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Russia is trying to destroy historian Yury Dmitriev and “what they’ve done to his daughter is even more horrifying”

Halya Coynash
Details of the weaponization of a child in Russia’s attack on the world-renowned historian who helped restore the truth about Stalin’s Terror

Yuri Dmitriev returned the names of victims of Stalin’s terror. Return him his freedom Single person picket shared by Natalya Mavlevich

A third trial of imprisoned Russian historian of the Soviet Terror Yury Dmitriev is currently underway at the same court which has already acquitted him twice.  Since the first acquittal was not only quashed at appeal, but resulted in a new concocted charge, it seems clear that those who decided in December 2016 to persecute the world-renowned historian and head of the Karelia branch of Memorial have no intention of giving up.  They are risking the 65-year-old’s life, and, as a close friend and colleague has pointed out, what they have done to his younger daughter, Natasha, is even more horrifying. 

During the last decades of the Soviet regime, the KGB often came up with ‘criminal charges’ against dissidents.  These were aimed both at deflecting the warranted charges of political persecution and at discrediting those who bucked the system.  Russia under Vladimir Putin has used the same method, but with a particularly cynical and brutal twist.  Dmitriev’s adopted daughter, Natasha, was just 12 years old when they came for her father, claiming that photos taken over the years to monitor an initially sickly and thin child’s weight and height constituted ‘child pornography’.  Natasha’s age made it possible to whip her away from the only family she had ever known (and return her to the grandmother who had left her at a children’s home) and to hold all court hearings behind closed doors.  Such supposed concern for a child made it easier to conceal the lack of substance to any of the charges, while her age proved no obstacle for the scurrilous propaganda drive against both Dmitriev and the renowned Memorial Society unleashed, in clear collaboration with the FSB, by a state-controlled television channel within weeks of Dmitriev’s arrest. 

The FSB miscalculated in Dmitriev’s case.  Charges can only discredit the person accused if they have any credibility, and these had none.  They miscalculated also thanks to Natasha herself who had, since the age of three, known love and acceptance only from Dmitriev and his family, including Dmitriev’s adult daughter, Kateryna, and her children.

Yury Dmitriev at the Petrozavodsk City Court 21.07.2021 Photo Aleksandra Kononova

Iryna Levontina from the Russian Academy of Sciences Russian Language Institute appeared as a witness for the defence at the second trial of Dmitriev, presenting a linguistic assessment which she and three colleagues made of the interviews of Natasha, carried out between 2016 and 2018 by a psychologist and investigator. As reported, that ended on 22 July 2020 with Dmitriev’s second acquittal on the ‘child pornography’ charge and his ‘conviction’, but very short sentence, on the charge which only appeared after the first acquittal. In an interview given shortly after that verdict, Levontina explained what defence lawyer Viktor Anufriev had asked her and her colleagues to assess, namely the degree to which Natasha’s ‘conversations’ with a psychologist and investigator had been free and natural, and whether the adults had used manipulation to obtain particular answers.

Their assessment was damning.  Levontina stresses that she is not allowed to divulge the content of the material she and her colleagues analysed, but she is under no obligation to conceal the impression these ‘interviews’ made on her.

- “In my opinion, any person who looked at that material would see that a nice and very sweet young girl is trying not to say anything against Yury Dmitriev, but the investigator and psychologist are simply wrenching the answers they need out of her. She often doesn’t understand what they are asking her, and they keep asking the same thing over and over again. She answers in monosyllables and they twist her answers. She says: “I don’t know” and they ask again and again and offer variants until finally, just to get them off her back, she names the most neutral of the variants.

-  You mean a variant convenient for the prosecution?

Of course. And then that goes on and on, and this all seems quite shocking. And the woman psychologist doing the interview directly prompts her on what she should say and, most importantly, how she should feel.  She even speaks for her. You don’t need to be a specialist psychologist to know that such testimony should be given in the form of an open account, and that there must not be any leading questions. Yet in this case, the psychologist constantly speaks for the girl, as though she’s doing this so that the girl internalizes the text that the prosecution needs, effectively learns it off by heart.  We see how, from conversation to conversation, the girl is simply learning a text. In the first conversations she doesn’t even know some words, but then learns them by heart.

We analysed the protocols of the questioning and established that there were almost none of the girl’s own words. She very often answers “no”, “I don’t know”. Sometimes “yes”.  And if there are some other words, they’re usually the words from the questions (incidentally, we calculated the ratio of various types of answers). There are almost no words which the girl uses at her own initiative.  They are there only when she answers a question about the activity groups that she went to. Where the psychologist or investigator touch on the main subject of the prosecution, the girl herself says virtually nothing.  Sometimes she listlessly, reluctantly repeats words, confirming, although generally not confirming, what they are saying to her.

There is an incredible thing in these protocols, revealing the mechanism by which the investigators and prosecution worked.  There are protocols which record what was said while the video was running, and those made without a video, when the grandmother supposedly made a formal request that they didn’t record the conversations on video, because this traumatized the girl. We analysed the difference between the protocols with a video and without.  The difference is incredible! Where the transcript is carried out in complete accordance with the video, we see the girl’s words “no”; “no”; “yes”; “no”; “I don’t remember”; “I don’t know”; “I don’t know”, “no”; “rarely”; “no”, and so on.  And where the protocols were prepared without a video, there is a text from the girl in whole paragraphs, in wooden language, evidently written by the investigator.  The young girl could hardly have spoken like that, she doesn’t yet know such expressions, she generally can’t come up with such sentences. The secret mechanisms behind the creation of these charges become very clear.”

By the way, I can’t say that the psychologist was unqualified, quite the contrary. It’s just that she deliberately sought to achieve the objective that she had to achieve. You watch and it feels like you can hear the bones being crushed as she turns the little girl inside out, squeezes her.  She literally dictates what she needs to say.”

During her appearance in court last year, Levontina described some of the forms of manipulation which, she says, are worthy of being textbook examples, with the girl’s monosyllabic answer thus totally changed.  The ‘interviewers’ also often simply switched the word used by Natasha, with such changes totally changing the meaning and impression created.

Levontina adds that she liked the young girl and that it was clear that she was trying not to say too much and that she held out amazingly well. Whenever she could, she answers “no”.

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of such testimony, especially given the expert assessments of the material Dmitriev was originally arrested over, and the manner in which new charges were laid almost two years after he had last seen Natasha, and after his first acquittal. 

Dmitriev was arrested on 13 December 2016, following extremely suspect methods used to illicitly enter Dmitriev’s home.  He was 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). This was purely on the basis of a folder hidden away on his computer and never circulated.  This contained 114 photos of Natasha from when she was taken from the children’s home until around a year before his arrest.  Although Dmitriev, who had himself been adopted as a child, and his family had welcomed Natasha as a permanent member of their family, her official status was as приёмная дочь [or foster daughter].  This is important for two reasons.  The social services had never had any questions about Dmitriev’s treatment of the little girl, and it was actually on their advice that Dmitriev scrupulously monitored her weight and height. It seems that the nine photos claimed to be ‘pornographic’ showed the little girl at 3, 5 and 6 naked, but without the weight and height statistics.  Anybody who has had dealings with Soviet / post-Soviet bureaucracy, will understand that Dmitriev also photographed the little girl without clothes so that nobody could claim that she was being mistreated and try to take her away.

The photos were initially considered by a Karelian art historian, Sergei Sergeyevv, to be ‘pornographic’  The court then asked for an official expert assessment, with this task given to the so-called Centre for Socio-Cultural Expert Assessments ["Центр социокультурных экспертиз"].  This body gained earlier notoriety for its involvement in the trial of the Pussy Riot punk group and in the ruling prohibiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremist’.  The Centre, which reportedly did not have a licence for such ‘expert assessments’, claimed that nine photos were ‘pornographic’.

