Who is Yury Dmitriev?

… and why is he facing 15 years’ imprisonment?

The trial of historian YURY DMITRIEV began on 1 June. The hearings in Petrozavodsk, suggests journalist Maria Eismont, are “the most important thing happening in Russia today”. Because the charges are sensitive, and concern a minor, neither the press or the public can attend.

Behind the scenes, perhaps, diplomats (and, hopefully, not just from Poland and Ukraine) have been talking to the Russian authorities about the case. Otherwise it is hard to know what is going on.

Despite these restrictions, on 10 January 2017 Russia-24, a nationwide TV channel, showed some of the allegedly pornographic photos Dmitriev took of his adopted daughter – much to the indignation of his lawyer, Victor Anufriev. The programme was called, “What is the Memorial Society hiding?” These are worrying signs that the investigation, which began with an anonymous tip-off (!) to the local police, has not only been biased but supported at a much higher level and  aimed at the organisation Yury Dmitriev leads in Karelia.

For there is a larger picture. Memorial was set up in the late 1980s and then one of its rival for an interpretation of the past was the odious anti-Semitic Pamyat (Memory) organisation. Today the Memorial Research Centre in Petersburg and the International Society of that name in Moscow have both been declared “Foreign Agent” NGOs (in February 2015 and October 2016, respectively). Late in 2015, meanwhile, an official Museum of the Gulag in Moscow was moved to a larger site and expanded. Since it opened in 2001 it has offered a realistic account of Lenin and Stalin’s camps but, unlike Memorial, has avoided any emphasis on the links and parallels with contemporary human-rights issues.[1]

There is now talk that on 30 October this year Vladimir Putin may unveil a monument in Russia to the victims of political repression. A curious event, if it happens.

Leaving aside his chequered record as President, Putin served proudly in the KGB, a direct descendant of Lenin’s merciless Cheka. Will he really do such a thing in the centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution, the event that led to the suffering and death of countless, often still unnamed victims? These developments and the continuing harassment of Memorial show that the present Russian authorities are impatient to achieve the “closure” they need on this subject.

A factory-worker changes occupation?

Over the last few months there have been various articles about Dmitriev in Russia. People are curious about the extraordinary man who for over twenty years has searched for the sites of mass burial in Karelia, while tracking down the secret lists that identify those then shot in their hundreds and thousands.

Alexander (Shura) Burtin’s “The case of Khottabych” (Russian Reporter, No. 8, 2017; English) portrays Yury Dmitriev as a gruff manual worker who became obsessed with establishing the names and last resting places of Stalin’s victims. He is, by implication, one of Russia’s self-educated men. He spent winters in the archive, and the summer roaming the forests in search of the Karelian killing fields, writes Burtin: often he was accompanied only by Witch, the dog he rescued from the streets and trained to seek out buried human remains.

dmitriev in camouflage

Lengthy, detailed and peppered with anecdotes and quotations, Burtin’s readable essay makes extensive use of the writings of others, especially Irina Galkova‘s extensive interview with Dmitriev in summer 2015 (“My path to Golgotha“).

Despite an abrupt way with those in authority, for instance, Dmitriev was able to ask the right questions, when seeking out the large burial sites he knew existed. Rather than come straight to the point, he would ask the local babushkas, “Is there any place round here that people don’t like to go?”

After all, these terrible events took place (to paraphrase Conrad’s Marlow) “years ago — the other day”.

“We knew almost nothing about him”

Petrozavodsk journalist Anna Yarovaya first met Dmitriev in 2012 when they made a film together. She has presented an altogether softer image of the man and, most importantly, includes long passages recorded when interviewing Dmitriev’s friends Anatoly Razumov and Valentin Kaizer, his daughter Katya Klodt, and Irina Flige, his colleague from Memorial in Petersburg.

“We knew almost nothing about him,” Yarovaya comments modestly — a reference not to the fabricated charges, of course, but to the scope of Dmitriev’s activities and the extent of his acquaintances. At a launch of the Karelia Memorial Lists Razumov noted the reaction of the relatives of the executed who “regarded Yura as an important, valuable man”.

His daughter Katya once asked Dmitriev, Why must he always be writing and re-typing something — two-fingered — on the computer? “I don’t know who I was in my past life,” he replied, “but I’ve understood the reason I’m living today, and I know I have to do this.”

An interview with Irina Flige of the Memorial Research Centre in Petersburg describes the extraordinary moment when she, Dmitriev and Venyamin Joffe found  the Sandarmokh burial site in July 1997. Her upbeat words briefly countenance the melancholy prospect that, for the first time in 20 years, Yury Alexeyevich Dmitriev may not attend the yearly gathering on 5 August 2017.

