Deep in the piney woods, surrounded by memorials to prisoners shot and buried by Stalin's secret police, Yelena Kondrakhina pointed to one sandy spot here, and another there, and another over there.

This is where Russian soldiers had been at work this summer digging up the earth in pursuit of a theory.

Scraping away the moss and lichen, shoveling down five to six feet, the soldiers found the remains of 16 bodies, she said. "It's impossible to know who they are."

But Russian authorities hope to prove that, among Joseph Stalin's victims in Sandarmokh, Soviet soldiers taken captive and shot by the Finnish army during World War II are also buried.

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That's the theory. And it enrages those who have built and tended this memorial to the victims of Russia's Stalinist era. They see it as an attempt to burnish Stalin's image and emphasize the glory of the Soviet past at the expense of the memory of his brutal repression.

"They spit on our souls," said Vladimir Popov, 73, a local historian.

Popov hates the system: He was a dissident who spent three years in a psychiatric hospital for anti-Soviet agitation in the 1970s and then went to prison for 10 years on what he claims were trumped-up murder charges.

"They've started to rewrite history," he said.

Sandarmokh is in a stony region called Karelia, a seven-hour drive north of St. Petersburg. The Finns occupied this area from 1941 to 1944. But before that, thousands of prison laborers built the White Sea-Baltic Canal, a pet project of Stalin in the 1930s.

Thousands died of disease, starvation or a police bullet to the back of the head.

A memorial to American Enoch Mattias Nelson is decked with the flags of Finland, his home state of California and the United States. He died March 5, 1938. Photo / Washington Post, Will Englund
A memorial to American Enoch Mattias Nelson is decked with the flags of Finland, his home state of California and the United States. He died March 5, 1938. Photo / Washington Post, Will Englund

Since 1997, this has been an officially recognized gravesite memorial to more than 6,000 who died here at the hands of Stalin's secret police, the NKVD. But in the Russia of 2019, from President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin on down, officials are pressing for a reconsideration of Stalin, for a softening of his image.

Recasting Sandarmokh as a burial ground for the honored war dead as well as gulag prisoners would make ambiguous what had been a place of clarity.

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The Stalinist purges of the late 1930s were Russia's darkest era before World War II. Right on their heels came the deep suffering and ultimate triumph of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, a victory invoked as a source of pride and legitimacy by Russian leaders ever since.

Defenders of the memorial here fear that the history they commemorate, the older one, will be despoiled by monuments to the war that followed.

"They see their task as to diminish the crimes against their own people," said Emilia Slabunova, a Karelia resident who is head of the opposition Yabloko party.

"I think they're trying to belittle the mass murders of Stalin," said Antti Kujala, a Finnish historian who has studied the era and argues that there is no evidence that any Soviet POWs were buried here.

In his office at Petrozavodsk State University, about 100 miles to the south, historian Sergei Verigin disagrees. He and a colleague came up with the idea that there might be Soviet soldiers at Sandarmokh. There was a Finnish base about six miles away.

A monument at the Sandarmokh mass gravesite honors Pyotr Utitsyn, who died in 1938. Photo / Washington Post, Will Englund
A monument at the Sandarmokh mass gravesite honors Pyotr Utitsyn, who died in 1938. Photo / Washington Post, Will Englund

"According to our concept, hundreds of Soviet POWs worked there. We don't know what happened to them," he said. Up to a thousand may have died, he argues. "We believe the most convenient place to bury them was Sandarmokh."

That, Kujala said, is "very flimsy evidence." There is nothing in the Finnish archives, he said, to suggest that the Finnish occupiers were aware of the gravesite.

"To make a hypothesis into a theory," said Andrei Spiridorov, a professor of archaeology, "you need facts. Give us facts."

By the time the war broke out, Sandarmokh had become an international burial ground. Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Finnish, German, Czech prisoners were taken here, shot, and pushed into graves.

