Secret Destruction of GULAG Records?

By | July 14, 2018

On June 8, 2018, Roman Romanov, Director of the Museum of the Gulag History (MGH) in Moscow, appealed to Mikhail Fedotov, Adviser to the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chairman of the Human Rights Council (HRC). The appeal describes the destruction of registration cards of the prisoners of Stalin’s labor camps in the Russian archives in accordance with the “secret interdepartmental decree” of 2014.

Registration card of Sergei Korolev, future famous spacecraft designer. Magadan camp, 1942

According to the rules of Soviet times, the personal files of prisoners released from labor camps were destroyed, but archives kept registration cards with information about those who were imprisoned in the GULAG system and their movements between the camps. According to Romanov, the destruction of these cards means the complete removal of information on the presence of inmates in the GULAG system. The Documentation Center of the MGH stated that the destruction of the cards can “have catastrophic consequences for studying the history of the labor camps and obtaining data on the victims of repression.”

This spring Sergei Prudovsky, a Moscow historian, found out about the ongoing secret destruction of cards. He was searching for the Personal File and registration card of the repressed peasant Fyodor Chazov, who was deported to the Magadan Region. Prudovsky explained: “One can find the information to what labor camp the convicted prisoner was sent, if he survived, and if he was transferred from one camp to another only in his registration card kept in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD).

Prudovsky requested archival materials on Chazov from the Magadan MVD Regional Directorate (Magadan UMVD). The MVD replied that Chazov’s Personal File “had been destroyed in 1955 according to the rules of those years.” Later it became clear that Chazov’s archival registration card had also been destroyed.  In his answer Mikhail Seregin, head of the Informational Center (archive) of the Magadan UMVD referred to the MVD interdepartmental order with the “For Official Use Only” stamp (meaning not for public knowledge), dated February 12, 2014. According to the researcher, the document was signed by representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Emergency Situations, Ministry of Defense, FSB, the Federal Service for Drug Control (FSKN), as well as the Federal Customs Service (FCS), Federal Security Service (FSO), Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), General Prosecutor’s Office, and the Russian State Courier Service.

The Magadan UMVD’s answer to Prudovsky stated: “The period of storage of cards of convicts is until they reach 80 years of age. The period of storage of the card on Chazov Fyodor expired in 1989, and, according to the record, it was destroyed on September 11, 2014.”

But even if the card survived, the historian might have not been able to see it. The last sentence of the MVD answer to Prudovsky stated that according to the instruction in MVD Order no. 935, dated August 15, 2011, “it is forbidden to give  researchers access to the registration documentation from special [archival] collections.”

UMVD letter to Sergei Prudovsky stating “the period of storage of cards of convicts is until they reach 80 years of age”

In 2014, another person, Nina Trushina, also requested information about her relative convicted in 1939, from the same Magadan Regional MVD Directorate. The answer was that the required registration card was selected for destruction according to the internal MVD order. Trushina appealed to the Russian Supreme Court, indicating that the order affecting her rights is classified and not officially published. This, as she stressed in the lawsuit, contradicts Part 3 of Art. 15 of the Russian Constitution. The court denied the application and explained that the internal MVD order contains official information, while a decree of the Russian president from 1996 allows documents containing confidential materials not to be published.

In connection with these two incidents, Prudovsky wrote to the Rosarkhiv – a federal organization that controls 15 Russian state archives and is “carrying out functions on the development and implementation of state policy and regulatory and legal regulation in the field of archives and records management.”  Vladimir Putin, Russian President, manages the activities of the Rosarkhiv.

In answer to Prudovsky’s inquiry, the Rosarkhiv stated that all documents about convicts of the Soviet times should undergo an examination. If the document is considered valuable, it is put in the state account and is kept forever.

After this Prudovsky asked the Magadan UMVD if the destroyed registration cards had undergone expert evaluation. He is still waiting for an answer.

Chairman of the HRC Mikhail Fedotov, responding to Romanov’s appeal, said in an interview with the newspaper “Kommersant” that he would study the problem: “We will always protect the preservation of archival materials, they contain very important historical information. . . .When there’s no document, you can make up anything you want,” he added.

