On 16 June 2020, Petrozavodsk City Court in Karelia (Northwest Russia) will announce a verdict in Yury Dmitriev’s second trial, which began two years ago. If convicted, the 64-year-old historian and researcher into Stalin-era crimes could face up to 15 years in one of Russia’s crowded and unhealthy penal colonies.
If acquitted, Dmitriev will be freed from custody in a prison system affected, like the rest of the country, by a constant spreading of Covid-19.
Dmitriev at the Krasny Bor killing field
In December 2016, Dmitriev was arrested and remanded in custody, charged with making pornographic images of his adopted daughter Natasha. Following a strong and powerful public campaign, supported and promoted by the Memorial society and his connections in Moscow’s International Film School, the obscure provincial researcher became first a national and then an international hero. Thanks to a masterly defence by his attorney Victor Anufriev, the self-described “second idealist” in the case, Dmitriev was acquitted in April 2018.
The Supreme Court of Karelia upheld prosecution objections to the verdict, however, and ordered a retrial. This began in autumn 2018 and now Dmitriev, again defended by Anufriev, faced more serious charges of sexual assault on a minor – his adopted daughter Natasha whom he had not seen since they were separated at the end of 2016 (Dmitriev has a grandson and two grown children by an earlier marriage).
No one now doubts Dmitriev’s tough character. Almost continuous imprisonment since December 2016 in the main Petrozavodsk remand centre has not broken his determination. Second time round, a sombre contrast has been provided by the fate of fellow Karelian historian Sergei Koltyrin, director of the Medvezhegorsk district museum, who was arrested In October 2018 as Dmitriev’s second trial began. A milder character, he was persuaded under investigation to decline the services of Victor Anufriev. Convicted in May 2019 of sex with a minor, Koltyrin was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. In March 2020, his health failing, he was moved to the penitentiary hospital in the Karelian capital where he died on 1 April 2020.
Yury Dmitriev (b. 1955)
Abandoned as a child and raised in one of the Soviet Union’s children’s homes, Dmitriev had the good fortune to be adopted by a military family (he spent part of his childhood in East Germany). In the late 1980s, he was swept up in the excitement unleashed by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost and, shielded and guided by Duma deputy Ivan Chukhin (1948-1997), he embarked on his life’s work, locating the killing fields and burial sites of the Great Terror and identifying who lay buried in each place.
In 1997, this work culminated in the publication of Karelia’s two-volume Book of Remembrance, recording the names of over 14,000 who were summarily arrested and imprisoned, many shot without trial, during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-1938. At this very time, together with St Petersburg Memorial, he discovered an enormous killing field near Medvezhegorsk. Today it known internationally as Sandormokh (Sandarmokh). Subsequently, Dmitriev was able to identify over four thousand of the victims shot and buried there. This was a unique achievement — in most cases, it is not known where the 760,000 executed during the Great Terror are buried – and it was summarised in his book Sandarmokh, A Place of Execution (1999).
A unique Place of Remembrance
At the beginning of this year a new version of the book has been published with a slightly different: Sandormokh, A Place of Remembrance. This celebrates Dmitriev’s crowning achievement and suggests a reason why he has become a thorn in the side of the authorities — both the local FSB and the border guards organisation.
For since 1998, the infamous clearing in the forest has become the site of a unique international memorial where, with Dmitriev’s urging and encouragement, over 30 national and confessional monuments have been raised by Ukrainians, Poles, Finns, Catholics, Jews, and others, with compatriots and fellow religionists buried at Sandarmokh. Relatives of those shot there in 1937-1938 have added more than 400 individual markers, freestanding crosses or boards and plaques attached to the trees, commemorating their loved ones (see this website’s banner photo, above).
There is nothing like the Sandormokh memorial elsewhere in the world. Certainly, Russia and the other former Soviet countries contain nothing of the kind: and it represents Yury Dmitriev’s principles and distinctive approach to memorialisation. Officially recognised and protected since 1998 as a monument of culture and history, the cemetery has become the venue of International Days of Remembrance on 5 August each year. Until 2014, It drew increasing numbers and enjoyed recognition from the Karelian and district authorities. Following the annexation of Crimea delegations from Ukraine and other regions and countries ceased to attend and the Orthodox church and the local authorities gradually withdrew their support.
