he condemned were brought by car to a forest. There, deep pits were dug and the prisoners were told to lay down face down. After that they were shot”. So read the notes of the interrogation of NKVD executioner Mikhail Matveyev, who personally executed 1111 prisoners from the notorious Solovki island camp in Karelia in the Russian Far North. It took him four days to execute the whole group.
The time was November, 1937, when Russia had been plunged into the Great Purge, the climax of Stalin’s terror. Approximately 750,000 Soviet citizens were killed in 15 months.
Ordered to maintain silence and conspiracy, Matveyev developed his own system for mass killings. Prisoners were first stripped of their clothes in one room, then tied in another, and then knocked out with a wooden bludgeon, so that they would keep silent. The victims were stockpiled in groups of 40-50 in a truck, and next taken to the place of execution.
The mass graves of Matveyev’s execution were only discovered in 1997 in the woods of Sandarmokh, Karelia. And twenty years on, this horrific story from a distant past is triggering what looks like a new repression.
A shocking accusation
Talking to reporters in the office of Memorial, an independent watchdog which focuses on researching Soviet political repression and human rights, Yekaterina can’t fight her tears. “They took Natasha,” Yekaterina says. “She keeps asking: ‘Where’s papa? When will he take me home?’’’
The father, Yuri Dmitriev, 61, is head of Karelia Memorial branch and was arrested last December. He is now standing trial in a local court in the regional capital of Petrozavodsk.
Dmitriev is being accused of a shocking crime — using his adopted daughter, Natasha, to produce pornographic materials. The case against him consists of several photos of Natasha, naked. They were discovered on Dmitriev’s computer in December, and later classified as pornographic by the Center of Socio-Cultural Expertise, acting on the request of law enforcement agencies. This institution also provided legal expertise in the Pussy Riot and Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremism” trials.
Those who know Dmitriev dismiss the accusation completely. “It’s totally absurd. Makes no sense”, says Yekaterina, Dmitriev’s other daughter. Colleagues at Memorial and elsewhere say they are certain the photos have nothing to do with pornography, and that the activist has been framed because of his professional activity.
“The charge against him is void, and everyone knows it,” Sergey Krivenko, Member of Memorial board and of the president’s Human rights Council, told The Moscow Times. “It’s been brought about because of his work of commemoration victims of Stalin’s terror.”
The photos of Natasha that were discovered on Dmitriev’s computer amount to no more than nudity: a naked child, photographed from all sides. Taken over several years, the photos were stored in a special file and never distributed. But that did not stop an anonymous tip-off from setting a criminal trial in motion.
Dmitriev’s lawyer, Victor Anufriev, says that the photographs have an entirely innocent explanation. After adopting a little girl from an orphanage, Dmitriev, who was institutionalized as a child himself, was constantly worried that child protection services would take the girl from him.
When Natasha was 3 or 4 years old, nursery carers found what they thought were bruises (in fact, they were later identified as traces of mustard plaster). Since then, Dmitriev kept record of the girl’s physical appearance, the lawyer says.
Last January, Russian television turned Dmitriev’s case into a critical report about Memorial, which has long been targeted by the Russian government and pro-Kremlin vigilantes. This time, Memorial was portrayed not only as political opposition and an internal enemy, but also as a hotbed for pedophilia.
“We know that the charges against him are bullshit. We don’t know how it happened and who framed him. But we know that after this television report he became a political prisoner”, said Irina Fliege, director of Memorial’s Research and Information Center, who is also Dmitriev’s longtime collaborator.
If found guilty, Dmitriev faces up to 15 years of prison.
Bones of terror
Stalin’s regime turned on its own executioners, who often shared the same fate as their victims. In 1938, a year after Matveyev killed his prisoners, he was arrested — on charges of misuse of power and breaking the Soviet legal order. He was accused of unlawfully executing a pregnant woman and beating prisoners in what, ironically, the regime described as the “dehumanized treatment of prisoners”.
Half a century later in the late 1980s, Gorbachev’s Perestroika was underway. It was as much about the past as it was about the future. The nation wanted lift the veils from its dreadful recent history. Newspapers and magazines—sold in their millions — were full of stories about Stalin’s terror. Information spread across the country, and relatives of the NKVD’s victims started looking for their graves.
Matveyev’s interrogation was declassified in 1989. The bloody fate of the 1111 Solovki prisoners who vanished without trace in 1937 finally saw the light of day. But it was only in 1997, 60 years after the execution, that local Karelian activist