Imprisoned for memorialising Sandormokh, refusing to forget the Great Terror

Halya Coynash

Russian historian Yury DMITRIEV turned 64 on 28 January 2020. It was his third birthday detained on charges that bear no scrutiny, and his arrest coincided with the beginnings of a campaign to rewrite the history of one of the darkest pages of the Soviet Terror – the mass killing by quota of Russians, Ukrainians and other prisoners of the Solovetsky Archipelago at the Sandormokh Clearing in Karelia in 1937.

Yury Dmitriev after his acquittal in April 2018,
The stone at the entrance to the Sandormokh memorial complex

If the current regime in Russia was hoping to silence Dmitriev, it has failed. The historian and head of the Karelian branch of the Memorial Society has just published a book entitled Sandarmokh: A Place of Memory, providing information about both the victims and the perpetrators of the mass executions in the forest. In a recent letter, Dmitriev wrote that

“it is memory that makes human beings human, and not a part of the population. […] While I’m alive, I won’t allow them to rewrite our common history. […] The attempt to rewrite the history of Sandarmokh is part of the strategy of the current regime, an attempt to return our country to a camp “surrounded by enemies”. The aim is to retain their power. A frightened population will always seek protection from a strong leader”.

In a preface to the book, Dmitriev repeats this central theme about the pivotal role of memory. He points out that, while Sandarmokh is a place of memory, for him it is also a place of education where people cease to be a faceless population and are transformed into a nation, conscious of their shared fate.

There are over ten different national remembrance signs at the memorial complex, including a Ukrainian Cossack Cross, and Dmitriev feels sure that there will be more.

“I am firmly convinced that a person, knowing the history of his or her family, even to the seventh generation, honouring his or her ancestors, is capable of building new relations with the State on totally different principles from those now seen.

A person does not exist to serve the State, the State exists to serve the person. That is my approach and it’s what makes me inconvenient.”

A Memory War

Under former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, Russia has increasingly concealed archival information about Soviet crimes, even punishing those who, quite correctly, state that the Soviet Union collaborated with the Nazis and invaded what was then Poland on 17 September 1939. A steady move towards rehabilitating dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin and other criminals has been accompanied by repressive methods against historians and activists from the Memorial Society.  

Thanks to Dmitriev and his Memorial colleagues we now know the fate of 289 writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia among 1,111 prisoners from the Solovki Labour Camp [The Solovki Transport] executed by the NKVD between 27 October and 4 November 1937. These were killings by quota. A document of 16 October 1937, published for the first time in Dmitriev’s book, shows the head of the Solovki Prison Camp being told to immediately hand over 1,116 people to NKVD executioner Mikhail Matveyev to be shot. The list of those ‘sentenced’ is by categories, including “Ukrainians”. The NKVD reported back that they had ‘only’ executed 1,111: one person died before his execution date, and four other men were sent to Leningrad, Kyiv or Odesa for “investigative activities”.

Dmitriev’s new book is based on a volume he published twenty years ago, Sandarmokh: A Place of Execution. Despite its formidable length, it contains only victims whose surnames begin with the first letters of the alphabet — others were to be recorded in later volumes. Dmitriev collaborated with Anatoly Razumov on the new book, although there was no more than a brief period in early 2018 when the two men could meet and work together.

A political prisoner

Dmitriev has been imprisoned for most of the last three years, from December 2016 to January 2018, and again from June 2018 until the present. Russia’s leaders miscalculated, however.

The blatant charges against Dmitriev were clearly aimed at discrediting both him and the Memorial Society, especially after a propaganda film was broadcast on the State-controlled Rossiya 24 TV channel on 10 January 2017, less than a month after Dmitriev’s arrest. To destroy a person’s reputation, a criminal prosecution over the alleged creation of ‘child pornography’ must be at least remotely credible; these charges were not.

Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016 and spent the next 13 months in custody, 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). The charges pertained solely to a folder on his computer, never ‘circulated’ to anyone else, 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.

The ‘investigators’ came up with an ‘expert assessment’ made by a mathematician, a teacher and an art historian who obligingly perceived ‘pornography’ in nine of the photos. This assessment was rejected by Dr Lev Shcheglov, President of the National Institute of Sexology, and two other specialists, who saw nothing pornographic in the photos.

It was common practice in Russia, they confirmed, to take photographs for such medical purposes. With the trial in tatters, the prosecutor tried to get ‘a psychiatric assessment’ from the notorious Serbsky Institute. However, its psychiatrists found no aberrations, and on 5 April 2018, the Petrozavodsk City Court under Judge Marina Nosova acquitted Dmitriev of the ‘child pornography’ charges.

Playing for time?

It seems likely that this initial acquittal was issued to deflect public attention from the trial, and never intended as more than an interim measure.

Despite the lack of any grounds, the acquittal was revoked by the Supreme Court of Karelia on 13 June 2018, and the case sent back for ‘re-trial’ under a different judge. The sole arguments provided during the appeal hearing were objections from Natasha’s grandmother, who had abandoned the child in a children’s home where Yury Dmitriev found and adopted her. The grandmother had not seen Natasha for many years. There were also excerpts from the questioning of the child that, supposedly, demonstrated a disturbed psychological state (‘suicidal moments’).

There was no suggestion then of any allegations of sexual abuse, nor had there ever been. It was, in fact, evident from Natasha’s letter, shown to the court, that she loved and desperately missed her daddy, Dmitriev.

“I love you, Papa! and miss you terribly” (a letter from Natasha to her adoptive father, shown in court)

On 27 June 2018, Dmitriev was re-arrested, with Russia’s Investigative Committee now charging him with ‘violent acts of a sexual nature’, also against his adopted daughter, whom he had not seen since his arrest almost two years earlier.

Public condemnation

On 28 October 2019, two hundred prominent Russians issued a statement in defence of both Dmitriev and his adopted child, whose life the FSB is destroying for the sake of a grubby and politically motivated trial. The petition reads:

“Unacceptable and inhuman methods have been deployed: pressure on Dmitriev’s adopted daughter; manipulation of the child’s consciousness in order to get her to testify against a person close to her.

“The initiators of this case are trying, whatever the cost, to prevent Dmitriev’s acquittal, to blacken his name and imprison him so as to not bear liability for the unlawful organizing of criminal prosecutions and the unlawful holding of an innocent man in detention and in psychiatric institutions for nearly three years.

“This is also clearly demonstrated by the dirty campaign against Dmitriev in the media, including on federal channels. Without awaiting the end of the trial, he is already being declared a criminal. On television and in the Internet, they show photos of the girl from the file material which they could only have received from the enforcement bodies. There is also pressure on specialists.

 “The most terrible thing is that in order to achieve their lawless aims, the life is being destroyed of the child who suffered and is suffering irreparable psychological damage.”

The ‘debate’ in the second trial of Yury Dmitriev is due on 10 February. Dmitriev’s lawyer, Victor Anufriev anticipates a verdict by the end of February.

Human Rights in Ukraine
29 January 2020