Echoes of Katyn
The attack on Dmitriev over the last four years has been twofold, aimed at destroying his reputation and undermining his work. In 2016, before his arrest, two historians in Petrozavodsk launched the improbable and never proven thesis that among the bodies buried at the long-concealed killing fields of Sandormokh are those of Soviet POWs executed by the occupying Finnish forces during the Second World War.
This is an extraordinary echo of the Katyn dispute. For decades the USSR claimed that the bodies of thousands of Polish army officers discovered near Smolensk by the invading Germans were the result of an SS atrocity and not, as is now known and admitted, the result of decision by Stalin in April 1940. The “new hypothesis” led to unsupervised excavation at Sandarmokh last yearby the Russian Military History Society, but has yet to receive confirmation or serious support.
In the court of public opinion, Dmitriev won long ago. To judge by the latest petition for his release on humanitarian grounds into house arrest, signed by over 12,000 people in Russia and beyond, interest in the case has increased, not declined. The Dmitriev Affair Facebook page (in Russian) today has more than 6,000 followers, some of whom make the long journey north to Karelia once a month to stand in the courthouse corridor and applaud their hero as he is led into the courtroom during the slow-moving progress of his trial.
A closed trial
A frustrating aspect of the proceedings is that they resemble, in practice, the trials of Soviet dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s, when neither public nor press were admitted to the courtroom.
Defence attorney Victor Anufriev has been punctilious in observing the restrictions this imposes, while utilising to the full every nuance of judicial procedure and summoning an impressive range of experts to challenge the evidence of the prosecution and defeat its arguments. The case investigators have not always been so careful: In January 2017, they leaked some of the supposedly “pornographic” photos of the stunted and under-nourished Natasha (she had not long left the children’s home) to be shown on national TV.
The trial is held behind closed doors, supposedly, to protect a minor from undue pressure and attention. Rising numbers of child pornography and sexual abuse cases exploit the unsatisfactory formulation of current laws, using them to settle family disputes in court. The main witness in the second trial, Natasha has suffered from such ambiguity and manipulation. During the present trial, defence attorney Victor Anufriev has not often commented on the proceedings. In 2018, before the trial began, in a rare show of feeling and indignation, he commented that if conducting the trial behind closed doors demonstrated regard for Natasha’s vulnerability what could one say about the persistent bombardment of a young girl with “two hundred indecent questions” during the investigation that preceded the new trial.
During the first trial Anufriev regularly briefed public and press during the midday break at each hearing. This time the stakes are higher, and he has confined himself to occasional, while summoning a similar range of impressive experts to challenge prosecution evidence and arguments in court.
On Tuesday, Judge Alexander Merkov will issue his verdict. As in most trials that come before Russia’s courts, there is no jury; he will be advised by his two lay assessors. With well-founded cynicism, many believe that a phone call from higher authority will ultimately decide the outcome. Others, and they include Anufriev, believe that it is worth fighting in court and arguing the case.
Like Judge Marina Nosova in 2018, the judge presiding at this trial may find that the weight of evidence and the arguments of the two sides leave him no choice but to acquit. He may prefer (or be instructed) to leave the final decision, on appeal, to the Supreme Court of Karelia. In either case, this closed trial has developed a significance well beyond a provincial courtroom northwest Russia. In its own way it has become, like the 12-year campaign to exonerate Alfred Dreyfus, a cause célèbre that defines a certain period in history.
Petrozavodsk journalist Gleb Yarovoi informs me that the trial will not end with the hearings today and tomorrow. The final verdict will be delivered “sometime” this summer.
The trial has dragged on since October 2018, with one hearing, at most, each month. Meanwhile, as Covid-19 spreads through Russia taking a very high toll of qualified medical staff Yury Dmitriev remains, until 25 June at least, remanded in custody in Petrozavodsk’s Detention Centre No 1. Given his age and state of health that, in his lawyer Victor Anufriev’s words is simply indecent …