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Jailed historian of Stalin’s Terror declared a political prisoner in Putin’s Russia

Halya Coynash
Everything about the arrest, ongoing detention and ’trial’ of Yury Dmitriev, the Russian historian who has dedicated his life to ensuring that the truth about the crimes committed is known and the victims honoured is of concern, and the Memorial Human Rights Centre is not alone in seeing the prosecution as politically motivated

Exactly 80 years after the beginning of Stalin’s Great Terror, a Russian who has dedicated his life to ensuring that the truth about the crimes committed is known and the victims honoured is on trial.  While the charges against 61-year-old Yury Dmitriev, a historian and the head of the Karelia branch of the Russian Memorial Society, are ostensibly unrelated to his work, their link to ‘pornography’ is even less comprehensible.  The supposed ‘expert assessment’ backing the charges is, furthermore, from an institute which has become notorious for politically-motivated opinions.  Concern was already high about the case before the trial began, and by now has prompted many prominent Russians to speak out in Dmitriev’s defence and attracted attention well beyond Russia. 

The renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre issued a statement on July 25, declaring Dmitriev a political prisoner and demanding an end to his prosecution.

They point out the absurdity of the charges against him.  Based on nine photographs of his foster-daughter between the ages of 3 and 7 naked, Dmitriev is accused of ‘using a minor for the purposes of preparing pornography (Article 242.2 of the Russian criminal code) and of ‘depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11’ (Article 135).

As reported, the little girl, Natasha, had been thin and underdeveloped when they took her from the children’s home and the authorities had themselves advised Dmitriev to monitor her development.  He stopped taking them in 2015, when Natasha was 10, as there were no longer any concerns about her development.  The photos showed her naked, which made it easy to see whether her ribs were protruding, etc. while also ensuring that the authorities could see that she was well-looked after, without suspicious bruises, etc. Each photo recorded the little girl’s weight and height,

Memorial HRC is scathing about the charges which “are not based on the law and run counter to the actual circumstances of the case”.

The statement stresses that photographs can only be considered pornographic if they were taken with a sexual aim.  There are no grounds for any other assessment of the photos than that based on Dmitriev’s explanation. 

“The photos were intended to be presented, if necessary, to the childcare authorities.  Dmitriev kept them on his personal computer. He did nothing to them, did not print them or give them to anyone.  The care authorities invariably reached the conclusion, following any inspection, that as foster-father, he had created all conditions for the upbringing, upkeep and education of the child”

The authors point out that the only formal grounds provided for calling these photos ‘pornographic’ come from an expert assessment produced by the Centre of Sociocultural Expertise.  This Centre is not qualified to make such an assessment, and was clearly approached as it could be relied upon to provide the opinion demanded. They note that this same Centre is known for other notorious assessments, such as that about material from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose faith Russia recently prohibited, material in the prosecution of Pussy Riot members and others.

The defence, on the other hand, obtained an expert assessment from Lev Shcheglov, President of the National Institute of Sexology. Questioned in court, he stated that the photographs cannot be considered pornographic material and that the so-called expert assessment was “virtually a comical document”.

Memorial HRC believes that the case is politically-motivated and aimed both at ensuring that Dmitriev stops his work on immortalizing the memory of the victims of Stalin’s repression, and at trying to undermine the reputation of the International Memorial Society and organizations which are part of its structure.

“The criminal charges against Dmitriev were initiated against the background of an ongoing campaign aimed at blackening Memorial’s name, and were used to intensify that campaign”.

The authors note the suspicious circumstances behind a program broadcast on the state-controlled Rossiya 24 on January 10, the first day, effectively, after the long New Year and Christmas break.  The timing is important since Dmitriev had been arrested two weeks before New Year, a period when you would not expect close attention to such events.

The 14-minute program is essentially an attack on Memorial, with the 5 minutes about Dmitriev clearly aimed at spreading dirt and convincing the audience of his guilt (more details here).  The program showed photographs of Natasha, something which, Memorial HRC stresses, was entirely illegal without the consent of her guardian.  Memorial’s lawyers believe that this too indicates the political nature of the case.

There are multiple grounds for scepticism about this prosecution.  The far-fetched charges, involving a minor, have enabled the prosecution to hold the hearings behind closed doors.  This does not stop large numbers of people from gathering in the corridor to show their moral support for Dmitriev.

A petition demanding an end to this grave miscarriage of justice has been signed by nearly 31 thousand people.  There have also been many appeals from historians, human rights organizations and others.

It is no accident that the first appeals were Ukrainian and Polish. Dmitriev’s role in uncovering the truth about Stalin’s crimes and the mass graves of the regime’s victims is known and appreciated far beyond Karelia.  His absence will be most poignantly felt on August 5 at the annual Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Terror on August 5 at the Sandarmokh Clearing.  t was Dmitriev and his Memorial colleagues who uncovered the mass graves at Sandarmokh, including those of 1,111 prisoners of the Solovky Labour Camp who were executed ‘by quota’ between 27 October and 4 November 1937.  The 290 Ukrainians murdered included playwright Mykola Kulish, poet Mykola Zerov and very many other prominent artists, scientists and public figures.

It is thanks to Dmitriev also that a general memorial now stands at the site of this terrible crime, with the words ‘People, do not kill one another’. 




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