The past can inspire and exalt a human being, but it can also hold our entire society in its tight and icy “embraces.” It is about the legacy of the totalitarian past, which society has failed to properly assess – intellectually, morally, and ethically – and overcome. It is much more difficult to break loose from the fatal “embraces” of the long-dead leaders than it may seem at fist glance. With this in view, we and some leading Ukrainian intellectuals (Ivan Dziuba, Myroslav Popovych, Semen Hluzman, Yurii Shapoval) suggested a public debate “When Shall We Bury Him?” as long as 10 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death.
What makes us unable to heal the traumas of the past is, above all, lack of the precise knowledge of the degree of bygone catastrophes and of high-quality historical education, i.e., of what forms a full-fledged historical memory. We offer the Sandarmokh List as a symbol: if deciphered, it will communicate a qualitatively new, deeper, idea of Ukraine’s history.
The new, 2012, year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1937 mass-scale repressions. Almost everybody knows or has heard about those events known as Great Terror. But does everybody know that thousands of innocent people, including Les Kurbas, Mykola Kulish, Mykola Zerov, Valerian Pidmohylny, Matvii Yavorsky – the cream of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, – were summarily executed in November of the same years in Karelia’s tract of Sandarmokh surrounded by the boundless forests, swamps, and hills near Medvezhyegorsk, on the orders “from above” and by decision of the indefatigable local “troikas” – extrajudicial prosecution bodies? (The complete Ukrainian List of Sandarmokh will soon appear on the website Ukraina Incognita.)
What does this actually mean for our nation and its future? It is astonishing that even today alarmingly many, especially young, Ukrainians practically know nothing about the Stalinist tyranny and the Sandarmokh List. It is quite obvious that what is needed here like air is a systemic educational effort by both governmental and nongovernmental bodies – for this reason, The Day has proclaimed 2012 as Sandarmokh List Year. We decided to start this systemic and persistent work by holding a roundtable at the newspaper’s editorial office, where our respected guests sought, by a joint effort, to find answers to the above-mentioned questions, especially, “How could this become possible?” and “How can we get rid of the totalitarian legacy?”
Taking part in the meeting was Professor Yurii Shapoval, Doctor of Sciences (History), chief of the Historical Political Science Center at the Ivan Kuras Institute of Ethno-National and Political Studies; Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky, Doctor of Sciences (History), a section chief at the Institute of Ukraine’s History; Oleh Bazhan, Candidate of Sciences (History), senior research associate at the same institute; Iryna Shatokhina, film director, scriptwriter, the coauthor of a number of documentaries on totalitarian crimes, including The Solovki Labyrinth; and Mykola Khriienko, journalist, traveler, Den/The Day’s Person of the Year 2010. The roundtable’s theme was “The Sandarmokh List: the Politics of Memory and Anti-Totalitarian Program.”
Yurii SHAPOVAL: “I think this meeting is important for several reasons. First and foremost, we are going through a stage of apparent societal amnesia and loss of memory in a part of society (I am not going to reflect on who or what stands behind this amnesia) which does not want (and is unable) to know about their own historical tragedies. In particular, what happened in Sandarmokh comes into a certain ‘area of shadow.’
“Let us present the dry facts. A total of 1,111 people were executed at the tract of Sandarmokh in October and November of 1937 (five of them survived for various reasons). In what way was this done? The ‘official request’ for those shootings came from Leonid Zakovsky, the regional NKVD chief at the time, who wrote an instruction to Major Mikhail Matveev: ‘I suggest that you immediately go to Kem and, after getting in touch with the prison warden Major Apeter, get these people shot according to the list.’ The Ukrainian part of this list is 201 people.
