In 2016, Yuri Dmitriev – the top of the Karelian department of the Memorial Society – was arrested on an nameless denunciation, going through false expenses that ruined his household’s life and, for himself, have resulted in years of imprisonment.
For greater than thirty years – half of his life – Dmitriev has been finding out the traces of the Stalinist regime’s crimes in Karelia. A part of his work is spent in archives, the opposite half within the discipline in the hunt for secret burial websites. His predominant subject is the executions through the Nice Terror from 1937–38. The reality about them has not been totally disclosed: many websites haven’t been discovered and archival paperwork stay categorised. What we all know is due to lovers like Dmitriev.
The work of restoring the reminiscence of murdered individuals has by no means been straightforward, and in recent times it has change into harmful too. Nearly concurrently with the ultimate verdict in Dmitriev’s case, two central Memorial organizations in Moscow had been liquidated, one among which I labored for.
Yuri is a pal of mine and a senior colleague who as soon as helped us in making ready an expedition to the White Coastline. I met him in 2015 after I went to Petrozavodsk to search for traces of the Solovetsky camp departments within the Nationwide Archives of Karelia. He made me assume in a deeper and extra critical method concerning the case I used to be finding out. By means of him I got here to appreciate that the historical past of repressions isn’t just a subject of analysis, however a supply of monumental ache, compressed within the reminiscence of a number of generations, undisclosed, unprocessed and unmourned.
Touching this ache makes the historian a participant in it. One should make a alternative to simply accept it as one’s personal or to distance oneself. In Yuri’s case, it was comprehension of different individuals’s ache and unwillingness to disassociate himself that led him to change into a historian.
I visited Yuri within the colony in November 2022 with Sasha Kononova, an artist and filmmaker. Along with different pals and supporters, we had attended his trial between 2016 to 2021, writing about Yuri, his work and the way a lot it meant. Throughout that point, we had been in a position to see him and to talk to him solely often and briefly. Our widespread wrestle resulted in defeat.
The liquidation of Memorial was adopted by a battle unleashed on the territory of Ukraine. This new actuality, with its nightmarishness, overshadowed all the things that was occurring right here in Russia. It obscured, however didn’t make us overlook. Quite the opposite, it now appears extra essential than ever to rethink the historical past we examine and during which we stay as an inseparable complete.
A historian in historical past
When the researcher of the period of repressions finds himself among the many victims at a turning cut-off date, we get a way of the return of evil. For the historian, it entails a monstrous alternative: to fall into despair, or to search out the power to grasp all the things that has occurred. Whereas in custody within the Petrozavodsk jail fortress in East Karelia, Yuri Dmitriev ready his books Krasny Bor and The Motherland Remembers Them for print.
He additionally began engaged on the multi-volume Sandarmokh along with his pal, the historian Antatoly Razumov (they managed to carry working discussions earlier than and after court docket periods, throughout uncommon conferences and in correspondence), and gave a collection of lectures to fellow inmates concerning the historical past of the place. Within the Nineteen Thirties, Petrozavodsk jail had held individuals whose path ended earlier than the firing squad. Yuri had spent thirty years recovering their fates from oblivion. Being stored throughout the similar partitions was a particular expertise for a historian. However such proximity to his topics was paid for by the months and years crossed out of his personal life.
5 years spent in Petrozavodsk had been adopted by a collection of transfers. First, to a colony within the settlement of Nadvoitsy (the previous administration of Belbaltlag, which Dmitriev had written about in a guide), then by way of the prisons of St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Ryazan, earlier than lastly ending up in Mordovia.
The Mordovian camps are one of many GULAG’s first big ‘islands’, a complete district that remained after the abolition of the primary a part of the ‘archipelago’. ‘These camps are well-known, nicely described in literature,’ Dmitriev wrote in a letter to his household earlier than his hasty and sudden departure from Nadvoitsy. His vacation spot was infamous, and the information alarmed us.
Lastly, in Might 2022, phrase started to come back from Yuri. For the primary time within the years of his life’s quest, Dmitriev discovered himself in a spot that, as a Karelian native historian, he had not but touched in his analysis.
The colony the place Yuri Dmitriev is now incarcerated, IK-18, is positioned within the Mordovian settlement of Potma. That can be the title of the railway station. The practice from Moscow arrives there at 4 a.m. The platform is roofed with snow, blackness on each side. In Mokshan, the language of the native inhabitants, ‘Potma’ means ‘backwoods, a distant place’. The primary impression is precisely that. The small station is the one constructing the place one can wait within the heat till daybreak. There is just one different individual there: a middle-aged girl with a big trolley. There is no such thing as a have to ask what brings her right here.
