Martin Dewhirst reviews Irina Flige’s new book about Sandormokh, the notorious site of mass executions during the Stalinist terror

14 January 2020

By Martin Dewhirst

Martin Dewhirst reviews Irina Flige, Sandormokh: dramaturgiya smyslov (possible English translation: Sandarmokh: A Labyrinth of Meanings).  St. Petersburg, ‘Nestor-Istoriya’, 2019, 208 pp., 1,000 copies.

Far more books (but none too many) are still being published in Western languages about the Holocaust than about what, for brevity’s sake, can be called the Gulag. It’s not clear, even to the nearest million, how many lives were lost and how many other lives were ruined either as a result of the Great Fatherland War (1941 – 1945) or as a result of the Gulag (say, from 1918 to 1960). Although in some respects Russia is now in a ‘post-Soviet’ phase of development, President Yeltsin was, and President Putin is, a thoroughgoing homo sovieticus, with all that this ambiguous term implies. Irina Flige’s short book should be translated into English, if only because its deeper meaning is implicitly about the future of Russia as well as explicitly about its past and present.

Both the title and the subtitle of Flige’s book (only 132 pages of text) indicate how difficult it is to comprehend the significance of the failed communist experiment and its aftermath. For an unstated reason (p. 72, footnote 82), she prefers to write SandOrmokh rather than the widespread SandArmokh, and the rather pretentious subtitle suggests how difficult it still is to make sense of the (probably senseless) Great Terror which so dramatically weakened the USSR in 1937 and 1938. Flige quite rightly mentions (p. 86) that the overwhelming majority of victims of the purges (before, during and after the Great Terror) were not members of the so-called ‘elite’, but ‘ordinary’, decent members of Soviet society who were not engaged in any subversive activities whatsoever. This is, perhaps, the most important conclusion to which the author draws her readers’ attention.

At least 6,241 (p. 11), but quite possibly more than 7,000 (p. 182) people (all, or nearly all, of them men) were murdered in Sandarmokh between 1934 and 1941. Flige pays most attention in this book to the 1,111 prisoners who were secretly convoyed here in late 1937 after it was decided to close down the Special Purposes Prison on the Solovki islands to the north. (The other prisoners were either shot on the spot or moved to other facilities further south or east.) Enormous pains were taken to conceal the place where the 1,111 victims were shot, and it was not until 1997 – 60 years later! – that Yury Dmitriev and a few other researchers found irrefutable proof that these unfortunates had been secretly interred in an urochishche (very roughly, a grove) in the conveniently out-of-the-way place called Sandarmokh. Most of those murdered were Russians, but there are now individual memorials there also to the Ukrainians, Poles, Muslims, Jews, Cossacks, Estonians, Finns, Lithuanians, Karelians, Chechens, Ingush, Moldovans, Tatars, Azeris, Georgians, Maris and local people whose lives were ended there.

It is a sign of the times that Dmitriev was arrested in late 2016 and is still being held under investigation for an alleged crime. Moreover, since 2016 the powers-that-be have been far less cooperative (to put it mildly) in helping to arrange what has already become the traditional annual meeting in Sandarmokh to honour and remember those who were buried there. Even more recently, according to Boris Vishnevsky and others, President Putin dropped Irina Flige from membership of the ‘Working Group for the Coordination of the Activities for the Implementation of the Concept of the State’s Policies for the Perpetuation of the Memory of the Victims of Political Repressions’.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to that decision would be to translate the text of this book into English so that more people can grasp why the Gulag theme is still so relevant for an understanding of Russia, both in the past and in the present?

Leave a Reply