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Russian Historian Yuri Dmitriev sentenced to 13 years in revenge for restoring the truth about the Soviet Terror

Halya Coynash
This is an effective death sentence for the 64-year-old historian and political prisoner, and one that was passed behind closed doors in the absence of his lawyer and with Dmitriev himself prevented from properly taking part

The Karelia Supreme Court in Russia has overturned two acquittals and increased the sentence against world-renowned historian of the Soviet Terror, Yuri Dmitriev, to 13 years in a strict regime penal colony.  This is an effective death sentence for the 64-year-old historian, and one that was passed behind closed doors in the absence of his lawyer and with Dmitriev himself prevented from being present and from properly hearing the proceedings.  The court, under presiding judge Alla Rats, thus complied in full with the prosecution, ending politically motivated attempts to imprison Dmitriev on preposterous charges that first began in December 2016. 

The hearing on 29 September was into appeals brought both by the Russian prosecutor and the defence against the verdict and sentence passed by the Petrozavodsk City Court on 22 July 2020.  That court acquitted Dmitriev for the second time of the grotesque charges initially used to arrest and remand him in custody on 13 December 2016.  It also acquitted him for the first time of a bizarre firearms charge that had originally been his only conviction at the end of the first trial on 5 April 2018.  The court in July convicted him of a charge that was laid after his original acquittal, although it pertained to exactly the same period of time as the first charges and his treatment of his adopted daughter and had never been mentioned earlier.  This new charge of ‘acts of a sexual nature towards an underage child’ (Article 132 § 4 of Russia’s criminal code) was equally flawed, but Russian judges do not hand down total acquittals in political trials. In fact, judge Alexander Merkov came very close to this, with the sentence of three and a half years being only very slightly longer than the time that Dmitriev had already spent in detention.

Now, three judges, led by Alla Rats, have overturned the earlier acquittal and sent the absurd ‘pornography’ charges back for yet another ‘consideration’, while also increasing the 3.5 year sentence to 13 years. 

Dmitriev has spent over 30 years uncovering truth about the crimes of the Soviet regime, especially during the Stalin period and is also the head of the Karelia branch of the renowned Memorial Society.  It became clear within weeks of Dmitriev’s arrest that a major campaign was underway to discredit both Dmitriev and Memorial.  Such efforts have been evident over recent weeks as well, raising fears about the outcome of the appeal.

In its statement following the verdict on 29 September, Memorial pointed out that any unbiased observer could see that the hearing in the Karelia Supreme Court had violated Dmitriev’s right to a fair trial, if only because he had been deprived of proper defence.  Rats had quite unwarrantedly refused to postpone the hearing until Anufriev, who appears to have Covid-19, had recovered.  She ignored Dmitriev’s formal rejected of the state-appointed lawyer who was being foisted on him.  She then gave this lawyer (Artem Cherkasov), appointed against Dmitriev’s will, only 3 days to familiarize himself with a case stretching back almost four years. Under such circumstances, even if Cherkasov had tried to honestly represent Dmitriev (which is often not the case with such state-appointed lawyers), he would have been unable to do so.  Memorial reported on the eve of the hearing that there was nothing to indicate that Cherkasov had even visited Dmitriev in SIZO [the remand prison]. 

Dmitriev was also effectively denied the possibility of defending himself.  The pandemic was used as an excuse for the historian not being brought to the court and having to take part in the proceedings by a very inadequate video link.  He could not hear around half of what was said in court, yet when he asked for the words to be repeated, the judge threatened to remove him from the hearing.

On the eve of the hearing, an open appeal, endorsed by 250 renowned members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, historians, human rights activists, writers and others, pointed to the flawed and political nature of this prosecution from the first anonymous ‘denunciation’.  They specifically expressed concern about the hearing scheduled for 29 September, noting that Rats had twice before issued rulings extending Dmitriev’s detention and could not be expected to now be unbiased.  Their request for the hearing to be moved out of Karelia was, effectively, ignored. 

It is important to stress that Dmitriev has been in detention most of the time since December 2016 despite the first charges being evidently absurd.  He was accused of  ‘preparing pornography involving a minor’ and ‘depraved acts with respect to a child under the age of 11’ purely on the basis of a folder hidden away on his computer and never circulated’, which contained 114 photos of his adopted daughter (приёмная дочь). The photos had been taken from when the little girl was taken from a children’s home at the age of three, very thin and in poor health.  The authorities had themselves advised him to monitor her development, which Dmitriev did scrupulously.  Each of the photos, taken between 2008 and 2015 (when Dmitriev decided there were no longer any health concerns) recorded her weight and height.  

The ‘investigators’ approached the Moscow-based Centre for Socio-Cultural Expert Assessments, which is reportedly known for providing the opinions required by the FSB.  On this occasion, a mathematician, teacher and art historian perceived ‘pornography’ in nine of a huge number of photos. 

