By Masha Gessen, from Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia, which will be published next month by Columbia Global Reports. Gessen’s book The Future Is History won the 2017 National Book Award for non-fiction.
The death certificates could contain perhaps two truths and a lie, sometimes one truth and two lies. “Place of death” was always a lie. “Cause of death” was usually a lie — “heart failure,” “pneumonia,” nothing at all — but sometimes the truth: “execution.” The line that was most likely to be true was the one that indicated the date of death. There was no telling, though; often the paperwork claimed that a gulag victim had lived long past the actual execution date. That was when there was any paperwork at all.
The early Memorial Societies looked for the bodies, the execution sites, the documents identifying the bodies — the truth. By restoring humanity posthumously, they hoped to restore humanity to the country itself. It seemed self-evident that once the facts were established, some sort of reckoning would have to follow. These memory activists knew even less about the world than they did about Russia’s own history, but they had heard of denazification, a policy and campaign that seemed to have cleansed Germany of the legacy of totalitarianism. And perhaps because Germany had been both Russia’s enemy and its counterpart, they did not give much thought to the circumstances of denazification — not to the fact that the process had taken decades or to the fact that the Germans had not chosen the policy for themselves but had it forced on them by the Allies. They just assumed that something like decommunization would happen and that accurate historical information — accurate factual memory — was a necessary condition. Some even thought it would be a sufficient condition.
In the second half of the 1980s, under perestroika and the accompanying policy of glasnost, Memorial Societies began their search. They started at Solovki, an archipelago in the White Sea where the first Soviet camp for political prisoners was set up in 1923. Many of Russia’s most prominent intellectuals had been interned there.
In 1989, the Leningrad Memorial Society organized what they called Days of Memory at Solovki. Two of the organizers — Veniamin Iofe, a fifty-one-year-old dissident and former political prisoner, and Irina Flige, his twenty-nine-year-old assistant — boarded a train filled with late-middle-aged people (mostly women) whose parents (mostly fathers) had been inmates. Between themselves, Iofe and Flige called their fellow travelers the daughters. Most of the daughters were carrying their parents’ freshly issued death certificates. Iofe asked to see them. A stout, square-shouldered man with tightly curled gray hair and tiny spectacles, he sat at one of the compartment’s gray Formica tables, a glass of black tea in one hand and a stack of death certificates in the other.
“Look,” he said. “This was a mass execution.” How did he know? Of the twenty death certificates in front of him, fifteen contained one of four dates of death, all in the same week in the fall of 1937.
Iofe and Flige knew that the camp at Solovki had been shut down in 1937, during the Great Terror, when the Bolsheviks were executing more than a thousand people every day. The inmates had been taken off the islands, and though survivors’ memoirs mentioned a mass execution, Flige and Iofe were skeptical: memories carried in silence changed shape over the decades. “Memoirs are not documents” — this was one of their rules. Now they were looking at documents that might be telling them that some or all of the inmates had been executed on the mainland, close to Solovki. But where?
Nikolai Kovach started looking for his parents in 1953, the year Stalin died and he turned seventeen. Kovach grew up in an orphanage outside Leningrad. When it was time for him to get his identity papers, the orphanage director instructed him to pick a patronymic — a derivative of one’s father’s name that is part of one’s official identity. He told the director to just put down Ivanovich — the Russian equivalent of Doe — but once he enrolled in trade school in Leningrad, he began filing information requests with the city’s office of internal affairs. “No information available” was the response he got.
Thirty-eight years later, Kovach saw an ad in a local newspaper: looking for nikolai kovach, born 1936. He called the number listed. It turned out to belong to a clerk at a local civil registry. She asked him to come to her office.
“I hope you don’t faint,” she said when he arrived. “Here is your sister’s address. Go.”
Kovach bought a bunch of flowers and went. The fifty-seven-year-old woman, Elena, was two years older than he was and looked a lot like him. She had been three when they were separated, and she’d always remembered that she had a little brother.
