Prisoner of Conscience: Yury Dmitriev, Russia
In 1997 historian and researcher Yury Dmitriev made a gruesome discovery in the Sandarmokh forest of Karelia, a Russian region close to the border with Finland. He found the burial grounds of thousands of political prisoners massacred there under Stalin’s regime. The woods are considered the region’s largest site where executions took place of the communist party’s political rivals during the so-called Great Terror. Between 1936 and 1938, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin killed hundreds of thousands of Russians seen as a threat to his regime and sent many more to labour camps known as Gulags.
Since the 1980s, Dmitriev had been studying mass graves in Karelia and trying to shed light on its Stalin-era atrocities. However, his pursuit of truth about Russia’s past has cost him dear.
He was initially arrested in 2016 when police raided his home, found naked photos of his adopted daughter on his computer, and charged him with producing pornographic photos, sexual abuse of a child, and possession of a firearm. Dmitriev, a representative of the rights organization Memorial, explained that the photos had been taken to monitor the girl’s growth and health, as she was suffering from a chronic disease at the time.
His arrest came shortly after state media started criticizing Memorial of aiding “those who aim to destroy the Russian state”, the Moscow Times reported.
In 2018 the Petrozavodsk City Court acquitted Dmitriev of two charges but sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for illegally possessing a firearm. A few months later, a higher court overturned the sentence and returned the case for retrial. As a result, Dmitriev was detained again.
In July 2020 the Petrozavodsk City Court sentenced the historian to three and a half years in prison and he was expected to be released in November due to time served. In September, however, the Karelia Supreme Court overturned the earlier verdict and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. A few days prior to the court’s decision, close to 250 Russian human rights advocates, academics, journalists, politicians, and writers sent a letter, asking the trial to be transferred to another region and expressing doubt about the objectivity of the court.
Local and international human rights organizations see the sentence as an attempt to silence the researcher for his work with Memorial which has been investigating Stalin-era crimes. Moreover, Dmitriev’s case is an example of the increased state repression of human rights advocates and organizations in Russia, which oftentimes include prosecution, smear campaigns, and bogus charges.
Memorial and its supporters see Dmitriev as a political prisoner and say that the trial against him was based on fabricated evidence. In the meantime, pro-Kremlin media and different nationalistic organizations in Russia launched a campaign to challenge Dmitriev’s findings in Karelia by claiming that some of the corpses found at Sandarmokh belong to Soviet soldiers killed by the Finnish Army during World War II.
Russian authorities have long targeted Memorial for its efforts to commemorate victims of the Stalinist regime and list it as a “foreign agent”. In October 2019, special forces raided the offices of the organization and the home of its director in the Ural city of Perm. The search was part of an investigation into “illegal logging” allegedly done by the organization’s activists a year earlier. Memorial’s team told Human Rights Watch their alleged crime constituted of removing old branches and a fence from a cemetery where some Lithuanians and Poles displaced under Stalin’s regime were buried. A month later, a Moscow court fined the organization for failing to add “foreign agent” tags to their social media and YouTube posts.
Disclaimer: As of December 1, 2020, research shows that Yury Dmitriev is still in prison, serving the remaining of his sentence.
Note: Some Western publications refer to him as Yuri Dmitriev.
Prisoners of Conscience from East and Southeast Europe
We feature select few prisoners of conscience out of the many in East and Southeast Europe. One political prisoner is one too many.
Find out who the other political prisoners are #PrisonersofConscience #FreeThemAll and in the special Focus on our website.