On the edge of a clearing in the Sandarmokh forest, in the Karelia region of northwestern Russia, stands a stone slab carved with this message: “People, do not kill each other.”

It is a memorial to more than 9,000 victims of Stalin’s “Great Terror”, who were shot and buried here by the Soviet dictator’s secret police between 1937 and 1938.

This striking piece of rock also serves as an unofficial monument to the work of the Russian historian who erected it and chose those words chiseled into its surface: Yuri Dmitriev has devoted his life to uncovering the truth of what happened at Sandarmokh, and putting names to these mass executions.

The pine forest beyond is dotted with simple tombstones and homemade memorials, adorned with plastic flowers. Black and white photos of the victims are pinned to the trees. That their descendants have been able to commemorate them in this way is thanks to Dmitriev’s tireless research, together with his colleagues from the Memorial human rights group.

So far — after 30 years of sifting records extracted from Soviet archives and digging up remains in the forest — they have documented the names of 6,441 people executed here, from 58 different nationalities. And the work goes on.

“People, do not kill each other.” The Sandarmokh memorial erected by historian Yuri Dmitriev 20 years ago

Except that now the history of Sandarmokh is being challenged.

A group of Kremlin-backed Russian historians are proposing to erect a new monument alongside the memorial to Stalin’s victims — to honor the Soviet Red Army. The “Russian Military Historical Society” says Red Army soldiers were the victims of war crimes committed here by neighboring Finland, when it occupied parts of Karelia during World War II in cooperation with Nazi Germany. Many of the skeletons in the forest, the society claims, may, in fact, be Soviet troops executed by the Finnish army — and it says its archaeologists have now dug up evidence.

Critics, though, say this is another Kremlin attempt to rewrite history, aimed at burying, or at least diluting, Sandarmokh’s association with Stalin. It is part of a strategy, they argue, to rehabilitate the Soviet dictator and emphasize his role as the victorious leader of what Russians call the “Great Patriotic War” to rally patriotic feelings. And it comes amid what Dmitriev’s supporters say is a concerted effort to discredit both him and his colleague, Sergei Koltyrin, the director of the museum associated with the Sandarmokh district museum

This September, the Russian Military Historical Society held a news conference in Moscow to declare what it called the “success” of its investigations at Sandarmokh. The assembled government-backed historians announced that during excavations at the site over the summer they had recovered the remains of five Red Army soldiers — who they said had been shot at point-blank range by Finnish troops in the 1940s.

Of more than 64,000 Soviet soldiers captured, it is estimated that at least a third died in Finnish-controlled prison camps from starvation, exposure and disease.

The announcement was notable too for the fact that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has previously preferred to ignore or even obstruct investigations into the fate of Soviet-era prisoners-of-war (POWs), regarding them as a stain on the Great Patriotic War narrative.

Amongst the evidence the historians cited was the discovery of green cloth, which they said had come from Finnish army coats that some Soviet POWs had ended up wearing.

Professor Mikhail Myagkov, one of the society’s historians, highlighted the range of foreign bullet casings he said had been found. “Remington, and the caliber 45, and Finnish rifles,” he reported before adding “and Soviet bullets.” But the presentation was far from conclusive.

There is no doubt, however, that Soviet Red Army soldiers captured by the Finns were treated terribly in the early years of what was known as the “Continuation War.” Of more than 64,000 Soviet soldiers captured, it is estimated that at least a third died in Finnish-controlled prison camps from starvation, exposure, and disease. At least 1,000 were shot trying to escape.

At least 9,000 victims of Stalin’s terror are thought to have been murdered and buried in the Sandarmokh forest

But this happened on Finnish territory, where the vast majority of Soviet POWs were kept, according to Antti Kujala, Professor of Finnish and Russian history at the University of Helsinki. There is no evidence of the Finns imprisoning Red Army troops at Sandarmokh, let alone executing them there. What’s more, according to Finnish archives, most Soviet POWs were given brown overcoats that had originally been procured from Britain before the conflict.