“But Sandarmokh is not only a specific geographical point in Karelia: it is a symbol that we must conceptualize and part of the Great Terror formally unleashed by Order No. 00447. Issued by the USSR People’s Commissar for the Interior, Nikolai Yezhov, in the summer of 1937, it officially launched a campaign to eliminate ‘kulaks,’ ‘wreckers,’ ‘spies,’ ‘nationalists,’ and other ‘enemies.’ Besides, Yezhov issued a directive, ‘On Cleaning Up Prisons,’ because prisons were overcrowded and ‘something had to be done with this.’ In addition, the convicts who were once sentenced to a 10-year term were about to finish serving it. Most of them were peasants convicted during forced collectivization. And, clearly, is spite of the official demagogy about ‘reeducating’ these inmates for the purpose of making ‘worthy members of socialist society’ out of them, nobody was in fact going to do so. The government’s real aim (what was perhaps the greatest tragedy of those times) was different: to bring up a ‘human race’ that would be suitable for and totally servile to the regime. And it achieved tremendous successes in this! I will note that in present-day Ukraine, too, after the Orange Revolution and the loss of the early 1990s illusions, an attempt is being made, in my view, to ‘breed’ a type people indifferent to everything – this time without repressions.
“As wee know, the Polish are speaking of Katyn (and not only of it) as a basic factor for reinforcing national memory. They are doing very much to this end, in fact cementing the nation. Conversely, the Ukrainians are doing a strange, to say the least, attempt to combine a purely Soviet and a national (or pseudo-national) narrative.
“I twice visited Solovki – in 1977 and 2009. The last visit was part of an expedition aimed at making, together with Iryna Shatokhina, a documentary film. We then went to Sandarmokh. It is difficult to compare what I saw there with anything else. I had read about this and knew how things were going on there, I had seen the White Sea Canal with my own eyes, but it was this place of executions that made a colossal impression on me – where there were neither visible headlights nor any audible noises, where graves were made to a certain ‘scientific pattern.’ So I would like to suggest that a ‘team’ of journalists and historians be made and sent there. This would add very much to what we are discussing today.”
Iryna SHATOKHINA: “Looking back on that trip, I remember seeing crosses and signs by the road, under which representatives of dozens of peoples lay buried. A St. Petersburg-based researcher, Yury Dmitriev, told us how he had managed to find this place. ‘These pine-trees haven’t been here before,’ he said. ‘There was a total swamp there.’”
Larysa IVSHYNA: Speaking of the politics of memory, we should also take emotions into account. It is extremely important to reach out to the heart of a reader, spectator or listener. To be adequate to the future, one must first psychologically unite with the past. We can see some brilliant examples of how other nations can do this: the abovementioned Katyn, the Yad Vashem memorial complex in Israel.
I.Sh.: “What is terrible is that we have got used to these tragedies. We must tell and show more about their victims.”
Mykola KHRIIENKO: “I will share my own reminiscences about the places of this tragedy. I just stayed overnight in Sandarmokh. I had been to Solovki before and saw the place where Petro Kalnyshevsky had been incarcerated – the walled-over ‘cellar,’ where he spent 25 years. I came to Sandarmokh in late June in the heat of an inimitable white night. I will perhaps never forget an extremely acute sensation that arose because of me being absolutely alone among all those pine-trees. Incidentally, The Day recently published my account of this (‘A night at the Sandarmokh burial site.’ See The Day No. 56, October 18, 2011).”
L.I.: From what you have said, Mr. Khriienko, one can draw an unambiguous conclusion: the Ukrainian Sandarmokh began as long ago as the 18th century! I am asking the historians present here: do you think it is realistic to complement the Sandarmokh List with information about each of the executed Ukrainian?
Oleh BAZHAN: “In my opinion, it is quite realistic. Moreover, this work is now being done. I mean the experts who have been publishing for almost 20 years on end a multivolume series, Rehabilitated by History (the editorial board works at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History; Academician, Hero of Ukraine, Petro Tronko headed it until his death in September 2011). This includes dozens of volumes and hundreds of names brought back from oblivion. This work of national importance will continue.
“Now I’d like to express a few general opinions. Firstly, we must clearly understand that, from the very first days of the October coup, the Bolsheviks used terror as an all-purpose instrument for achieving political goals. Terror was in fact a means for the regime’s survival. As for the 1937 Great Terror, which the Sandarmokh executions were part of, it was, among other things, the ‘price’ the Soviet people had to pay for the expansion of their political rights. For it was announced at that very time that a general, free and secret-ballot election would be held. We know only too well how ‘free’ this expression of popular will was. Secondly, a war appeared imminent in Europe. In the Stalinist USSR, this triggered a hysterical search for ‘hostile nations’ and the wiping-out of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the so-called ‘fifth column.’
