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A Cossack Cross in Sandarmokh

06 сентября, 00:00

Not far from Belomorkanal, to the left of the highway from Medvezhegorsk to Povenets, there is a tract of land known as Sandarmokh, formerly a “regular execution site.” In the years of political terror, between 9 and 12 thousand people were massacred there (according to the newspaper Kareliya, a total of 236 burial sites have been discovered, each containing dozens of bodies bearing gunshot wounds). In 1997 this secret necropolis became a memorial. The inscription on the boulder in the forest reads that a total of 1,111 inmates of Solovky, a notorious Soviet special-regime prison (Russ. abbr. STON) were executed there, and the pits where the victims fell after being shot in the back of the head are marked. A wooden chapel was built here and named after St. George; the site also includes the Polyana Pamyati (Remembrance Forest Clearing) with Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic crosses. Researchers believe that a number of Ukrainians connected to the “Executed Renaissance” found their final repose here.

A documentary serial entitled My Address: Solovky (1991, directed by Leonid Anichkin, Kyiv) depicting the White Sea Canal camps, recounts the tragic fate of these prisoners. In the space of a year journalist Borys Hryvachevsky published the book Letters from Solovky. At the time the general public knew nothing about Sandarmokh. It attracted public interest during the year when the massacres were commemorated after researchers discovered the sites of mass executions. These events coincided with the publication in Kyiv of the unique three-volume collection Last Address (1997-99), which was eventually reissued as a two-volume collection. Among the members of the editorial board of the first edition were Ivan Drach, Volodymyr Prystaiko, Aleksandr Pshennikov, Yury Shapoval, and this author. The work was compiled by Petro Kulakovsky, Georgi Smirnov, and the historian Yury Shapoval.

Last Address was prepared by SBU officers working in collaboration with research fellows from the Institute of Ukrainian Archeography and Source Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Some information concerning Sandarmokh was provided by Veniamin Iofe, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the “Memorial” Association. Materials from the SBU archives concerning members of the Vesna “counterrevolutionary army officers’ organization” (many of whom were inmates of Solovky) were also made public in the early 2000s. In the years of Ukraine’s independence the historians Serhiy Bilokin, Mykola Rozhenko, Yaroslav Tynchenko, the journalist Vasyl Ovsiyenko, and several other researchers have repeatedly broached the subject of the “southern Golgotha.”

This article is based on publications and data collected by this author during his trips to Archangel, Solovky, and Sandarmokh (1997-99; 2005). It contains information dedicated to the memory of our fellow countrymen who were executed in Karelia during the years of the Great Terror. Data relating to the fate of certain people who were purged in the early 1930s in conjunction with the Vesna case and then shot in Karelia has been updated. Researchers estimate that every second victim murdered in Sandarmokh came from Russia (45%), every fourth was a Finn or Karelian, and every tenth prisoner was Ukrainian. Poles, Germans, and Jews formed 4%, 3.5%, and 3.1% of all victims. Yuriy Dmitriyev, who studied archival materials, says he would add some Poles, Germans, Jews, and Russians to the Ukrainian death toll: “There were scores of others for whom Ukraine was not a vicious stepmother but a truly devoted and loving mother.”

An oak cross decorated with an embroidered towel was erected in Sandarmokh on October 27, 1997. It was carved practically overnight by Mykola Malyshko, an artist from Kyiv, as the first modest gesture of homage to the innocent Ukrainian victims of Soviet atrocities. Yevhen Sverstiuk, a former Soviet prisoner of conscience, brought the cross from Kyiv and erected it in the Remembrance Forest Clearing. On that frosty morning he visited the memorial site together with Larysa Krushelnytska, a resident of Lviv who is the granddaughter of Anton Krushelnytsky, who was shot there together with his sons Bohdan and Ostap. Among those who paid homage were the poet Ivan Drach, the bandurist Mykola Lytvyn, Rev. Pavlo Bokhniak, the journalist Borys Hryvachevsky, and his colleagues representing television companies and newspapers.

