Erasing Memory: the Sandarmokh Execution Site

By | October 21, 2018

Yuri Dmitriev in Petrozavodsk court. February 2018

On August 21, 2018 Maksim Zavadsky of the Petrozavodsk City Department of the Russian Investigation Committee, completed the investigation of the second fabricated case against Yuri Dmitriev, head of the Karelian branch of the Memorial Society. Dmitriev, who discovered, with his colleagues, the mass graves of victims of Stalin’s repressions at the site called Sandarmokh in Karelia in 1997, and identified the names of 3,776 victims and published them. Now he is accused for the second time of child pornography.

His 13-year-old adopted daughter Nataliya is accused because for a few years Dmitriev, on the advice of doctors, made photos of his naked daughter (she had problems with physical development) and kept the photos in his computer. On April 5, 2018, the Petrozavodsk City Court acquitted Dmitriev on pornography charges, but sentenced him to 2,5 years (in fact to three months considering the time he had spent in pretrial detention) of restriction of movement for keeping an old rifle without a permit.

On October 29, 2017, my Moscow friend Galina Elshevskyay, a well-known art historian, wrote regarding Yuri Dmiriev’s case:

Of my arrested and perished relatives, — my grandfather, Georgi Arturovich Dukovsky [1871–1938], and two of his half-brothers, Aleksandr Arturovich [1897–1937] and Pavel Arturovich [1895–1942] (all of them were not Communist Party members, and the first was an engineer, the second was an accountant, and the third, a teacher), — Aleksandr Arturovich, an accountant who worked in Karelia, was executed in Sandarmokh, the site excavated by Yuri Dmitriev. Therefore, I have a personal interest in the discovery of that burial site and remembrance of what happened there. However, it is not important if my interest is personal or not, Dmitriev’s case is one of those that you can’t stop to think about.

NKVD report about the execution the first group of 1,111 prisoners brought to Sandarmokh. November 10, 1937

On June 27, 62-years-old Dmitriev drove by car from the city of Petrozavodsk (the capital of Karelia) to the Svirsky Monastery on the Ladoga Lake in the neighboring Leningrad Region. On the way, the historian’s car was stopped by traffic police and he was detained. The next day, Nataliya Manenok, a judge of the Petrozavodsk City Court, ordered his arrest. The pro-Kremlin media falsely reported that Dmitriev tried to escape to Poland. However, it is known that he did not have a travel passport, and therefore could not travel.

From July 15 to August 17, 2018, Dmitriev was help for psychiatric examination in St. Petersburg. In February 2018, the examination concluded that Dmitriev is normal and is not a pedophile.

On September 9, 2018, Dmitriev was officially deprived of guardianship over his adopted daughter, and his daughter’s biological grandmother Valentina Frolenkova became her guardian. This grandmother , who gave Nataliya to the orphanage when she was 3 years old, was not interested in the fate of the child until January 2017, a month after Dmitriev’s arrest in the first case. Now Frolenkova as a guardian gets 16 thousand rubles a month, which is not bad money in a provincial place. She also initiated Dmitriev’s second arrest.

In the meantime, it became clear who benefits from Dmitriev’s arrest. On August 24, the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO), headed by the infamous Minister of Culture and “Doctor of Sciences” Vladimir Medinsky, sent an expedition to Sandarmokh. Sergei Barinov, head of the RVIO Search Department, and Oleg Titberia, head of the Leningrad Region RVIO Branch, were in charge of the expedition. The main goal of the RVIO expedition was “to search for the burial places of the prisoners of the Finnish concentration camps and the dead Red Army soldiers in the battles against the Finnish invaders in Karelia in 1941–1944.” The initiative was enthusiastically supported by the Russian Defense Ministry whom also sent soldiers of the Special Search Battalion of the Western Military District to the Sandarmokh site.

Excavation in Sandramokh, 1997. Remains of the victims executed by NKVD killing squad in 1937

The myth that the remains are not those of victims of NKVD executions, but killings of Soviet POWs by the Finnish has some history. In 1997, based on the testimony of a former member of the NKVD’s execution squad, the Medvezhiegorsk Prosecutor’s Office conducted exhumations on the territory of the Sandarmokh, which is located 12 km from the city of Medvezhiegorsk. The first remains of the victims of NKVD executions were discovered, and excavations were continued by Dmitriev and his Memorial Society colleagues. On the whole, 236 mass graves were found. In 2005, the site was officially recognized as a historical and cultural monument. Later all details of bringing prisoners to Sandarmokh and of their executions were published.

But in 2016, Yuri Kilin and Sergei Verigin, historians of the Petrozavodsk University, who had access to the declassified SMERSH (Soviet military counterintelligence during WWII) documents at the archive of Karelian FSB branch in Petrozavodsk, put forward a version that during the occupation in 1941–1944, the Finns buried Soviet POWs in Sandarmokh. According to the transcripts of SMERSH interrogations of the Red Army POWs who had been captured by Finns, the Finns used five former Soviet labor camps of the Belbaltlag (White See Camp), system with a central office in Medvezhiegorsk, to imprison Soviet POWs (the Belbaltlag camps in the 1930s were described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his The GULAG Archipelago, part III). Although Sandarmokh was not mentioned in the testimonies of the POWs, Kilin and Verigin concluded that the remains are those of Soviet POWs executed by the Finns.

