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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A night at the Sandarmokh burial site

My many-year epopee ends in Karelia
18 October, 2011 - 00:00
A COSSACK CROSS TO THE PERISHED UKRAINIANS (SANDARMOKH FOREST MASSIF IN KARELIA, WHERE 1,111 POLITICAL PRISONERS OF THE SOLOVKY CONCENTRATION CAMP WERE SHOT IN 1937, WITH 165 UKRAINIANS AMONG THEM) / Photo by the author

Having come by train from Kem to Medvezhyegorsk (which was already Karelia’s territory back then), I immediately rushed to the Sandarmokh forest massif, as I did not want to put this off by the next day, because the weather could grow worse. It is located in a forest near the 19th kilometer of the Medvezhyegorsk – Povenets Motorway.

I went on feet to the place of my destination from the station and stopped near a big stone with a deeply engraved inscription: “People, don’t kill each other!” Further there was one more inscription: “Here, in the Sandarmokh forest massif, a place of mass executions, over 7,000 innocent people, residents of Karelia, convicts and special inhabitants of Belbaltlag, inmates of the Solovky Prison, were killed in the period of 1934 through 1941. People, remember us! Don’t kill each other!” Further there were the following words written on a white stone: “In this place 1,111 convicts of the Solovky Prison were executed in the period between October 27 and November 4, 1937.”

I recalled the words of Ukrainian writer Hryhorii Epik (also a prisoner of the Solovky Camps): “I love life so much that I don’t want and I cannot believe in my death; the idea of life is so strong in me that I cannot believe in any death whatsoever.” In contrast to these words I can mention the instruction of one of the leaders of the USSR Bolsheviks, Sergey Kirov: “If to put this thing simply, you should not just punish, you should punish in a real way, so that the underworld population increased tellingly as a result of our GPU’s activity.”

Namely for the “growth of the population in the underworld” in fall 1937 a large group of political prisoners was brought to Karelia from the prison camps in Solovky (the so-called “Solovky halting place”). In Medvezhyegorsk all 1,111 people were divided into several groups, brought at night one by one on covered cars to Sandarmokh, shot and buried. According to the archival documents, every night Mikhail Matveev, a State Security captain with a two-grade education personally shot 180 to 265 convicts in the back of their heads from his revolver. When his head started to ache because of the sound of shots, Cheka Junior Lieutenant Alafer substituted him.

In the night of November 3, 1937, a large group of Ukrainians, former inmates of Solovky, who were sentenced to execution as “especially dangerous enemies of the people” were brought to Sandarmokh in covered cars. In spite of the cold, they all were only in underwear, their hands were tied with a rope, and they had gags in their mouths.

That night the butchers brought the tortured ghost-people one by one to the pits they had dug before. A State Security captain with two-grade education shot director Les Kurbas, playwright Mykola Kulish, poets Mykola Zerov and Pavlo Filipovych, writers Hryhorii Epik (the one who loved life and did not want to believe in his death), Myroslav Irchan, Valerian Pidmohylny, Valerian Polishchuk and Oleksa Slisarenko, former minister of education of the Ukrainian government Anton Krushelnytsky with his sons, academician Stepan Rudnytsky, and Matvii Yavorsky, the author of the statement of protest to the Central Attestation Commission of the GULAG NKVS, Professor of Philosophy Petro Demchuk, scholarly associates Vasyl Volkov, Mykola Trokhymenko and many-many others. Overall, there were 165 sons of Ukraine.

On that deaf night the half-wit captain Matveev, who spelled words incorrectly in written statements, destroyed the flower of Ukrainian intelligentsia, using only a few handfuls of cartridges, which, like he, had no value for the development of the world civilization.

I saw a high Cossack cross of gray marble on a hill among slender pines with an inscription: “To the perished sons of Ukraine.” I approached, crossed myself, laid down the state flag of Ukraine, tied a red rushnyk to the cross, lit a candle, poured out the last handful of earth from Ukraine and felt that namely in that place, in Sandarmokh, my many-year epopee would end.

It was already past midnight, but you could read a newspaper without a light in the forest, because it was the time of white nights in that land, which followed the dark winter nights. Suddenly I heard the thunder; the sky was covered with heavy clouds of quicksilver color. Everything around me grew silver and gray ash started falling from the sky, as if being poured by some invisible hand. It seemed that such color could bee seen only in the places where many people, tortured to death, were lying in the ground with hands tied behind their backs.

When the sudden rain was over and the clouds disappeared, on the branches of all the pines thousands of white sprouts started shining, they looked like stearin candles. The temple of nature became a temple of memory for the killed people.

I was standing in the forest, surrounded by many graves, and hundreds of human eyes were looking at me from the portraits nailed to crosses and trees. I felt X-rayed by these looks, as if from the underworld, and it seemed to me that my feet would start sinking in this ground, like in Yu-Shor cemetery, near Vorkuta.

When it began to rain again, I was standing in the chapel and reading with a candle lit the lists of people executed in Sandarmokh in a palm-thick book. Their surnames indicated that the victims belonged to various countries and nationalities. But most of them were Ukrainians.

My candles, which I had brought from Ukraine, burned down.

I left the cemetery in the morning, after bidding goodbye to those who lay buried there. I stood long at the roadside, as there was no car passing by. Finally one appeared and stopped. When the driver heard where I had spent the night, he said, “I’ve been living in Medveshyegorsk for 40 years, but I have never heard about anyone who spent a whole night at the cemetery.”

When the driver brought me to the hotel I asked him: “How much do I owe you?” And he replied, “If I had money, I would have paid you for what you are doing. I will leave at the hotel’s reception good dried fish and a jar of honey. I will bring them from home in a couple of hours. Don’t refuse. I wish you all good things.”

After having some sleep, I dressed up, brought the fish and honey to my room and went to the raion museum to see the exposition about the construction of the Stalin White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal. It was officially launched on August 5, 1933. In a 1.5-year term this Stalin-run 227-kilometer-long monster swallowed nearly 100,000 prisoners, which means 440 people’s lives per kilometer. The price is only too high.

In Kolyma, when the Kolyma Highway was being constructed the stiffened bodies of dead prisoners were put in the road bed, and dead body cubic meters were counted as frozen ground. And during the construction of White Sea Canal the prisoners’ corpses were put into the mixture of cement, sand, and crushed stone, and were counted as concrete.

It was unexpected for me to discover, but in all cities where I saw Kirov monuments, he was pointing down with the pointing finger of his right hand. He is probably counting after mass executions of the “enemies of people” the growth of population in the underworld which increased “owing to the GPU activities.”

By Mykola KHRIIENKO
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