In the course of the international action called “Repentance,” staged on August 22, 1998, near the entrance to the cemetery in Sandarmokh, a granite bas-relief was unveiled, its Russian-language inscription reading, “People, Do Not Kill Each Other” (designed by sculptor Grigoriy Saltup from Petrozavodsk). Throughout subsequent years the tract in Karelia and the Solovky Archipelago has been visited by residents of Ukraine. This author traveled to Medvezhegorsk raion in July 1998, together with Kyivans Ihor Hilbo and Tetiana Ivanko. I made another trip, this time alone, when I was working in the archives of Russia’s Federal Security Service in the Republic of Karelia. The Day of Remembrance was marked on August 3, 1999. This date is observed every year by our fellow countrymen and believers led by Vasyl Ovsiyenko, the indefatigable organizer and coordinator of pilgrimages to the site. In 2002, Sandarmokh and Solovky were visited by 46 Ukrainians (37 arrived by bus from Rivne, with tents and food supplies). Large delegations visited it in 2003 and 2005, traveling on buses provided by sponsors. In various years the graves at the memorial site have been visited by victims’ relatives, among them Veniamin Trokhymenko, Valentyna Bovsunivska, Stanislav Volkov, Rada Poloz and Eleonora Vangenheim (both from Moscow); political prisoners of the 1970s-1980s Nadia Svitlychna, Mykhailo Horyn, Mykola Matusevych, and Zorian Popadiuk; historians Mykola Rozhenko and Yaroslav Tkachenko; writer Leonid Cherevatenko; artist Mykola Stratilat; bandurist Taras Kompanichenko; architect Ivan Kushnir, Bishop Volodymyr Cherpak, to mention just a few. The former execution site has been featured in television, radio, and photo coverages by Vakhtang Kipiani, Vitaliy Kovach, Bogdan Kutepov, Rostyslav Martyniuk, Viktor Miniaylo, Oleksandr Riabokrys, Lesia Sakada, this author, Serhiy Shevchenko, and Volodymyr Shcherbyna.


Jewish and Muslim memorial signs were recently installed in the pine forest. October 9, 2004, witnessed an event long awaited by Ukrainians in this country and beyond its borders. On the sunny day of August 5, 2005, a Cossack cross commemorating Ukrainian political prisoners was erected, consecrated, and ceremonially unveiled.

The public had been trying to make this project a reality ever since July 2, 1997, when a joint Karelia-St. Petersburg expedition uncovered the NKVD execution sites (the journalists went on an excursion to familiarize themselves with the sites located in the local quarry on July 1). To be precise, Medvezhegorsk was visited by representatives of “Memorial” from St. Petersburg: Veniamin Iofe, Irina Reznikova, and Petrozavodsk researcher Yuriy Dmitriyev, together with his 12-year-old daughter Katerina and a search dog, a German shepherd by the name of Vedi (the dog’s prowess is not exaggerated, according to its owner). Soldiers helped with the digging. Dmitriyev set off to examine the nearby pine forest with Senior Lieutenant Andrei Zhdanov, commanding officer of the detail (“Such expeditions must include two men; it’s the law”). There he spotted telltale rectangular depressions.

However, in 1997 the Karelian press voiced an alternative opinion concerning the newly discovered burial sites and the idea for a memorial. Nikolai Shalloyev and Vladimir Popov told a reporter that in Medvezhegorsk district there were “a number of common graves of victims of the 1930s and 1940s purges, which were well known to the populace; such graves can be found near Zakhariyevskoe Cemetery on top of Mount Dymovaia, next to Perguba, as well as in Vichka, a former pig farm across the canal. The inauguration of the memorial was another opportunity to put a tick in the box on an official list, as practiced in the good old nomenklatura times. The event was made possible by the good will that was demonstrated by the Finns and Poles, when it was no longer possible to keep the whole thing secret.”

