The current threat to Memorial’s existence, alarming as it is, might have come several years earlier had the trial of a little-known historian in provincial Petrozavodsk gone as planned. Those who have orchestrated the sustained persecution of Yury Dmitriev no doubt calculated that the simultaneous assault on his reputation and that of Memorial could not help but succeed.
Public opinion in Russia, they assumed, would be managed and manipulated as usual through tame sections of the media, especially television. Activists, politicians and academics in the West would be cautious about giving loud and public support to someone accused first of child pornography and then of sexually abusing his foster daughter. To protect her anonymity, the trial would be held behind closed doors and neither press nor public would be admitted. What could go wrong?
Support at home and abroad
Outside Russia, it’s true, there was reluctance to speak out in favour of Yury DMITRIEV. To begin with people voiced doubts: perhaps there was something behind the charges. Then the apparently fool-proof plan began to unravel.
Some of the supposedly pornographic photos of Dmitriev’s foster daughter were leaked to national TV in Russia. Many there watched the short programme on 10 January 2017 [Rossiya-24 channel] (“What has Memorial got to hide?” it was called). To Western eyes it reveals a peculiarly distorted view and most of us would agree with Dmitriev’s lawyer Victor Anufriev when he said in an interview that “a photo of a naked child is not pornography” [7×7 website, 29 Dec. 2016].
Then Dmitriev’s supporters in Russia rallied. Exploiting the capacity of the internet to circumvent docile official media, they let the whole country know of his achievements and present plight. Between June and December 2017 they filmed and circulated no less than 45 statements in support of DMITRIEV from a range of public figures — rock stars, actors, film directors, dramatist Alexander Gelman and Solzhenitsyn’s widow Natalya [in Russian] who described Dmitriev as a “wholly admirable person”. One of the “usual suspects”, writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, spoke often and eloquently in his support; renowned animator Yury Norstein [R], who rarely makes public statements, also contributed some heartfelt words.
Dmitriev supporters in the Petrozavodsk courthouse corridor
For the first time DMITRIEV (b. 1956) was widely known. He became a symbol of resistance to the steady revision of Soviet and Russian history over the past 15 years. Petitions attracted thousands of signatures at home and abroad; Russian supporters followed the latest news on a Facebook page that today has over 7,000 followers; and some regularly made the long trip to Northwest Russia to support Dmitriev at his trial, even if they could only stand in the courthouse corridor and applaud as he was led past.
A calm and effective defence
There has long been speculation as to who might be behind the campaign [Project, 21 Feb. 2021] to discredit Dmitriev, especially when two favourable court verdicts were reversed so decisively. It is still not known who first reported Dmitriev to the police [7×7, 16 Dec. 2016] or broke into his apartment whilst he was at the police station. It now seems clear that whoever they are they would have reached their goal long ago were it not for the calm and effective work of Victor Anufriev, Dmitriev’s defence attorney. Taking the evidence at its face value during both trials, and insisting that it was assessed and discussed in and out of court by genuine experts, he demolished the arguments of the prosecution.
As a result, on 5 April 2018 [Human Rights in Ukraine, 6 April 2018] Yury DMITRIEV was acquitted of the charges of child pornography and “depraved activities” with respect to his young foster daughter Natasha. By then indeed he was already living at home having been released in January on condition that he did not leave Petrozavodsk.
Anufriev warned his client, he later told journalists, that there was another line of attack that a new team of prosecutors and experts might still try. He proved right. The verdict was overturned by Karelia’s High Court [Medusa, 14 June 2018] two months later (on the day the Soccer World Cup opened in Russia) and in October 2018 a second trial began in Petrozavodsk.
This time Yury DMITRIEV was also charged with child sex abuse [Article 132, Part 4 (b)]. In a rare display of emotion Anufriev commented that the authorities and the court kept the press or public from attending the hearings so as to protect the rights of the under-age “victim” while their experts browbeat Natasha in private and reduced her to tears with “200 indecent questions” [Radio France Internationale, 28 Dec. 2018]. Her answers constituted the evidence on which the new charge was based.
Victor Anufriev at Petersburg hearing, February 2021
This time DMITRIEV was not acquitted but in July 2020 the judge gave him such an unusually short sentence that he would have been a free man again [Dmitriev Affair, 22 July 2020] sometime in November. The verdict was overturned once more by the High Court in Karelia: it raised the sentence to 13 years in a strict-regime penal colony [Sever realii website, 27 Sept. 2020] and returned the other charges for an “unprecedented” third hearing at the Petrozavodsk City Court.
Dmitriev and his lawyer appealed against this ruling and fought to get an unsuccessful hearing at the Court of Appeal in St Petersburg. After that decision in February 2021 [7×7, 16 Feb. 2021] they are waiting to hear what Russia’s Supreme Court will decide.
A uniquely courageous and stubborn man
The third and final miscalculation, evidently, was to expect that Yury DMITRIEV would be broken by five years of almost continuous imprisonment and judicial persecution. On the contrary, when Memorial was threatened this month, he sent a defiant message of support [Delo Dmitrieva Facebook page 17 Nov. 2021] from the detention centre in Petrozavodsk.
The importance of his unshakeable resolution can easily be seen in the contrasting fate of his gentler colleague Sergei Koltyrin (1953-2020).
The director of the Medvezhegorsk Museum, Koltyrin was arrested on charges of paedophilia in October 2018. Friends appealed to Anufriev who agreed to take on the defence of Koltyrin as well. The following month the latter was persuaded to accept a court-appointed attorney. Convicted in May 2019, Koltyrin was sentenced to nine years imprisonment and sent to a penal colony [Human Rights in Ukraine, 28 May 2019]. Later he was transferred to a prison hospital where he died on 1 April 2020.
Guilt or innocence
Those who know Yury DMITRIEV and his family have never doubted his innocence. Contrary to the vile insinuations of his accusers he has been a loving father to the little girl he and his second wife were allowed to foster in 2008.
After the second verdict in July last year journalists were finally free to describe the nature of the evidence and the conduct of the trial. An observer of the proceedings since 2017 — and a father himself — journalist Nikita Girin published a long article [Novaya gazeta, 13 July 2020] detailing what had gone on behind closed doors. His account should satisfy anyone that the charges at both trials were malicious fabrications and remained unproven. Dmitriev’s persecution is political, as the Memorial Human Rights Centre declared early on [Rights in Russia, 28 July 2017]. It is a response to his work of the last thirty years, not to anything he is alleged to have done in the privacy of his home. And an interview with linguist Irina Levontina [MBK News, 15 Sept. 2020] who examined the visual and written evidence of Natasha’s testimony in the second trial leaves no doubt as to the methods used to obtain her “confession”.
Dmitriev being brought for trial (overlaid are his remarks about Memorial in a recent letter)
Over the coming days the Supreme Court may announce whether it is going to consider the appeal lodged on behalf of Yury DMITRIEV in June this year by his defence attorney Victor Anufriev. There are also two hearings this week about the future of International Memorial and its Human Rights Centre …