An interview with Yury Dmitriev
“… the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…”
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
YURY DMITRIEV, the head of Memorial in Karelia, has spent half his life searching for unnamed graves, and discovering who their occupants are: giving their remains a proper burial, drawing up lists of their names, and finding out how they met their end. In a word, he has resurrected the memory of those consigned to oblivion.
Thanks to Dmitriev, the killing fields of the Great Terror in Karelia have been found, studied and, like Sandarmokh with its thousands of victims, turned into memorial graveyards. As a result of his work Books of Remembrance have been published about Karelia, and about Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor.
The following interview was recorded in May 2015. Dmitriev has always been an awkward figure — uncompromising, at times brusque and categorical in his views. As we talked I was struck by his simple gruff directness, his selfless devotion to people living and dead, and his unwillingness to conform to current requirements.
Dmitriev’s words about discovering your own path in life have a particular resonance today. Two years ago, it seems, he clearly saw the danger of pursuing his chosen path.
Memorial, 1 May 2017
FOR ME IT ALL BEGAN in the late 1980s.
I’d heard that people had been ‘repressed’, but, somehow, we didn’t speak about it in our family. It turned out later that my mother’s father was dekulakised and sent to work on the White Sea Canal. My other grandfather was arrested in 1938 and died in the camps. He was an accountant on a collective farm and he caught it in the neck.
Papa only confessed this to me in 1991 when we were coming back from the first funeral I organised for those shot in the 1930s.
“LET’S COVER THEM UP AGAIN”
In 1988 I was an aide to USSR People’s Deputy Mikhail Zenko and the Besovets district was part of our territorial responsibility. A reporter I knew from the “Komsomol” newspaper, Sasha Trubin, rang me up: It looks as though they’ve found an execution site at the army base, he said. We need to get out there. I quickly contacted my chief, “We ought to go.” “Okay, get the car,” he replied. Off we went, taking Sasha with us. Guys from the prosecutor’s office, an investigator and district officials were already there … All in all, fifteen people, probably.
“There are bones here, so what? How can you tell they were shot?”
No one wanted to get involved. But I knew a little about osteology and from the position of the bones determined where the head should be. After a couple of minutes, I found a skull. I cleaned it and there, in the back of the head, was a round hole … “What are we going to do now?” It was a district-level conference with a few outside experts.
“Let’s cover them up again. Who gives a damn!”
“What do you mean, cover them up again?” I said. “We should bury them: they’re human beings. We should give them a Christian burial.” (I decided to stress Christian values.)
“Who’s going to go to all that trouble?”
There they stood, looking at one another. That’s your average man’s normal condition. He’s lazy. No one wanted any extra work. I looked at them.
“Okay. If none of you can be bothered, let me deal with it. I’ll oversee and coordinate the work. Misha, what do you say?”
“Fine, I agree,” said Zenko. Well, if a USSR People’s Deputy said something must be done, that meant we’d do it. It was summer 1988. After it became clearer what needed doing (the prosecutor’s office should carry out certain investigative procedures, remove the bones, record what had been found — how many bodies, and so on) the investigator said:
“Since we’re dealing with these few poor fellows, there are no end of bones not far from here. They’re just lying around, and no one takes any notice.”
Where were they? He told us. Come on, you can show us on our way back to town.
We took the investigator with us and drove to Sulazhgora, which is much closer to Petrozavodsk than Besovets. They were digging out sand for the silicate plant and at the bottom of the quarry, as he said, there were piles of human bones: some complete, some damaged, and several skulls with holes in them.
“What’s been happening here?” I asked.
“They keep tumbling out of somewhere. We wanted to bring our machines, and see if we could dig them up, but it’s impossible: the side of the quarry might collapse at any moment. We don’t know what to do with them.”
“Well,” I said, “couldn’t you give them a proper burial?”
“That’s not our job.”
I spent several weekends there, gathering the bones, putting them into sacks and taking them back to my garage. Then I got friendly with a driver working at the quarry.
“If you see anything,” I told him, “ring the prosecutor’s office.”
“I’ve already been told not to ring the prosecutor or the police – they can’t do a thing.”
“Then ring me.” I gave him my number.
He rang. A great many more bones had appeared.
