A Visit to Yury Dmitriev

Translated by Helena Kernan

Yury Dmitriev: ‘Then there was a moaning, or a rustling of the wind: remember me, too, and me, and me…’

Writer Sergei Lebedev went to visit Dmitriev, who has recently been released from prison1, in Petrozavodsk

I was in that room in autumn. It seemed to have been empty for years; the emptiness had seeped in and taken root. The epicentre, the wellspring of this emptiness was under the table: a computer system unit had stood there before it was confiscated by investigators. Useless, disconnected cables gaped into empty space.

Now a new computer unit stood on the table. The phone was ringing non-stop: connections were being restored, the voices of friends were returning. Yury Brodsky rang, the Solovki researcher whose book about the sorrowful history of the first island of the Gulag archipelago was being investigated for extremism. One Yury spoke to the other Yury, saying that he would support him unreservedly; it was no coincidence that these two men, both victims of persecution, had struck up a friendship.

A cat called Dasha padded around the house, meowing as if she were anxious, and approaching the door. She seemed to be able to sense the prison smell, the prison-ness that people couldn’t sense, because Yury Dmitriev was cheerful and talkative, as if he hadn’t just been incarcerated for a year. But behind this front lay a silent tragedy of separation: his daughter Natasha was far away, and they weren’t allowed to see each other, let alone speak. She had been there, in the summer sun of 2016, when Dmitriev had taken a camera on his expedition to Solovki and filmed Poleaxe Hill1, the mere mention of which, with its menacing capital P that resembled the executioner’s axe, was enough to strike fear into the heart. There had been ground searches, overgrown forest paths, test digs – and Dmitriev’s daughter, smiling and happy.

Afterwards, beyond these pictures: a lost year, a gap. A year in which Dmitriev was not the one behind the camera, but the one being filmed as he was led away in handcuffs through the corridors of the court.

Dmitriev put all the new discs in the drive, and we plunged into the past, as if into an archaeological trench. These thousands of mundane but detailed photos showed a sprawling site and multiple search teams. Forest-forest-forest-grave, soil, rocks-sand-skull…

It was as if he wanted to restore the flow of time, the course of fate, to take up the same thread as before. And he was smoking, smoking Belomor cigarettes2. I looked at the forest on screen; bushes flickered past, a spade jabbed into the earth, and an invisible Dmitriev said to his assistant: ‘You won’t get scared if you see something? No? Ok, then!’

We began the interview.

How did you come to this line of work? What drew you to it? Was there a moment of epiphany about your own destiny when you realised – this is it, this is my duty, the story, the narrative of my life?

When I was a child nobody spoke about it. Finally, in 1991, I was out walking with my dad and he told me that his father had been killed in the camps. Once, when I was younger, I’d asked where grandpa was. My father said he’d died in 1942. It was cold, people were hungry, there was a war. My mother’s grandfather had also been forced to dig the White Sea Canal – he’d died in 1932. But I found out about that later.

Everything since my childhood has led me to the work I do now.

Can you speak a bit more about that feeling?

You see, I’m asking for national diasporas to have the right to erect their own monuments in Sandarmokh. I myself wonder whether I’m searching for my own roots in this way. I don’t actually know where I’m from. I don’t even know my real parents; until the age of one and a half, I brought myself up. My adoptive father was Siberian, he fought on the frontline. After the war he moved to Petrozavodsk. My mum and her sisters came from Vologda and also ended up here. They couldn’t have kids after the war, so they adopted me. In 1957. I pray for them every day.

This is why I’m respectful towards all cultures. On some subconscious level I’m probably searching for my people. I understand that, at some point, some ape must have grabbed a stick in its hand, but that’s too far back to think about. I want to know the culture of my ancestors. It’s probably not a coincidence that so many nationalities take me for their own. When I show up and say ‘let’s set up a memorial’ to Ukrainians, Poles, Belarusians, Chechens and Tatars, people listen. Some of them respond straight away, others a bit later. But they all respond.

Do you remember searching for yourself among different cultures from an early age?

No. That came later. Later. I realised that I wasn’t my parents’ biological son around the age of fourteen. But all my childhood activities prepared me, equipped me for this kind of work. I hadn’t even started school and I’d practised shooting at everything a boy can shoot at, then I learnt to ride a motorbike, did sports, travelled. I served in the army in some demanding regiments, which came in handy later. At school I liked history, geography and literature – I always got top marks for my essays. My brain has always worked in a literary way. I inherited my sense of determination from my father, as well as the saying: ‘better the bitter truth than a sweet lie’. All this led me to my current path, and I understand that I can’t turn back. I’m moving forward, little by little.

