Gulag grave hunter unearths uncomfortable truths in Russia

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The pine trees creak and rustle ominously beneath even the faintest breeze, as if the vast forest between Lake Onega and the Finnish border remains reluctant to give up its dark secrets. The secret police brought 6,241 gulag prisoners to these woods during Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937-8, put them face-down in pits dug in the sandy soil, and shot them in the back of the head with a revolver. As their remains decayed, the earth above each mass grave sank into the ground.

It was these pockmarks in the forest floor that helped Yury Dmitriyev and other members of Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, find this site at Sandormokh in 1997. It is one of the largest mass graves in the former Soviet Union.

With Memorial, the 61-year-old gulag grave hunter from nearby Petrozavodsk has dedicated much of three decades to the effort to return the victims of Soviet repressions from “state-sponsored oblivion”, publishing several books of names, dates and locations of executions since the discovery. 

“For our government to become … accountable, we need to educate the people,” Dmitriyev said of his efforts to uncover details of Soviet repression.

But not everyone wants to remember this forgotten history, especially amid Russia’s current patriotic fervour. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said in June that “excessive demonisation” of Stalin has been a “means of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia”, and several branches of Memorial have been declared “foreign agents” in recent years.

For the first time in two decades Dmitriyev will miss the annual day of remembrance at Sandormokh on 5 August. Arrested in December and charged with taking indecent photographs of his 12-year-old adopted daughter, which he denies, he is being held in custody during the ongoing trial. He faces 15 years in prison if convicted.

[A memorial pinned to a tree at the woodland site in Sandormokh.]
An expert in sexual disorders has said the photographs are not pornographic, and Memorial and others argue that Dmitriyev is a political prisoner hounded for exposing a side of history that complicates the Kremlin’s glorification of the Soviet past. 

He is supported by his adult daughter, who said he took the photographs to document the child’s improving health in case social services attempted to remove her. The girl had been malnourished when Dmitriyev and his wife took her in, age three, and according to Dmitriyev’s lawyer, the photographs were stored in a folder called “child’s health”. Each had a note about her height, weight and general health and many were taken ahead of social worker visits. 

More than 30,000 people have signed an online petition calling to “restore legality and justice” in his case. Meanwhile, state media have run smear pieces painting Dmitriyev as a paedophile and Memorial as anti-government subversives.

“Like in the period of the Great Terror, when political reprisals, murders, extrajudicial executions became the norm of Soviet life, so today persecution, arrests, beatings at rallies, the closing of independent organisations … have become the norm of life in Russia,” said Irina Flige, the director of St Petersburg Memorial, who discovered Sandormokh with Dmitriyev.

“The majority … thinks that the regime can do anything with an individual for the sake of its own interests.”

Located near the Solovetsky islands, the birthplace of the gulag, the Karelia region in north-west Russia is where tens of thousands of prisoners were shot or died digging the infamous White Sea canal for Stalin’s first five-year plan. As an aide to a regional official, Dmitriyev first began searching for their graves after being summoned to deal with remains uncovered by an excavator at a military base in 1988.

Soon he began trying to identify victims of the mass executions, which were carried out covertly. During the brief period when secret police archives were opened up in the 1990s, Dmitriyev managed to read thousands of execution orders into his tape recorder. He could then try to match each group of skeletons he found to a specific order.

It was Flige’s long search for the disappeared “Solovetsky etape”, a group of 1,111 prisoners including many leading political, cultural and religious figures from across the Soviet Union, that led them to Sandormokh. Following hints from the testimony of the executioner Mikhail Matveyev, Flige, Dmitriyev and Veniamin Iofe discovered the telltale pockmarks in the woods on the road to the White Sea canal and began digging.

“It wasn’t just bones but the bones of people I knew, whose children I knew,” Flige recalled.

Today, wooden posts stretch hundreds of yards back into the woods at Sandormokh with photographs and names of victims.

The local authorities initially backed the memorial, helping build an access road and a chapel and sending representatives to the day of remembrance on 5 August. But last year, for the first time, no government or church officials attended.

The political temperature at Sandormokh has been rising since at least 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. The Ukrainian delegation, typically the largest, skipped the ceremony that year, and in a speech Dmitriyev condemned Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

He also suggested the Russian government was failing to fully acknowledge its predecessor’s crimes, a controversial stance amid the continuing surge of patriotism and Soviet nostalgia. Stalin monuments have popped up in several towns across the country, and the late dictator topped a survey in June for most “outstanding” person of all time. Last summer, state media began reporting the unfounded claim that Sandormokh actually holds Soviet soldiers killed by the Finns.

In November state television accused Memorial of helping “those who aim to destroy the Russian state” after it published information on 40,000 Soviet secret police officials and Dmitriyev reportedly received angry phone calls about his own participation in the project.

Dmitriyev was unexpectedly arrested the next month after an anonymous source tipped police off that nude photographs of his adopted daughter Natasha were stored on his computer.

Dmitriyev’s adult daughter, Yekaterina Klodt, told the Guardian that her father, who had always obsessively documented human remains with photographs and measurements, had taken the shots to show Natasha was healthy in his care. Adopted himself as a child, Dmitriyev had trouble receiving permission to adopt her from an orphanage in 2009, and he wanted to document that the underweight child was regaining her health, Klodt said. He also grew worried after one of her teachers raised a furore over ink stains on the child’s skin she mistook for bruises.

Lev Shcheglov, the president of the National Institute of Sexology in Moscow, testified at the trial that the photographs could not be considered pornographic or abusive. The prosecution is pushing ahead with the case, which also includes charges of “perverted acts” and illegal possession of a firearm, namely the barrel of a 60-year-old hunting rifle Dmitriyev found, according to his lawyer.

Dmitriyev’s real crime, his supporters believe, is his criticism of the government and work with activists from geopolitical foes including Poland and Ukraine to commemorate their countrymen at Sandormokh.

“Russia doesn’t need this now,” said Anna Yarovaya, a journalist for news site 7x7. “We’re searching for enemies everywhere, including abroad, but for him, everyone was a friend.”

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