STUMP » Articles » A Real Russian Scandal: Yuri A. Dmitriev and Stalin's Great Purge » 13 July 2017, 16:57

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A Real Russian Scandal: Yuri A. Dmitriev and Stalin's Great Purge  


13 July 2017, 16:57

This week, I was involved in putting together this press release regarding historian Yuri A. Dmitriev:

Can Gulag Historian Yuri A. Dmitriev Receive a Fair Trial?

Contact: Elizabeth Childs
+1 (510) 547–2589

Yuri Dmitriev, Russian historian, chairman of the Karelia Memorial Society, and GULAG scholar is on trial in Petrozavodsk City Court, behind closed doors with no media access. Dmitriev was arrested in December 2016, His trial began on June 1, 2017 and is ongoing as of July 11.

Dmitriev is accused of making child pornography, lewd acts, and the unlawful possession of a firearm. If found guilty, Dmitriev faces up to 15 years in prison. Charges were based on characterizations made by the organization the Center for Sociocultural Expert Analysis, who were also involved in providing expert testimony against groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the band Pussy Riot in politically-charged trials in Russia.

Dmitriev is known for locating sites of mass executions that had taken place during Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union, as well as identifying the thousands of people buried there. An example of such a site is Sandarmokh, where over 9,000 people were buried, victims of Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s.

You can go to the link to see further details, including links to some of the stories on Dmitriev and his trial.

I want to concentrate specifically on Dmitriev’s work: what it is and why it is important — why it’s a real Russian scandal, and the evil of destroying memory and truth.


In the late 1930s, Stalin drove the Great Purge, during which at least hundreds of thousands of people died, and perhaps as much as 3 million people were killed.

A definitive book on the matter can be found in Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, a book originally published in 1968, but updated when some Soviet documents came available with the collapse of the USSR.

An editorial description:

The definitive work on Stalin’s purges, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror was universally acclaimed when it first appeared in 1968. Harrison Salisbury called it “brilliant…not only an odyssey of madness, tragedy, and sadism, but a work of scholarship and literary craftsmanship.” And in recent years it has received equally high praise in the former Soviet Union, where it is now considered the definitive account of the period.

When Conquest wrote the original volume, he relied heavily on unofficial sources. With the advent of glasnost, an avalanche of new material became available, and Conquest mined this enormous cache to write, in 1990, a substantially new edition of his classic work, adding enormously to the detail. Both a leading historian and a highly respected poet, Conquest blends profound research with evocative prose, providing not only an authoritative account of Stalin’s purges, but also a compelling and eloquent chronicle of one of this century’s most tragic events. He provides gripping accounts of everything from the three great “Moscow Trials,” to methods of obtaining confessions, the purge of writers and other members of the intelligentsia, life in the labor camps, and many other key matters.

On the fortieth anniversary of the first edition, in the light of further archival releases, and new material published in Moscow and elsewhere, it remains remarkable how many of Conquest’s most disturbing conclusions have continued to bear up. This volume, featuring a new preface by Conquest, rounds out the picture of this huge historical tragedy, further establishing the book as the key study of one of the twentieth century’s most lethal, and longest-misunderstood, offenses against humanity.

Many different groups were targeted in the Great Purge, first starting with communist party members who had fallen out of favor with Stalin, then extending to the officer corps of the Red Army, and ultimately into the populace at large. As noted, a great many people died. Particular groups were targeted, such as intelligentsia and people from disfavored ethnic groups. They were considered threats to Stalin’s power. So they had to go.


One of the problems with these mass slaughters in the name of power and political ends: the individuals get lost. And the powers-that-be definitely have no incentive to create memorials to the individuals who died, unlike with war memorials with their lists of names.

There’s a reason the names are important. Each name is a person, an individual, with their own life untimely ended. Violently.

It’s a memory of what happened, the tragedy of the individual and of a community. I think of the experiences so many have had at the Vietnam War memorial, looking for a specific name; they take rubbings from the wall.

I live in Westchester County, and 110 people from there died on September 11, 2001. There is a memorial for those 110 people — one person’s name had originally been omitted, and they added it; including the name was important. I cannot go to these memorials as I find them too upsetting. It’s still very fresh in my mind, even though it’s been over 15 years.

But it has important that they are commemorated, for how they died. It’s important to remember.


Yuri A. Dmitriev found the graveyards of those dead, where the bodies were unceremoniously dumped after so many had been tortured, de-personalized, and made the ultimate un-persons: dead, and forced to be forgotten.