Historians are certain that a number of inmates of Solovky, a major Soviet special-regime prison, were executed in Medvezhegorsk district on November 1-4, 1937, by the personnel of the NKVD’s Chief Security Directorate. Victims’ names were found in archival sources (e.g., Soviet secret police records, a central directive dated October 16, 1937, and a report filed by the officer in charge of the firing squad, signed by NKVD Captain Mikhail Matveyev, stating that a total of 1,111 persons were executed). Trainloads of doomed victims representing various Soviet ethnic groups were transported to the railroad station of Medvezhaya Gora, from where they were transferred to the execution site(s), among them the Ukrainian academicians Stepan Rudnytsky and Matviy Yavorsky, the theater director Les Kurbas, the playwright Mykola Kulish, the poet Mykola Zerov, and the writer Valerian Pidmohylny. Other victims included Ukrainian writers, political figures, schoolteachers and college lecturers, physicians, priests, workers, and peasants, who on the eve of the Great Terror were shipped off to the prison camp in the Soviet Union’s Far North. Most of the victims executed at Sandarmokh were men, but there were also some Ukrainian women. Yuriy Dmitriyev claims that 13 were shot in September-November 1937, including Pelaheia Aldakimova, Hanna Bondarchuk, Frosyna Vasianovych, Olha Danyliuk, Maria Liasheva, Neonila Markelova, Tamara Nesterova, and Uliana Stasiuk. Fedora Markovska, from the village of Sushkivka (currently in Uman district, Cherkasy oblast), was shot there in January 1938.


Prior to unveiling the Ukrainian cross in Sandarmokh, a monumental work created by Ukrainian artists, 10 sculptural designs were submitted for a competition. Meanwhile, bureaucrats from Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture wasted kilos of paper corresponding with various offices and agencies in Ukraine and Russia, trying to arrange for the construction of a monument in Karelia. In October 2002, the jury selected designs by Viktor Samiylenko of Kirovohrad, Mykola Lampeka and Kyi Danyleiko of Kyiv, and Yevhen Leliuchenko of Odesa. The designs submitted by monumentalist Mykola Malyshko and a young sculptor named Nazar Bilyk were selected as the best.

That same year a group of scholars and cultural figures from Kyiv sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. “The scope (of the Sandarmokh massacre — Auth.) is gradually being understood, along with details attesting to the singular cynical ruthlessness on the part of the murderers,” reads the Ukrainian delegation’s message. “Ukraine’s need to pay homage to the martyrs has become palpable. Directed precisely to this end were a resolution passed by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine (1998) and an edict signed by the President of Ukraine (#307, May 14, 2001) concerning the commemoration of Ukrainian citizens as victims of mass shootings on the territories of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, practically nothing has been done to carry out the project. We are told that the monument in Sandarmokh cannot be designed and built by the state without having a plot legally allocated by the Russian side, concerning which fruitless correspondence via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been conducted for a number of years. We hereby request that you, Mr. President, help us settle this issue, especially since the current year is being marked as the Year of Ukraine in Russia.” This letter, addressed to Russia’s head of state, remains unanswered.

Toward the end of 2003 we received a phone call from Kyiv, which was “crucial to our cause,” recalls Larysa Skrypnykova, administrative head of a Karelian nonprofit organization, the Kalyna Ukrainian Cultural Society. Viktor Yushchenko, who was then a Ukrainian MP, suggested that Ms. Skrypnykova take charge of the Ukrainian chapel project in Sandarmokh (designed by architect Ivan Kushnir). Today we know that President Yushchenko’s father was a victim of the purges and was sent to work on the infamous Belomorkanal construction site in the early 1930s.