Over the next few years, they managed to find out who their parents had been and what had happened to them. Their mother was a Russian-born Chinese citizen — an exile. Their father had been a high-level Bolshevik. The two met when he was in China on official business. He asked the Soviet government for permission to marry and was denied, so he disobeyed the orders. He was called back to Moscow; he and his new wife were arrested less than four months after their arrival. Both were convicted of espionage and sentenced to ten years in labor camps.
At Solovki, they were allowed to live together, and the children were born there. The family was removed from the camp in 1937. The mother was executed immediately; the father was sent to a camp in the Far East and executed there. Nikolai and Elena were sent to different orphanages, stripped of their patronymic and their dates of birth but allowed, for some reason or no reason, to keep their last name, which enabled them to find each other fiftyfour years later.
Flige and Iofe were never given unfettered access to the archives at any prison, camp, or court. Yet through a fortuitous series of accidents, they were able to piece together the story of what happened at Solovki.
They learned that Captain Matveev, a member of the secret police, had been instructed to remove 1,116 inmates from the camp and carry out their death sentences. The process involved three interconnected rooms in the barracks. In Room 1, an inmate’s identity was checked against a list, and then the inmate was stripped to his or her underwear and searched. In Room 2, the inmate’s hands and feet were bound with rope. In Room 3, the inmate was rendered unconscious by a blow with a bat to the back of the head.
Unconscious inmates, up to forty of them, could be stacked in the bed of a truck. The stack was covered with a tarpaulin, and Matveev’s assistants sat on top, bats at the ready in case anyone regained consciousness.
Matveev’s reports indicated that the execution site was nineteen kilometers from the barracks. Iofe and Flige narrowed the search down to a single road, and in July 1997 they took an overnight train there. They were joined by Yuri Dmitriev, the head of the Memorial Society in the nearest large city, and a military unit sent to help them with digging.
A short distance into the forest, they came upon ground that did not look normal. It dipped and rose, like the bottom of the sea. But it was the shape of the depressions that was particularly striking: they were large rectangles.
The soldiers had dug down about six feet — their heads were just below ground level — when they jumped out as though they had been bitten. They had hit bone.
Flige hopped into the pit. She was trained in archaeological digging: she had the brushes and the skills to clear away the soil and get a clear view of the stacks of bodies. The bodies lay atop one another, their heads all facing in the same direction. The skulls had bullet holes in them. The way Matveev did it was this: The inmates were tossed into a pit; Matveev stood in the pit and shot each person in the head with a handgun. When he was done, he climbed out, using the bodies like a set of stairs. The system was efficient: Matveev’s work was done in a few days.
Now what? Iofe and Flige had been in the memory business for years, but they had never actually found an execution site before. Dmitriev wanted to open up every one of the pits, exhume the remains, document the means of execution, catalogue every body. Flige was opposed. For better or for worse, these people were buried here now. They should be allowed their resting place, such as it was. What was the point of cataloguing every hip bone or even every skull? When Dmitriev was out of earshot, she called his preoccupation necrophilia.
They settled on not disturbing the bodies. Still, they had to find all the pits and mark them. There were depressions in the ground as far as they could see. Flige and Iofe went into town and bought wooden fencing planks and red nail polish — the closest thing to a permanent marker they could find. Flige painted numbers on the planks, and the three of them wandered, sticking a plank into the ground where they found a rectangular depression. Whenever they ran out of depressions, their count would be complete. They stopped at 236.
The regional government scheduled a memorial ceremony at Sandarmokh for October 27, 1997 — the sixtieth anniversary of the first of Matveev’s days of execution. A memorial needed to be constructed — it was going to be a big event. What should it be like? This was Year Eighty since the Bolshevik Revolution, Year Sixty since the Great Terror, Year Forty-one since Khrushchev’s takedown of the cult of personality, Year Seven since the collapse of the Soviet Union — and this was to be the first memorial erected with government sanction at a known execution site.
Dmitriev commissioned a stone monument with an inscription. But there was no way to tell how many people had been killed there. Flige and Iofe had 1,111 names tied to specific execution dates. But there were clearly more bodies. With 236 pits, there had to be more than 2,000, probably a lot more, maybe more than 5,000. Flige and Iofe insisted on sticking with the known facts: between 27 october and 4 november 1937, 1,111 inmates of the solovki prison were executed here. This stone sits to the right of the road leading to the site.