I went over there to collect them. Certain items also turned up: mugs, spectacles, underclothes. I kept on gathering the bones and items and then guys from the local Memorial society began to get involved. It was not so much tough as awkward, working on my own. A couple of times the earth buried me, and I could barely dig myself out.
On one occasion there were 20 deputies of the Petrozavodsk City soviet, an RSFSR People’s Deputy, seven or eight from Karelia’s Supreme Soviet, a platoon of border guards, eight from the MVD information centre and six or seven staff from the FSB archives. I had to find jobs for the lot of them! I tied a safety rope to each: we didn’t want anyone falling over the edge.
One of the soldiers was put to work on the edge of the quarry. Bones were passed to him and he used a brush to remove the sand and muck. He sat there for some while. Suddenly he yelled and flipped backwards over the edge, dangling on the rope. We pulled him up. He had fallen nine feet, as far as the safety rope permited.
“What’s up with you?!”
“He was staring at me!”
“How could he stare at you?”
I picked up the skull, dusted it off with the brush, and a glass eye looked back at me.
There were not one or two, but many mass graves on the site. None of them were very large: there were twenty to thirty bodies in each. Regrettably, we could not excavate any one grave completely: we found them only after a landslip. Some of the remains had disappeared and it proved impossible to gather them all.
I often think that with our present understanding and experience I could determine who was shot there. Then we were not experienced. The task we set ourselves was simple: collect the bones and give them a decent burial. Only later did I start wanting to know who these people were and why they’d been shot.
IN THE ARCHIVES
Then I started working for Ivan Chukhin, a deputy of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet (and the State Duma, 1990-1995). He was a lieutenant-colonel in the police, a trained psychologist.
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 (NKVD) 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 containing 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 activity.
I sat in the FSB archives, filling out all the cards – several thousands of them – entering date of arrest, and every other detail. Then I spent several months at the Karelian prosecutor’s office, adding notes about rehabilitation. (The prosecutor’s office had then been instructed to rehabilitate individuals without waiting for a formal request from NGOs or relatives.) When I reached the end of these cards, I realised there were enormous gaps in the lists. People wrote to us, asking for information, but we couldn’t see their relatives in our index. What we were doing was no good, I decided. We needed a different approach. I went back to the FSB.
“I don’t need the case files,” I told them: “Give me the records of the troika sessions and the execution reports.”
That was when things really started moving.
The Commissar’s report, it turned out, did not cover several later sessions of the Karelian troika. It was dated February. Before May 1938 the troika met again and from August onwards, the special troika of the Karelian NKVD was in session. The commission materials sent to Moscow for confirmation were also missing.
Working with the execution reports was quite a challenge … They wouldn’t let me make photocopies: I could only copy out as much as I was able write in eight hours. No photography either. So, I took a dictaphone with me, and read out the records and attached execution reports from beginning to end, word for word, letter for letter. I then spent half the night transcribing the texts, comparing the execution reports with the lists we already had. Day after day I went back and recorded more. That’s how we put together a database that’s more or less trustworthy.
Even then it proved incomplete. Everything that moved along the railway came under the NKVD’s transport department, and those materials were not in the archive. Exactly how many they arrested we do not know. Say, they picked up 10-15 people at every station. There are a great many stations up to the Arctic Circle. Roughly one thousand people had escaped our attention. And for some reason the comrades in Leningrad very much liked travelling to the Olonetsk district in south Karelia … They arrested people there, and took them back to Leningrad where they were convicted. No documentation remained in Petrozavodsk.
Anatoly Razumov helped us out. It so happened, he was then working on the records of the Leningrad troikas. When people from our area turned up there he forwarded the information to us. He came across their names and could track down their case files, and we then added them to the Book of Remembrance.
In 1997 Ivan Chukhin and I put together this book, Karelia’s Lists of Remembrance: The Great Terror, 1937-1938. Ivan wrote a marvellous introduction, providing the background; I was responsible for the lists. [The printed version, published in 2002, contains over 14,000 names and is 1,088 pages long. The lists are available online.]
This took several years of work in the archives, but when the chance arose, I also went out to look at different sites. In the execution reports (in some of them, at least) the location of the shootings was described or indicated. It was possible, in other words, to try and find something. What it would look like and how it all lay in the earth I already knew.