An American, Enoch Mattias Nelson, is here, too. He served in the Navy during World War I and came to the Soviet Union in 1921 to help build a Communist future. Like many such idealists, his life ended in 1938 as he fell into an anonymous grave in a sandy forest.

Today his memorial is decked with the flags of his home state, California, and the United States. No one knows where specific prisoners are buried, but memorials are scattered through the 25-acre site. The names of 6,241 prisoners who died here were recovered from the archives in the 1990s, and relatives still come to leave flowers and say a prayer.

One stone commemorates the Soloviev brothers - Pavel, Pyotr and Stepan, 47, 39 and 35 years old - who died together on Jan. 9, 1938.

"I never cast any doubt on Sandarmokh as a place of political repression and burial of the repressed," Verigin said. "I'm only arguing that there may be Soviet soldiers buried there as well."

A map locating Sandarmokh, Russia, approximately 400km northeast of St. Petersburg. Photo / Washington Post
A map locating Sandarmokh, Russia, approximately 400km northeast of St. Petersburg. Photo / Washington Post

Popov said he believes there could well be Soviet soldiers at Sandarmokh - shot not by the Finns but by the Soviets themselves when the prisoners were released in 1944.

The dig was carried out last year and again this summer under the auspices of the Russian Military Historical Society. Slabunova went to court in July to try to stop it, but the hearing was scheduled for later this month - weeks after the work was completed.

Slabunova argues that the historical society did not obtain proper permits for its work. "Sandarmokh in the '30s was a site of state arbitrariness," she said, "and it remains so now."

A spokeswoman for the historical society, Nadezhda Usmanova, denied there was anything improper about the work. She said that bullets and pieces of clothing recovered from the graves had been sent off for forensic examination, and that it will be several months before they get results back.

The searchers dug at sites where probes had suggested there were single graves, where they believed they'd be more likely to find POWs.

"Everybody deserves memory," Usmanova said. "It would be wrong to deny memory to those who are buried next to the repressed." Their numbers may be far fewer, she acknowledged. "But why should we play with this math? Why should one tragedy diminish another?"

But Soviet POWs were kept in Finnish camps all over Karelia. The focus on Sandarmokh does not seem like a coincidence to Slabunova and civil society groups such as Memorial, which was the main driver of the creation of the site back in 1997.

Authorities have come down hard on the man who led that effort, Yuri Dmitriev. He is in jail awaiting trial on pedophilia charges, which his supporters say are a total fabrication. Rights activists describe the prosecution as a scandalous abuse of power.

The European Union called the charges against Dmitriev "dubious" and urged Russia to drop the case. Tatiana Kordyukova, a senior aide to the prosecutor of the Karelia region, said, "We cannot give any comments on Yuri Dmitriev's case."

"This person devoted all his life to establishing justice, to this restoration of memory," Slabunova said.

On July 15, the acting head of Karelia's culture ministry, Sergei Solovyov, wrote to the Russian Military Historical Society endorsing the dig at Sandarmokh.

"The theory of a burial place at Sandarmokh [for Stalin's victims] is used by a number of foreign powers for propaganda against Russia," he wrote in a letter that was later posted on social media. "Speculation around the events in Sandarmokh damages the international image of Russia, supports an ungrounded sense of guilt about the allegedly repressed representatives of foreign countries . . . and becomes a consolidating factor of anti-government forces."

Archaeologist Alexander Zhulnikov disagrees. "We think this situation undermines the image of the Russian Federation even more. There is no information that suggests there was any killing at Sandarmokh by the Finns."

Kondrakhina, who was sent here by the Memorial branch in St. Petersburg, kept watch on the soldiers as they dug this summer. At one site, she said, they found broken plates, bifocals, luggage locks and a jackknife. Two skulls and more bones stuck out of the dirt edges of the trench.

It was clearly a mass grave, a civilian one, she said, and the soldiers filled it back in.

"Maybe," she said, "they didn't want to pursue that."