Russia arrests second historian of Stalin’s Terror

It is becoming dangerous in Russia to investigate the crimes of Stalinism, writes Halya Coynash. A second Karelian historian, Sergei KOLTYRIN has been arrested and is facing charges almost identical to those now brought against political prisoner, Yury DMITRIEV.

Sergei Koltyrin (sea background)

Sergei Koltyrin

While the possibility cannot be excluded that there are real grounds for these new charges, the chilling similarities between the two cases are of immense concern. So too is the timing, with this second arrest coming soon after Koltyrin publicly rejected attempts to rewrite history about the mass graves of victims of the Terror at Sandarmokh in Karelia.

The Investigative Committee report initially stated only that “two men are suspected of depraved actions committed to a minor” (Article 135 § 4 of Russia’s Criminal Code) and that these actions had allegedly been committed in September 2018. While on their site neither man is named, it is ominous that local media have as yet not identified the second person who, the Investigative Committee now asserts, has admitted to committing the acts.

The charges against Dmitriev have run up against insurmountable problems because of lack of evidence and the historian’s own denial of all the charges. Anybody following the cases of Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners will be well aware of how many hinged solely on ‘confessions’ obtained while the men were held incommunicado and through torture.


Koltyrin has been the Director of the Medvezhyegorsk District Museum since 1991. His museum covers Sandarmokh, the clearing in Karelia where Dmitriev and other members of the Karelia branch of Memorial uncovered the mass graves of victims of the Terror. Among those buried at Sandarmokh were 1,111 prisoners of the notorious Solovki Labour Camp, including 289 Ukrainian writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia, killed by quota from 27 October to 4 November 1937.

Koltyrin always worked very closely with Dmitriev and the Memorial researchers. The work at Sandarmokh, and its significance as a place of pilgrimage where each year International Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Great Terror were held, were initially fully supported by the Karelia authorities and even the FSB [security service].

Under President Vladimir Putin, the attitude to Joseph Stalin and to the darkest pages of Soviet history has changed dramatically. Over the last two years, no representatives of the authorities have taken part in remembrance events, and in August this year, Koltyrin himself was prevented from attending.

The “new hypothesis”

Koltyrin’s arrest comes just over a month after he made his opposition quite clear to contentious excavations by Russia’s Military History Society. This body was created by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2012, in order to “consolidate the forces of state and society in the study of Russia’s military-historical past and counter efforts to distort it”. It is headed by Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky and has initiated such controversial moves as the creation of a museum and bust of Stalin in Khoroshevo (Tver Region).

The excavations arose, purportedly, as a result of assertions made by two historians from Petrozavodsk State University – Yury Kilin and Sergei Verigin – in June 2016, six months before Dmitriev was first arrested.

They asserted that Sandarmokh could contain the graves of Soviet prisoners of war held in Finnish concentration camps and then killed during the Second World War. There was enthusiasm for such suggestions from pro-Kremlin media, with Izvestiya immediately asserting that “Memorial’s information about repression in Karelia may be revised” Despite pleas from the descendants of those buried at Sandarmokh and the lack of any real evidence to justify such excavations, the work began on 25 August 2018.

It was already difficult to separate these moves to rewrite history of Sandarmokh from the fatally flawed persecution of the man so instrumental in finding the graves and exposing the truth about both the victims and the perpetrators of those crimes.

The failed prosecution of Yury Dmitriev

Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016 and charged with ‘preparing pornography involving a minor’ (Article 242.2 of Russia’s Criminal Code) and ‘depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11’ (Article 135). Both these apparently serious charges pertained solely to a folder filed on his computer, and never ‘circulated’, which contained 114 photos of his adopted daughter Natasha. The little girl had been painfully thin and in poor health at three years old, when he and his former wife took her from the children’s home, and the authorities had themselves advised him to monitor her development. Each of the photos, taken between 2008 and 2015 recorded her weight and height.

It was almost certainly hoped that the case, which apparently involved ‘child pornography’, would turn people away from Dmitriev and also discredit Memorial. It did nothing of the kind. The defence brought in proper experts, as opposed to the mathematician, teacher and art historian who obligingly perceived ‘pornography’ in nine of over 100 photos. They dismissed the allegations outright, finding no whiff of ‘pornography’ and confirming that it was common practice to take such photos for monitoring development.

It is possible that whoever had commissioned this prosecution decided to back off briefly in the face of such damning expert assessments and with worldwide publicity for the case. On 5 April 2018, Dmitriev was acquitted of the ‘pornography’ charges, however this acquittal was overturned on 14 June, and the case sent back for ‘retrial’.

The aim was clearly to imprison Dmitriev and on 27 June 2018 he was re-arrested, with the ‘investigators’ adding the charge of ‘violent acts of a sexual nature’. These alleged some kind of behaviour towards his adopted daughter up to when he was first arrested, but that had allegedly not been noticed before. It seems likely that the new charges have arisen in cooperation with Natasha’s grandmother who had not seen the little girl after leaving her in a children’s home as a toddler. Certainly, Natasha herself was writing obviously loving letters to her father in prison and was clearly devastated by being taken from the only family she had ever known. Most importantly, in over a year and a half of trying to make an absurd prosecution convincing, the ‘investigators’ had come up with no other charges involving the little girl. Dmitriev remains in custody.


It was evident from within a month of Dmitriev’s first arrest that the case was aimed at discrediting Memorial and that this had been coordinated with the FSB. The charges had been chosen very deliberately to seem quite apolitical, while arousing aversion and anger, with many simply assuming that there must be some truth to them. That calculation has probably been made again.

The arrest of Koltyrin soon after he rejected attempts to doctor the past with respect to Sandarmokh seems suspect, and concern is only exacerbated by attempts already reported in local media to link and discredit both highly respected and committed historians.

Halya Coynash

Human Rights in Ukraine
3 October 2018