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Imprisoned Russian historian of the Soviet Terror Yury Dmitriev recognized as New Righteous of the Nations

Halya Coynash
Russia’s attempt to mask its persecution of Yury Dmitriev and attack on Memorial behind scurrilous criminal charges has failed, as demonstrated by this honour and the award for an important film on ‘the Dmitriev Affair’

Yuri Dmitriev Photo taken from

Yuri Dmitriev Photo taken from

Yury Dmitriev, renowned historian of the Soviet Terror, Head of the Karelia branch of Memorial and Russian political prisoner has been named one of the new Righteous to be honoured on the European Day of the Righteous on 6 March 2024.  This is the latest of very many international awards or other forms of recognition of the historian whose persecution has been widely condemned as in reprisal for Dmitriev’s tireless work in ensuring that both the victims of Stalin’s Terror and the perpetrators, are known.  Dmitriev will be turning 67 in January 2024 in conditions that seriously undermine the health of men half his age, and publicity is vital if there is to be any hope of securing his release.  

The decision to declare Yury Dmitriev one of the new Righteous (together with Altiero Spinelli, Vera Vigevani Jarach and Narges Mohammad was taken on 25 November by the Assembly of the Association for the Garden of the Righteous in Milan.  This body is made up of the Gariwo Foundation [Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide]; the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the Municipality of Milan. 

It was Gariwo that first called for 6 March to be declared the European Day of the Righteous, which the European Parliament agreed to in 2012.  The date was no accident, as this marks the anniversary of the death in 2007 of Moshe Bejski, the head of the Yad Vashem Commission and creator of the Avenue of the Righteous among the Nations in Jerusalem.  The European Day broadens the concept of the Righteous to include all those who have taken a stand against genocide, other crimes against humanity and totalitarianism.  Milan’s Day of the Righteous of Humanity 2024 is to be entitled ‘Memory and responsibility. The example of the Righteous in the face of the challenges of our time’.  The Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, said that it is “love for truth; freedom; justice; respect, that are the values ​​that inhabit the Garden of the Righteous in Milan thanks to the stories of the women and men of yesterday and today that we honour here.”

The Dmitriev Affair

The decision in Milan comes shortly after an important film, entitled The Dmitriev Affair, and directed by Jessica Gorter, was awarded Best Human Rights Film at the Verzio International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Budapest.

There was already a great deal that needed to be said about Yury Dmitriev before the ‘Dmitriev Affair’ became associated with the current Russian regime’s sordid falsification of charges against the historian. The latter were clearly aimed at discrediting both Dmitriev and the renowned Memorial Society, with the FSB and prosecutor collaborating to this end with Russia’s propaganda media. 

It was thanks to Dmitriev and his colleagues from Memorial that the mass graves of Russian, Ukrainian and thousand of other victims of the Terror were found at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia. 

Dmitriev and Memorial may possibly have riled particular individuals through their work on identifying perpetrators, not only their victims, however Dmitriev’s persecution did not seem a merely regional matter.  Within days of his arrest, a state television channel had broadcast a scurrilously film aimed at slurring both Dmitriev and Memorial, with some of the material shown indicating that it had been made in collaboration with the ‘investigators’. 

It was almost certainly no coincidence that Dmitriev’s arrest largely coincided with attempts to push an ‘alternative history’ point of view, claiming that at least some of the graves at Sandarmokh are those of prisoners of war, supposedly killed by the Finnish Army. The current regime in Russia has been trying to ‘rewrite history’ for some time, with this involving the stealthy ‘rehabilitation’ of bloody dictator Joseph Stalin, the founder of the notorious Cheka Felix Dzherzhynsky and many others. The crimes of the Soviet regime are not totally denied, but are at best scarcely mentioned, at worst relativized, or even justified.  

Although it was Yury Dmitriev whose persecution was widely reported, he was one of two historians who had worked to bring the truth to light about Sandarmokh and who dismissed the attempts to claim that some of the mass graves were of Soviet POWs.  Dmitriev was arrested in December 2016, Sergei Koltyrin on 2 October 2018.  The huge pressure that Koltyrin was put under to reject the lawyer representing Dmitriev, only compounds suspicion that his case and nine-year sentence were as politically motivated as the charges against Dmitriev.  Koltyrin died in Russian captivity, with the prosecutor having prevented his release, even though he was clearly dying. The authorities could pretend all they liked that the charges against the two historians were over ‘criminal offences’, the public was not convinced.  Shortly after Koltyrin’s arrest, a public discussion over the claims about POW graves at Sandarmokh, which Koltyrin had dismissed, was cancelled. 

The recognition of Yury Dmitriev as one of the new Righteous, other international awards and condemnation of Russia’s persecution of the historian demonstrate that the attempt to discredit him through criminal prosecution spectacularly misfired. 

A brief outline of the charges first laid against Dmitriev, and the regime’s refusal to accept a record two acquittals can be found here:  

After two acquittals, Russia finds more compliant judges to pass 15-year sentence against historian of the Terror Yury Dmitriev

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