The leadership of the Medvezhaya Gora municipal entity headed by Volodymyr Karpenko, who heads the local “self-government,” granted Kalyna’s request and allocated a plot for what would become the Chapel of Newly Ordained Saints and Prophets. Shortly afterward, the initiators of the project backed down, simply because an Orthodox chapel was found close to the Remembrance Forest Clearing. “In March 2004, I was granted an audience with Viktor Yushchenko,” recalls Ms. Skrypnykova. “During that meeting it was finally resolved that a memorial would be set up in Sandarmokh to commemorate the Ukrainians murdered there. After that we received the first tangible contribution from the political bloc Our Ukraine and personally from Mr. Yushchenko. Among the participants of the work were the Mykola Trokhymenko Scientific Society, the All-Ukraine Association of Political Prisoners and Victims of Purges, the Boichuk Institute of Decorative and Applied Art and Design, and the editors of the journal Ant, who organized the memorial competition. After examining the best proposals, the action group led by Yevhen Sverstiuk selected the design for a granite cross. Vasyl Ovsiyenko, a former Soviet prisoner of conscience, coordinated community efforts. Articles about Sandarmokh and the need for charitable contributions were carried by newspapers throughout Europe and abroad. Finally, a three-meter cross made of boulders (as per Mykola Malyshko and Nazar Bilyk’s joint design) was erected with the help of donations from local and diaspora Ukrainians, sent from the US, Canada, Karelia, and the city of Vorkuta.

Veniamin Trokhymenko, the son of a Ukrainian scholar executed in Sandarmokh, and now a retired US national residing in New York, did much to make the project a reality, financing the contest and contributing $4,000 for the construction of the monument. Bohdan Fedorak sent $6,000 on behalf of the Ukrainian World Congress; Ada Kulyk donated $1,000; Mykhailo Skrypkin sent 17,700 Russian rubles; Nadia Svitlychna collected over $2,000 in the US. The OUN and Samopomich were also helpful. Karelski Granit, a business in Kondopoga, Karelia, contributed to the project by offering cut rates. All told, some 200 individuals and organizations spared no effort to help this good cause.


The sculptors needed light gray granite, the kind available in the Mansurovsky Quarry in the Ural Mountains. The co-designers traveled to Karelia to work on the granite slab — actually, two slabs, as it turned out. Mykola Malyshko later said that they wanted the kind of granite that would look bright and solid, in contrast to the dark woods, so it would be “associated with eternity.” The designers made the arms of the cross wide and uneven, and roughly cut and sawed, to be a reminder of the repressive Soviet regime and its devastating effect on human lives. The saw cuts in the granite are a reminder of barbed wire and bullet wounds and of the way the victims were trussed up before execution.

On the day of the unveiling of the Cossack cross (August 5), Sandarmokh was visited by pilgrims from Ukraine, led by Vasyl Ovsiyenko. The Kyiv municipal administration had provided a comfortable bus seating 50. On the way to Karelia the delegation visited the Consulate General of Ukraine in St. Petersburg, where the guests were welcomed by Consul General Mykola Rudko. Unfortunately, a tragic event occurred the next morning. According to Rev. Volodymyr, during the night bus ride to Petrozavodsk, Leonid Mylevsky, a noted art photographer and businessman from Kyiv, suffered a fatal heart attack. God rest his soul.

On August 4 they met with Kalyna activists at the Republican Center of Ethnic Cultures in Petrozavodsk, as well as with representatives of the local Karelian administration and ethnic communities of Moscow and Tula. The next day a meeting was held to launch the book To the Slaughtered Sons of Ukraine. Sandarmokh (comp. Larysa Skrypnykova). Afterwards, those attending the meeting left for Medvezhaya Gora raion.

Diplomats from Poland and Finland, together with the pilgrims and organizers, took part in a religious procession and mourning rallies. The ceremony of unveiling the Cossack cross was conducted by Ms. Skrypnykova. Among the speakers were Mykola Rudko, Vasyl Ovsiyenko, Tetiana Krushelnytska, and Mykola Malyshko. Researcher Yuriy Dmitriyev presented some items — a brick from the camp debris and part of a window grate — that he had unearthed on the site of the former prison camp at Polga, near Belomorkanal (where Les Kurbas once worked). Rev. Volodymyr Shcherbak celebrated a commemorative liturgy for the dead. Taking part in all these actions were the relatives of purged victims, scholars, students, a team of journalists, including this author, the co-author of the book Ukrainian Solovky and deputy head of the SBU’s department for scientific-practical publications.

