He Found One of Stalin’s Mass Graves. Now He’s in Jail.Historians in the News
tags: World War II, military history, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Josef Stalin
SANDARMOKH, Russia — The day began, like many others in her childhood years, with hours of tramping through an insect-infested forest with the family dog while her eccentric father, Yuri Dmitriev, wandered off to hunt in vain for corpses buried among the trees.
On that day more than 20 years ago, however, Mr. Dmitriev, an amateur but very determined historian, finally found the gruesome prize he had long been searching for — burial mounds containing the remains of political prisoners executed by Stalin’s secret police.
“Everything started here,” said Mr. Dmitriev’s 35-year-old daughter, Katerina Klodt, during a recent visit to the forest at Sandarmokh in Karelia, a peninsula in northern Russia. “My dad’s work has clearly made some people very uncomfortable.”
Mr. Dmitriev is now in jail, awaiting trial on what his family, friends and supporters dismiss as blatantly fabricated charges of pedophilia, an accusation that has frequently been used to discredit and silence voices the Russian authorities do not like.
An official in Karelia, Mr. Dmitriev’s home region next to Finland, complained last year that the jailed historian’s life work — the commemoration of Stalin’s victims at Sandarmokh forest — had created an “unfounded sense of guilt” and been used by “foreign powers for propaganda against Russia.”
In pursuit of a guilt-free version of Russia’s past, men in camouflage uniforms visited the same forest last summer to do their own digging, uncovering the remains of 16 corpses that they hope will prove that the killing at Sandarmokh was, at least in part, the work of foreigners, not just the Soviet secret police.
Sponsored by the Military Historical Society, a state-funded organization notorious for its nationalist take on Russian history, the diggers were looking for evidence to support a highly contested theory put forward by two Karelia historians. They argue that the thousands of people buried at Sandarmokh are not all Stalin’s victims but also include Soviet soldiers executed by the Finnish Army during World War II.
With the approaching 75th anniversary on May 9 of the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany and its allies like Finland, the suffering inflicted on Russia by its own rulers in the Kremlin has become an unwanted distraction from memories of the country’s immense wartime sacrifice against foreign enemies.