Dmitriev brought back the memories.

A great quote from Dmitriev:

“Old women need to know where their dead are buried, and I’m going to do everything to make that happen.”

Dmitriev found the graves and compiled the names:

In 1997 thanks to years of effort in the archives by Memorial and on the ground in Karelia by Yury A. Dmitriev, the last resting place of more than 9,000 people was finally discovered at a location subsequently given the local (Karelian) name “Sandarmokh”. The story of that search and discovery has recently been told by Irina Flige, head of the Memorial Education and Research Centre in St Petersburg.

Since 1997 monuments have been erected around the site to commemorate the many victims of this killing field, individually and as representatives of particular nations and cultures and an international annual Day of Remembrance has been held there every 5 August. In 2010 Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church led the mass for the slain victims of Stalin who now, thanks to the Memorial Society and Yury Dmitriev, the association’s leader in Karelia, can once again be named and remembered individually.

According to the documents found by Memorial in the archives of Russian Federal Security Service in Arkhangelsk, there were people of 58 nationalities.

Ukraine declared 2012 as “Sandarmokh List Year” in reference to the thousands of Ukrainian intelligentsia who were executed because they inspired the people of Ukraine, filling them with pride and strength.

Here is a quote from Dmitriev’s friend Anatoly Razumov:

I had always been disturbed by the question of why it was wrong to think freely and ask questions, why a person’s life was so little valued that it could be ended just like that. A person should live a long life. Why are the tormented deprived not only of life, but even of a grave? You can imagine how I felt when it was possible to talk about executed prisoners. Nothing had been known about them. Not even their relatives said anything about them: either they lied or didn’t know. I took on the job of restoring memory. All the colleagues I met in this new life became kindred souls, but a select few became close friends. Yura was a close friend from the moment we met.
Yura showed me Sandarmokh. That was important to me. By that time, his book The Karelia Memorial Lists was nearly ready. I soon attended the book’s presentation. I opened up the packages from the printers (Yura taught me not to cut the plastic tapes but undo them), handed copies out to people, and made my own speech. It was a wonderful presentation. Everyone spoke very well, including the relatives of the victims, who regarded Yura as an important, valuable person. Since then he has been one of my greatest friends, and a wonderful person with whom to speak when I want to talk frankly.

A picture of Razumov (left) and Dmitriev (right)

These Days of Remembrance are now threatened.

It is very inconvenient to the current leaders of Russia, and most specifically Putin, to have Stalin’s atrocities remembered.

This year is the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution, which started 7 November 1917. I’m sure somebody has some rip-roaring celebrations planned.

It’s also 80 years since the Great Purge began.


Recall George Orwell’s 1984, and one of its many famous lines:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Powerful people don’t want Stalin’s purges remembered. The people who remind, the historians, are now threats because those in power in the present want to have that past wiped out of memory.

Stalin’s Shadow: How a Gulag Historian Fell Victim to Russia’s Dark Past:

Eighty years on from the Great Purge, Stalin is striking back and historians are the victims

“The condemned were brought by car to a forest. There, deep pits were dug and the prisoners were told to lay down face down. After that they were shot”.

So read the notes of the interrogation of NKVD executioner Mikhail Matveyev, who personally executed 1111 prisoners from the notorious Solovki island camp in Karelia in the Russian Far North. It took him four days to execute the whole group.

The time was November, 1937, when Russia had been plunged into the Great Purge, the climax of Stalin’s terror. Approximately 750,000 Soviet citizens were killed in 15 months.

Ordered to maintain silence and conspiracy, Matveyev developed his own system for mass killings. Prisoners were first stripped of their clothes in one room, then tied in another, and then knocked out with a wooden bludgeon, so that they would keep silent. The victims were stockpiled in groups of 40-50 in a truck, and next taken to the place of execution.

The mass graves of Matveyev’s execution were only discovered in 1997 in the woods of Sandarmokh, Karelia. And twenty years on, this horrific story from a distant past is triggering new repression.

August 5, 1937, marks the official start of Stalin’s Great Purge. Every year since 1997, Sandormokh has hosted a memorial service on this day which has become a big international event. Several hundred pilgrims and delegations from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Finland and the Baltic travel to the forest to pay their respects to the victims.