The security service of independent Ukraine, the SBU, has nothing to do with the atrocious Cheka-GPU-NKVD heritage and their role as the “avenging sword of the revolution.” However, SBU officers and personnel must make every effort to fill in all the gaps on matters pertaining to the rehabilitation and commemoration of the victims of that political terror. This opinion was voiced during an SBU board meeting by SBU head Oleksandr Turchynov. President Viktor Yushchenko approved his initiative and said that it was a sure sign that the Ukrainian security service was being rejuvenated, particularly because they were taking over the maintenance of the memorial complex at Bykivnia with its common graves of NKVD victims of the 1930s and 1940s purges.

In compliance with an edict signed by the president of Ukraine (July 11, 2005), entitled “On Additional Measures to Perpetuate the Memory of the Victims of Political Repressions and the Holodomor in Ukraine,” the SBU is setting up a task force led by Serhiy Kokin, deputy head of the state archives department (the team includes Petro Kulakovsky, Oleksandr Loshytsky, Volodymyr Prystaiko, Oleksandr Pshennikov, Heorhiy Smirnov, and Serhiy Shevchenko). Its purpose is to help nonprofit organizations, state agencies, and researchers obtain access to pertinent archival documents and to make this information public knowledge. Its other tasks include scholarly processing of such data and preparing a documented edition reflecting the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and 1940s in Kyiv and Kyiv oblast, specifically in Bykivnia.


Over the past several years the SBU has issued scholarly publications containing a number of files pertaining to the multi- volume Vesna case engineered by the OGPU in 1930-31. A special issue of the journal From the Archives of the VuChK-GPU-NKVD-KGB was devoted to several systematized studies. However, a number of questions concerning the fate of certain individuals connected to this case remain unanswered, e.g., the date and cause of death of Borys Syromiatnykov, former research fellow with the Land Institute and Solovky inmate. Information is incomplete on several other inmates (e.g., Oleksandr Vedeniayev, Yevhen Drozdovsky, Veniamin Milles, Dmytro Sakhnovsky, Oleksandr Solodianakin, and Ivan Chursin).

The archives in Karelia indicate that Borys Petrovych Syromiatnykov was transferred from the GULAG Archipelago to the mainland and he later worked on the Belomorkanal project as a forester. He was arrested on September 1, 1937, condemned by an NKVD three-man tribunal [troika] of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on September 20, “in accordance with Directive #00447,” and executed by firing squad on September 28, 1937, at the Medvezhaya Gora railway station (execution site: Sandarmokh). The public prosecutor of Karelia rehabilitated Syromiatnykov in 1989, as did his Ukrainian counterpart.

Oleksandr Borysovych Vedeniayev, a nobleman who was born in Warsaw of Ukrainian parentage and a schoolteacher by training, worked for Kharkiv’s National Economy Institute before his arrest and ten-year sentence in a prison camp; he was rehabilitated in the Ukrainian SSR in 1989. He was re-arrested on November 10, 1937. A memorandum submitted to the NKVD troika on September 20, 1937, reads: “While in the Belomorkanal penitentiary, the convict regularly conducted counterrevolutionary propaganda against the Soviet government; he often praised the tsarist army under the command of generals Krasnov, Kornilov, et al. At the same time he criticized, in a counterrevolutionary manner, measures being taken by the party and government. He slandered the Cheka-OGPU-NKVD organs. He expressed profound regret about the trial of the fascist spies Zinovyev and others. He insulted camp guards and befriended counterrevolutionary elements, among them former officers. Negatively characterized by the camp administration.” The Karelian NKVD troika sentenced him to death on September 20, according to Article 58/2/13 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). He was shot on December 2, 1937, at the Watershed (Locks VII-VIII of Belomorkanal), and rehabilitated by the Karelian prosecutor on June 6, 1989.