There are only two things left: I used to go kayaking and fencing, too, but they haven’t come in useful yet (laughs).

When and how did you come face to face with political repression?

In 1988 and 1989, when they found mass graves in Besovets. During excavation work they chanced upon skeletal remains bearing signs of a violent death. At that time I was an assistant to the People’s Deputy of the USSR Mikhail Zenko. And it was in our district. We went there, there were loads of people, the public prosecutor’s office, the police… And everyone was asking each other, what are we going to do with this? They were already suggesting that we just put the bones back and fill in the graves.

I felt strongly that they should be buried with dignity. Who was going to do that? Everyone looked at each other again. It’s not our job, not ours, not ours… Fine, I said. So I worked with the prosecutor, the KGB and the coroners to bury them. I picked up a lot of skills. But I’ll say it again: I was only interested in burying them. Two years later, before the August coup, the prosecutor’s office gave official permission. We figured out where to bury them, in the old city cemetery, because that’s where their relatives and loved ones were. The coffins were transported in open vehicles and people walked behind them. The procession stretched out for a kilometre.

Then they found some more remains somewhere, all by chance. I travelled there, collected them, buried them. At that time a lot of people had started searching for their relatives, but everyone who came had their own questions, their own problems.

I had a new boss, Ivan Chukhin, who was a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, and later in the Duma. It was his idea to make the Book of Memory.

At first I simply leafed through the cases. They were bringing in about a hundred dossiers per day, we had to work through a hundred records a day. I already knew where the necessary information might be found. It was impossible even to access it. Then I said to myself, slow down. It’ll take longer than a month or two, or even a year, but you’ll find it all out for yourself. I started reading military tribunal proceedings to find out when people were rehabilitated. I learnt how the executions by firing squad were carried out.

And an idea for the book came to me. Because everyone in those villages knew: ‘Oh yes, they took Petr away yesterday, he’s an enemy of the people!’ Petr was rehabilitated thirty years later, but only his relatives knew about it. So the book isn’t organised alphabetically, but by place of residence at the time of arrest. Where they were taken from. One, or two, or three from each village. So that the scale of the tragedy could be comprehended, I noted down the population of each village above its name. However many there had been at that moment.

For example, there were 140 people in one village. Of those 140, one, two, ten had been arrested. Every fourteenth or fifteenth person. It was like that everywhere. There had been 37 residents in that village and three had been arrested…

A lot of people complained that the book was organised geographically instead of alphabetically. They wanted to flick through quickly and find what they were looking for. I’d say, ‘No, friend, it can’t be done quickly. If you don’t know where they were arrested, where they had their roots – your roots – you’ll read the book three times, you’ll damn me to hell, but afterwards you’ll never forget where you’ve come from.’

When I was finishing the book, I knew that the Ministry of Internal Affairs archives contained information about ‘special settlers’, peasants who’d been forced to resettle here. And I realised that they, too, needed rescuing from oblivion.

How did you move from archival work to searches in the field?

My first experience of field work was at the very beginning, in 1988. I knew the structure of a human skeleton, I’d managed to study osteology at the medical school. I always say that I’ve been given very little, but it’s been exactly what I’ve needed in my life. Then, in Spring 1997, I met with Irina Flige and Veniamin Joffe. They suggested going out to Medvezhegorsk. One of the convoys of condemned Solovki prisoners had stopped there, and from my own work I knew that a lot of people had been shot in the Medvezhegorsk area. I’m not afraid of the forest, it’s my home.

Is it important that you were born here, that you’re from here? That you’re searching your native land and not elsewhere? That this land starts on the other side of your front door?

Not really. I think that with the knowledge I have now I could work on exhumations anywhere in the world. Based on the position of the deceased and the shape of the grave, I can build up a picture of their final hours. Maybe there are some local specifics, but they’re not hugely important.

Do you have a particular method of searching? After all, any search is a bit like feeling around in the dark. Are there any signs or distinguishing features you look for?