WE MUST BE ABLE TO FIND SOMETHING
In 1997 I met Veniamin Joffe and Irina Flige from Petersburg Memorial at the FSB archives in Karelia. We agreed to look for the site near Medvezhyegorsk where many executions took place.
Joffe and Flige were on the track of the missing transport from Solovki special prison. They began their search after reading the case file of NKVD Captain Mikhail Matveyev, who oversaw the shooting of the Solovki prisoners in autumn 1937. From reading so many execution reports I knew that an enormous number of people, several thousands, had been shot somewhere near Medgora. So, we agreed on a date. If I remember rightly, we arrived there on 1 July and on 2 or 3 July we had already discovered the place [Sandarmokh]. I would be stuck there for ages. The official investigative procedures continued for two whole months.
While that was going on I persuaded Seryoga Chugunkov, also from Memorial, to leave Petrozavodsk and join me. For years he’d been looking for an execution site near Averyanovo village. He arrived, saw what the execution pits looked like and said: “I know a place in our woods where you can see such pits.” He went home again, and there I remained near Medgora. When I was back on a visit to Petrozavodsk Chugunkov told me: “What do you think? We’ve found it. Not far from Petrozavodsk at Krasny Bor.” Well, we went and looked. The pits were identical. We started digging – and turned up the same kind of remains …
We quickly informed the prosecutor’s office. They carried out various investigative procedures and concluded that this had been an execution site. When, they couldn’t say. They tried to uncover all of one pit, but the ground was too waterlogged. They decided to postpone any further investigation until the following year. It was clear that people had been shot there; so far that was all we knew. I was frustrated – I hate hanging about. We must be able to find out more, to reach some conclusion. On 6 November 1997, that same year, I took a few young trainees from the police college and, choosing a higher site, a hillock, we dug around another pit. Seventeen bodies, several women among them. We measured and calculated everything … Then we covered them up again.
I came home and within three minutes I found the execution report. The numbers, including the number of women, coincided exactly. There were no other such reports from anywhere around Petrozavodsk. Another couple of minutes at the computer and I found all their names. Who they were, where they came from … It was the first fully identified grave at Krasny Bor. The next year we opened several more of the pits. All of them were amazingly easy to read: the execution reports corresponded exactly to what we found. We determined when the shootings took place and which execution squads were involved. A consolidated list of the victims came into being … When I walked about the site I had estimated from the geometry of the pits that about 1,200 bodies lay there. The final total was 1,193.
That’s the good thing about working in the archives. An execution report tells you that on this and that date, “I, Vasily Petrov / Ivan Semyonov shot 42 people” (signature, date). Those executed are named: surname, name, patronymic, year of birth. From the report I can learn the age range and the numbers of men and women. If I open an execution pit and find 42 bodies there, including seven women, say, that’s excellent. Let’s suppose there are several similar reports in my catalogue for a single place near Petrozavodsk (such a coincidence has never yet occurred, I may add). Then I’d have to look at the age range, as well. How many old people, how many younger people … It’s possible to do the work, using such a document. These are details, the sex and age of those shot, that can be recovered from the grave. For everything else, if you’re lucky, you may find some document or item that helps in identification.
At present, I have one burial site, Krasny Bor, where the names of the victims are known with a high degree of certainty. After that I began to collect the execution reports that refer to Sandarmokh: those marked “Medgora station, Kirovskaya Railway”. As for the people who were shot elsewhere near Petrozavodsk, I cannot today say exactly where it took place – at Sulazhgora, perhaps, or Besovets.
IT WAS ALL PREPARATION FOR WHAT I DO NOW
Did I ever want to give up? Sometimes, when there was no food at home and work on the execution lists and burial sites took up all my time. By then I was no longer an aide to a people’s deputy.
I made some attempts to get a job as an editor.
“Of course, such a book is needed. We’ve set up an editorial group,” they told me: “you’re the editor, now get on with it.”
“Come on,” I said. “I need a salary, it doesn’t need to be large … I’ve got to pay for the apartment, for electricity, and a few other things.”
“Hold on for a month or two. We’ll think of something and find you a place on the payroll.”
I waited for a month, then three months. A year passed, then two, then three. At times it was very tough. The children were going to school: we had to buy them skirts and trousers. You think to yourself, “That’s it, I’m giving up.” You go a bit crazy overnight. Then you get up in the morning and ask yourself: If I give up, who else is going to take it on? No one. And back I went.
