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Russia’s assault on historical truth turns mass grave of Stalin’s victims into ’sightseeing location’

Halya Coynash
Excavations at Sandarmokh of the mass graves of thousands of Russian, Ukrainian and other victims of Stalin’s Terror are part of a mounting offensive against both historical truth about the crimes of the Soviet regime and against historians exposing them

Controversial excavations at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Northern Russia of the mass graves of thousands of Russian, Ukrainian and other victims of Stalin’s Terror are facing another legal challenge, this time directed against the local prosecutor and the Prosecutor General who refused to react to the effective desecration of the site.  The excavations are part of a mounting offensive against both historical truth about the crimes of the Soviet regime and against historians exposing them, and appear to have high-level support.  While this means that any legal challenges are likely to fail, the publicity has at least resulted in a partial retreat from plans to change the status of Sandarmokh. 

Kommersant reported on 3 July that Emilia Slabunova, a Yabloko Party deputy in the Karelian Legislative Assembly, has lodged a legal suit against both the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Karelian Prosecutor over the excavations. Both were asked to carry out a check into the excavations carried out by the Russian Military History Society, and both claimed to have found no infringements.  Slabunova is convinced that this is untrue, and points out that since Sandarmokh has historical monument status, no excavations were permitted without a historical-cultural expert assessment having been carried out of the plan documentation.   Since this did not happen, there clearly was a significant violation, and the prosecutor’s claim was therefore untrue.  She is asking the court to find both prosecutor’s offices’ biased treatment of her request to have been unlawful.

Slabunova has sent three requests since the excavations began in August 2018.  The first time, the appeal was passed on to the Karelian cultural heritage department which claimed that Sandarmokh was merely a ‘sightseeing place’, with that status allowing excavations to be carried out. The next two appeals were, accordingly, sent to the Prosecutor General’s Office, however that body simply sent them to the local prosecutor who cited the claim about a place of sightseeing.

Slabunova notes that in March 2019, Karelian officials also asked the Russian Culture Ministry to change the status of Sandarmokh from historical monument to place of sightseeing. They claimed that places of burial had automatically ceased to be historical monuments in 2002 when they were treated as ‘places of sightseeing’ in the new Law on sites of cultural heritage.

In fact, the Ministry disagreed with this claim and refused to lower Sandarmokh’s status without the appropriate expert assessment.  Since the body carrying out the excavations is closely linked to Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, it is not certain that an ‘expert assessment’ allowing for the change in status will not be produced.  Nonetheless, the Ministry’s response means that the legality of the excavations is in question, and that the prosecutor’s office did not do what it is obliged to do and carry out a proper check.

Slabunova is hoping that the Tverskoy District Court in Moscow will not only find the Prosecutor’s Office behaviour to have been unlawful but will also order that it finally carries out a real check,

Where evidence is overwhelming, but the truth inconvenient, Russia’s leaders, and state-controlled media generally try to convince people that there are many possible ‘versions’.  This has been seen most notoriously over the downing by a Russian BUK missile of Malaysian airliner MH17, however the same technique is surely at play here too. 

There is a huge amount of evidence proving that the mass graves are of victims of the Terror, brought to Sandarmokh at night and shot.  It is known, for example, that from 27 October to 4 November 1937, 1,111 prisoners were executed by the NKVD, including 289 Ukrainian writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia. 

The problem is that, with two of the historians most closely involved with Sandarmokh now behind bars on chillingly cynical charges, others are almost certainly feeling less inclined to protest against the ongoing attempts to push another, quite unsubstantiated, version.

It was suspected from the outset that an attempt was underway to hijack and ‘rewrite’ the history of Sandarmokh, as had already taken place with Perm-36, one of the most notorious camps holding political prisoners.   This particular attempt was especially sinister given the arrest and ongoing imprisonment on fabricated charges of Yuri Dmitriev, the historian who first uncovered the mass graves at Sandarmokh and Head of the Karelia branch of the Memorial Society.

In June 2016, six months before Dmitriev’s arrest, Yuri Kilin, a history professor at the Petrozavodsk State University and member of the Russian Military History Society, published an article suggesting that Sandarmokh might hold the last remains of Soviet prisoners of war killed by Finnish soldiers during the Second World War. 

Although the article cited only documents recently published by Russia’s FSB [security service] and no substantive evidence, the pro-Kremlin Izvestia almost immediately published an article claiming that “Memorial’s findings about repression in Karelia may be reviewed”.  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 with an effective attack on Memorial.

Kilin’s position was taken up by his university colleague and fellow member of the Russian Military History Society, Sergei Verigin.  It was the latter who first proposed the excavations which began in August last year.

No real evidence to back the claims was found, however more excavations are planned later this summer. They are being carried out by a body which wants to conclude that the estimates of victims of the Terror are at very least exaggerated, and to find victims of the War waged on the Soviet Union, not the war that the latter waged against its own citizens.

By June 2017, when Dmitriev had been imprisoned for seven months already, Kilin and Verigin held a roundtable to which Memorial was not invited and at which they claimed that several thousand Soviet solders had been buried at Sandarmokh.  

The excavations are continuing, despite the lack of any real evidence.  So too are attempts to undermine Memorial’s extensively documented evidence of the real victims found in the mass graves at Sandarmokh.  A scurrilous film was broadcast on Russian state TV shortly after Yuri Dmitriev’s arrest, in which material illegally provided by the investigators was distorted to try to discredit both Dmitriev and Memorial.  After the defence succeeded in demolishing the charges against him, the  acquittal was simply overturned, without any grounds, and then the same charges, and another which was even less plausible, were added, with that ‘trial’ still underway.  Different measures were applied against Sergei Koltyrin, including illicit methods to force him to renounce an independent lawyer.  His arrest came shortly after he had complained of receiving threats linked with his criticism of the excavations.

See; Historian of the Soviet Terror jailed for 9 years in Russia



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