Far more likely, says Professor Kujala, is that the Russian excavations uncovered the remains of more political prisoners murdered by Stalin’s NKVD secret police (the forerunner to the KGB). “You can never reach 100 percent certainty in such cases,” he said, “but I still believe that the Military Historical Society has found the victims of the Great Terror from the 1930s.”

“I still believe that the Russian Military Historical Society has found the victims of the Great Terror from the 1930s.”  

Professor Antti Kujala, Helsinki University

Since making that announcement, the historical society — which is under the direct control of the Russian culture ministry — has been notably quiet. Its press office says only that the results of its investigations are still being examined. A request for an interview with Professor Myagkov went unanswered, and Sergei Barinov, the man in charge of the excavations at Sandarmokh, declined to comment for this story.

Nonetheless, if the goal was to spread competing narratives and to deflect attention from Stalin, then the Russian Military History Society has already proved itself.

Originally founded by Tsar Nicholas II as the “Imperial Russian Military Historical Society,” it ceased functioning with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Putin issued a decree in 2012 reviving it with a stated mission to “promote the study of Russian military history and counteract attempts to distort it,” as well as to “raise the prestige of military service, and education of patriotism.”

If the goal was to spread competing narratives, then the Russian Military History Society has already proved itself.

Even if the details are wrong, highlighting the fact that Finland has dark chapters in its past helps encourage “whataboutism,” experts on Russian opinion-influencing operations say, and makes it easier to neutralize discussion of Stalin’s crimes.

The Russian government has tried to protect Stalin’s image in other ways. Last month, it sought to ban an annual ceremony organized by the Memorial human rights group to commemorate his victims outside Lubyanka in Moscow, the longtime headquarters of Russia and the Soviet Union’s security services. It’s a sign of the depth of feeling around the issue that the authorities were forced to back down — with hundreds of people gathering in the square outside Lubyanka to pay tribute to the millions who died in the dictator’s purges.

Putin has made his own views clear, attacking what he called the “excessive demonization” of Stalin in an interview last year as “one means of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia.”

Historian Yury Dmitriev (Photo: Sergey Yudin for Respublika)

This political connection between Stalin’s historical reputation and attacks on Russia may impact most the scholars and activists who challenge the Kremlin’s preferred revisionism. There has been no let up on Memorial activists such as Yuri Dmitriev, the historian, and Sergei Koltyrin, the district museum director. The 62-year-old Dmitriev is now on trial for sexually abusing his adopted daughter, after being acquitted earlier this year on child pornography charges that also involved her. Koltyrin — who has openly dismissed the government historical body’s claims to have found the remains of Soviet POWs at the site — was detained last month.

However, many who have relatives buried at Sandarmokh are troubled by the Russian government’s attempts to distort and bury history.

”I’m against the new diggings at the mass burial site,” said Alexei, who discovered several years ago that his grandfather is buried there, thanks to Memorial’s research. “The Military Society ignores crucial historical events in order to create a new version of the truth,” he said.

Alexei lives near Sandarmokh and witnessed the Military Historical Society’s digging this summer. But he asked for his family name to be withheld for fear of being persecuted for speaking out.

He remembered how Barinov, the man in charge, had highlighted the fact that some of the skeletons they found had their hands tied together, suggesting that was a sign of “how the Finns killed the POWs,” shooting them from behind.

But that was a well-known signature of the NKVD’s execution methods. The archives show that at Sandarmokh they forced their victims face-down into pits — which they often had to dig themselves — before shooting them in the back of the neck. Professor Kujala agrees. “In my opinion, the fact that these five killed people had their hands tied behind their backs point to the NKVD.”

The right to remember

Alexei is receptive to the government on one point though — on how much responsibility should be laid at Stalin’s door. “The repressions? They were not Stalin’s fault,” the 37-year-old said when asked who he believed had orchestrated the massacres at Sandarmokh and elsewhere.

And time may be with the government, as memories recede each year. A recent survey by a state-run pollster found that half of Russian young people aged 18-24 lack any knowledge of the killings during Stalin’s purges — though they did say they would like to know more.

Another version of this article was published in the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet