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The monumental slab at the entrance to the Sandarmokh burial grounds reads: "People! do not kill one another".

Sandarmokh (Russian: Сандармох; Karelian: Sandarmoh) is a forest massif 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) from Medvezhyegorsk in the Republic of Karelia where thousands of victims of Stalin's Great Terror were executed. More than 58 nationalities were shot and buried there in 236 communal pits over a 14-month period in 1937 and 1938.[1]

A thousand of the victims were from the Solovki special prison in the White Sea. It was long thought that the barges carrying them were deliberately sunk on the way to the mainland, drowning all the prisoners on board. Others were rounded up during the Great Terror in Karelia,[2] in accordance with quotas for prisoners, 'enemies of the regime', and a variety of "national operations". According to available documentation at least 6,000 were shot and buried at Sandarmokh.[3]

Today Sandarmokh is a memorial to the crimes of Stalin and his regime and since 1998 has been the focus of an international Day of Remembrance on 5 August every year.[4][5]

Discovery and remembrance[edit]

On 27 October 1937, 1,116 prisoners were loaded onto three barges and taken from Solovki to the mainland.

Only in 1996, thanks to the efforts of Veniamin Ioffe (1938-2002), co-chairman of the Memorial research centre in St Petersburg, documents were found in the archives of the Arkhangelsk department of the Federal Security Service (FSB) throwing light on the subsequent fate of the "first Solovki transport". These included the lists of those men and women who were to be shot. (One died before he could be executed; four more were sent to other parts of the Gulag.)

After years of work on the ground in Karelia by Yury A. Dmitriev, this documentary evidence pointed the way to the identification on 1 July 1997 of the Solovki prisoners' last resting place and that of another 5,000 executed individuals. The location would subsequently be given the local (Karelian) name "Sandarmokh" (sometimes spelled "Sandormokh"). The story of that search and discovery was told in 2017 by Irina Flige, head of the Memorial Education and Information Centre in St Petersburg.[6] In 2015 Dmitriev recounted how he, Flige and the late Veniamin Ioffe had found the burial site.[7] According to documents found in the FSB archives in Arkhangelsk, there were people of 58 nationalities among those shot at Sandarmokh.

Three hundred personal plaques and memorials have been erected around the site since 1997 to commemorate the many victims of this killing field, both individually and as representatives of particular nations and cultures,[4][8][9] and an international Day of Remembrance has been held there every 5 August since 1998. In 2010, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church led the mass for the slain victims of Stalin at Sandarmokh, just as he and his predecessor Alexy II have done, every year since 2007, at the Butovo killing field near Moscow.[10]

Today, thanks to the Memorial Society, to Veniamin Ioffe and Yury Dmitriev, over 5,000 of the dead of Sandarmokh can again be named and remembered individually, at the place where they lie buried.[11]

Ukraine declared 2012 as "Sandarmokh List Year" in reference to several hundred members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia who were executed there because they inspired the people of Ukraine with their own national culture, filling them "with pride and strength".[12]

Those shot at Sandarmokh, 1937-1938[edit]

The thousands executed over 14 months from October 1937 to December 1938 fall into three broad groups. Many were from Karelia, a total of 2,344 free inhabitants of the republic. A smaller number (624) were forced "settlers" (i.e. peasants exiled to the North after the collectivisation of agriculture). A great many of those shot (1,988) were already prisoners of the Belbaltlag (White Sea Canal) camp system. A smaller group of 1,111 prisoners were brought there from the Solovki island prison.[13] Together they made up almost half of those shot during the Great Terror in Karelia.[14]

"Alongside hard-working peasants, fishermen and hunters from nearby villages," wrote Yury Dmitriev wrote:[15] "there were writers and poets, scientists and scholars, military leaders, doctors, teachers, engineers, clergy of all confessions and statesmen who found their final resting place here." Among the last named group were prominent members of the intelligentsia from the many national and ethnic cultures of the USSR—for example, Finns, Karelians, and Volga Germans. Ukraine was especially singled out, losing 289 of its writers, dramatists and other public figures, the "Executed Renaissance", in a single day.

The following 25 individuals illustrate this variety. They are listed by surname in alphabetical order:

Memorial to Ukrainians shot at Sandarmokh

People of Finnish origin who emigrated to the USSR and were later arrested and shot at Sandarmokh by the NKVD, are listed by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr in their study In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage (2003). They included 141 Finnish Americans,[23] and 127 Finnish Canadians.[24]

Victims and executioners[edit]

Commemorative photos fixed to trees around the pits at Sandarmokh.

