A mass grave from the Soviet era resurfaces as a modern-day Russian political scandal
Who’s buried in the Sandarmokh forest north of Petrozavodsk? In 1997, an excavation crew led by Memorial’s Yuri Dmitriev discovered evidence that it’s the final resting grounds of an estimated 7,500 political prisoners executed by the Soviet police in 1937. A memorial stone surrounded by flowers and wreaths now marks the spot. Lately, however, Dmitriev has been on trial for child abuse, and the Russian Military Historical Society has decided that at least some of the bodies buried at Sandarmokh belong to Red Army soldiers gunned down by the Finns in the 1939-1940 “Winter War.” In late August, the society even sent a team to dig up more remains, searching for proof of buried Soviet soldiers.
Journalist Georgy Chentemirov visited Sandarmokh and found that the situation is as messy as the bags of bones carted away for forensic analysis on August 29. (Read his full report, in Russian, here.) The dig went ahead, despite protests from relatives who believe their family members were murdered 81 years ago by NKVD agents in this forest. Accompanied by his wife and two children, one local man even confronted the excavation crew’s spokesman and said he has archival documents showing that his grandfather was executed at Sandarmokh. The historical society representative said the documents were likely forged.
So what did the new crew find?
The Russian Military Historical Society says it found the remains of five people it believes to be Soviet soldiers. Journalists weren’t allowed into the expedition camp (some Defense Ministry search personnel apparently joined the excavation team, which was used to justify a cordon), but participants say the bodies belong to executed young men wearing thin English overcoats that the Finns allegedly distributed to their prisoners. The team says it shared a scrap from one recovered overcoat with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which will run its own forensics on the cloth.
Is anyone buying this?
Alexander Osiev, one historian who previously criticized the “buried soldiers” theory, is now singing a different tune, pointing to the overcoat remnants and arguing that the forest is in fact too small to contain all 7,500 Gulag prisoners supposedly dumped here. Vyacheslav Kashtanov, a local official who joined Yuri Dmitriev’s original dig, says they found nothing in 1997 to indicate the presence of soldiers, but he believes the new excavation crew has uncovered soldiers’ remains. He thinks the men were killed in battle, however — not executed.
But not everyone thinks the recovered coats prove anything. Sergey Koltyrin, the director of a local history museum, says any clothes would be deteriorated beyond recognition by this point, and he’s convinced that the Finns would have gone public with information about the NKVD mass grave, if they’d stumbled into the Sandarmokh forest during the Winter War.