Russia turns to politically-motivated excavations to rewrite history of Soviet Terror after jailing one of its main historians
A new attempt to rewrite history about the Great Terror appears to be underway in Russia with this new offensive ominously linked with the arrest and imprisonment on fabricated charges of Yuri Dmitriev, a world-renowned historian and the head of the Karelia branch of the Memorial Society. Dmitriev and colleagues from Memorial played a huge role in uncovering and identifying the mass graves at Sandarmokh in Karelia, and unsubstantiated claims that Sandarmokh could hold the graves of “thousands” of Red Army soldiers taken prisoner by the Finnish Army have coincided over the last two years with attacks on both Dmitriev and Memorial.
Despite the lack of any hard evidence for these claims and pleas from the children and grandchildren of those whose remains lie buried at Sandarmokh, Russia’s Military History Society has begun carrying out excavations at the site.
The Military History Society was created by Russian President Vladimir 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 Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, and has initiated such controversial moves as the creation of a museum and bust of Stalin in Khoroshevo (Tver oblast). Medinsky’s article on that occasion is part of a mounting tendency by the Putin regime to whitewash that mass murderer, and has resulted in a record 46% of Russians in January 2017 viewing Stalin in a positive light.
A museum at the site of Perm-36, one of the most notorious political labour camps of the Soviet era, has been turned into a bitter parody, with attempts to remove all mention of repression. The NGO which previously ran the museum has, in turn, been added to Russia’s ‘list of foreign agents’.
Russia may now be seeking to rewrite history even at Sandarmokh. Since the 236 mass graves were discovered in 1997, Sandarmokh has become a place of pilgrimage where each year International Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Great Terror take place. Although this was fully supported by the Karelia authorities during the 1990s, with even the FSB [security service] often helping, over the last two years no representatives of the authorities have taken part in remembrance events, and in August this year, even the head of the local museum who has worked closely with Memorial, was prevented from attending.
It was in June 2016, six months before Dmitriev’s arrest, that two historians from Petrozavodsk State University – Yuri Kilin and Sergei Verigin – 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 may needed 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.
In a text entitled ‘Rewriting Sandarmokh’, Anna Yarovaya outlines many suspect ‘coincidences’ such as the fact that Kilin’s article, expressing a mere hypothesis, was swiftly followed by the FSB’s ‘sudden’ discovery of apparent evidence, which they then hurriedly showed to a television channel.
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”.
For decades, the Soviet Union denied its role in the murder of 22 thousand Polish officers in April 1940, claiming that it was the Nazis who had committed the atrocities. While Russia has officially accepted that it was the NKVD, this historian still came out with a falsehood. There are no Nazi victims at Katyn.
Yarovaya points out that the Soviet Union tried to mix up Katyn and Khatyn, one of the villages where the murders were undoubtedly committed by the Nazis, with this clearly done deliberately. Memorial now believes that a similar attempt is being made at Sandarmokh, to blur what happened there and to yet again find somebody else to blame.
Yarovaya has spoken with Russian and Finnish historians who dismiss the new hypothesis as politically motivated, and not based on any credible evidence. This is in sharp contrast to the evidence about graves of the victims of the Terror. It is known, for example, that from 27 October to 4 November 1937, 1,111 prisoners from the notorious Solovki Labour Camp were executed by the NKVD, including 289 Ukrainian writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia.
The news in August 2018 that excavations were to begin by the end of August aroused immense concern among relatives of those killed at Sandarmokh.
An open appeal, entitled ‘Do not disturb the graves’ and addressed to the Ministry of Culture, the Russian Military History Society and the head of the excavation Oleg Titberiy, demanded that the excavations be cancelled. There are no grounds, nor any new documents which would place the 1997 conclusions regarding the burials in any doubt. There is also no documentation to back the claims that prisoners of war could be buried there.
“Do not disturb the graves of our relatives. Do not destroy this memorial site. We call on all relatives from all over the world of the innocent people murdered in the Sandarmokh Clearing to join with us in this appeal, the authors write.
It is, unfortunately, unlikely that their appeal will be heeded. There are also no independent participants of this ‘excavation’, making it conceivable that efforts could be taken to ‘find’ realia apparently identifying soldiers, rather than victims of the Terror.
This new narrative about Sandarmokh has now been pushed for two years, coinciding with the refusal by the authorities to take part in remembrance events, the attack on the Memorial Society and, most chillingly, with a politically motivated criminal prosecution of 62-year-old Yuri Dmitriev.
Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016 and charged with ‘preparing pornography involving a minor’ (Article 242.2 of Russia’s criminal code) and ‘depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11’ (Article 135). Both these apparently serious charges pertained solely to a folder filed on his computer, and never ‘circulated’, which contained 114 photos of his adopted daughter Natasha. The little girl had been painfully thin and in poor health at three years old, when he and his former wife took her from the children’s home, and the authorities had themselves advised him to monitor her development. Each of the photos, taken between 2008 and 2015 recorded her weight and height.
It was almost certainly hoped that the case, which apparently involved ‘child pornography’, would turn people away from Dmitriev and also discredit Memorial. It did nothing of the kind. The defence brought in proper experts, as opposed to the mathematician, teacher and art historian who obligingly perceived ‘pornography’ in nine of over 100 photos. They dismissed the allegations outright, finding no whiff of ‘pornography’ and confirming that it was common practice to take such photos for monitoring development.
It is possible that whoever has commissioned this prosecution decided to back off briefly in the face of such damning expert assessments and with worldwide publicity for the case. On 5 April 2018, Dmitriev was acquitted of the ‘pornography’ charges, however this acquittal was overturned on 14 June, and the case sent back for ‘retrial’.
The aim was clearly to imprison Dmitriev, so on 27 June, he was re-arrested, with the ‘investigators’ also charging him with ‘violent acts of a sexual nature’, also against his adopted daughter. Dmitriev has not seen her for almost two years, and there was never any suggestion before of such charges.
It seems likely that Russia is hoping that people have now forgotten about this internationally condemned case and that they can convict Dmitriev with impunity. It is vital that they see that they are wrong, both with respect to their persecution of Dmitriev and their attempt to rewrite history.