SANDARMOKH, Russia -- In a patch of forest deep in Russia's north lies a burial site for victims of Stalin's Great Terror. Between 1937 and 1938, up to 9,000 gulag prisoners were brought here by night, shot in the head, and stacked atop one another inside 236 rectangular pits that had for years been concealed among the trees.
Sandarmokh, as the site is known today, was fated for oblivion until its chance discovery in 1997 by local gulag researcher Yury Dmitriyev, who spent the next two decades documenting the victims. The area is now covered with rusty iron crosses and wooden posts, to which metal plaques bearing black-and-white photographs of the dead have been affixed. Stone monuments commemorate the various ethnic groups -- Finns, Ukrainians, Poles, and perhaps 50 others -- whose sons and daughters that mass purge claimed.
But Sandarmokh is changing. Among the photographs, flowers, and wreaths, strips of white-and-yellow tape now mark the places where an expedition led by the government-backed Russian Military-Historical Society uprooted the bodies last summer in a bid to prove a controversial theory: that among the skeletons lying at Sandarmokh are hundreds of Soviet POWs executed by Finnish forces during their occupation of Karelia during World War II.
The excavations have appalled civil society and elicited protests beyond Russia. But the people most capable of challenging the proposed new narrative for Sandarmokh no longer have a voice.
Since December 2016, Dmitriyev has languished in custody over allegations -- which he denies -- of the sexual abuse of his adopted daughter. Then last October, two months after the excavations began, police arrested a local museum director who had vocally opposed them; Sergei Koltyrin, who also served as Sandarmokh's unofficial caretaker, was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after being convicted on charges similar to those Dmitriyev has been battling for the past 2 1/2 years.
Supporters allege that the cases were fabricated in an effort to silence critics of the excavations, and fear that any bid to rewrite Sandarmokh's history will help whitewash Stalin's legacy in Russia at a time when his image is already being rehabilitated with tacit state support. Officials insist they are merely an effort to wrestle back elements of a historical narrative coopted by Memorial, an NGO that documents Soviet-era crimes and which worked with both Dmitriyev and Koltyrin, and bring justice to forgotten heroes of World War II.
The dispute playing out at the haunting mass grave site 1,000 kilometers north of Moscow and in the courtrooms of Karelia's regional capital, Petrozavodsk, is part of a broader struggle over interpretations of Russia's Soviet past that is being waged between groups like Memorial and officials in the government of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer whose two decades in power have seen an increase in the influence wielded by security agencies and a historical politics rooted in glorification of the victory over Nazi Germany.
'Where Were They Buried?'
The standoff over Sandarmokh began in July 2016, when Yury Kilin, a history professor at Petrozavodsk State University, published an article in Finnish newspaper Kaleva suggesting that the site might contain the bodies of Red Army troops imprisoned in the forced labor camps that sprang up across Karelia during its wartime occupation by Finland, which sought to seize back parts of the region captured several years earlier by the Soviet Union.
Citing archival documents newly released by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Kilin argued that the Finns transported the Soviet soldiers from six POW camps in the area around Medvezhegorsk for execution at gunpoint and burial at Sandarmokh, a place the Finns knew to contain the bodies of gulag victims.
Less than two weeks later, pro-government broadsheet Izvestia reprinted parts of Kilin's article and backed his claims. In a report titled The Second Truth Of The Sandarmokh Concentration Camp, the Russian Defense Ministry's TV channel, Zvezda, then alleged that between 19,000 and 22,000 Soviet POWs were buried at Sandarmokh. In an interview with RFE/RL, Kilin said he had nothing to do with the publications and called the exaggerated Zvezda report "a classic case of Chinese whispers."
But the Zvezda report went beyond a mere discussion of Sandarmokh's providence. It accused Memorial, an NGO branded a "foreign agent" by the government, of taking a selective approach to Russian history in general.
"Memorial divided those found at Sandarmokh into 'us and them,' leaving the bones of POWs unworthy of attention," the Zvezda reporter says as he's shown leafing through documents he claims to have acquired from FSB archives. A Defense Ministry representative tells him the documents will help identify the names of Soviet POWs who died at the hands of the Finns, adding, "I'm sure that such work will begin very soon."
The following month, a colleague of Kilin's at Petrozavodsk State University appeared at an academic conference to present a holistic interpretation of Sandarmokh's role in the Finns' execution campaign. Citing the same FSB documents, Sergei Verigin backed Kilin's argument and recommended that excavations begin at Sandarmokh.
In an interview at his office in the university's history department, Verigin insists the work is necessary to set the record straight. "There's no trace in the history books of those who worked in Finnish POW camps. Where did they go? Where were they buried?" he says. "I decided we must identify the burial place of those Soviet POWs."
Kilin and Verigin appealed to the Russian Military-Historical Society, of which they are both members, for help in excavating the bodies buried at Sandarmokh. They soon received the approval they needed.
Vanishingly Slim Odds
That December, police in Petrozavodsk, the regional capital, received an anonymous tip: Dmitriyev, the gulag researcher, was taking nude photographs of his 11-year-old adopted daughter. Investigators said they found 200 images of the child on Dmitriyev's hard drive, nine of which showed her naked. While Dmitriyev argued that he was documenting the child's development for social workers, whom he had fought in court for adoptive rights, he was arrested on charges of producing child pornography and lewd acts with a minor.
Since the 1990s, Dmitriyev had been chairman of the Karelia chapter of Memorial. Three weeks after his arrest, Russian state TV aired censored versions of several of the photographs found by investigators, branding Dmitriyev a sexual predator and Memorial a cult. Dmitriyev was acquitted in April 2018, but Karelia's Supreme Court ordered a retrial that June, adding a third, sexual-abuse charge.