But to Dmitriev, sticking to the known facts amounted to underreporting. He commissioned a larger stone directly opposite Flige and Iofe’s: here in the sandarmokh canyon, the site of mass executions between the years 1934 and 1941, more than 7,000 entirely innocent people were killed. they were residents of karelia, inmates of the white sea canal camp, inmates of the solovki prison. remember us, people! do not kill one another!
Flige disliked everything about this message. Why say “entirely innocent”? How was one to know if the people who had been stripped, knocked unconscious, stacked, and shot here were innocent? Why did it matter? And what were they supposed to be innocent of? They were accused of crimes against the Soviet state. Some of them had indeed opposed the state. Did that make them less than entirely innocent, or more deserving of the fate that they suffered?
The St. Petersburg and local activists’ approaches clashed, perhaps, because their roles did. Flige and Iofe saw their mission as one of documenting only that which could be known. Dmitriev was an activist whose commitment was to people rather than facts. These people came to him in search of memory, in search of the place where their family members had been buried.
The commemorative ceremony was held as planned on October 27. I was there, and I took notes: Before the official ceremony can begin, an old woman falls to her knees by the stone that marks entry to the burial ground and begins wailing: “I was searching for you for so long, my dear papa! My dear mama didn’t live long enough to see you!” Several other old women join in the wailing. One of the organizers tries to calm them: “Granny, you’ll be walking around and you’ll find his grave and you’ll feel better. Your heart will tell you where he lies.” Eventually, the ceremony gets started, but then the wailing resumes: “My dear papa, my only one, you left us six children. My dear papa, you came to me in my dream and you said, ‘I’m naked.’ ”
There was snow on the ground, as there would have been sixty years ago. These old people imagined their young parents in the snow in their underwear. Nikolai Kovach was there alone; Elena was not well enough to make the trip.
At the ceremony, local officials spoke and so did Dmitriev, and so did a Russian Orthodox and then a Catholic priest. The families used pencils and ballpoint pens to write names on the wooden markers. Most of them had brought plastic flowers or funeral wreaths, which they placed next to the markers they had claimed. I found a small stone in the snow and placed it on the large stone at the entrance. A couple of people gave me puzzled looks. I was probably the only person there who knew that Jews place stones, not flowers, in memory of their dead.
One could imagine that Sandarmokh was a breakthrough — that now the remains of millions of people hidden in plain sight all over the former empire would be given their markers, monuments, museums.
This did not happen. Twenty years later, the memorial at Sandarmokh is unique. The work of remembering the Soviet dead ended almost as soon as it had begun. Less than two years after the Sandarmokh memorial opening, Vladimir Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, came to power in Russia, his popularity driven in large part by a campaign of nostalgia for an imaginary Soviet past, heroic, happy, and orderly. Memorial Society branches all over the country came under pressure and the organization was declared a foreign agent.
When I visited Flige in 2016, I told her I was writing a book about forgetting, to which remembering had ceded so easily. She told me I was wrong.
“It’s not that we are witnessing the process of forgetting — it’s that we had our bearings wrong in the first place. We thought we were constructing historical memory. But historical memory can exist only when there is a clear line separating the present from the past. That’s when you can say ‘after the Holocaust,’ for example. But we don’t have that break — there is no past, only a continuous present. As long as that’s the case, we are talking about legacy rather than memory: the continuing legacy of an experience we so cavalierly relegated to the past. That was a mistake. We really wanted it to be true, we really wanted to be like Germany, so we just decided that it was true.”
She was telling me that I was wrong to talk about forgetting because forgetting presupposes remembering — and remembering had not happened. It was an extraordinary statement coming from a woman who had spent her adult life running an organization called the Memorial Society. After nearly three decades, she had come to the conclusion that the time for memory had not yet come. If anything, that made her work all the more urgent: she was preserving facts, images, and objects for a future in which the work of remembering might finally begin.