Before sentence was again passed in Petrozavodsk, and demands for the closure of Memorial were heard in Moscow, Yury DMITRIEV replied to questions from Anna Yarovaya, who published some of the earliest articles about the Karelian researcher.
They communicated via the Letters service of the Federal Penal Agency; she did not receive replies to many of her questions.
HOW I JOINED MEMORIAL
In 1988, interested citizens formed an action group to set up a Popular Front of Karelia (PFK). I was invited to join the Front after it had existed for 6-7 months: Vova B. came to see me at work and asked me to attend their meeting. I went and gave them some practical advice. Without noticing I became an active PFK member.
Yury A. Dmitriev, 1998
To the media we were an “unregistered non-governmental organisation”. It seems nothing, but you start to feel an illegitimate, inadequate member of society. The first thing I did for the PFK was to get us registered. We drew up a Statute, held an Inaugural Conference and then, after several months of torment, we were “legit”: the Presidium of the Karelian SSR registered our organisation.
A.Ye. — What happened next? How did you get started on your life’s work?
Various organisations approached us. They’d been trying unsuccessfully and for a long while to legitimate their existence – from a cactus-lovers society and a ballroom-dancing group to the Greens. We already knew that you must get official status.
One day Pertti Vuori, an engineer with the Petrozavodsk Machine-making Concern, came and shared his woes. A group had tried to register Memorial in Karelia, but had been turned down for one excuse after another. The legislation for registering such organisations did not yet exist in Karelia. They invoked laws governing collective farms when they registered the Popular Front (PFK).
We invited Memorial to become a collective member of the PFK; it was official status of a kind. We helped them with the paperwork and procedures and soon they were holding their own inaugural conference. I did not take part. I do know that they adopted their inaugural Statute and elected Memorial’s managing bodies.
They chose Ivan Chukhin, a police lieutenant-colonel, as their chairman. He’d already published his short book about the prisoners who built the White Sea Canal . There were about four hundred people at the conference which was held in the large hall of the city’s executive committee.
I knew many people in the Karelian branch of Memorial. Those in charge, at least. They were gathering information about people who had been shot or imprisoned under Stalin and published lists of the victims.
There were food shortages then in the USSR and Memorial, in accordance with its Statute, was distributing humanitarian aid. At the PFK we several times discussed issues raised by Memorial. A year or six months later I asked Pertti Vuori if he could find out what happened to my wife’s grandfather, a simple fisherman from Syamozero village arrested in 1937. He’d been shot, Pertti discovered. One time he suggested I join Memorial – so I’ve been a member since 1989 or thereabouts.
As I said, we delivered humanitarian aid to former political prisoners [men and women convicted under Article 58 of “counter-revolutionary activities”, tr.]. Several times we were not far from Derevyannoe village. They had shot people nearby during the Terror and we tried to find the place but no such luck [the site, now known as Krasny Bor, was discovered in the late 1990s, tr.].
Then I got involved up to my neck in the discovery of executed remains at Besovets and Sulazhgora. It wasn’t until two years later, on 30 October 1991, that they were reburied at the city’s Zaretskoe cemetery. That’s where Memorial in Karelia really began.
Next, I worked for Ivan Chukhin, then a deputy of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet. He suggested that I help him compile a Book of Remembrance for Karelia. I agreed and for a number of years I was immersed in the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or MVD and the FSB (then still called the KGB). One of our early international projects was putting up a memorial at the graveyard of interned German women in Padozero village.
Gradually I gained experience, working with documents and with human remains. We identified those arrested and convicted under Stalin and provided them with food and money. We proposed additions to Karelia’s laws including aid to the victims of Stalinism. No one was forgotten.
Compared to the Soviet period, the 1990s were a time of freedom when the archives opened and you could, at last, learn the truth about your forbears.
A.Ye. – What kind of difficulties arose later for Memorial when President Putin came to power?
That’s a hard one for me to answer. For a while I dropped out of Memorial. Different people took over after the death of Ivan Chukhin in 1997 and we couldn’t get on. There was a clash of personalities.
Quite a few people left with me, and together we set up the Academy of Socio-Legal Defence. The name was a bit different, but its purpose was the same as Memorial.
WHAT ABOUT TODAY?
A.Ye. – How do you regard the situation surrounding Memorial today, and the openly declared persecution of rights activists?
It’s normal to be persecuted. It means that Memorial has stepped on the right toes. I believe in Memorial, so we need to change the body with such sensitive toes.
A.Ye. – Do you link the criminal charges against you with your work for Memorial? If you hadn’t taken an interest in such matters perhaps you would not have spent the past five years in the courts?
I think the charges against me would never have been brought. Who gives a damn about a technician at a dry-cleaning plant?
A.Ye. – How can we support Memorial today? How can ordinary people instil in the younger generation the same respect for history as Memorial has shown?
Through their families. Every family should draw up its own family tree: that’s the knowledge which nurtures our sense of self-esteem.
I was lucky to learn from people arrested and persecuted by the Soviet regime throughout its existence. If I survive, I shall write a book about that.
1. Across the USSR in the late 1980s groups were setting up bodies that described themselves as Popular Fronts. Memorial held its inaugural conference in Moscow in January 1989 but was not registered until a year later.
2. Ivan Chukhin published his Kanaloarmeitsy in 1990. His most important research was published posthumously in 1999 as Karelia in 1937: the Ideology and Practice of Terror.
3. In 1995 Chukhin published a brochure about the young interned German women of NKVD camp 517.