The hypothesis was picked up by the Moscow newspaper Izvestia, which wrote in July 2016: “People buried in mass graves who were considered victims of Stalinist repressions may turn out to be Soviet Red Army men executed in Finnish concentration camps.” The Russian TV military channel also showed a program that promoted that version and published some pages of archival SMERSH transcripts. In vain the Karelian Memorial Society branch tried to protest against this interpretation. In August 2016, Medvezhiegorsk officials for the first time did not come to the Memorial Day in Sandarmokh. After this, in December, FSB officers conveniently found photos of Dmitriev’s foster daughter in his computer, and he was arrested on a false charge of making child pornography. Although in April 2018 Dmitriev was acquitted, now he is imprisoned again.

Clearly, the RVIO and military authorities are using the hypothesis by Kilin and Verigin and Dmitriev’s accusation of child pornography as an attempt to discredit Dmitriev’s discovery . The logic is exactly the same as in the case of Katyn Massacre, when the Soviet authorities tried, and the current pro-Stalinists, are still trying to present the execution of Polish POWs carried out by NKVD executioners in 1940 as a crime committed by the German in the autumn of 1941.

Before the RVIO excavations, Irina Timakova, correspondent of Novaya Gazeta, asked Sergei Barinov, representative of the central RVIO in Moscow, about the excavation. Barinov stated that the search would be for the remains of Soviet prisoners of Finnish concentration camps. He did not know where these camps were located and was waiting for this information from RVIO’s historians. In fact, this information had been published years ago by Memorial historians. Barinov was convinced that the Sandarmokh remains are those of Soviet prisoners shot by the Finns in 1942–43, and not Soviet political prisoners shot by the NKVD during the Great Terror, in 1937-38, as Memorial maintains. He said:

“The Memorial? […] I do not know such a society. The shooting of the [Great Terror] victims in Sandarmokh is not proven. For me, Sandarmokh is the line of defense of the Finnish Army. And this “Memorial”, is it a scientific society? No, it is just some kind of a public organization.”

Journalist Timakova reminded Barinov that RVIO is also a public organization.

Memorial in Sandarmokh with photos of the executed placed by relatives

Relatives of the victims executed in Sandarmokh by the NKVD tried to protest against RVIO’s plans. On August 24, they published an open letter demanding that excavations on the site of mass graves be stopped. The letter was addressed to the Russian Ministry of Culture, the Government of Karelia, the Office for the Protection of Cultural Heritage Sites of Karelia, the Administration of the Medvezhiegorsk Region, the Central RVIO in Moscow, the RVIO Department for the Leningrad Region, and the head of excavation Oleg Titberia.

Instead of answering the relatives, the next day the excavation began. Later journalists found out that the RVIO expedition did not have necessary permits from the Ministry of Culture of Karelia and archaeology authorities to dig in an area registered as a Cultural Heritage Site.

During th three-days excavation, the RVIO members and the soldiers who helped them found remains of five people, who were killed, judging by the holes in their skulls, with shots to the back of their heads, as well as two cartridges and two bullets. Clearly, the method of killing pointed to the typical execution by members of the NKVD squads.

Also, decaying fragments of supposedly military overcoats or uniforms and felt boots were discovered. As Irina Tumakova, who was present during the excavation, described, the color of fabric fragments was bright green, definitely not that was characteristic of the Red Army uniforms or overcoats. According to Tumakova, one of the diggers said: “The uniform is foreign, possibly, Finnish.”

Professor Sergei Verigin who claims that in Sandarmokh Soviet POWs were executed by Finns

On September 7, the RVIO and military authorities organized a press-conference in Petrozavodsk about success of the expedition. However, no participant in the excavation was present. Mikhail Myagkov, the RVIO Scientific Director, doctor of historical sciences and advisor to Medinsky, as well as the main defender of his scandalous doctorate thesis, was the first speaker. Then a speech by Aleksandr Kirilin, deputy assistant to the Russian Defense Minister followed. After this, Aleksei Lesonen, Minister of Culture of Karelia and head of the Karelian RVIO Branch spoke. Professor Verigin, one of two authors of the hypothesis that Sandarmokh was a burial site of Red Army soldiers, was the last. In fact, there was nothing to talk about. The examination of the human remains found had just started and, of course, no conclusion could have been made.

Journalist Gleb Yarovoi commented on the RVIO and military activity to “cast a shadow over Sandarmokh as a place of historical memory connected with the Great Terror”: “They are sanitizing our memory. In some cases, they destroy it. In some [other] cases, they sow doubts.”