The GDR, medical studies and the Karelian Popular Front

A simple alternative to these two sources (Wikipedia [R]) adds important background detail.

Dmitriev indeed began his life in a children’s home. It is a biographical fact cited  again and again to explain his determination, during his second marriage, to take in  and care for such a child himself. (Today she is eleven years old.) Later, Dmitriev would be adopted by a Soviet army officer’s family and spent his childhood in Dresden (East Germany).

He may have worked in a factory, but he gained enough education to study at the regional branch of the Leningrad medical college. He did not graduate, however.

During the perestroika years Dmitriev was politically active, one of the many then mobilised in “informal associations”. In 1988 he was a member of the Popular Front of Karelia; from 1989 to 1991 he worked as an assistant to a deputy of the USSR Supreme Soviet.

Why these charges? Why now?

Colleagues, friends and acquaintances of Dmitriev have little doubt that the charges are without foundation and form part of a campaign to smear both Dmitriev and Memorial.

Allegations of paedophilia are increasingly used, comments Maria Eismont, to alienate the wider public from certain individuals, sending the latter to penal colonies and prisons where they will be mistreated as much by their fellow prisoners as their jailers. The charges are usually based on “controversial, contradictory, clearly flimsy evidence and flagrantly unprofessional forensic examinations” and Eismont relates a distressing tale of a recent trial in Naro-Fominsk (75 miles south-west of Moscow) where a male nurse was convicted on doubtful evidence of a single such offence and sentenced to several years’ imprisonment.

Such charges, it may be said, were occasionally brought against Soviet dissidents. A recent and blatant example, demonstrating how and why they are used, is the 2015 confiscation of the computer of Magomed Mutsolgov, head of the Mashr NGO in Ingushetia (see Under Attack, footnote 105). He was later summoned by the police and asked to explain the child pornography it allegedly contained.

As to the timing, many have remarked that after 2014 and Russia’s occupation of Crimea the international nature of the annual Day of Remembrance at Sandarmokh, where over 9,000 victims from over 58 nations and ethnicities lie buried, grew to irritate the authorities, especially during the 2014 event when Dmitriev publicly commented with disapproval about the armed conflict in Ukraine.

Two organisations, meanwhile, have given their usual reliable indication of the shift in official attitudes.

On 5 August 2010 Kirill, the present Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, himself led the mass for those buried at Sandarmokh. Since then the church has reduced its profile at the event.

Recently, it is said, Zhirinovsky’s LDPR has erected a monument at the site that singles out the Russian martyrs among the dead of other nations.

What we can do …

As always, we can and should make more noise about the case, as certain brave  people have been doing since February. Alerted by their concern, Rights in Russia then flagged up the Dmitriev investigation (20 March), and has since reported on it regularly.

The charge of child pornography was deliberately chosen to discourage all but the most determined and convinced supporters of Dmitriev, and it has had an effect. There have been letters to the Russian authorities from academics and researchers, and from cultural figures inside Russia, but the public response to petitions in defence of Dmitriev (those on Change.org, for instance) has been muted. This applies not only to the English-speaking world (1,403 signatures since 1 June 2017) but to Russia as well: one petition has attracted 11,118 signatures it was opened on  17 December 2016; another has reached a total of 27, 129 signatories over the past month.

“People! Don’t kill one another,” reads the motto carved on the largest monument at Sandarmokh, recalling the bloodthirsty wars and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and the shadow they still cast over us today. The Soviet Union lay at the heart of that descent into darkness, but the present Russian leaders, seemingly, would prefer not to remind their citizens of this painful history, in school or anywhere else.

In English, there is no Wikipedia item about Yury Dmitriev and his work as the head of Memorial in Karelia.[2] That’s sad, but hardly suprising — he is not widely known, it turns out, even in Russia. There is a Wiki entry on Sandarmokh. At first sight it appears comprehensive: yet, inexplicably, it makes no reference to Dmitriev or his work  …

Perhaps we can make good that omission, at least?

John Crowfoot
Rights in Russia

This article was first published
in Rights in Russia, No. 24 (257), 19 June 2017


[1] On 10 July 2017 Roman Romanov, director of the State Gulag Museum, recorded a message in support of Yury Dmitriev.

[2] 16 July 2017. The Wikipedia entries for Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor (Karelia) have been revised and there is now a separate entry for Yury Dmitriev.