All was going to plan until the trial began in June 2017, and the defence called genuine experts, such as Dr Lev Shcheglov, the President of the National Institute of Sexology and others, who testified in court that they saw nothing at all pornographic in the photos.  They also confirmed that it was common practice in Russia to take photographs for such medical purposes.

Even the prosecutor Yelena Askerova had to agree to a new assessment.  Despite clear efforts to influence the second outcome, in December 2017, this second assessment effectively overturned the whole prosecution’s case.  It agreed with Shcheglov and the other recognized specialists in the field, finding nothing pornographic in the photos. 

The same prosecutor then demanded yet another assessment of the photos, as well as tests in a psychiatric institute of Dmitriev himself.  These were provided by the Serbsky Institute which also found nothing wrong with Dmitriev, nor anything to suggest that the photos had not been taken to record the little girl’s physical development. 

Such ‘pornography’ charges were clearly intended to discredit Dmitriev (and Memorial). Such practice in fact dates back to the late Soviet period when charges of ‘rape’ and similar were used to deflect attention from politically-motivated persecution of dissidents.

The ploy did not work with Dmitriev’s trial receiving huge publicity in Russia and internationally.  It is, unfortunately, possible that the attention was the reason for the first acquittal in April 2018.

This was overturned on 14 June 2018, and then, on 27 June, Dmitriev was re-arrested, with all the old charges, as well as the new accusation of so-called ‘acts of a sexual nature’ with respect to the same daughter who was 12 when he was arrested. 

After wrenching 12-year-old Natasha from the only family who had ever wanted and loved her, the prosecution used the little girl’s age as an excuse to hold the entire trial behind closed doors.  As mentioned, such concerns were not seen either back in January 2017, when the FSB very clearly passed the photos of the child to two Russian propaganda channels, or recently when the photos were again shown on television.

It only became clear (from an article by Nikita Girin, first published in Novaya Gazeta and available in English here) shortly before the second court verdict what the charges were about.  The prosecution claimed that Dmitriev had on several occasions touched his adopted daughter around her groin.   This was in connection with a period when Natasha was 8 years old and began having attacks of enuresis (involuntary urinating).  If Dmitriev noticed the tell-tale smell of urine, he would, like any other parent, pat the little girl’s knickers around the area of the groin to see if they were wet, and if necessary get her to have a wash. There is confirmation in Natasha’s medical records that she was suffering from enuresis, and that she was due to be placed in the Karelia hospital for a proper check-up soon after Dmitriev’s first arrest, yet the prosecution claimed that these were ‘acts of a sexual nature’. 

The only ‘evidence’ was from very seriously manipulative conversations with Natasha who has been living with the grandmother who handed her to the children’s home since December 2016.  It is clear from excerpts of the questioning, published in Girin’s article, that Natasha answers questions quite differently in front of her grandmother, and when away from the latter.  The defence also produced testimony from Russian Academy of Sciences Russian Language Institute experts who gave damning assessments of the manipulative questioning of the young girl, the leading questions used, etc.  In addition, a psychology professor from Moscow State University studied the texts of the child’s conversation with a psychologist and noted that Natasha’s testimony about Dmitriev’s actions did not meet the standard criteria for recalling traumatic experiences. 

There is nothing to suggest that Natasha had ever experienced any such traumatic experiences, and it is noticeable that all communication between her and friends she had made because of Dmitriev’s work with a film school abruptly ended around the time that the prosecution came up with new charges.

Dmitriev and other members of his family have gone through hell over the last three and a half years, but it is Natasha whose whole life has probably been destroyed. 

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 was thanks to Dmitriev and his Memorial 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 Solovetsky 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. 

There are extremely strong grounds for linking the persecution of Dmitriev and, probably, Koltyrin, with attempts by the current Russian regime to whitewash the darkest pages of Soviet history.  This has led to a terrifying number of Russians now seeing Joseph Stalin in a positive light, and, since 2016 to attempts to claim that the mass graves at Sandarmokh are those of Soviet soldiers supposedly killed by the Finnish Army.  There are no grounds for believing this, and both Dmitriev and Koltyrin had publicly rejected the claims. Shortly before Koltyrin’s arrest, he had spoken out publicly against the barbaric excavations at Sandarmokh undertaken over the last two summers.

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 Anufriev from defending Koltyrin. 

The prosecution, aided by judge Alla Rats of the Karelia Supreme Court, have now used the opportunity provided by Anufriev’s illness to push through an even more shocking sentence against Yuri Dmitriev.  Memorial is undoubtedly right in calling this “the revenge of a system inherited from the Soviet regime which wants to once again consign to oblivion the names restored by Yuri Dmitriev, by discrediting him and the work of his life”.

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