The Times Literary Supplement (London)
The Trial of Yury Dmitriev
Sir, — Daniel Beer’s review of two books about Stalin’s terror (21 July) rightly concludes with a case that has become, to the discomfort of the authorities, a cause célèbre in Putin’s Russia.
For twenty-five years and more, Yury Dmitriev hunted for the sites of mass execution and burial in Karelia under Stalin, including the famous “lost transport” of prisoners from the Solovetsky Archipelago in the White Sea. Not only did he find such NKVD “special sites”, at Krasny Bor near Petrozavodsk, and at Sandarmokh not far from Medvezhegorsk; he also identified the majority of those who were shot, issuing two substantial Books of Remembrance listing their names and details.
Sandarmokh, with its thousands of victims, has become an international place of pilgrimage since its discovery in 1997, with many visitors until recently from Poland and Ukraine. On 5 August 2014, Yury Dmitriev used the Day of Remembrance to condemn the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. (Ten years earlier he protested, unsuccessfully, against the erection of a bust of Andropov in Petrozavodsk.) Held in custody since his arrest in December 2016, he is now on trial and a verdict is expected on 1 September.
In his review, Daniel Beer speaks of “facile moral judgement” about the perpetrators of violence against “counter-revolutionaries” and “anti-social elements” during Stalin’s time. A son of one such executioner protested to Dmitriev when the latter published not only lists of victims, but also named those who sat in the special troikas, rubber-stamping death sentences, and the commanders of the execution squads. Dmitriev’s reply was abrupt and unequivocal: “If my father had done such things, I would go hang myself”.
On 21 July the TLS published “The Grey Zone: the moral horror of working for Stalin”, a review by Daniel Beer of two Russian books about the NKVD:
- Agents of Terror by Alexander Vatlin (subtitled “Ordinary men¹ and extraordinary violence in Stalin’s secret police”, 218 pages);
- The Diary of a Prison Guard by Ivan Chistyakov (288 pages).
Daniel Beer’s review concluded:
“In today’s Russia, excavation of the Stalinist past remains a perilous activity, as has been shown by the arrest of Yury Dmitriev, a highly respected historian. […] His arrest has elicited sweeping indignation.”
¹ An odd phrase to use in this context. Christopher R. Browning’s classic study Ordinary Men (1992) documents how some men of Reserve Police Batallion 101 from Hamburg refused to take part in the Final Solution in Poland, and the consequences for them. (JC)