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.

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Verdict expected in February 2020

YURY DMITRIEV’s lawyer expects a verdict in his second trial at the end of February 2020. The prosecution and defence are currently giving their final statements.

The present trial began in October 2018 and has proceeded even more slowly than the first. Less is known about what has been going on behind closed doors at the second trial, also held in camera. One strategy pursued by Victor Anufriev, the defence attorney, has stressed his client’s high reputation among academics, rights activists and other professionals, for example, Anatoly Razumov of the National Library in St Petersburg. They have testified in his defence. In November 2019 a petition in English (and Italian) was circulated among academics overseas and the resulting list of signatories was presented as evidence in court.

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A verdict this spring?

YURY DMITRIEV’s first trial ended in April 2018 with his acquittal on the two most serious charges. The judge at the Petrozavodsk City Court concluded that the photographs Dmitriev had taken of his adopted daughter Natasha were not pornographic and that he had not committed indecent acts with her. However, the Karelian Supreme Court overruled the verdict and returned to the case for re-examination.

In summer 2018 further charges of forced sexual acts against his daughter Natasha were brought against Dmitriev. These accusations are based on new testimony by Natasha and her grandmother, neither of whom testified against Dmitriev during the first trial.

anufriev

Victor Anufriev

After the second trial began, Yury Dmitriev’s lawyer, Victor Anufriev, was interviewed by Alexander Valiyev of the Russian Service of Radio France Internationale.

During the first investigation and trial no evidence of the performance of indecent acts could be found. How could they suddenly bring charges of sexual violence at the second trial?

Yury Dmitriev’s acquittal was totally unexpected for the siloviki [high-ranking FSB and Ministry of Internal Affairs officers, etc]. Such a thing should not have happened, but it did. In Russia, such cases are judged in the courts and lead to a conviction without the slightest hitch. The city prosecutor supported the accusations and signed the charge sheet and that was already a signal to the judge that everything was in order and that the accused was “good to go”.

Unexpectedly, the judge ruled in accordance with the law and with justice. This was because during the course of the trial (which lasted a long while [from June 2017 to April 2018]), we, the defence, presented a great deal of evidence to wholly refute the evidence of the prosecution.

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Political Trial reinstated

Yury Dmitriev (photo, Anna Yarovaya)

A rare moment of justice from a Russian court has proved all too fleeting, writes Halya Coynash. On 14 June, Karelia’s High Court overturned the acquittal in April of world-renowned historian Yury Dmitriev and sent the ‘case’ back for retrial.  Dmitriev’s imprisonment and trial had been widely viewed as politically-motivated persecution, and his acquittal – the only possible verdict after the charges were totally demolished by experts.

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Acquittal overturned

On Thursday, 14 June, after deliberations lasting over one and a half hours, the Supreme Court of Karelia overturned the acquittal of Yury DMITRIEV on charges of child pornography (Article 242.2) and depraved acts with a minor (Article 135).

This was reported by the news website 7×7, based on what it was told after the hearing by Victor Anufriev, Dmitriev’s defence attorney since December 2016.

The court based its judgement, in part, on a statement made by Dmitriev’s adopted daughter Natasha during a psychiatric examination following the acquittal in April 2018 that she was “upset and disgraced”. This statement, said Anufriev, was obtained under duress.

The case materials will now be returned to the Petrozavodsk City Court for re-examination by a new judge.

Meduza news website, 14 June 2018