Within the ready room we uncover the appearance of a museum: two small glass showcases with embroideries, pots and goblets of the Moksha individuals, who appear to have fully disappeared from these elements. The textual content on the wall tells the historical past of the village and the station, however is silent on what was concerned within the ‘mass building within the 1929–30s’. Most individuals passing by way of this station might be as conscious of the camps’ existence as we’re. For whom, then, is the sanitised historical past written?
We quickly discover that the true reminiscence of the place continues to be current, although not overtly. A bit of cardboard with a QR code is pasted to one of many home windows. The hyperlink opens an beginner weblog with primary details about the community of camps and their historical past: ‘My Mordovia. Dubravlag’. The principle characteristic of every of the encircling villages – their semantic centre – is the ‘zone’. The community of penal colonies nonetheless covers the entire district. Yavas, Zubova Polyana, Partza, Lesnoy, Molochnitsa: every settlement has one or two, generally three.
As soon as there was a railroad line from Potma connecting the camps within the district. The practice went from zone to zone, however the line was additionally utilized by locals. Though the Potma department not exists (the railway is closed and the tracks have been dismantled), the phrase that unites the camps and settlements stays. All of the individuals dwelling on the ‘department’ are linked to the zone in a method or one other. There’s merely no different work right here.
Little doubt the station workers will take away the cardboard sq. from the showcase if they’re ordered. Nonetheless, we’re grateful for this try and share a real a part of Potma’s historical past.
Temlag. Dubravlag. Camp No. 58
‘Dubravlag’ is usually used synonymously for all of the camps within the space, though the camp itself it solely operated from 1948 to 1954. The primary camp within the Zubovo-Polyansky district was the Temnikovsky correctional labour camp (Temlag), in-built 1931 as a part of the brand new GULAG system. The administration was positioned within the settlement of Yavas. Temlag grew and by 1933–34 the variety of inmates had exceeded 30 thousand. They harvested timber and labored within the major processing of wooden, additionally constructing the Ryazan-Potma railway.
In 1937 one of many USSR’s predominant ‘girls’s zones’ was opened in Temlag. It contained hundreds of ‘wives of traitors to the fatherland,’ most of whose husbands had been executed through the years of terror. In 1948 Temlag was reworked right into a high-security camp for harmful criminals.
A community of camps with the gorgeous names of Rechnoy (River), Ozerny (Lake), Peschany (Sandy) and Mineralny (Mineral) was created in opposition to the background of the brand new wave of terror within the late Forties. Dubravny (Oak Woods), in any other case referred to as Dubravlag, turned identified for its strict regime and numbered registration of prisoners, who had been disadvantaged of their names and surnames. Nearly all Dubravlag prisoners had been ‘political’, that’s, serving time for ‘anti-Soviet exercise’, outlined as any unfavourable assertion in opposition to the authorities, made in jest or in earnest.
In 1954 the Dubravlag was reworked into an strange camp and, with the termination of the GULAG system, the title ‘Dubravlag’ was changed by the colourless acronym ZH-385 (ZH – ‘railway community’). However the camp community itself survived the change of a number of eras and regimes. From the Sixties to the Eighties it was one of many largest political zones in operation, which prisoners nonetheless known as Dubravlag. Many writers, artists, scientists, and human rights activists had been inmates within the Dubravlag at numerous occasions, together with Nina Gagen-Thorn, Alla Andreyeva, Rostislav Gorelov, Susanna Pechuro, Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel, Anatoly Marchenko, Irina Ratushinskaya, Kronid Lubarsky, Yuri Galankov and Tatiana Velikanova .
Through the battle years and the instant post-war interval (1941–1947) the Temnikov camp for prisoners of battle No. 58 operated in Potma. Along with German prisoners of battle, it contained Italians, Hungarians, Romanians and French. Many got here to Potma from the infamous Radovsky camp within the Tambov area. A few of them remained without end within the Mokshan soil. All of the upheavals of the Russian historical past of the twentieth century – and, partly, world historical past – had their continuation in these distant Mordovian settlements, the place human ache and sorrow sank without end within the native swampy soil.
The current previous
At daybreak we go away the station and start our exploration of Potma. It’s troublesome to say what within the look of the village has been preserved and what has modified. At first look, nothing seems to stay of the GULAG camps. Solely the sense of captivity itself and a peculiar feeling of dreary indifference and exterior wariness. The system right here didn’t die, however has been renewed and modernized.