“Den/The Day has displayed a very good initiative to announce 2012 as Sandarmokh List Year. This makes it possible to focus public attention on the destinies of the millions of Ukrainians who have fallen victim to political repressions. There are very many memorable places on the territory of Ukraine. A symbolic ‘dug-up grave’ and a code of sorts for us is Bykivnia, the largest burial ground for those repressed in the Stalinist era. The other important places are Demianiv Laz in Ivano-Frankivsk, the Lontskoho St. Prison in Lviv, Sukha Balka in Luhansk, etc.”
L.I.: What is the total number?
O.B.: “The problem is we do not know the precise number. We are still to draw up a list of the memorial places where victims of political repressions lie buried. Fortunately, thanks to Yurii Shapoval and other researchers, we know a little more about Demianiv Laz and the Vinnytsia tragedy. As for other crime spots, we know extremely little about them. I got still more evidence of this when I was getting ready for this meeting. For example, there is a document dated January 1939. It is a report from Horban, NKVD chief in Zaporizhia oblast, to the NKVD top leadership, which says that about 110 corpses were found in the cesspool of the local NKVD courtyard. Horban asks the leadership what to do, for the NKVD is going to leave these premises shortly because they will be transferred to the Komunar factory. He finally suggests pouring over the remains with concrete so that, firstly, the ground does not sink and, secondly, that nobody comes across the dead bodies. Can we unveil a commemorative plaque now on the territory of this factory?
“Another example is from the SBU archives. When the construction of a department store began in Khmelnytsky in 1966, the builders accidentally found the remains of 68 people. Even a commission was formed, with the Khmelnytsky City Council deputy chairman at the head. It was proved that 12 out of the 68 were killed with firearms. The cause of the others’ death remained an open question. To blot out the memory of this tragedy (let me recall that it was 1966, when de-Stalinization was being curtailed), the Soviet authorities had to invent a story: some collaborationists were inside the NKVD pretrial cell, and the German aircraft destroyed the jail in a bombing raid.
“Naturally, the places of such mass-scale killings must be marked and duly honored. But, in practice, it is rather difficult to do so because the facts of massacre remained hidden for a long time. Incidentally, there is an interesting story about Bykivnia. Before Bykivnia became a secret burial ground for NKVD victims, ‘enemies of the people’ were buried at Lukianivsky Cemetery. When a secret graveyard was prepared outside the city, the problem was to avoid information leaks. For this reason, all the entire personnel of Lukianivsky Cemetery were arrested and executed as ‘enemies of the people.’ They are most likely to have been buried at Lukianivsky Cemetery. The only person who survived and testified in a 1956 trial was a cleaner.
“There is a state-sponsored program, Rehabilitated by History, that is supposed to spread knowledge about the Sandarmokh List. This year it is two decades since the National Academy of Sciences, the SBU, and the Ukrainian historical and education center Memorial suggested immortalizing the victims of political repressions. To support this initiative, SBU chief Yevhen Marchuk, NANU President Borys Paton, and Academician Petro Tronko wrote a relevant letter to the highest bodies of power. In April 1992 the Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution in support of the initiative, and an editorial board was formed as soon as September 1992. Seventy-four volumes have come out in the past 20 years. They comprise documents on the crimes committed in 1917 to 1991, introductory articles that describe the situation in every region, and the lists of all those who suffered from political repressions. As of today, information has been gathered about 700,000 individuals or so. This program allows us, among other things, to dispel some myths about the number of victims, for the earlier-published statistics were not always true. The information about the executed ‘Trotskyites’ or ‘spies’ was often revised. Historians find their task still more difficult, when it comes to the ethnic side of the repressions.”
L.I.: All the knowledge gained by hard work should be put across to each and every individual in society. But most Ukrainians know nothing about this, in particular, because, as we often write, our informational space is not national. How can we do this now?