It is often said or assumed of Soviet mass executions that they were carried out by firing squad. For the Soviet regime and, later, the Third Reich, this method of execution was the exception, not the rule.[25]

From early days onwards, the preferred Soviet method of quick despatch was to dig a trench and then, the executioner standing immediately behind the upright or kneeling victim, shoot the victims at point blank range in the back of the head. This was the infamous "nine grammes of lead". The victims tumbled into the trench and were buried; sometimes another, control shot (контрольный выстрел, kontrolnyi vystrel) was fired into the victim's head to make sure he or she was dead, sometimes only one shot was used. (A rare, extended description by a former executioner of how such mass killings were organised can be found in Lev Razgon's 1988 memoirs.)[26]

This was the method used at Sandarmokh, Krasny Bor and Svirlag in the late 1930s, as the skulls found at these sites amply testify. Cross-examined while under arrest in 1939, the chief executioner Mikhail Matveyev said he made the victims lie face down in the prepared trench and then shot them.[27]

Thanks to the efforts of Ivan Chukhin, founder of Memorial in Karelia, a national deputy to the Supreme Soviet (and the Duma) and Yury Dmitriev's mentor, the names of the members of the troika which rubber-stamped decisions to shoot a list of individuals—the accused were not present at these sessions, no one defended their rights—and of the execution squad leaders became known by the mid-1990s.[28][29]

The man sent from Leningrad on 16 October 1937 to organise the shooting of the Solovki transport, Matveyev, was an experienced NKVD executioner. He was succeeded at Sandarmokh by I.A. Bondarenko and his deputy A.F. Shondysh.[27] Matveyev survived into old age; his successors were both arrested in 1938 and shot in 1939 for "exceeding their authorisation".[30]

New digs, an alternative hypothesis[edit]

Starting in 2016, there were attempts to revise this account of the shootings at Sandarmokh, and claim that among the dead were Soviet POWs shot by the invading Finns in 1941-1944. There were newspaper articles and TV broadcasts in Russia; there was also a publication in the Finnish press. In the same year, a highly controversial sexual abuse probe against Yury Dmitriyev was launched by authorities.[31]

The motivation behind this claim and the supposed new evidence were both challenged. In a lengthy and detailed investigation, Russian journalist Anna Yarovaya examined the evidence and interviewed historians and those who had found the site. She talked to Finnish historians of the Second World War; Irina Flige of the Memorial Society and Sergei Kashtanov, head of the district administration where the killing fields were found. She also interviewed Sergei Verigin, one of the Russian historians putting forward the new hypothesis. Russian newspapers and television had talked of "thousands" of POWs being shot by the Finns and buried at Sandarmokh: speaking on the record to Yarovaya, Verigin was more cautious and spoke of dozens and hundreds.[32]

The Karelian edition of the State-run Rossiya TV channel announced briefly on 22 April 2018 that there would be new investigations at Sandarmokh "this summer".[33]

Agence France-Presse covered later developments in September 2018, citing critics who state that the digs have a political motivation to manipulate public opinion and an attempt to cover up Stalinist crimes.[31] The European External Action Service's website has classified the claims that Finns are responsible for the Sandarmokh killings as "pro-Kremlin disinformation".[34]