Gradually, I learned how to earn some money and to keep up with the lists and burials. Today I’m officially the editor of a Book of Remembrance about the special settlers. The government of Karelia issued a decree and all kinds of bumph, and they call me in regularly to give progress reports, but they don’t pay a kopeck. At present, I’m working as a security guard. I’ve already spent nine years working on the book – how could I give up now? Well, those nine years don’t really matter. This is information that people need: they’re waiting for it, they want to find their relatives. I know it should have been done much earlier. But, there you are, it didn’t turn out that way. Today, one after another, the children of the 64,000 deported here as special settlers, who remember their parents, are passing on. The grandchildren will remain and they’re not likely to feel a strong need for such information. It will just become part of their general knowledge, perhaps.
When did I understand that this was my cross? Probably, about 12 or 13 years ago. I always thought, “When I finish this book I’ll do something else.” I’m not a bad technician. I can always find myself an 8 to 5 job. Then, after work, I can go out fishing or hunting, drink some wine and grill some kebabs. But there I was, working from morning until 2 or 3 at night.
No, I probably understood it earlier. Because in the Karelian Lists of Remembrance  I quote the words of Ursula le Guin: The more a man knows, she wrote, the narrower his choice of activity, until at last he does exactly what he should be doing. About 10-12 years ago I realised that all my past life was preparation for the path I must follow. Why did I once study medicine, and osteology in particular? Why did I go hiking and learn to climb? It’s very handy now, when something or other is out of reach. Why, as a young scamp, did I scramble over rubbish dumps and scrap heaps when others were going to the zoo? I was looking for interesting bits and pieces. Why did I accumulate these kinds of experience? To understand the life of those zeks and what happened to them. I saw that everything in my life had been an education and preparation for what I do now.
As soon as I understood that, I felt much more at ease. I stopped being pulled in different directions, wondering if I shouldn’t become the director of some firm and get a proper pay-packet. Did I have enough to feed myself, to pay the electric bill? I did. In that case, I could somehow cope with the rest. Each year I manage to go on an expedition. No one pays for that, I cover the costs, and it’s an expensive activity. But somehow, I find the money …
DEAD OR LIVING, THEY’RE THE SAME NATION
Sandarmokh means something special to me. It’s where I’ve put into practice several other tasks I set myself.
I’d like the people living in Karelia to feel that they are part of a nation, and not just “the population”. Belonging to a nation means you know your own history, language, culture and traditions. The population is anything that shows signs of life. To govern a nation, you must know and respect its customs, traditions and codes of behaviour; the population can be managed anyway you like. A nation can’t be herded about, it will stand its ground. The population is easy and simple to direct. To stand firm and survive this present uncertain period, so that those in charge become answerable, they are elected and can be replaced, we need to educate our nation.
I have been using Sandarmokh as a testing ground. I approach some diaspora within the republic and give them lists of their comrades. I explain that they belong to the same nation. If your people fell victim to such misfortune and were killed, there is no one else but you to look after them. Why? Because you’re part of that nation and so are they. It’s just that some are dead, and others are living. Well, I don’t rush things … And you know what? — people begin to think of themselves as a nation. And the more nations there are, the less easily we can be pushed around!
When the Poles put up their monument at Sandarmokh they created their own Polish society in Karelia and ever since it’s been at work, teaching people about their culture, and thank God for that. They understood that apart from living here and being citizens of Russia, they are also members of a nation, with their own tradition and culture. To love it, you must at the very least know it. That’s excellent. It’s wonderful when you can hear German, Jewish, Finnish and Polish songs at a concert somewhere. Folklore is always marvellous: songs are the soul of a nation. At Sandarmokh it’s all very convenient. You can bring people there, show them the place, then ask:
“What about you? Are you worse than the others? This lot have put up a monument, so have that lot. Are you poorer than everyone else?”
They collect money and it brings them together. After that they may split up, but it’s unlikely: they’ve been united by a cause. If they’d been drinking together then they might forget, once the hangover passed. But they met for a reason and, do you know, there’s never been any hostility at Sandarmokh: no one has ever said a bad word about anyone else. People stand in front of one memorial to pay homage, then they go to another memorial and pay their respects there as well. We share a common grief, and it has brought us all to the same place.