I wrote a whole report about this, about methods of detection and searching, something else as well that I can’t remember. I called it something clever. First off, there’s work in the archives, maybe some hints will emerge there. Secondly, when you arrive on site, you have to work with people. ‘Guys, which places do you avoid? You go and collect mushrooms, where are they?’ ‘Over there.’ ‘And where do you avoid?’ ‘Over there.’ ‘And what’s over there? Are there no mushrooms?’ ‘There are mushrooms, but for some reason we don’t go there.’ On a subconscious level, people know from their grandparents and their parents that they mustn’t go to certain places. There might be mushrooms there, but it’s not a good place. Of course, you search these places first. And then the ‘eye’, as they say, comes into play. You see what other people don’t notice. Maybe they do notice. But they can’t interpret it or consciously connect it with what lies beneath the surface.

People often ascribe supernatural abilities to those who know how to find graves. It’s still alive in folklore: good fortune, luck… Do you feel some kind of guidance in that sense?

The poet Mayakovsky, who I’m not too keen on, said, ‘Poetry is like mining radium. For every gram you work a year. For the sake of a single word you waste a thousand tons of verbal ore.’3 It’s the same thing. Sometimes you wear your feet out, quite literally.

You start from a single point, then you expand the search area. You walk and walk. Once I wore out two pairs of boots in a single day. At the site of the ill-fated Сanal Number 165, where prisoners laboured in the Winter of 1932-1933. The ground is covered in rock that’s been blasted to smithereens. Sharp fragments of rock.

A kind of abrasive.

Yes. You’re walking, you get home, and the soles of your feet feel like they’re burning. You look, and there’s a hole in your boot. And the dog is limping, leaving bloody pawprints. I destroyed two pairs of shoes in one day. Trainers and rubber boots. But it doesn’t matter, you carry on walking and searching.

When you found Sandarmokh and realised that was it, what was your first, most overwhelming feeling?

There was no joy in finding it. Wherever you looked, there were graves, graves, graves, graves, graves, graves, graves, graves, graves, graves, graves… And you start to grasp the depth of the tragedy. How many human lives were cut short here. There was no joy. Joy, or rather a sense of satisfaction, came later, when the memorial appeared and people started to visit. And you see that they need it. They need it.

How was the Sandarmokh memorial designed? Usually at a memorial site there’s only one monument. How did the idea of having a forest of monuments emerge? Was the idea that each nationality would create their own? Wouldn’t the monuments start arguing with each other?

What is there to argue about? Sandarmokh is our shared memory, our shared pain. It’s essential that each person has their own resting place. Each of us is part of some family line, some community. Each person deserves a funeral prayer according to the faith of their ancestors, that’s how we’re designed as humans. It doesn’t bother me at all that an Orthodox cross stands next to a Catholic cross, that Muslim and Jewish symbols stand side by side. There are people of 60 nationalities and 11 religious confessions buried there, I’ve verified it through documents. I want any person who visits to be able to see the memorial sign of their own people. Their community! Not the general population, they’re easy to manipulate with the carrot and stick, they’ll do whatever you want.

‘Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.’4 Ecclesiastes, Chapter 8, Verse 11. That’s my attitude towards Sandarmokh. Some people were unafraid, so others ended up dying there.

At Sandarmokh, among the bilberry bushes and pine trees, it’s not just the shadows of the victims. There are the shadows of those who were responsible for all this. What do you think about them, about those whose crimes you investigate? Should they be named?

I don’t call for any condemnation. The Lord told us to forgive. Not long ago, someone brought me a whole load of food parcels at the Serbsky Psychiatric Detention Centre where I was being held. More than I could possibly eat. There was a murderer in the cell next door. And I asked the nurse to give him some. She said, but he’s a murderer! And I said that the Lord had mercy on the murderer on the cross and said that he would see His kingdom. So… it’s painful for me. I can’t take on the role of Christ and forgive some people and not others. As for those who killed people at Sandarmokh… I wouldn’t have helped them out, maybe I’d even have smashed their faces in. There are people buried there who brought disaster upon our country. There’s one named Shklovsky [Grigory L’vovich Shklovsky – S.L.], who fed Lenin and other future members of the Communist Central Executive Committee and Politburo from his own supplies. He was shot at Sandarmokh. His relatives came and asked if I knew who he was. Should I have smashed their faces in because of who their grandpa was? There’s another girl buried there who personally massacred people in Crimea with Béla Kun and Rosalia Zemlyachka. More people than at Sandarmokh, probably. But she’s also there. And she’s also on my memorial list.

For me, the most important thing is to name names. And then history will put everything in its rightful place. Each of us is the son or daughter of our own people. That people will decide whether to be proud or ashamed of someone.

