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Imprisoned Russian Historian of the Terror in grave danger as Covid-19 found in prison

Halya Coynash

Russian scholars, cultural and political figures have addressed an urgent appeal to the head of the High Court in Karelia, asking for the release from detention of 64-year-old Yuri Dmitriev, a world-renowned historian of the Soviet Terror and recognized political prisoner.  The situation is particularly acute as at least two cases of Covid-19 infection have been confirmed in the SIZO [remand prison] where Dmitriev is being held.  Any such closed institution carries the risk of mass infection, but the conditions in Russian SIZO are especially appalling, with little or no means for protecting oneself against the deadly virus.  At 64, and after three years in detention, Dmitriev would inevitably be in very real danger if he contracted the virus. He is also extremely weak after having a very serious bout of the flu two months ago.

While the authors stress that they consider the charges against the historian to be totally unfounded, they ask only that he be allowed to await the end of the trial in conditions that do not involve imprisonment.  There are also two public petitions calling for his release, on Avaaz and Change, which have collected around 12 thousand signatures. In late March, the EU issued an appeal for Dmitriev’s release and the historian is given particular mention in an appeal from the International Federation for Human Rights. 

An appeal hearing against the latest extension of Dmitriev’s detention is scheduled on 7 May at the High Court in Karelia.  These are usually rubberstamp affairs, and it is important that the petitions and the appeal from Russian public figures receive a lot of attention.

The persecution of Yuri Dmitriev has been followed closely by very many Ukrainians and with good cause.  It is thanks to Dmitriev, the Head of the Karelian branch of Memorial and his colleagues that thousands of Ukrainians, Russians and representatives of other nationalities have learned the fate of their parents or grandparents.  It was they who discovered the mass graves at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia where the last remains lie of nine thousand victims of the Terror.  Among them were 1,111 prisoners of the notorious Solovki Labour Camp, killed by quota from 27 October to 4 November 1937.  They included 289 Ukrainian writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia. 

Sixty years ago, in ‘Requiem’, Anna Akhmatova wrote “I would like to invoke them all by their names, but they’ve taken the list, and there’s nowhere to find out”.  As well as helping to make Sandarmokh a place of remembrance which people came to from all over the world, he also investigated the crimes of the Soviet regime, not only finding the graves and the names of victims, but also, increasingly, identifying the perpetrators. 

Although most assumed that the criminal charges against him were in reprisal for this activity, it remained unclear at what level the decision had been made. Certain ominous parallels – attempts to rewrite the history of Sandarmokh and the arrest of another historian of the Terror, Sergei Koltyrin, made it seem clear that this was no regional initiative.  

Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016 and charged with ‘preparing pornography involving a minor’ (Article 242.2 of Russia’s criminal code) and ‘depraved actions with respect to a child under the age of 11’ (Article 135).  Both these apparently serious charges pertained solely to a folder filed on his computer, and never ‘circulated’, which contained 114 photos of his adopted daughter Natasha.  The little girl had been painfully thin and in poor health at three years old, when he and his former wife took her from the children’s home, and the authorities had themselves advised him to monitor her development.  Each of the photos, taken between 2008 and 2015 recorded her weight and height.  

It was almost certainly hoped that the case, which apparently involved ‘child pornography’, would turn people away from Dmitriev and also discredit Memorial.  It did nothing of the kind.  The defence brought in proper experts, as opposed to the mathematician, teacher and art historian who obligingly perceived ‘pornography’ in just nine of the 114 photos.  They dismissed the allegations outright, finding no whiff of ‘pornography’ and confirming that it was common practice to take such photos for monitoring development.

On 5 April 2018, Dmitriev was acquitted of the ‘pornography’ charges, however this acquittal was overturned on 14 June, and the case sent back for ‘retrial’.  On 27 June, he was re-arrested, with the ‘investigators’ also charging him with ‘violent acts of a sexual nature’, with the  purported victim once again his adopted daughter whom he had not seen since the first arrest.   This meant that the new ‘trial’ was to be on charges that had been debunked during the first trial, as well as extremely serious charges pertaining to the same time period.  Had there been any possibility of charging Dmitriev with direct abuse of his daughter, it would have been reflected in the original charges, not added in pique after the pornography allegations were dismissed by experts.

One of the main victims of this sordid case is Natasha, who was taken from the only family she had ever known to  live with her biological grandmother who had left her in a children’s home when she was three years old.  It appears that the young girl’s grandmother is now helping the FSB, and even has a lawyer who claimed on Russian state television that Dmitriev or his family were putting the young girl under ‘pressure’, an allegation dismissed by Dmitriev’s lawyer, Viktor Anufriev.  Such claims cannot change the crucial fact that the prosecution’s case is based on original charges which were convincingly disproven and new charges which are, quite simply, over two years too late and lacking in any credibility.

It seems very likely that another victim of this sordid case was Sergei Koltyrin, another historian of the Terror and Director of the Medvezhyegorsk District Museum from 1991 until his arrest in October 1998.  Koltyrin had always worked very closely with Dmitriev and Memorial, and had until 2015 taken part in the annual International Days of Remembrance at Sandarmokh.  It is significant that this participation was blocked from above in August 2016 – around the same time as the first attempts to rewrite the facts about Sandarmokh, but around six months prior to Dmitriev’s arrest.  Shortly before Koltyrin’s arrest, he had spoken out publicly against barbaric excavations at Sandarmokh aimed at whitewashing Stalin and the Soviet regime.  

Sergei Koltyrin died in a prison hospital in the early hours of 2 April 2020.  He had been sentenced to nine years on charges that bore a disturbing similarity to those against Dmitriev and after shenanigans clearly aimed at preventing Viktor Anufriev, Dmitriev’s lawyer, from defending Koltyrin.  It was so clear that the latter had just days to live that a court had ordered his release, however the Russian prosecutor appealed the ruling, dooming him to die in prison. 

Russia must not be allowed to cause the death of Yuri Dmitriev.

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