Such an unqualified assessment was rejected in court by Dr Lev Shcheglov, the President of the National Institute of Sexology, as well as two other specialists who saw nothing pornographic in the photos and who confirmed that it was common practice in Russia to take photographs for such medical purposes. 

Dmitriev was initially acquitted of the ‘pornography’ charges on  5 April 2018, but found guilty of the minor firearms charge, with it being widely understood that judge Marina Nosova from the Petrozavodsk City Court could not throw out all the charges.  

The acquittal was immediately challenged by the prosecutor Yelena Askerova (who had demanded a 9-year sentence).  On 13 June 2018, the acquittal was revoked by the Karelia Supreme Court, and the case sent back for ‘re-trial’ under a different judge.

On 27 June 2018, Dmitriev was re-arrested, with Russia’s Investigative Committee now charging him with ‘acts of a sexual nature’, also against Natasha, whom he had not seen since his arrest in December 2016.  It was only learned on the eve of the second acquittal what the charge of ‘acts of a sexual nature’ was about. The prosecutor claimed that Dmitriev had on several occasions touched Natasha around her groin.   This was in connection with a period when, at 8 years old, the little girl 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.

On 22 July 2020, judge Alexander Merkov from the Petrozavodsk City Court acquitted Dmitriev for the second time of the ‘child pornography’ charge and that of ‘depraved acts’, while acquitting him for the first time of the possession of firearms charge. 

By this stage, Dmitriev had been in custody for almost three and a half years.   Merkov convicted him of the charge (of ‘acts of a sexual nature’) laid after the first acquittal, but only sentenced him to the three and a half years that he had, in any case, spent in detention.  This was as close to an acquittal as you can get in Russian political trials, and much lower than the sentence demanded by the prosecutor.

This was clearly not the result required and on 29 September 2020, an appeal against the ruling was heard by presiding judge Alla Rats and two colleagues from the Karelia Supreme Court.  Rats should have recused herself as she had taken part in previous hearings in Dmitriev’s case.  The most shocking violation of Dmitriev’s rights, however, lay in the insistence of carrying on the hearing despite Anufriev being in quarantine and unable to attend, and with Dmitriev himself unable to hear what was being said because of poor video link with the SIZO [remand prison].  Rats changed the 3.5 year sentence to 13 years, and overturned all acquittals, with a new ‘expert assessment’ ordered of the photos and that ‘case’ sent back for a third attempt at a conviction.   On 16 February 2021, the Third Cassation Court in St. Petersburg upheld that ruling, ignoring multiple violations, with its ruling and the earlier one now awaiting consideration by Russia’s Supreme Court.

The third attempt to get a conviction on the flawed ‘child pornography’ charges is once again at the Petrozavodsk City Court, with the trial beginning on 2 April under judge Yekaterina Khomyakova. There are reasons for concern given her attempt to replace Dmitriev’s chosen lawyer, and then to punish the lawyer who rightly refused to be appointed to the case when Dmitriev has his own lawyer.

Hearings resumed after a break on 20 July, with four days that week, then 27 July.  The witnesses for the defence have included Natasha’s teachers, her friends and Dmitriev’s Memorial colleague and friend, Anatoly Razumov

The next hearing has now been scheduled for 10 August, after the initial schedule being for the fourth and fifth of the month.  It is unlikely that Khomyakova took the significance of 5 August into account, however the timing had certainly been noticed.  That day marks the beginning of the annual International Days of Remembrance at Sandarmokh, which until his arrest Dmitriev attended every year.   It is 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 strong grounds for linking the persecution of Dmitriev and, probably, of fellow historian of the Terror, Sergei Koltyrin, with attempts by the current Russian regime to whitewash the darkest pages of Soviet history.  Dmitriev’s arrest coincided with the beginning of attempts to claim that some of the unmarked 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.

See: Barbaric excavations underway at Sandarmokh in Russia to rewrite history about the Terror

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