On September 20, 2018 the Supreme Court of Karelia supported the decision of the lower court to arrest Dmitriev.

On October 9, 2018, the Petrozavodsk City Court ruled to merge the two criminal cases of Dmitriev into one. Now Dmitriev will be charged with manufacturing child pornography and a sexual assault against a minor. The first court session is scheduled for October 19.

Meanwhile, on October 2, 2018, on order of the Karelian Investigation Committee (SK) branch two more persons were detained on the pedophile charges, which is punished by from 7 to 15-years imprisonment. One of them is Sergei Koltyrin, a historian and director of the Medvezhiegorsk Regional Museum, who had participated in Dmitriev’s excavations of mass graves in the Sandormakh. The SK stated that the victim was a 13-years-old teenager and that one of the detainees supposedly had already pleaded guilty.

Koltyrin has been the director of the Museum since 1991. The Museum supervises the Sandarmokh site and every year on August 5 organizes a Memorial Day on the site. A month ago Koltyrin criticized RVIO’s excavation and the hypothesis that the Finns shot Soviet POWs the Sandarmokh:

I’m convinced that there can be no shootings by the Finns here. I think this is a fact. There is one convincing argument: If the Finns knew that there were executions by the NKVD in Sandarmokh, they would have used this information. It would be a strong propaganda tool. In addition, there was a line of military defense. To kill people behind the line of their soldiers wouldn’t be a good idea from the point of psychology and ethics.

Koltyrin in the court room.

In late August 2018, Koltyrin told Irina Tumakova, correspondent of Novaya Gazeta: “I’m afraid for my Museum. I fear for the fate of Dmitriev.” A few days later in an interview to a local journalist he said he had received threats from law enforcement agencies because he expressed his opinion about the RVIO excavation. And according to the investigation, in September Koltyrin allegedly committed a serious crime.

On October 3, the Medvezhiegorsk Regional Court ordered to detain Koltyrin and the second detainee, Yevgeny Nosov, Koltyrin’s acquaintance, until November 27, 2018.

On June 29, 2018, the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MID) stopped one more initiative on the remembrance of victims of Stalin’s regime–the search by young Lithuanian volunteers for graves of Lithuanians deported from 1940 to 1953 from Lithuania to various distant locations in the Soviet Union. On the whole, up to 300,000 of Lithuanians were deported. The project called “Mission—Siberia” started in 2006. MID’s statements claim that the refusal to provide Lithuanian volunteers with Russian visas this year was a response to the prevention by Lithuanian authorities of the work on the improvement of the graves of Red Army servicemen killed during WWII on the territory of Lithuania.

Although the volunteers planned to visit the Krasnoyarsk Region in Siberia, where 40,000 of Lithuanians had been deported, following MID’s decision, the Stavropol Region in the Southern Russia was ordered to report on the arrival of “organized groups of Lithuanians”: “In case of the appearance on your territory of organized groups of Lithuanians engaged in memorial activities (they can enter our country under the guise of tourists), [municipalities must] promptly inform the [regional] administration.” It was expected that the Lithuanians would come from July 17 to August 1.  About 200 burial sites of the deported Lithuanians have been found on Russian territory so far.

The “Return of Names” memory event in Moscow, 2017

And on the top of all other official actions to wipe out the memory about Stalin’s victims, on October 19, 2018 the Moscow Mayor’s Office tried to ban the Memorial Society’s “Return of Names” event on the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression in the USSR, that has already become a tradition. The Memorial Society issued a statement, in which, in particular, it was said:

For the past 11 years, every year on October 29, on the eve of the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression, on the Lubyanka Square the “Return of Names” memory event is held — all day, for 12 hours, every volunteer, one after another, reads the names of those executed in Moscow. […]

The Memorial Society has obtained all the necessary approvals from the Federal Guard Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the prefecture of the Central Administrative District of Moscow. […]

The Solovetsky Stone, the country’s oldest monument to the victims of the totalitarian regime, was erected on October 30, 1990 as a result of the joint efforts of civil society, public organizations, city and state authorities. It was installed on the Lubyanka Square, which itself is a reminder of state terror. The “Return of Names” memory event is inextricably linked with the Solovetsky Stone.

Therefore, the idea of the authorities to move the “Return of Names” action to the Wall of Grief monument on Academician Sakharov Avenue is unacceptable to us, just as it is impossible to replace laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Garden [at the Kremlin Wall] with some other ritual. […]

All responsibility for the failure of the action lies with the Moscow city authorities.

The next day, on October 20, the Mayor’s Office agreed to discuss with the Memorial Society about the conditions of the action at the Solovetsky Stone. After negotiations with the Memorial Society on October 22, Moscow Mayor’s Office finally permitted to have a rally in the memory of victims of political repression at the Solovetsky Stone on the Lubyanka Square.

In 2017, 5,286 Moscovites  participated in the event. Of them, 1,227 participants were able to go up to the microphone and read from one to three names of those who perished due to Soviet political terror.


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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