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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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 last resting place of Les Kurbas

Acclaimed curator and theatre director from New York Virlana Tkacz and artist Waldemart Klyuzko will give a talk in London tonight about Les KURBAS, Ukraine’s most important theatre director, who radically transformed Ukrainian theatre in the 1920s.

Kurbas lecture poster, May 2019

Wednesday, 8 May, 7 pm
Main Hall of the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family,
21 Binney Street, Mayfair, London W1K 5BQ

Kurbas and almost three hundred other representatives of Ukraine’s intelligentsia were shot at Sandarmokh between 27 October and 4 November 1937. They have become known as Ukraine’s “Executed Renaissance”.

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3 November 1937

Andriy Stepanovich PANIV was shot at Sandarmokh eighty years ago. He was one of 1,116 prisoners, marked for execution, who were shipped from Solovki to the mainland in autumn 1937.

Born 1899, Paniv was a rural schoolteacher in Ukraine (1918-1923), a writer, poet, journalist and translator. Before his arrest, he lived in the “Word” building in Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine.

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