The 63-year-old remains jailed in pretrial detention as friends and colleagues continue a protracted campaign to secure his release. Every time he's due to appear for a hearing at the Petrozavodsk City Court, they coordinate trips from various cities to applaud him as he is escorted to the courtroom. Once the door shuts behind him, nobody is allowed in but witnesses and lawyers. Dmitriyev's long goatee and mane of white hair inspired friends to call him "Khottabych," after a sage, wizened genie from a Soviet cartoon; he now has the close-cropped, clean-shaven look of a convict.
He is not one yet, but his odds of escaping that fate appear vanishingly small: In 2018, Russia recorded its lowest acquittal rate on record, according to an investigation by independent media outlet Proyekt. Out of 885,000 criminal cases heard in its courts, only 2,082 brought an acquittal -- a rate of 0.23 percent, or one in 425. Cases involving allegations of sex crimes against minors have an even higher conviction rate.
On June 17, about 20 people arrived at the courthouse in the morning for the latest hearing. From 10:30 a.m. with a break of two hours when the court adjourned for lunch, they sat waiting for the session to end before crowding around Dmitriyev's lawyer, Viktor Anufriyev, who shared what little he could about what had happened inside.
Tatyana Avilova, a pensioner who had taken a 12-hour night train from Moscow to support Dmitriyev, who is a friend and fellow Russian Orthodox believer, says that she sees the support of people like her as crucial for Dmitriyev's morale. "But we come not just to raise his morale, but for a broader goal," she explains. "We need to show that forces working against this system are still capable of exerting change, as was clear when they acquitted him" in April 2018.
Compared to Dmitriyev's, the trial of the lesser-known Koltyrin was swift. Arrested along with another man in October 2018 and charged with sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy, he was convicted on May 27 and sentenced to nine years in prison. The museum he ran in Medvezhegorsk, a town some 20 kilometers from Sandarmokh, is now under new management.
Prior to his arrest in October 2018, Koltyrin told several people that he feared repercussions for his public stance against the digs at Sandarmokh. "They told me to shut my mouth and keep quiet, quieter than a mouse," he told one St. Petersburg-based journalist.
See The Sights?
The Military-Historical Society plans to continue its excavations this summer. In August 2018, its workers opened up three pits and studied five skeletons at Sandarmokh, announcing later that pieces of green fabric found nearby suggest they were wearing military uniforms when they were executed. Some of the bullets found in the vicinity, the society declared, had come from weapons the Soviet secret police did not have access to during World War II. Verigin concluded on that basis that they must have belonged to Finnish forces.
Critics dismiss such claims as exaggerated at best, and allege that the government's ultimate goal in Sandarmokh is to downgrade the site from a cultural heritage site to a sightseeing attraction. Emilia Slabunova, a legislator in the Karelian parliament who since December 2015 has been the head of Russian opposition party Yabloko, has sent multiple letters to challenge the legality of the Russian Military-Historical Society's digs at Sandarmokh and any plans to change its status.
"We can be sure that Medinsky will do this," she says of Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, the head of the organization. "And this is all needed to untie their hands in advance of much larger-scale work at Sandarmokh."
Like others opposed to the excavations, Slabunova fears that Sandarmokh may follow in the footsteps of prominent Russian sites of memory subjected to controversial redesigns, among them Perm-36, the former gulag that now houses an exhibition extolling its labor history, and Katyn, where thousands of Polish officers were killed by the Soviet secret police in 1940 and where a controversial museum on the history of Russian-Polish relations opened in 2017.
Yulia Alipova, who heads up Karelia's Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, confirmed to RFE/RL in a telephone interview that plans to change the status of Sandarmokh are under way, but she says its removal from Russia's list of heritage sites merely brings it in line with Russian legislation.
"Our federal laws state that mass burial sites are also sightseeing attractions," she says. She insists Sandarmokh will enjoy the same level of protection whatever its official status, an assertion that Slabunova dismisses as false; any work done to a heritage sites must be preceded by a public discussion and should happen under strict oversight, she says -- a sightseeing attraction has no such safeguards.
A Common Truth
On a recent afternoon, Sandarmokh drew a steady stream of visitors. It was Trinity Sunday, a major holiday for Russian Orthodox believers, and many had come to commemorate the dead.
Among them was Antonina Trusova. After years spent trying to ascertain the fate of her grandfather, she finally learned of his killing at Sandarmokh when a local newspaper identified victims of repression in a special issue published in 1988, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost had opened up discussion of Russia's past.
Trusova, a pensioner from the nearby village of Pindushi, now comes on the same day each year to honor her grandfather, who was shot secretly along with thousands of other gulag prisoners in 1938. Since she may never know in which of the 236 communal pits he lies -- Dmitriyev and Memorial opened up five of them and estimated the number of bodies the rest contains -- she places candies and pastries beside the entrance to the burial site.
She left a few coins in a wooden chapel built on the grounds, where a thick book on a pulpit lists the names of over 7,000 victims identified by Dmitriyev. She had not heard of Yury Dmitriyev or the excavations that have begun at Sandarmokh, so she did not read a handwritten letter that one of Dmitriyev's supporters received from the incarcerated historian in August 2018, and which is now pinned to the wall of the chapel.
"Live without fear, our cause is just. Fear lives only in those who allow it into their hearts," it reads, in Dmitriyev's distinctive, looping handwriting. "Let your heart be without fear too, so we can find someone who will continue to unearth our common truth."