Prudovsky stressed the point that the question of destruction of registration cards is very important since the precise number of the victims of Stalin’s repression is still unknown. In 1937-38 alone, more than 1.7 million people were arrested on political grounds. According to the International “Memorial” Society’s estimation, the total number of those repressed on political grounds could have reached 12.5 million, but with the other non-criminal accusations it was approximately 30 million. Other estimations give a number up to 39 million.

Later on the same day, on June 8, Igor Zubov, Deputy MVD Minister, claimed that information about the destruction of archival registration cards of prisoners is not correct. Zubov said that the cards are strictly secret documents and are to be kept forever. He suggested to consider each case of the absence of a card of a particular prisoner as a separate case.

Zubov did not comment on the 2014 interdepartmental order to destroy cards after 80 years that the head of the Informational Center of the Magadan UMVD cited in his letter to Prudovsky.

On June 9, even deputies of the State Duma expressed concern over the destruction of documents.

Historians still expect information from the MVD and Rosarkhiv about whether or not a secret order exists and is followed. It remains unclear if the Magadan MVD Directorate misinterpreted the 2014 MVD order. Sergey Prudovsky said that at least in 2015 and 2016, the Karelian MVD Directorate granted him access to multiple archival records based on registration cards, meaning that these documents obviously still existed there at that time in the archive of this MVD branch.

On June 13, 2018, the MVD explained to the press the procedure for storing registration cards of convicts of the Soviet era. Registration cards of the convicts sentenced for “state crimes” (i.e., political prisoners) are stored in the original paper form. If a person was convicted of some other crime, the period of storage of his registration card can be extended if these documents have a scientific and historical significance. Cards of the persons convicted of “non-political” crimes are removed from the file of paper cards and are “compulsorily transferred to an electronic form, which ensures their permanent storage.” This explanation does not address the questions raised by Romanov, Prudovsky, and Trushina about particular cards that allegedly had been destroyed.

On July 11, 2018 the Main Informational-Analytical Center of the MVD of Russia explained to the historian Prudovsky why the registration card of his relative, former GULAG prisoner Fyodor Chasov, had been destroyed in the archive of the Magadan MVD Branch. Chasov was sentenced not under the “political” 58th Article of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, but as a “socially dangerous element”, a so-called SOE. The MVD letter was signed by Aleksei Berezin, deputy head of the MVD Center.

Clearly, the MVD had decided to keep only the cards of prisoners sentenced under the 58th Article, not taking into consideration that many relatives of those “enemies of people” who had been punished under the 58th Article were convicted and sent to the GULAG camps as SOEs.

Nikita Okhotin, currently the director of the Gulag museum at the “Memorial” Society in Moscow, has commented on this situation. In 1991, he was one of the developers of the law on rehabilitation of the victims of Soviet political purges. He explained that this law refers to the persons convicted “for political reasons”, but this does not mean “on political grounds.” And he added, “We understood that cases of deportation, ‘dekulakization’, articles [of the Criminal Code] about socially harmful and dangerous elements could be politically motivated. It was assumed that the authorities, when examining the cases, would study their essence.”

Okhotin noted that the law on rehabilitation does not mention the terms of storage of documents. “When we got acquainted with the rules of storage then in force, everything related to political cases had been kept, and everything else had been destroyed long time ago. And we could not even imagine that the remaining documents could disappear,” he added.

In the meantime, the Gulag History Museum in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Russia’s Mari El Republic, might be evicted from the building it’s occupied for the past eight years after it recently discovered the human remains of approximately 200 people, which could belong to a mass grave of the victims of the local NKVD branch. The skulls found have bullet holes in the back of the head, in the typical style of NKVD executioners. The museum’s director, Nikolai Arakcheev, says that the city would prefer to kick out his organization from the historical House of the Merchant Bulygin and rent it to a business for a profit.

Yury Dmitriev

And there was one more case connected with the remembrance of the victims of Stalin’s repressions. On June 14, 2018, the Supreme Court of Karelia in a closed session overturned the acquittal of the verdict of Yury Dmitriev, head of the Karelian regional “Memorial”, who was accused of making child pornography. The investigators claimed that he photographed his 11-years old adopted daughter Nataliya naked. Dmitriev himself claims that he took photos to monitor the child’s health and report to the guardianship authorities. Medical expertise recognized Dmitriev mentally healthy, it did not find any sexual deviations, meaning that it established that the historian is not a pedophile. Another examination proved that the girl’s photos have nothing to do with pornography.

