“We made the journey in 1997, at the end of October. The winter had set in early that year, and even St Petersburg had its first covering of snow. Outside the city, and especially as we travelled north, the snow had taken over the landscape completely, levelling the gentle contours of the forest floor and turning the black pines a brilliant white. We had left the city at midnight, and now, as the late sun rose, we were already in another world. Lake Onega lay becalmed, a dead sea of rose and grey-blue. ‘It’s like a fairy story, isn’t it?’ whispered one of my neighbours [on the train]. The remark would have been banal in any other setting. But the woman who had said it, a paediatrician in her thirties, was trying to control fresh tears. It is hard to find things to say when you are on your way to a mass grave, the burial place of murdered grandparents whom you never knew. There are no social conventions to cover unmourned loss. ‘They brought them here in their shirts, you know’ she continued. ‘It must have been so cold. They would have been frightened, wouldn’t they?’ …
“We had stayed in the only hotel for miles, a crumbling, freezing, Soviet-style block on the edge of Medvezhegorsk. When everyone had gathered, there were about eighty of us. Our destination was a pine forest near Sandormokh, a Karelian village — the name sounds alien in Russian — about three-quaters of an hour by bus from the town. On 26 October 1937, exactly sixty years before, the first group of condemned prisoners had arrived here. They had travelled south through the night from the infamous White Sea prison at Solovki. The man in charge was Mikhail Rodionovich Matveyev, a secret police officer with a norm to fulfil by the end of the week. He used lorries, not the train, and he transported his prisoners at night so that the citizens of Medvezhegorsk would not be provoked to wonder — none was likely to talk — about the unaccustomed traffic. His first batch included men and women, some of whom had left young children behind in the camp. The prisoners were chained together in pairs, and they were indeed cold, as well as frightened, for they had been forced to leave their boots and warm clothes behind in the camp. It was a security measure, they were told. There had been an incident, and a guard had been slightly injured. That night, and for several nights to come, the clearing echoed to the sounds of picks, spades and gunfire. By 4 November eleven hundred men and women had been murdered there.
“Unusually, the site would not be used for killing again. Its tell-tale pits and hummocks were deliberately camouflaged, in the 1950s, by a plantation of young pines. The locals knew what had happened, but they forgot about it, outside their dreams, as soon as they could. Before long, no one really knew which part of the forest was haunted. There were graves everywhere, people told me, the woods were full of bodies. There were Finnish soldiers and Russian partisans, Civil War graves and the lost cemeteries of older settlers, religious communities, peasant homesteaders, deserters. Although they did not like to discuss it, most people thought that the secret grave, the Stalinist one, was a mile or two in another direction. Then, in the summer of 1997, an archaeologist and two historians from St Petersburg found the real site. They took the local mayor to see it. He was horrified. As a boy, he said, he had gone mushrooming there, oblivious to the history under his feet. The grave was younger than his own father, but the truth of it came as a genuine shock. In provincial Russia in 1997, nothing else short of a miracle could have produced a tarmac access road for our buses in less than three weeks.
“The grave at Sandormorkh is not the first of its kind to be rediscovered. Since the late 1980s, amateur historians and archaeologists have located dozens like it across the former Soviet Union. Every time, there are decisions to be taken. These are not ancient sites. The bones they contain belong to the fathers and grandfathers of living people, many of whom have spent their whole lives in the hope that one day they will be able to hold the earth of their parents’ graves. Most will die without knowing precisely where their parents’ bodies are. The only way to be sure whose bones a site contains is to find police documents from the time of the killing. The records exist, but they are among the hardest to prise out of the archives of the former KGB. Those who have seen them are reluctant to talk about the details. ‘We cannot show them to the families,’ a human rights campaigner told me. ‘Because if they could read about the killing, they would also have to know what happened to the prisoners before they were shot. Let them think their parents were only killed.’ The police have lists and maps, but in spite of glasnost, it is still the archaeologists, not the government, who are exposing the truth about Stalinism. …
“In a country where lies are routine, this mania for material evidence, for exact numbers, is easy to understand. But even counting is not straightforward. The bodies, a twisted mass in death, have rotted now, and the skeletons are impossible to separate. It is inadvisable to rely on a skull-count because most of the skulls were damaged, if not shattered, by the executioners’ bullets, and the delicate bones crumble easily. Broken skulls were especially vulnerable to the dogs and rats that plundered the shallow graves. If you want to count the victims now, you need to bring along several large boxes. People use the ones that farmers keep for harvesting potatoes in the autumn. Into these you sort the bones, skulls in one, ribs in another, and limbs, if you can identify them, into two or three more. When you have finished, you count the femurs and divide by two. In most cases, the figure will run into thousands.
“The people who found the bones at Sandormokh decided, in the end, to let them lie. Exceptionally, after all, they already had a list that named each of the victims. The grave was documented in this way because Matveyev himself was eventually convicted and shot. His crime, in the surreal world of Stalin’s terror, was defined as an ‘excess of zeal’. At his trial in 1939, excerpts from the transcript of which have been published, he confessed to the killings and described the procedure he had followed in unusual detail. He had been asked to liquidate a number of prisoners from Solovki, which he had done. At the same time, and with equal efficiency, he had arranged for the murder of others from the prisons and transit camps around the city then called Leningrad. He did not question his instruction, and he showed no curiosity about the alleged guilt of the poets, writers and musicians in his charge. Among these were the most prominent political figures from Ukraine and what is now Belarus, as well as leaders of the Tartar and Gypsy peoples. Many of the rest were intellectuals, including several bishops, an envoy from Rome sent by the Pope to establish the truth about Stalin’s crimes, and the inventor, mystic and priest Pavel Florenskii, a man often described as Russia’s answer to Leonardo.” (pp 2–6)
Catherine Merridale is an extraordinary historian.