Model concentration camp deployed in Russia for Putin regime’s rewriting of history
A replica concentration camp for schoolchildren has been built in Karelia (northern Russia), with the first kids due to be taken there for a ‘patriotic weekend’ in December. The initiative is funded by a presidential grant and coincides with officially sponsored efforts to rewrite history by claiming that ‘thousands’ of the nine thousand victims of the Soviet Terror buried in mass graves at Sandarmokh were Soviet soldiers killed in the War. This is by no means the only ‘historical readjustment’ currently underway in Russia, but is especially sinister as one historian has already died in prison, and another, Yury Dmitriev, is facing up to 20 years’ imprisonment on evidently absurd charges.
Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, there has been a huge drive to focus on a highly edited and often mythologised account of the Second World War, in which Soviet soldiers are only heroes, and the Soviet Union was only ever defending the world against fascism. On 11 November 2020, Putin’s aide (and former Culture Minister) Vladimir Medinsky claimed that the huge number of Soviet civilian deaths in WWII was “monstrous genocide”, which was no less terrible, he added, than the acts of genocide generally accepted, including the Holocaust. There were undoubtedly acts of genocide during those years – Stalin’s Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population of Crimea and other deportations, and the murder of 22 thousand Polish officers and intelligentsia at Katyn (Smolensk oblast); Mednoye (Tver oblast) and near Kharkiv. These are certainly not the acts of genocide that Medinsky had in mind. There are, in fact, worrying signs that Russian official bodies are reverting to Stalin-era attempts to blame the Nazis for Katyn, and Stalin’s act of genocide against the Crimean Tatar people is largely muffled or denied, with Crimean Tatars banned from holding remembrance events under Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea..
There were several concentration camps in East Karelia from 1941, with these internment camps run by the Finnish military administration and mainly filled with the elderly, women and children. The conditions were very hard, reportedly with a 17% mortality rate.
This is certainly a part of Russian / Soviet history, and as such needs to be known. Karelia, and specifically Sandarmokh, have, however, become known far beyond Russia over the past 20 years because of the mass graves of victims of the Terror which Yury Dmitriev and his colleagues from the Memorial Society discovered. Organizations like Memorial have increasingly come under attack in recent years, and two historians associated with Sandarmokh – Dmitriev and Sergei Koltyrin – have ended up imprisoned.
Other experiences during WWII are, on the contrary, receiving lavish funding. A film, entitled ‘Vesuri’ and about Soviet children in Finnish concentration camps, was produced in 2018 by Alexander Tiutiumov and the ATK Studio. They were given a whopping 30 million roubles by the Ministry of Culture and the Cinema Fund, however the film was never released for the general public.
It was at this point that the Karelian organization ‘Open Opportunities’ noted an opening for them and applied for a presidential grant under the category ‘Preserving historical memory’ and in Autumn 2019 won 2,3 million roubles.
The grant was to open a replica concentration camp, using material from the above-mentioned film. Initial attempts to implement it ran up against intense opposition from local residents who did not want a pretend concentration camp near their homes.
The head of ‘Open Opportunities’, Natalya Abramova claims to not understand why people object and says that the awareness children gain of the everyday life of small prisoners of the camps will help to defend ‘historical truth’. In the highly questionable constitutional amendments which Putin initiated and pushed through in 2020, there is a clause about “defending historical truth” and prohibiting any attempts to diminish the “achievement of the people in defending the Fatherland”.
The model concentration camp, including gun and watch towers has been constructed in the village of Vatnavolok, with the museum for children there preparing a program entitled ‘Patriotic weekends’. The children themselves will stay in comfortable accommodation next to the construction which is only intended to give them an impression of life in the concentration camp.
The ‘patriotic education program’ will include discussions with education workers and with former prisoners, with the organizers telling the kids about all different types of camps in Karelia. The children will also be told about the partisan movement, “in general about the War”.
Abramova, an active supporter of the ruling United Russia party, asserts that all of this is in ‘defence of historical truth’. She was, however, asked by the St. Petersburg publication Fontanka.ru if Sergei Verigin was among the historians from the Petrozavodsk University whose involvement she mentioned, Abramova answered that she hopes Verigin will come and speak with the children. She further asserted that she was not aware of the details relating to the persecution of Yury Dmitriev, and suggested that she did not understand how any of this was related to her project.
As Fontanka.ru points out, the reason lies, at very least, in the chronology of developments, with both Dmitriev’s arrest and attempts to rewrite the facts about Sandarmokh dating back to 2016.