Dmitriev is known as the compiler and publisher of the Book of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repressions of the 1930s and 1940s in Karelia, and of materials on the history of the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal by prisoners. In the late 1990s, Dmitriev also headed expeditions that excavated places of mass burials of the victims of political repression in Karelia in Sandarmokh (the place of execution of 1,111 political prisoners brought from the Solovetsky Camp) and Krasny Bor (the place of execution of 1,196 political arrestees). Information about the executions in Sandarmokh was found in archives.

Mikhail Matveev, deputy head of the Administration Department of the Leningrad NKVD Branch, was in charge of the killings. Later he testified: “I headed the brigade that carried out the executions of those sentenced to death, and I finished the task in about 20-22 days. The convicts were brought to the place designated for this purpose, that is, to the forest, where they dug out large pits. They were ordered to lie down face down in the holes, then they were shot from the revolver at a point-blank range.” Some convicts were beaten up with wooden or iron sticks before they were shot. Dmitriev found and published the names of almost all those executed. He also published lists of names of NKVD officers who took part in the Great Terror in 1936-1938.

On April 5, 2018, the Petrozavodsk city court acquitted Dmitriev on charges of making child pornography, giving him a suspended sentence on the article on illegal possession of weapons (during the search in his house an old rotten rifle was found that he had taken a few years ago from local small boys; the rifle is not usable). But the prosecutor’s office, who asked to put Dmitriev in prison for nine years, appealed the sentence. Also, the grandmother of Dmitriev’s adopted daughter claimed that Dmitriev had “disgraced her and her granddaughter.” In her opinion, the photos in Dmitriev’s computer (it has been proven that the historian did not send them to anyone) show Dmitriev’s guilt and they disgrace her and her granddaughter. This is the grandmother who gave her 3-years-old granddaughter to the orphanage, from which Dmitriev picked up Nataliya and adopted her. Dmitriev’s lawyer Viktor Anufriev stated that the girl said that she was “upset and disgraced” under pressure. However, the judge Nosova appended to the case the results of a psychological examination of the girl, which was done after the decision of Petrozavodsk city court. Before the court session on June 14, Dmitriev and his lawyer had not been informed about this psychological evaluation.

The case will be sent for further investigation in connection with “newly discovered circumstances.” Clearly, the Karelian (and, possibly, federal Russian) authorities are determined to punish the historian who discovered NKVD crimes and published the names of NKVD executioners.

While Dmitriev was taken to the pretrial detention center SIZO, the state TV channel NTV that promotes FSB activities, put on its website a concocted story that Dmitriev was going to flee to Poland, but was intercepted by vigilant MVD officers along the way. However, Dmitriev does not even have a passport for travel needed in Russia to go abroad, and he was detained on the way to a cemetery to visit the grave of an old acquaintance who had died during his pretrial detention.

On June 27, according to his lawyer Viktor Anufriev, Dmitriev was detained by police allegedly on the order of the investigator Zavadsky, who had initiated a new criminal case. Despite all previous expert evaluations that denied any sexual act, Dmitriev is charged with “violent acts of a sexual nature”, which is much more serious crime than pornography. A rapist could receive a prison sentence from 3 to 20 years. On July 3, Dmitriev was officially charged with sexual abuse of his adopted daughter. Clearly, the Karelian FSB branch cannot stomach Dmitriev’s activity in the remembrance of GULAG victims.

On July 15, Dmitriev was transported to St. Petersburg and placed in the SIZO-1 “Kresty-2.” As expected, from there he will soon be transferred to a psychiatric hospital for a new psychiatric evaluation.

Sergei Krivenko, a colleague of Dmitriyev’s at Memorial and a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, commented: “The only good thing from all this is that the president [Putin] is showing us how it all happened in the 1930s — how people were blamed, how siloviki read signals from the top. We used to study this in archives, now we see it in real life.”


On the punishment as SOE, see Vadim J. Birstein. SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII. London: Biteback, 2012. Pp. 54-55, 60, 267.

Author: Vadim Birstein

Dr. Vadim J. Birstein is a historian and geneticist. He is the author of over 300 scientific papers and books and has written two scholarly historical works, "The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science" and "SMERSH, Stalin's Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII". He received the inaugural "St. Ermin's Intelligence Book Award" in 2012 for SMERSH.

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