The fate of Yevhen Drozdovsky, a native of Pinsk gubernia who was twice officially rehabilitated, is well known. After serving a five-year term he remained at the Belomorkanal, working as a deputy transportation departmental head. He was re-arrested on December 22, 1937, by a resolution of the Karelian NKVD and sentenced to death by a troika on December 29 that same year, in accordance with Article 58/10/11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. He was executed on January 8, 1938, at the Medvezhaya Gora railway station (Sandarmokh) and rehabilitated by the Board of the Supreme Court of the Karelian ASSR on March 2, 1957. Incidentally, this author was fortunate enough to locate Drozdovsky’s daughter, Iriada Yevhenivna Moskalenko, who is retired and living in Kyiv at 25 Salyutna Street. She responded to an article published in the newspaper Fakty i kommentariyi [Facts and Comments] and requested documented evidence of the date and circumstances of her father’s death, which she duly received.

The Russian, Ivan Chursin, who was born in 1895, worked as a state farm hand. He was sentenced to death by a Karelian troika in accordance with Article 58/10 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR and shot on April 25, 1938, in Sandarmokh. He was rehabilitated by the Board of the Supreme Court of the Karelian ASSR on January 19, 1957 (rehabilitated in Kyiv in 1989). There is additional information concerning Veniamin Hryhorovych Milles, a Jew born in Odesa, who worked for Denikin’s counterintelligence service, then went over to the Reds and later worked as a professor at the Kamenev Joint Military School in Kyiv. After serving a term in Solovky, Milles got a part-time job at Belomorkanal’s finance department. He was re-arrested on February 24, 1938. A Karelian troika sentenced him to death on March 24 that same year, in accordance with Article 58/10/11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR. He was shot on April 2, 1938, in Sandarmokh. He was rehabilitated by the Military Tribunal of the Northern Military District on May 6, 1958. Karelian sources shed light on the fate of Oleksandr Solodiankin, who was born in 1893, sentenced to death by the Karelian NKVD troika on November 20, 1937, and shot on December 4 that same year (site of execution unknown); he was rehabilitated by the Supreme Court of the Karelian ASSR on January 12, 1957.

Dmytro Hryhorovych Sakhnovsky, of Chernihiv oblast, was a professor at the Kamenev Joint Military School. After his release from a prison camp in 1934, he worked as an accountant for the Belomorkanal Directorate. After his arrest by the NKVD, a memo was submitted to the troika (March 21, 1938). It reads: “Subject remained hostile to the Soviet government, joined a counterrevolutionary group including V. H. Milles, M. V. Zlatovratsky, and P. N. Matveyev. Carried out acts of financial sabotage within the Belomorkanal network, as instructed by the said organization. Brainwashed and recruited individuals to act against the Soviet government within the said counterrevolutionary group, scheduling their operations for the 1938 summer navigation period, planning to sabotage and destroy larger Stalin Belomorkanal production units. In addition, the subject regularly conducted counterrevolutionary propaganda. He has pleaded guilty.” Sakhnovsky was shot on April 19, 1938, in Sandarmokh and was rehabilitated by the Military Tribunal of the Northern Military District on May 6, 1958. This Ukrainian was rehabilitated a second time in 1989, in Kyiv. The above quotation, based on archival documents, is taken from Yuriy Dmitriyev’s book Chest rasstrelom ne otnyat (The Firing Squad Cannot Take away Your Honor).

By tracing the destinies of some political prisoners that figured in the Vesna case, it has become possible to fill in some information gaps. Yuriy Alekseyevich Dmitriyev, president of the Academy of Social and Legal Protection, offered his assistance, acting as compiler of the book Karelia’s Commemoration Lists: 1937-38. This work, which contains data on some 14,000 people who were purged during the Great Terror, was prepared under the auspices of the Karelian administration.

The inscription carved on the stone monument reads “To the Slaughtered Sons of Ukraine.” Yuriy Dmitriyev says, “The Ukrainian cross will bless Ukrainians and Karelians and Georgians and Swedes and Norwegians. The Cossack cross is strong; its force and protection is powerful. It will protect the eternal sleep of 60 nationalities and six creeds. By their earthly sufferings they have earned His heavenly memory and the same earthly protection.”

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