The Search for Sandarmokh (Flige)

“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 Sandarmokh. “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 Sandarmokh, 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.

Excerpts from Irina Flige, The Search for Sandarmokh (2019)


“Where are our fathers buried?”

At the very end of the 1980s, people at last began to be given correct information about the death sentence passed on members of their family, when it was issued and when they were shot. Nothing was said about where they were executed or buried.

In cities throughout the USSR “Weeks of Conscience” were held. On improvised “Walls of Remembrance” people wrote the names of family members who had never returned home. Placards demanding to know “Where are our fathers buried?” appeared at different rallies. The first expeditionary groups were formed then, of people driven by a need to lay flowers on the grave of their loved one.


Ivan Chukhin’s archival discoveries

In Petrozavodsk, as in many Soviet cities by 1990, a Memorial society came into being. Its chairman and the person behind its creation was Ivan CHUKHIN, a colonel in the police and a senior investigator of serious crime for the Karelian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The reforming tide of perestroika led to Chukhin’s election that same year as a deputy of the Russian Supreme Soviet. He was one of the authors of the October 1991 “Law on Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression”. After the October 1993 events, Chukhin was again elected to represent Karelia in the new State Duma. His chief task, he believed, was to investigate the history of the Gulag and the Great Terror.

By the mid-1990s, Chukhin had located crucial materials documenting the history of the mass executions of the late 1930s in Karelia: the complete minutes of the sessions of the Karelian troika; and the decisions taken by the two-man commission (dvoika) in Moscow as to who was to be shot in the Karelian Republic — the decisions were then sent to the republic for the sentences to be carried out.

Ivan Chukhin (1948-1997)

On the basis of this information Chukhin drew up chronological tables: these listed the sentences issued by the troika, the Moscow-based dvoika and, after the latter was disbanded, the sentences passed by the Special Troika in Karelia to complete the various “national” operations.

Each list includes the date of execution; the approximate place of execution (i.e. the nearest population centre); the numbers shot; and the surnames of the NKVD officers who oversaw the executions. [The tables are appended to Chukhin’s posthumous book Karelia-1937 [R], published in 1999.]

Eleven Karelian place-names occur in Chukhin’s tables: Petrozavodsk, Medgora, Kem, Segezha, Pudozh, Vodorazdel, Olonets, Rugozero, Sosnovets, Kandalaksha, Reboly, Kondopoga, Urosozero and Belomorsk. Unlike the overwhelming majority of other Regions and Republics in the Soviet Union, the area where the executions were carried out in Karelia was mentioned in reports that the task had been completed. Each one of these place-names could refer to many square kilometres of impenetrable Karelian forest. It was then that Chukhin and his helper Yury Dmitriev began to compile the Karelian Book of Remembrance of the Victims of Terror. By 1997, they had  gathered about 15,000 names with brief biographical details, of whom 12,453 were shot.

The abundance of killing grounds in Karelia is explained by the presence of Belbaltlag, a major camp system that spread across the entire territory of the republic. The construction of the Baltic White Sea Canal officially ended in 1933 but by the late 1930s Belbaltlag remained one of largest camp systems in the USSR: between 60,000 and 80,000 prisoners were being used to “complete” and service the canal. During the course of the Great Terror (August 1937-November 1938) no less than 2,500-2,600 of these convicts were sentenced to death by the Petrozavodsk troika.

Searching for the burial sites

The first execution burial site was discovered in May 1989 by local historian E.G. Nilov  near Chernaya rechka (Black River) in the vicinity of the town of Pudozh. He determined the location of this killing ground from the tales of local inhabitants. Then a further two burial sites were found within the Petrozavodsk city limits. Workers excavating near Sulazhgora, next to the brick factory, came across one site. The other, near the Besovets settlement, was found by local historians from Petrozavodsk: the tales of the older generation were confirmed by excavations there.

As for “Medgora”, a place of central importance to our story, a major killing ground near the modern city of Medvezhegorsk remained unknown to the public and even to researchers, despite Chukhin’s archival discoveries. Naturally, Yury Dmitriev knew what information Chukhin had obtained and was planning to investigate the surroundings of Medvezhegorsk so as to locate a mass execution site there.


The grieving families

In 1987, Moscow film-maker Marina GOLDOVSKAYA visited the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. Soon she began to film there. Former inmates of the Solovki Special Camp (later Special Prison) such as Academician Dmitry Likhachev, writer Oleg Volkov, worker Yevgeny Lagutin and memoirist Olga Adamova-Sliozberg* took part in The Solovki Regime: Testimony and Documents.

Olga Adamova-Sliozberg

Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (1902-1991)

At the end of 1988, the film was widely released in the Soviet Union, introducing the Solovki Camp to the public as a whole. Work began within the Solovki Museum and Conservation Area to create an exhibition about the Special Purpose Solovki Camps, the first exhibition in the USSR to focus on the Gulag. The exhibition was based on the materials and documents gathered during the preparation of the film.