Initially, local authorities supported the initiative. The governor’s office built a road to the site, helped erect monuments and provided transportation. Yuri Dmitriev, one of the event’s main organizers, received a certificate of merit from the Karelian government. Everyone, including officials, stuck to a simple formula, Fliege says: “We are different, but we have our common memory”.
“Local government is not against commemorating the victims of Stalin’s terror. But it is wary of the surrounding context,” says Yan Rachinsky, Memorial’s co-chairman. As Russia’s leadership becomes increasingly revisionist in its memory politics, history has become a political instrument.
In the end of the 2000s, then-president Dmitry Medvedev attempted to kickstart a new wave of de-Stalinization. There was a plan to open still classified NKVD-KGB archives, develop the rehabilitation process, establish commemoration sites, and, most importantly, revise Stalin’s heritage and image in the public space. It was decided that Moscow would have its own monument to the victims of Stalin’s terror. That monument is due to be opened this year, marking the 80th anniversary of the Great Purge, and Vladimir Putin is expected to attend. But, ironically, it will appear only after new monuments to Stalin himself have popped up in different Russian regions.

Medvedev’s de-Stalinization plan effectively died when Putin came back to the Kremlin in 2012. Two years later, Russia annexed Crimea and began a new confrontation with the West. Russian propaganda presented the war in Ukraine as a sequel to the Great Patriotic War, with the West as the heir of the Nazis. Another page was turned in Russia’s relationship with Stalin.
By 2017, re-Stalinization had found its way to mostly every part of Russian life. Stalin’s popularity across Russia reached a 16-year high. Historical narratives that explore the criminal nature of Stalin’s rule are viewed as a falsification of history, designed to undermine Russia’s greatness.

The arrest of Yuri Dmitriev, a historian who made it his mission to collect the names of Stalin’s victims in Karelia, falls into the same category. “We can see now historians being targeted by the state,” says Nikolay Svanidze, a well-known TV anchor and popularizer of Russian history. “We can see they are now being treated as the political opposition.”

Last August, for the first time in 20 years, the Karelian government declined from taking part in commemorations in Sandarmokh. The Russian Orthodox Church also declined to participate — again for the first time. Starting from 2016, Days of memory in Sandarmokh no longer enjoy official support. In October 2016, Memorial was labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. And in December, Dmitriev was arrested.

The sin is to remind people, especially to remind people of the individual lives destroyed by an evil regime.

You can’t have that. People might start making comparisons.


Anne Applebaum wrote this in May 2017:

Don’t forget those smiling images of Trump and the Russians

The pictures from the Oval Office on Wednesday — published by a Tass photographer, as no U.S. media were present — are jolly and good-humored. President Trump, who fired his FBI director a day earlier, is grinning for the cameras and shaking hands with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. They, too, smile and laugh, relishing the many ironies of the moment.

Have a close look at those happy faces; keep the images in your head. Then turn your attention just for a moment to the story of Ildar Dadin, an unusually brave young Russian. Dadin was arrested in Moscow in 2015, one of the first to fall victim to a harsh new Russian law against dissent. His crime was to have protested peacefully and repeatedly, mostly by standing silently in the street with a sign around his neck.

This is the same kind of thing that got Vladimir Bukovsky arrested in post-Stalin USSR. Last year I posted on Bukovsky a few times:

Concerning that last one — that’s Bukovsky’s and Smitriev’s sin. They are forcing people to remember. To remember the brutality of Stalin, when they don’t want to remember; the brutality of the post-Stalin era as well. It would be nice to forget the atrocities, especially as the current regime would like to build up the dictator era as a great time for Russia.

But when you keep pointing to the dead, to the tortured, to the unjustly imprisoned… and then notice that it’s still going on….

Back to Applebaum:

Dadin was sentenced to three years in prison in Karelia, the northwestern province that was once home to the White Sea Canal, one of the most infamous prison camps in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Far away from the capital, he discovered that torture, of a kind also practiced in Stalin’s Soviet Union, was still in use. In Karelia, guards throw a prisoner into an isolation cell as soon as they arrive, Dadin has written, “so that he understands straight away what hell he’s got into.” Later, he was hung up by his arms, which were handcuffed behind his back. Others in Karelian prisons were beaten on the soles of their feet, drenched with water and left in the cold, beaten on the back and stomach.

Why? In Stalin’s day, people were tortured to get them to confess to crimes they had not committed. Nowadays they are often tortured as a form of extortion: If their families pay up, the torture stops. Dadin’s wife, Anastasia Zotova — she was in London meeting with human rights organizations — also told me that some prisoners are forced to work for prison guards and their families (another tradition handed down from the Gulag). It is fitting, somehow, that in Putin’s Russia, people torture for money and not ideology.

Stalinism is back, but it’s called Putinism now.