A metallic fence with coils of shiny barbed wire stretches alongside your complete size of Shkolnaya (Faculty) Road. Behind it are rows of two-story barracks manufactured from gray silicate bricks. On the opposite aspect of the road is the work space, additionally behind the fence. A pedestrian bridge spans the road, sandwiched between the 2 fences. (Why is it known as ‘Faculty Road’?) It’s unimaginable to see who’s crossing it, since it’s lined with metallic sheets, which have was a four-sided windowless tube.
Subsequent to the realm gate is a van going nowhere, a small home with a flat roof and an indication beneath it: ‘Guests’ Room.’ It’s largely girls who’re ready there: wives, moms, and daughters. A younger girl and her little lady have travelled for days from Kazakhstan, with out sleep and with lengthy transfers. They’ve come for a three-day go to. However first they need to undergo a protracted means of registration and inspection. An worker of the colony strictly asks if they’ve medication. ‘No, after all not,’ the lady says tiredly and in concern, submissively accepting that she could possibly be suspected of something in any respect.
One other, an aged girl, has come from Saransk to see her son, however it turned out that he was not on their record… ‘The place is he? They mentioned they despatched him right here!’ After some time the worker comes again with information: they’ve positioned the person, however he’s in a special colony, 19 kilometres away. How do you get there? That’s as much as you. There’s no bus and no practice. It feels that we’ve heard such tales earlier than. Or learn them.
Yuri is allowed solely three parcels a yr. Ours is the primary. We knew some guidelines beforehand (e.g. that each one garments and footwear must be black, with no footage or lettering) and had fastidiously checked and weighed the meals and belongings earlier than the journey. However we nonetheless encounter sudden laws. With a view to obtain a tracksuit and trainers, an inmate has to have written a particular assertion that he doesn’t have already got them. A towel appears too huge, however not discovering any instruction concerning the measurement, the guards let it by way of. They don’t need to enable the pâté due to the phrase pâté written on the tin. And since it’s a perishable product. We’ve got it as canned meals with a two-year shelf life. However the directions mentioned…
Thankfully, after a whole lot of forwards and backwards, the pâté was permitted. However earlier than we may have our assembly, we spent one other six hours filling out varieties, ready for the workers lunch break to finish, and for the shift of prisoners to depart the colony. We had been fortunate with that, too. Not everybody manages to get a gathering on the day of arrival.
The visiting room consists of three rooms. All are slim, just like the compartments of a pencil case, and separated by clear partitions. In two of them there are lengthy wood benches. Within the center room, the prisoners sit in a row, with their relations and pals going through them within the subsequent room. Sound is muffled by the clear plastic. A barrier half a meter from the partition prevents the prisoners from developing shut. If two or three visits are happening on the similar time, you must outshout your neighbours in an effort to make your self heard.
The jail workers sitting within the third compartment hear intently to what’s being shouted from each side. Their room appears to be like slightly like an interpreter’s sales space, although their function is precisely the other. We’re fortunate once more – there aren’t any different visits and Yuri is allowed to come back nearer to the partition as a result of he has been identified with listening to issues. We’re in a position to discuss for about two hours.
Even earlier than the assembly, we knew that Yuri Alexeyevich had begun engaged on a guide concerning the Mordovian camps. The situations for tutorial work right here will not be one of the best, to place it mildly. Yuri Dmitriev has spent nearly a 3rd of the final three months within the penal cell. Proper after our go to he was despatched there for one more ten days. The explanations are formal: he didn’t greet, didn’t preserve his palms behind his again, and didn’t have a reputation tag on his garments. It’s colder within the punishment cell than within the barracks, and lots of issues are forbidden. Can this be thought of a technique of investigation? I don’t know. Clearly, the boundary of the doable usefulness of such experiences has lengthy been crossed. However it’s unimaginable to flee from these realities.
Yuri shares his plans for the guide, which is to be known as Temlag, Dubravlag, a POW Camp. It is going to be instructed from three views: that of the prisoners, of the camp system, and of native residents. Writing the chapter on the prisoners of battle is among the most troublesome questions. Whereas he has memoirs of GULAG prisoners, that are largely despatched to him by mail, Yuri doesn’t know whether or not he’ll be capable to work with private sources from POWs. The place are they, the individuals who survived the Potma camp and in 1947 returned to their very own dwelling international locations? Are any of them alive? Has anybody written memoirs about that point? An even when they’re discovered, the best way to learn them? Whether or not or not the chapter will be written, the significance of this nearly fully unexplored chapter within the historical past of the Mordovian camps is obvious.