Stanislav KULCHYTSKY: “I would like to emphasize an idea that has already been mentioned here. Sandarmokh is for us what Katyn is for the Poles. All the more so that it is now the 75th anniversary of what Robert Conquest called Great Terror, a name that has caught on in the world. There is such thing as the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, but it is futile to hope that it will help us popularize our research. All we can pin hopes on is Den/The Day and some TV channels.
“But I would still like to say about the root of such phenomena as Sandarmokh or Katyn. I think it is the problem of communist construction. What does it mean? In the imagination of the majority of our citizens, communism is when material benefits are distributed according to needs. But in reality communism is what the Bolshevik party created from early 1918, when it came to power, until 1991. This problem can be considered in three dimensions. The first dimension is temporal. It is the first 20 years of communist construction, which ended with the adoption of a Stalinist constitution in 1936 and the Great Terror. Later, in the postwar decades, Soviet power did not change its essence. It is society that did change its essence. Its main element was now the ‘new individual’ raised by the communist party. For this reason, 1937-style mass-scale repressions were no longer necessary.
“There is also an economic dimension, one that helped create this system. First it was elimination of the bourgeoisie and landlords. Peasants and workers were very enthusiastic about this. Then it was peasants, traders, and the so-called petty bourgeoisie who were to be eliminated.
“And, finally, the third, ethnic, dimension. There were not only Ukrainians among those killed in Sandarmokh, but they took the heaviest toll – not without a reason at that. This tendency can be traced as early as the 1920s. When famine raged in the Volga region, the leadership immediately turned to the US administration for help. The US aid began to arrive in August 1921, but it did not reach Ukraine until February 1922 because the so-called kulak banditry was rife in Ukraine in 1921, as were the anti-Soviet movements of Ukrainian peasants and Makhno. The 1921-22 famine was also caused by communist construction, while the Holodomor was a unique phenomenon – it was a Stalinist punitive action aimed at Ukraine and all its residents.
“Or take, for example, execution of the entire Politburo of the Ukrainian Communist Party during the Great Terror. A thing like this occurred nowhere else but in Ukraine – neither in Russia nor in the national republics. The same applies to extermination of the intelligentsia: it was on a far larger scale than in Russia.
“Soviet society was so closely tied with the state that this brought forth a symbiosis of state and society with complete absence of horizontal links, except for the family and the religious communities that were harassed by the authorities. All the citizens (if this term can be applied to Soviet people) were subject to the vertical chain of command established by the state and occupied a place chosen by the government. It was indeed a state of workers and peasants, but it posed a threat to, first of all, workers and peasants. The system of power created by Lenin’s genius in fact proved to be invincible until it broke up by itself, when it could no longer exist owing to the world’s transition to a postindustrial era.
“So the awe that had dominated society in the course of three or for generations brought forth the ‘new individual.’ And I am asking myself: what would we be doing now if Gorbachev’s perestroika had not cut short the crisis? We recently saw the funeral ceremony of the North Korean leader.
“The Russian and Soviet empires were fundamentally different, but there is a common denominator: they used terror as an antidote to separatism. Both empires (and the Soviet one managed to find a way to every individual) were ‘successful’ on the whole. And I am convinced that what lies behind the horrors of our 20th-century history is the communist system. It proved to be equally deleterious to the Ukrainians, Russians, and all the other ethnicities.”
Yu.Sh.: “There are about 9,000 people lying on 6 hectares of land in Sandarmokh. In other words, the 1,111 executed in 1937 are just a fraction of all those killed.”
L.I.: This is what present-day communists are proud of. For they are saying Stalin left behind a great power.
Yu.Sh.: “The Karelia victims are rallying and educating people at the same time. We have already mentioned the Israeli Yad va-Shem. I will also cite the example of the Poland’s World War II Museum – a museum of not only the history of Poland during World War II but of the war as a whole. I am thoroughly convinced that this museum will be visited by the generations to come. Incidentally, it is usually young people who visit Yad va-Shem, as they do Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other former prison camps, where one can see the technology of death. I think the problem of Ukraine is that our memorial places are neither codified nor systemized. The Ukrainians just do not know the list of these places.”