Dadin is lucky: He is educated, comes from Moscow and was able to make use of what remains of the press and the judicial apparatus in Russia. Meduza, a Russian-language website published outside the country, posted a letter he wrote from prison; thanks to Zotova and some dedicated lawyers, he got Russia’s human rights ombudsman interested in his case and was released. But his story is exceptional. By contrast, gay men in Chechnya, another Russian province, have been kidnapped, tortured and killed by police with impunity after Chechen officials decided to “eliminate” homosexuality altogether. Russian prosecutors also recently arrested and detained Yuri Dmitriev, one of the country’s best-known historians of Stalinism, on trumped-up charges. Dmitriev literally knows where the bodies are buried: In the 1990s, he uncovered hundreds of mass graves, the only remaining evidence of Stalin’s mass murders. Knowledge like that has become increasingly uncomfortable in a Russia that no longer wants to distance itself from its murderous past.

Bukovsky is not in Russia anymore, having left the then-Soviet Union for England decades ago, but he, too, is being persecuted by the Russian regime. Character assassination and actual assassination have been tools used by Putin’s machine.

This is the real Russian scandal:

What is the connection between those stories and the photographs in the Oval Office? There isn’t one. Neither Trump, nor Lavrov, nor Kislyak is remotely interested in the fate of Dadin or Dmitriev, if they have even heard of them, which seems unlikely. Nor are any of them much interested in the fate of Dan Heyman, the West Virginia reporter arrested recently for persistent questioning of Tom Price, the health and human services secretary. Due process, rule of law, all of the dull rules and procedures that deliver justice are uninteresting to men who believe in personalized power unconstrained by traditions, institutions or constitutions. Look at how pleased they were to see one another — and compare those pictures with Trump’s stiff and awkward news conferences with democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel or Britain’s Theresa May.

While people go on digging for supposed election hacking by Russians to cover for Clinton’s inept campaign, there are real scandals in Russia right now. Real injustices.

But no, the media has their favored target — actually targeting Putin with respect to his power in Russia is dangerous, after all.

Much safer to go after Trump, who will not be putting any of them in prisons or having them tortured. The worst he will do is tweet a cartoonified wrestling match (which, you know, is fake… it’s a show. They’re not actually hurting each other.)


I got involved with these particular cases of Bukovsky and Dmitriev because more than anything else, I value truth.

Lies are inherently destructive. Refusal to look at the truth is dangerous. And so much ails us as human beings, much less than what goes on in politics, comes from lies.

And many institutions that are supposed to convey truth are destroying themselves, because they have other aims than finding out the truth and conveying it. It’s not only the media, but many academic areas.

Dmitriev’s and Bukovsky’s stories resonated with me, because they both had powerful truths to convey.

It may seem so pedestrian and tedious to find and name thousands of corpses, but it’s important. Once you have a name, that is a person and the person should be remembered for what happened to them.

Bukovsky not only told how psychiatric facilities were being used to suppress dissidents, but he also gave inspiration:

Why should I do it?” asks each man in the crowd. “I can do nothing alone.”

And they are all lost.

“If I don’t do it, who will?” asks the man with his back to the wall.

And everyone is saved.

That is how a man begins building his castle.

Murdered individuals are remembered because of Dmitriev, and people know what went on in the prisons because of authors like Bukovsky. Bukovsky is especially dangerous because he tells his story so well.

Amazing book — how an individual’s struggle has impact, even in a totalitarian society

Bukovsky details his life in the gulags and mental institutions he was circulated among in the Soviet Union in the 1960s & 1970s. The post-Stalin era Soviet Union was just as repressive of individual freedoms as when Stalin was in charge. Just as Nazi era narratives are important, this is very important for people to read to know what it was like to be an individual caught up in the machinery of the Soviet Union. When Bukovsky wrote, he had been exiled to England, and the USSR seemed as strong as ever – a little over a decade later, it fell, partly due to men like Bukovsky.

The book starts in disorientation, and there is much disorientation found throughout the narrative, but one is quickly drawn into the story. There is a thread of humor, reminding me of Crime & Punishment by Dostoevsky. The pyramid scheme of prisoner complaints to gum up Soviet bureaucracy was genuinely funny. The reality is fairly bleak, but Bukovsky retains his humanity and never gives up fighting.

The book retains relevance as totalitarian impulses still exist today, not only in Russia but throughout the world.

Individual action can save the world. Go forth and build your castle.

The dead need to be remembered and the people who have worked to build that memory need to be paid attention to.


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