When we travelled to the islands we got to know the families of 126 prisoners from Solovki who had “disappeared”. As those taking the journey became acquainted with one another and compared their relatives’ rehabilitation certificates and dates of death, Veniamin JOFFE, the head of the St Petersburg Memorial society, put forward a suggestion. Comparing a number of different sources, and noting how close the dates were, he suggested that there had been mass executions of Solovki inmates in the autumn of 1937.

Joffe’s supposition was confirmed in 1994 when a group of documents were found in the archive of the Arkhangelsk Region FSB. Copies were found of the minutes of sessions of the  Leningrad Region NKVD Special Troika (Nos 81-85, 124, 189, 199 and 303), which contained lists of 1,825 Solovki Prison inmates who were sentenced to death.

From a list to biographies

Work began to compile biographical details of the people included in that list.

There was an amusing episode when it came to photocopying the materials of the Solovki case files. The staff at the Arkhangelsk Region FSB archive would not allow us to copy reports by informants and memoranda based on their information, because these documents concerned undercover work by the security services and there was no statute of limitation for materials documenting such secret methods.

More than a year passed. The burial site at Sandormokh was discovered and a memorial complex was opened there. Ukrainian researchers began to work with the Solovki case files. For them the executions on Solovki were a part of Ukrainian history that had not lost its contemporary relevance: the flower of Ukraine’s intelligentsia was shot on Solovki. Historians in Ukraine were already working with the archivists of the Ukraine Security Service and both historians and USS archivists visited Arkhangelsk and Petrozavodsk. Staff at the regional FSB archives could not refuse colleagues from the Near Abroad full access to these documents. Another year passed and all these top-secret reports and memoranda from the agents of the NKVD, exposing the methods used in 1937, began to be published in Kiev in three volumes under the title Last Addresses: On the 60th anniversary of the Solovki Tragedy (Ukr. Ostannya adresa, 1997-1999).

To compile biographical profiles and confirm the information they contained we sent questionnaires to those regions in the USSR where the prisoners on Solovki had been arrested and sentenced.

Meanwhile, we engaged in more active communication with the family members who took a keen and constant interest in our work – they longed to find out more about their relatives. They themselves began to draw up questionnaires and study the case files, bringing copies of the documents and photos to our archive at Memorial. Sometimes, on the contrary, we became  acquainted with the children of executed prisoners from Solovki as a result of studying the case files of their relatives.

Solovetsky Islands (map)

Veniamin Joffe and I were establishing what had happened not to abstract victims of the Great Terror but to real people, we were uncovering the circumstances in which they had met their end. Thanks to our contacts and friendship with the families of the missing Solovki prisoners, and thanks to memoirs — I found the recollections of Yury Chirkov** (1919-1988) particularly revealing — we also got to know men and women who had died years before. We knew what many of them looked like; we read their letters; we became familiar with their shortcomings and habits: we learned how their widows and children, their sisters and brothers, had lived without them.

Now we had to find the graves — the last resting place of 1,111 people, shot in October-November 1937, of 509 shot in December 1937, and of the 198 who were shot in February 1938.

The quest for the “missing transport”

In 1995-1997, Joffe and I focused on the search for traces of the first and largest transport of prisoners from Solovki — 1,111 individuals who were executed, according to the documents, between 27 October and 4 November 1937.

Veniamin Joffe (1938-2002)

Veniamin Joffe (1938-2002)

To begin with Joffe thought we must search near Kem, the closest point on the mainland to the Solovetsky archipelago. Here, on Popov island, today the town of Rabocheostrovsk, were the wharf and the Kem transit camp from which transports of prisoners were sent across the White Sea to and from Solovki. In any case, the missing transport could not avoid passing through Kem. It was, Joffe considered, the final destination of those sentenced to death. Indeed, why take them any further?

In summer 1995, during excavations to enlarge the stone quarry near the 6th kilometre of the former Ukhta Road (today the Kem-Kalevala Highway) a burial containing the bodies of 22 executed people was found. Further excavation work was halted, and the remains of the victims were reburied in the Kem town cemetery. The following summer Joffe and I examined the area  where those remains were found but did not discover any more burials.

The case of Captain Matveyev

In 1996, a collection of essays titled The Executioners’ Hands аre Clean was published in St Petersburg. The author, Colonel Yevgeny Lukin, headed the press service of the city’s FSB department. This racy account of what happened to Captain M.P. Matveyev — but with reference to archival documents! — contained interesting and relevant details.

On 18 March 1937 two men were arrested: Shondysh, deputy head of the NKVD 3rd department on the White Sea Canal, and Bondarenko who headed the 5th section of the same department. According to the minutes of the Karelian troika meetings, first located by Ivan Chukhin, Shondysh and Bondarenko had themselves taken part in executions near Medgora (Medvezhegorsk). They were charged, among other things, with not having been sufficiently humane in carrying out the death penalty. The arrested men said they had resorted to such methods, following the example of Captain Matveyev from Leningrad. On 11 March 1939, Matveyev himself was arrested.