If you had the chance to work on a national scale, what’s the first thing you would do that hasn’t yet been done?

We need to find all the places where people were shot and buried. So that there’s more than just books. People should go there, see the cross, understand and feel that it happened here.

How did it happen in Karelia? There are cemeteries, and even the most zealous communists don’t deny that repressions took place. You can’t recoil or sweep it under the carpet. It’s like in investigative work, the facts have to be confirmed. Here’s the Politburo order from the start of the repressions, here, there’s the sentence from the Karelian ‘troika’5, and here are the graves. The whole chain is revealed and laid bare.

I would probably also publish all the rulings on rehabilitations alongside the Book of Memory. As a separate series.

How has the past year affected your understanding of your own work?

I was probably able to experience the lives of my literary heroes more deeply. The lives of the people whose memory I bring back to life, whose memory I look after. There are the same walls, floors, corridors, the same bars on the windows…

In a letter to Natalia Kliucharevaya you wrote that you were being held in a cell where a person whose life you had investigated had also been imprisoned.

Yes. I sensed the thoughts they had in prison more acutely, the injustice of the accusation, the yearning to see family, to go back to work. Everything was the same. Only now I was experiencing it emotionally, not only on an intellectual level. Let’s call it creative leave. A small creative expedition. I didn’t have to run around a lot, or dig, but I had to dig into myself.

Do you get afraid? These aren’t respectable graves, the people buried there didn’t live to a ripe old age and die in their sleep. It’s a pit of horror and pain. Isn’t it frightening to come into contact with that?

Not really… I can’t say that I’m an expert undertaker, but I understand – and I think they sense it – that my intrusion into their eternal rest doesn’t come from idle curiosity. I don’t even dig up all the graves, and I don’t dig them up because I’m interested to see what’s inside, how they’re lying there. I can imagine it well enough. My task is to convince the authorities that the people buried there were victims of repression. And from a purely religious point of view, to create a cemetery from these obscure graves. A place where people can come to remember.

You mentioned eternal rest. Do you think eternal rest is only possible if these inhuman graves are transformed into a cemetery?

There was one place at Sandarmokh. It would be an exaggeration to say that I’m totally fearless. I’m not a squeamish person, let’s put it like that. I walked around, there were a lot of people, they were clearing the forest, the prosecutor’s office was working there, and the FSB. I went from group to group, the site was large, around six hectares. As I passed by one inconspicuous grave, my knees gave way. I fell and realised that I couldn’t get up again, that something was weighing me down, my hair was standing on end. I crawled away slowly. The feeling left me. I went back, and it was dragging me down again. Ok, I thought, I must have tripped, I’ve pulled a muscle. But the next day I went back to the same grave and it happened again. I start thinking, what could it be? The realisation dawned on me: there’s either a great saint or a great sinner buried here. A priest had already arrived, I took him to the grave and told him to say a prayer. For what? I don’t know, I replied. The priest prayed, but the feeling didn’t let go of me. Lots of people come to Sandarmokh. I’ve taken a lot of priests there. A year later, I met a group of Georgian monks. I took them there. Say a prayer of your faith, I told them, in the language of your ancestors. They said the prayer and sang a requiem, and the feeling left me.

You can believe it if you want to, or not.

Or another time, at Barsuchia Gora. When I uncovered the first grave. In the box I take with me on duty I found a church candle. I put a cross on the grave and started praying: remember them, Lord. Then there was a moaning, or a rustling of the wind: remember me, too, and me, and me… From the whole forest, the whole forest.

© Colta, 2018


1 As of the date of translation, Dmitriev has been arrested again and remains in custody.

2 ‘Sekirnaya Gora’ in Russian.

3 This Soviet brand of cigarettes was named after the White Sea Canal, dug in Karelia by prisoners in horrific conditions between 1931 and 1933. Historian of the Gulag Anne Applebaum estimates that around 25,000 forced labourers died during its construction (source: Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. London: Penguin, 2003, p.79). These deaths have formed part of Dmitriev’s own investigative work.

4 Translation by Max Hayward and George Reavey in Mayakovsky, Vladimir. The bedbug [a play] and selected poetry. Indiana University Press, 1975.

5 King James Version

6  ‘Troikas’ were extrajudicial committees set up specifically to convict ordinary people and set them to work in mass operations planned by the NKVD. Source: https://sand.mapofmemory.org/long-3/