phone lines. And we came across human remains. We found a skull, started to kick it around. Played soccer with it until one of the grown-ups arrived and cursed us out. I remember that some old woman came, scooped them up into her scarf and carried them off somewhere. We were saying some kind of Baba Yaga had come…
So I’m probably paying for sins like those to this day… We don’t get to be on earth just like that, we all have certain work that we should do. Right before my fiftieth birthday I sat here at the table and thought: you’ve lived fifty years, that means two-thirds are behind you, and what have you done? And I started looking back over my life bit by bit.
“And I understood: it was as if everything that happened in my life had led me to this work, the only things that continue to puzzle me are how fencing with rapiers and rowing in a canoe will be of any use to me. Everything else I’ve done in my life helped me, led me to this path. I started on it thirty years ago and understood only recently that that was the path I needed to be on. My work is to return memory. You see, everyone should have a grave. If we aren’t going to respect our own graves, the graves of our own kin, what kind of a people are we? None worthy of the name.”
More and more guests keep arriving at the house. “Now, what should I congratulate you on more—on your birthday or on getting out of the remand centre?” they ask.
“My birthday, of course!” Dmitriev doesn’t hesitate. “Any kind of prison has a sentence that ends sooner or later, it’s a temporary thing, you’ll either walk out yourself or you’ll leave legs first. But your next birthday might not arrive, it’s already the seventh decade. In our country, unfortunately, despite all the gimmickry of the Ministry of Health, men don’t live long. But they were constantly checking on me in the cell, examining everything. My blood pressure is 115 over 75, I could go into space tomorrow. So I’ll live a little longer. I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing: bringing up my grandchildren, writing books.”
Excerpts from an interview
with Elisabeth Mayetnaya, Radio Svoboda
28 January 2018
Translation by Rights in Russia