Prior to this, the authorities had already effectively destroyed the museum complex at Perm-36, one of the most notorious camps of the Gulag, holding political prisoners. In 2016, Sandarmokh came under fire. Following the discovery by Dmitriev and colleagues of the mass graves in 1997, Sandarmokh had increasingly become a place of pilgrimage where each year International Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Great Terror take place.
It was in June 2016, six months before Dmitriev’s arrest, that two historians from Petrozavodsk State University – Sergei Verigin and Yuri Kilin– asserted that there could be graves of Soviet prisoners of war held in Finnish concentration camps and then killed and buried at Sandarmokh during the Second World War. While the article for a Finnish newspaper written by Kilin did not mention the Memorial Society, the pro-Kremlin Izvestia was swift to report Kilin’s unsubstantiated assertion as suggesting that Memorial’s findings might need to be reviewed. It claimed, for example, that the remains, thought to be of victims of Stalin’s repression, “could turn out to be Soviet Red Army soldiers murdered in Finnish concentration camps”. TV ‘Zvezda’, a channel linked with Russia’s Defence Ministry, reported Kilin’s article, embellishing it with the claim that “thousands” of Soviet prisoners of war could be buried at Sandarmokh, and also showing recently declassified documents provided to the channel by the FSB. Verigin has asserted that he and Kilin worked quite separately, coming to essentially identical conclusions. It was Verigin who suggested, in commentary for the above-mentioned Izvestia article, that Memorial had not been interested in discovering the alleged remains of prisoners of war.
Three weeks after Dmitriev’s arrest, a 15-minute program was broadcast on the government-controlled Rossiya 24 TV channel. Most of the film was an attack on Memorial, with the 5 minutes about Dmitriev and the photos clearly aimed at spreading dirt and convincing the audience of his guilt. There too, it was evident that the FSB or ‘investigators’ had provided the channel with file material that should not have been disclosed.
In June 2017, both Kilin and Verigin held a roundtable, to which members of Memorial were not invited. There they presented their claims, with both now speaking of “several thousands” of prisoners of war possibly buried at Sandarmokh. While asserting that they were not denying that there were graves of political prisoners at Sandarmokh, Verigin came out with one telling inaccuracy. He said that “it’s like at Katyn. There it was first the NKVD who carried out the executions, it was later the Germans. In one place”.
This is categorically not true about the Katyn Massacre which was entirely the work of the Soviet NKVD, nor about Sandarmokh.
It is no accident that Verigin and Kilin are both members of the Russian Military History Society. The latter was created by President Putin in December 2012, in order to “consolidate the forces of state and society in the study of Russia’s military-historical past and counter efforts to distort it”. It is headed by Medinsky who has initiated such controversial moves as the creation of a museum and bust of Stalin in Khoroshevo (Tver oblast). The Russian Military History Society has recently moved closer to denying Soviet guilt for the Katyn Massacre, and it is responsible for shocking excavations at Sandarmokh. The latter are aimed at either ‘proving’ that the mass graves are of Soviet soldiers (which is difficult to achieve with Memorial observers closely following their every move) or to simply create the impression that there is some scope for dispute.
It is most unlikely that representatives of Memorial will be invited to the ‘patriotic weekends’ to provide a counter to the version of ‘historical truth’ presented to the young people by Verigin.
Two historians, who totally rejected Verigin’s version, were arrested over the following two years: Dmitriev in December 2016; then Sergei Koltyrin on 2 October 2018. Koltyrin was put under huge pressure to reject the lawyer representing Dmitriev and to admit to the charges, however there are very strong grounds for believing his prosecution and 9-year sentence to have been as politically-motivated as that of Dmitriev.
Abramova can claim to know nothing about any of this but it was noticeable that shortly after Koltyrin’s arrest, a public discussion over attempts to claim that at least some of the mass graves at Sandarmokh are of Soviet soldiers, murdered by the Finnish Army, was cancelled. It seems clear that his colleagues and others in the area had linked Koltyrin’s arrest to his condemnation of such attempts to rewrite history.
Koltyrin died in a prison hospital on 2 April 2020. Dmitriev has been in detention for most of the last four years, and there are very strong grounds for fearing that a sentence of up to 20 years is planned on entirely discredited charges. The first hearing in a third attempt to convict him of ‘child pornography’ charges after two previous acquittals is scheduled for 24 November.