The head of the local museum, Sergei Koltyrin, was arrested in October 2018, shortly after he publicly criticized the new excavations. He was convicted in a closed trial of pedophilia for 9 years in prison. In early March 2020, a local court decided to release him due to a fatal illness, however, the prosecutor challenged this decision and Koltyrin died in a prison hospital on 2 April 2020.[35]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Захоронение жертв массовых репрессий (1937-1938 гг.)". Center for State Protection of Cultural Heritage of the Republic of Karelia. Republic of Karelia. Retrieved 15 August 2015.
  2. ^ "The Great Terror in Karelia: A Chronology".
  3. ^ "Half those shot in 1937-1938 ..." .
  4. ^ a b "Sandarmoh, 1937-1938",
  5. ^ Text about Sandarmokh, translated from "Virtual Museum of the Gulag", on Dmitriev Affair website.
  6. ^ Anna Yarovaya, "The Dmitriev Affair", Rights in Russia, 20 March 2017 and The Russian Reader, 1 March 2017. Russian original published on 7 x 7 website, February 2017.
  7. ^ Yury Dmitriev, "We must be able to find something", My Path to Golgotha, pt 3, Dmitriev Affair website, 14 February 2018.
  8. ^ "Pictorial essay: Death trenches bear witness to Stalin's purges" CNN, July 17, 1997
  9. ^ Урочище Сандармох. Захоронение жертв массовых репрессий (1937—1938 гг.) Archived 2009-08-17 at the Wayback Machine (in Russian)
  10. ^ The Butovo Firing Range: a Russian Golgotha website (in Russian).
  11. ^ John Crowfoot, "Who is Yury Dmitriev?" Rights in Russia, 19 June 2017.
  12. ^ Kupriienko, Oleksandr; Siundiukov, Ihor; Tomak, Maria; Skuba, Viktoria; Poludenko, Anna. "2012, Sandarmokh List Year: how can we get rid of totalitarian legacy?". Den online newspaper, 24 January 2012 (Accessed 7 August 2017).
  13. ^ "Half those shot in 1937-1938 ..." Dmitriev Affair website .
  14. ^ "The Great Terrir in Karelia" Dmitriev Affair website.
  15. ^ Anatoly Razumov (n.d.), "The Solovki transports, 1937-1938", Returning the Names website (in Russian).
  16. ^ Fyodor P. Bagrov, Sandomorkh memorial graveyard, Iofe Foundation website.
  17. ^ "Natsionalnyje pisateli Karelii: finskaja emigratsija i politicheskije Repressii 1930h godov: biobibliograficheski ukazatel" (National Library of Karelia, Finnish emigration and the 1930 policy of retaliation: a bio-bibliographical index), Petrozavodsk, 2005, pp. 40-41. ISBN 5-7378-0074-1
  18. ^ Alexei Kostin, Sandomorkh memorial graveyard, Iofe Foundation website
  19. ^ Nikita F. Remnev, Sandomorkh memorial graveyard, Iofe Foundation website.
  20. ^ Kalle P. Toppinen, Sandomorkh memorial graveyard, Iofe Foundation website.
  21. ^ Pavel Chichikov, "Modern Martyrdoms", Catholic Exchange website, 9 February 2003 (retrieved 7 August 2017).
  22. ^ Anton P. Yablotsky, Sandomorkh memorial graveyard, Iofe Foundation website.
  23. ^ John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, 2003, ISBN 1-59403-088-X, Appendix: "The Invisible Dead: American Communists and Radicals Executed by Soviet Political Police and Buried at Sandarmokh", p. 235.
  24. ^ John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-72-4 p. 117.
  25. ^ See, for instance, John le Carre, Smiley's People, 1980, where a Soviet character's execution is "by firing squad".
  26. ^ Chapter Two, "Niyazov", Lev Razgon, True Stories—Memoirs of a Survivor, Souvenir Press: London, 1997, pp. 21-34. Published in Russian in 1988.
  27. ^ a b Nikita Petrov, "The butchers of Sandarmokh", Novaya gazeta, No. 84, 4 August 2017, pp. 8-9 (in Russian).
  28. ^ Ivan Chukhin, Karelia-37: The ideology and practice of terror (1999).
  29. ^ "Krasny Bor, 1937-1938",
  30. ^ Anatoly Razumov, Skorbny put: Solovetskie etapy, 1937-1938 (in Russian), Appendix 2: Those involved in selecting and shooting the Solovki transports, pp. 36-40.
  31. ^ a b "Russian digs accused of covering up Stalinist crimes". France24. Agence France-Presse. 13 September 2018. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
  32. ^ Anna Yarovaya, "Rewriting Sandarmokh", The Russian Reader, 27 December 2017; original published by 7x7 - Horizontal Russia news website, 13 December 2017.
  33. ^ "Disquieting News", Dmitriev Affair website, 3 May 2018.
  34. ^ "Disinfo cases - Finns organised mass shootings of Soviet soldiers in Sandarmokh, Karelia". European External Action Service. 7 September 2018. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
  35. ^ Paananen, Arja (3 April 2020). "Venäläisessä vankilasairaalassa kuoli Suomen puolia pitänyt Sergei Koltyrin". Ilta-Sanomat (in Finnish). Retrieved 6 April 2020.
  36. ^ Book in pdf format.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 62°51′41″N 34°43′42″E / 62.86139°N 34.72833°E / 62.86139; 34.72833