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Remembering Soviet atrocities: Solovki and Sandarmokh

New arrivals to the GULAG concentration camp on the Solovetsky Islands, also known a the Solovki. Millions of Soviet and foreign citizens were killed, starved or worked to death in camps like this.
New arrivals to the GULAG concentration camp on the Solovetsky Islands, also known a the Solovki. Millions of Soviet and foreign citizens were killed, starved or worked to death in camps like this.
Remembering Soviet atrocities: Solovki and Sandarmokh

Ukrainian historians and activists, who have been travelling every year to the Solovetsky Islands in the extreme north of Russia to honour those who died in Soviet prison camps, have published a book called Solovetska Pechal Ukrayiny (Solovetsky Sorrow and Ukraine). The past few years, no trips to Solovki were organized as Russian authorities have warned them not to visit the memorial and burial places. Russian human rights activists do not exactly confirm that it is dangerous for Ukrainian historians, but underline the fact that the perception of historical events has somewhat changed.

Solovki prisoners at work
Solovki prisoners at work
In 1923 the Bolsheviks established the Solovki Special Purpose Camp in the famous Russian Orthodox Solovetsky Monastery complex. With the onset of the Stalin Terror, the Solovetsky Islands were packed with prisoners living in severe conditions, subjected to cold, hunger, punishment cells, and beatings. In 1931–33, many prisoners were sent to work on the White Sea Canal. From August 11, 1937 to December 24, 1938, more than 9,500 victims of Soviet political repressions were executed by shooting and buried at nearby Sandarmokh. More than 1,100 of them were from the Solovki Gulag — Ed.
Solovki inmates
Solovki inmates

The book describes the history of commemorations dedicated to thousands of political prisoners executed in Sandarmokh (Karelia, northern Russia). Most of them were inmates of the nearby Solovki Gulag, such as Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas, writers Valerian Pidmohylny, Mykola Kulish, Mykola Zerov, and many others.

Kozak Cross at Sandarmokh

It was strange to read that this year in the Russian city of Surgut, which is situated very close to the planned memorial to victims of political repressions, Russian authorities have erected a bust of Joseph Stalin. Svitlana Chorna, compiler of the collection remarks:

“The seeds of Stalinism are very much alive. A bust of Stalin has been erected in Crimea; Zaporizhzhia had a Stalin monument before the Maidan. Why? Because people don’t know the truth about the tragedy of Solovki and Sandarmokh.”

Bust of Joseph Stalin in Surgut
Bust of Joseph Stalin in Surgut

Today, Ukraine has launched the process of decommunization, and commemorations such as the pilgrimage to the Solovetsky Islands help people understand why all this is happening, agrees Deputy Chairman of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, Volodymyr Telishchak:

“Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the Great Terror. We hope that our government will program special events, that the president will issue a relevant decree, and that Ukraine will pay special attention to commemorating all the victims of political repressions.”

The collection includes articles written from 2011 to 2013 by both journalists and former political prisoners who have participated in the pilgrimage. However, researchers have stopped travelling to Solovki for security reasons, says one of the authors, president of the Solovetsky Brotherhood, Heorhiy Lukyanchuk.

“In 2011 we had a problem in Karelia when the bus was stopped and thoroughly searched – with dogs and everything. They accused us of transporting drugs. They searched long and hard, but found nothing. Well, we’d been warned beforehand, so all of us had sewn up the pockets of our clothes so that nothing could be planted!”

The visits and commemorations continued, but after the arrest and imprisonment of so many Ukrainians in Russia, which human rights activists of both countries call politically motivated, historians and researchers decided that it was too dangerous to continue.

Alexander Cherkasov, member of the Russian human rights association Memorial believes that it is not just about preserving the memory of the past, but also about fighting against the past, as marked by the presence of so many new Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia [28 according to the Let My People Go! group — Ed.].

Ukrainian also took part in visits to the last Soviet camp Perm-36.

Built in 1946, and closed December 1987, the camp was preserved as a museum in 1994 by the Russian human rights organization Memorial. During recent years, the museum has seen a withdrawal of support and funding by regional government organizations, which forced it to close in April 2014. Coming during a period of renewed popularity and nostalgia in Russia for the Soviet era and patriotism due to the Crimean crisis, this is seen by many as an organized campaign against the Museum. Russian media and some nationalist organizations started describing the museum as a fifth column — Ed.
Fence and watchtower at Perm-36
Fence and watchtower at Perm-36

Alexander Cherkasov explains:

“The Perm-36 Museum was, in fact, taken over illegally by the state and transformed from a memorial to victims of repressions to a museum honouring heroic NKVD troops that guarded these so-called horrible criminals. There’s also no room for commemorating the victims of Soviet terror on Solovki, only the memory of the past monastery will be allowed. This has all occurred in the past two years when Perm-36 was accused of being a foreign agent. But, I don’t think it’s so dangerous for Ukrainian historians to visit these places in Russia, only more difficult and complicated.”


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