After Dmitriev’s release: a first interview

YURY DMITRIEV was due to be released from the Petrozavodsk Detention Centre on Sunday, 28 January. Unexpectedly, he arrived home early on Saturday. Anna Yarovaya went to visit him immediately, to learn the details of his release and his plans for the future.

Dmitriev, January 2018

Yury Dmitriev, 27 January 2018
(photo, Sergei Markelov)

Let’s begin with today, Saturday. You should not have been released today.

Why’s that?

Everyone was expecting you tomorrow.

You just don’t know the way the Penitentiary Service works. If someone is due to be released at the weekend, they let them out a little early. No one is released on a Sunday. In any case, I learned yesterday that I’d be released today. Although the information was that they’d release me between 9 and 11 am.

But you were the only one who knew?

Yes. Naturally, I sent a request to the Detention Centre director, asking to make a phone call home and warn them. For some reason, however, they couldn’t give me access to a telephone. Then today we got up at 6 and at 6.05 they began to give us our porridge when, three minutes later, “Get your things and leave”. “What things do you mean, guys?” I asked them, “I haven’t finished breakfast yet.” “You were told you’d be freed today?” “Yes, but from 9 to 11.” “No, you must go now. Quickly. Come on.” At 6.55 I was led out through all those doors.

Was it a grand exit?

Yes, the prison director himself accompanied me. Other people were there, who shouldn’t have been around today.

There’s been a heightened interest in me, recently. I was escorted from Moscow by comrades with colonel’s pips on their epaulettes. The plane could not then land in Petrozavodsk, unfortunately, because of the weather. We turned back to Pulkovo airport [outside Petersburg]. Another comrade colonel came there and stood with the escort, waiting until we could fly.

How did you get home today?

I tried asking passers-by to use their mobile phones. Being near the detention centre scared them, however, or perhaps my appearance wasn’t very reassuring. In any case, no one would trust me with their phone. I caught a taxi and went to [my daughter] Katya’s place.

Tell us, what happened during this year, what have you been doing? Katya said you suffered because you couldn’t work, and that they only showed one not very intellectual TV channel there …

Let me put it this way. I did not waste my time there. Neither did I become discouraged. If someone finds himself in a far from simple situation he cannot understand, and which he cannot change, he must adapt. That’s what I did. I didn’t really have much time to suffer. Of course, it’s impossible to watch Channel One all day long. I reached agreement with my cell-mates and we didn’t watch the most odious programmes – we simply turned off the television.

What were you doing?

Firstly, I know a great deal about this prison. I know what happened to many people who passed through this prison in 1937-1938. I know people who walked these corridors, were held in these cells, including the cell where I was. Now I understand what it was like for them, to be imprisoned, their feelings and emotions.

They were also thrown into prison, following false denunciations, false accusations. They were also slandered, torn away from their family, called enemies of the people, spies, counter-revolutionaries and so on. Now I can understand what they were thinking, as they gazed at the ceiling or the floor, or as they walked along those corridors. How they longed to see their family and loved ones … How they were insulted to be called enemies.

I won’t make any predictions but it’s quite likely that I shall write, if not a whole book, then a chapter abut those who passed through the Petrozavodsk Detention Centre.

How did you get information about what was going on, apart from the television? Did you subscribe to newspapers? Did Katya or your lawyer Victor Anufriev bring you anything?

Katya brought me some things, and so did Victor. However, he gave me only small doses of information [laughs].

But did you feel support at the courthouse? It’s the first time in the history of the Petrozavodsk City Court that there was applause and such a gathering in the corridors. The bailiffs asked us: “What on earth is going on? Who’s this new performer? Why is everyone clapping?” How did you feel about it?

It was a tremendous support. It was very touching and inspired a hope that they can’t just trample you underfoot, however much they want to. So, thanks to everyone who came. There was not one court hearing, but about thirty. I was sitting below in the courthouse, waiting to be taken upstairs, and the bailiffs were talking among themselves: again we’ll face applause and cameras. I told them: “That’s true, lads. So, brush up your uniforms and boots, so they’re neat and shiny.”

Each time we saw that there a different group of bailiffs. Were they expecting something to happen?

Well, they had their instructions. A couple of friends, perhaps, would come for some petty thief. But here there was a corridor full of people. Why were they there? And they were clapping as well. What did they want? When such a vampire in handcuffs was taken past them [laughs].

Very scary.

Very scary. Later I would tell the prison staff, when they asked why people were applauding: “Guys, the people who come here are the conscience of Russia. They’ve overcome the fear they feel and come here to support me.” Some of them began thinking about it, but many didn’t understand.

What were the most difficult moments after 1 June, when the trial began? What was the toughest period?

The toughest period was, probably, when I was dealing with my investigator. That was before the trial. The trial is the part of the procedure which must sort out what he [the investigator] has written and what others have been saying. The lion’s share of success during the trial is down to the defence attorney. He organised everything in a logical fashion; we were constantly in contact and he discouraged me from making various statements and harsh words [during the trial].

When they sent you to the Serbsky Institute no one expected that everything would end so quickly.

I think that public appeals played their role here. There was more than one appeal directly to the president – not for me to be acquitted but requesting that the case should be investigated as the law requires and not as you may wish. However, someone gave the go-ahead somewhere. That’s why it was all so rapid: a plane there, and a plane back. Today a cockerel had not even crowed before I was released in the darkness.

I understand that conditions were good at the Serbsky Institute by comparison with Petrozavodsk?

It was almost like a resort.

And you received parcels more often there?

Every single day. I had a scrap of paper on which I noted everything. In addition to food, people sent photographs, books, every single day something arrived. Cigarettes or something else. Nothing was forgotten.

What was the most unusual parcel you received?

When I was at last brought a packet of Belomor. How I missed them! I’ve been smoking Belomor for forty years and was forced to smoke some other cigarettes. After that I began to hand all my stock of cigarettes to my comrades in misfortune.

What will you do now? When you were in the Detention Centre two of your books were issued. Now what? A new book, a new subject?

Regrettably, before I was arrested I needed only a fortnight or a little longer to finish work that has taken ten years, a book about special settlers in Karelia. I had only a few chapters left to write. Now I am trying to restore all the preparations I made and finish the book. I shall bring up my children and grandchildren, write books, in other words, continue to do what I was doing before.

More books.

I know that I must finish the book because I must restore the names of approximately 125,000 special settlers whom everyone has totally forgotten and long ago. By “everyone” I mean the State.

These people were “dekulakised” somewhere [during forced collectivisation of agriculture, 1927-1933] and brought to this part of the country. Half of them, or more, starved to death here and were buried in graveyards in the forests. Their descendants remain here and make up almost a quarter of the present population of Karelia: I want to give those descendants information about their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers. Where they came from, where their roots lie, where their ancestors lived. I want to tell how they were brought here, and who dekulakised them. What happened to them here, where they were starved to death, and where they lie buried.

It’s important to me that someone looks after their graveyards. […] no matter what we may wish, I and my friends do not have the resources or the time to look after those graveyards. I would like to unite these related people, at least around the special settlements. Let them find out, let them go there, and put up something in those graveyards.

On Sunday there should be a picket in your support.

Well, if it happens, it happens. What’s the point in holding a picket? They’d do better to come here and drink tea with me.

You won’t go to the picket?

No, for the time being, I won’t be going anywhere. I don’t need it: let me get used to being at home again. If I was still held in the detention centre, there would be some point in holding a picket. But now?

Well, in any event, the case continues. No one knows how it will end.

Yes. No one knows how it will end. For the time being, I’m here.

Anna Yarovaya

7×7 – Horizontal Russia,
28 January 2018

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