I’m now preparing a CD with lists of native Karelians who were shot. I’ve gathered their names from all over Russia, everywhere I could find them. Then I organised the entries by place of birth, and place of residence. The main entry is by place of birth. Since I’ve been thinking of moving somewhere else, this will be my parting gift to the Karelian people. For their warmth and kindness, as thanks for having lived among them, and learned from them. It’s a way of showing my respect. There aren’t so many native Karelians today. They’re in decline because the State provides almost no funding to support ethnic culture. They’ve just closed the last Finnish-language magazine.
So, there you have it. Consider me a nationalist in the widest sense of the word.
I’M TRYING TO FINISH WHAT’S MOST IMPORTANT
I first met students from the Moscow Film School, it seems, at Sandarmokh. They had come for the Day of Remembrance on 5 August. As it happened, one of the buses I’d laid on was empty and they took it to the graveyard and back. They were greatly impressed and began, cautiously, to ask me about local history.
Later they wrote me a letter: “Please, let us help you in some way.” I took up the offer and we went to Peter the Great’s arms factory. The next year they said: “We’d like to help again.” We worked at the Badger’s Hill graveyard. Then they wanted to help yet again. That’s when we started going to Solovki.
At Badger’s Hill we organised and tidied the graveyard of prisoners from the BelBaltLag camps, next to the 8th lock on the White Sea Canal.
The factory is one of the four cannon foundries set up in Karelia on the orders of Peter the Great. The blast furnaces are still there: you can touch them. We cleared up the surrounding area and put up a notice: “This was the site of a factory that produced shot, tackle and swords for the young Russian fleet. The weaponry was manufactured here; the ships themselves were built on the River Dvina” – “Vivat Rossiya!” and stuff like that. There was a historical and military romance about the spot. And then we went to Solovki.
I’d already been helping the Solovki Museum with some archival research. Olga Bochkareva, a senior research associate at the Museum, came to Petrozavodsk on business and dropped by to get acquainted. She saw what I was doing: “People were shot on Solovki as well, but we don’t know where they were buried. We must mark out the area. Please, come and visit. Here’s a contract for you to sign …” And that was how I first went there. Well, Solovki is an extraordinary place. I was entranced.
If I take someone with me then, like the head of any expedition, I am fully responsible for them: food, health, safety, and so on. If I invite the students from the film school or ask them to help then apart from the teachers who accompany them, I also take care that they can cope with the work. Somehow, we manage to work in such a way that the kids don’t feel afraid or hurt or find the work difficult. They do not open the graves. They help to clear and tidy.
Then we come back in the evening and I say:
“Today, with your help, we have tidied up yet another grave: it contains so many men and women, of approximately this and that age.”
They begin to understand that we are not just digging up the earth; they can see what happened here. It’s not a hole in the ground, it’s a grave and those lying there were shot.
Will I stop what I’m doing? I’ll carry on, but elsewhere. If I stay here [in Russia] everything will be lost. And I’ll be done for, too. Yet even if I die all my work will be preserved.
The person who needs these materials will get them all from me. There’s so much that I can barely keep up. I can’t do everything: I’ve already realised that. But I’d like to get the main work done — if I can grasp what it is. Things that don’t seem important now will be top of the list in five or ten years’ time. Will I be able to work for the next 5-10 years? Perhaps. I don’t know. It’s all in the hands of the Almighty.
How we dig the earth or hammer in nails – or draw lines on a drawing-board — are not the most difficult problem we face in our lives. The most complex challenge is to find our own path. We don’t appear on this earth by accident. Each one of us has his or her own task or goal in life, and we are led towards that goal by a foreordained path. We have a good understanding of ourselves before we are born. And no matter what potholes and bumps, twists and turns lie ahead of us on our chosen path, we know where they are and how to avoid them. As soon as we come into this world, however, we forget all we knew.
Then for a long and painful period we seek the right path. Because it is the only one leading us forward, that can inform or educate our souls. For some people their whole lives are spent in searching and uncertainty. They rush here, there they stand and wait, but they do not follow their own path. Happiness comes when you find your path and can travel along it, at least for a little distance.
I’m fortunate because I’ve understood what I should be doing. It’s my path, my cross, and I have accepted it as the way to my own Golgotha.
Petrozavodsk, May 2015