The charge sheet reads:

“At the end of October 1937, MATVEYEV, former deputy head of administration and management for the Leningrad Region NKVD, was put in charge of a team sent to Medvezhegorsk to carry out sentence on those condemned to the supreme penalty.

“On his arrival in Medvezhegorsk, MATVEYEV ordered two wooden clubs with which he began to beat the convicts himself or permitted his subordinates to do so. These beatings took place in the room where the condemned individuals were bound before being loaded into the motor vehicles, during the journey, and [at the place] where the sentences were carried out. In some cases, prisoners were killed with such a club in the room where they were bound; others were suffocated there.”

The condemned prisoners, evidently, were being taken in motor vehicles to the place of execution from somewhere in Medgora, the capital of the Belbaltlag Camp complex. Only one building could serve as such an “accumulator”, the interrogation centre for the White Sea Canal. There are, in fact, direct indications in the case files.

The accused Mironov deposed that

“From 10 November 1937 up to January 1938, on the orders of Bondarenko …  I was recruited to work in the special team headed by Bondarenko and Shondysh … to carry out sentence on those condemned to the supreme penalty.

“The conditions in which I and others worked during the operation were not fit for purpose, since the interrogation centre where the condemned individuals were prepared to be sent to the usual place was a wooden structure. As a result, the slightest cry of the condemned could affect those held at the interrogation centre who had been condemned to the supreme penalty.

“It was a very busy road along which we drove the condemned to the place where sentence was carried out: buses, motor vehicles and pedestrians passed that way.”

Mironov goes on to say

“Once, when I was put in charge of the convoy accompanying the condemned the vehicle developed problems and broke down in Pindusha village. It stood there for about 1 ½ hours.”

Acquaintance with the contents of this file, No 11602, proved a turning point in our search for the missing transport. The “usual place”, the killing ground for Belbaltlag, was 16 kms from Medgora and beyond the village of Pindusha, i.e. it was somewhere near the 16th kilometre along the Povenets Road on which the village lies. From the case files, it was evident that the pits were deeper than human height. Now all we had to do was find those burials.

In early June 1997, we continued to fill out the biographies of the list of 1,825 executed prisoners. This involved photocopying the Solovki case files that had ended up in the archives of the Karelian FSB. There, when I went out for a smoke, I first met Yury DMITRIEV. After the death of Ivan Chukhin in May he continued work on the “Karelian Book of Remembrance” and searched for material that might help him find where the victims of the Karelian troika had been buried.

We exchanged information about the shootings near Medvezhegorsk. We had come across references, I told him, to the Belbaltlag place of execution in our search for the Solovki transports and invited him to join us on our already planned expedition.

Sandarmokh is found and named

We arrived in Medvezhegorsk on 30 June 1997. Dmitriev came in his own car, accompanied by his 12-year-old daughter Katya and his dog. He had rented a shack until the end of the summer on the shores of Lake Onega. We were all convinced our search would continue for several months.

young Dmitriev

Yury Dmitriev (b. 1956)

On 1 July we began probing the ground. The officers of the local military unit, as promised, provided a group of soldiers under the command of Senior Lieutenant A. Zhdan. We started with a sandy area in the old part of the quarry next to the road. Work proceeded quickly. The soldiers took shallow probes, 70-80 centimetres (2-3 feet) in depth. I checked the samples to see if the layers of soil had been disturbed. They had not, so we moved on. By midday all the probes had given a negative result. We decided to check the entire perimeter and exhaust the suggestion that the quarry was the most likely location. Only then would we widen our search and move further into the forest.

To begin with all the members of the expedition were on tenterhooks. Any moment now we’ll find some remains! Gradually, the work became routine and the garrison commanders drove off, leaving the soldiers behind. The rest spread out to mark the next spots for test drilling. Quite soon Dmitriev reappeared from the forest: “I’ve found it!”

Approximately 500 metres north of the quarry, 900 metres away from the highway, in a pine grove to the left of a road leading deep into the forest, Yury Dmitriev had discovered the characteristic depressions in the earth, measuring 4 by 4 metres with a depth of between 10 and 30 centimetres. They were of an almost regular rectangular form with flattened edges. We began digging there.

The top layers of soil were disturbed and at a depth of two metres in the very first place we dug the astounded soldiers found human bones. We could not establish how deep this layer of human remains was since the probe did not strike firm ground. We called a halt and summoned representatives of the district prosecutor’s office.

See review in January 2020 issue Novy mir (excerpts)


* The existence of Olga Adamova Sliozberg‘s memoirs was known in the USSR and the West as soon as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago began to circulate in samizdat and be published abroad. Hers was one of only four authors of memoirs about the camps to be named there.

A lengthy excerpt from her memoirs My Journey was published in the Soviet Union in 1989 in the anthology Till My Tale is Told and a first edition of the full work followed in 1992. Both were subsequently translated into English.

** Yury Chirkov is mentioned in Stalin’s Meteorologist (2018).

Both authors are discussed in Leona Toker’s Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (2000).