When Yuri recounts his life right here and his analysis, which to date stays solely a plan, his final job turns into clear: in an effort to comprehend the camp he should to beat it, conquer it from inside. Because of this it’s so essential for him to not write a diary, however to analyse the phenomenon with which and inside which he has to stay, in its historic improvement.
He laughs and jokes so much, speaking about his issues as in the event that they weren’t critical. Taking a look at him, you perceive how essential it isn’t to dwell on misfortunes. Fixing them, analysing and evaluating them permits him to maintain shifting ahead in comprehending the previous by way of the current, and vice versa.
As a result of the daytime in November are very brief, we solely had time to go to the central streets of the settlement. Unsurprisingly, we noticed no memorials that known as to thoughts the destiny of people that suffered and died within the camps. However by way of informal dialog we did find out about one memorial and went to see it. It consists of two memorial plaques, set in a very distant place close to the village of Molochnitsa.
It’s unimaginable to discover them by probability; we needed to search for them for a very long time at the hours of darkness forest after which dig them out from underneath the snow. They’re positioned on prime of the widespread grave of prisoners of battle from Temnikovsky Camp No. 58. In line with native residents, the monument was erected by a delegation that got here within the mid-Nineties to research the fates of their compatriots. On their first go to a burial website was discovered, and the next yr they returned to put in the plates. There are two of them: one for Italians, the opposite for Hungarians. Each have inscriptions in Russian and their native language: ‘To Italians who died in Russia’; ‘Right here relaxation Hungarian prisoners of battle, victims of World Warfare II.’
There’s nowhere and nobody to ask for extra info: How many individuals are buried right here and why this spot? How did they die? Who erected the monument and the way? As we stood over these slabs at the hours of darkness, chilly and desolation, we may nearly bodily really feel the all-consuming grip of oblivion and the determined try of reminiscence to withstand it. However there it was, this try. And the path it left behind could possibly be discovered. We had discovered it.
It’s stunning that on this place, the place the previous is so intently intertwined with the current, that there appears to be no room for reminiscence in any respect. The one monument we found turned out to be a reminder of the WWII. It’s the variety that exhibits battle in its easiest and most horrible look. It was unimaginable to not be reminded of the battle right now. It was as if we had dug up a warning about an nameless and painful demise in a international land. The monument didn’t title names, however merely reminded us that folks had existed and died.
Yuri usually talks concerning the significance of the fabric part of reminiscence. There have to be a spot, there have to be an indication related to that reminiscence, fixing the fact of the catastrophe that occurred. A notch on the reminiscence, changing into a barrier to the following step in committing the irreparable. In Sandarmokh, Yuri had positioned an enormous stone on the entrance to the memorial advanced with the inscription: ‘Folks, don’t kill one another.’ However an summary enchantment, after all, just isn’t sufficient. Reminiscence is woke up when it touches our personal. That human group, by way of which one realizes oneself and establishes oneself within the bigger world: household, circle of fellow villagers, classmates, colleagues, co-religionists. Italian and Hungarian fellow-trainees of the useless prisoners of battle. The individuals.
That’s the reason, within the Karelian reminiscence books compiled by Dmitriev, the biographical info on the victims is grouped not alphabetically however by settlements. Having discovered their ancestor within the lists, individuals will discover the names and destinies of fellow villagers and neighbours, pals and acquaintances ‘Reminiscence is what makes women and men human and folks peoples, not populations,’ Dmitriev has mentioned. In Sandarmokh, individuals of greater than 50 nationalities had been shot through the Nice Terror. Dmitriev has finished his finest to allow every diaspora in Karelia to commemorate its compatriots and derive from this reminiscence one thing essential for its life right now.
The Ukrainian reminiscence is particularly sturdy in Sandarmokh. It was right here that in 1937 poets, writers, artists, theatre staff belonging to the so-called Ukrainian Renaissance of the Twenties and Nineteen Thirties had been executed. Yearly a big Ukrainian delegation used to come back to Sandarmokh. All in all, 25 nationwide and confessional monuments had been erected on the territory of the advanced. The reminiscence of the nationwide tragedy is a robust device for individuals to grasp their id, their belonging to a nation, which realizes itself and has an unlimited energy of resistance to exterior affect.
Greater than ever, it’s clear how Yuri’s actions in assist of remembrance have change into opposite to the logic of official tips. The wheel of violence has turned as soon as once more, destroying with ease all obstacles of reminiscence, violating all human taboos. It isn’t straightforward for a historian to face this, even when their very own life has not been damaged. However when it has, vocation stays the one approach to protect oneself and to confront what is going on.