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Russian Court Ups Prison Sentence for Soviet Gulag Researcher

FILE - Russian historian Yuri Dmitriyev, center, speaks to the media outside a court in the city of Petrozavodsk, northwestern Russia, April 5, 2018.

A Russian court abruptly increased the sentence of a history researcher from three-and-a-half to 13 years in prison — a move his supporters say is the latest in state retaliation over research into Stalinist-era atrocities that today’s Russian authorities would rather forget.

Yuri Dmitriyev, 64, was convicted of “violent acts of a sexual nature” and sentenced to the initial term last July, on charges he touched his underage foster daughter inappropriately.

At the time, the verdict appeared to cap a winding three-year court proceeding that saw Dmitriyev held in detention throughout — in effect, giving him a partial victory. Despite the sentence, the historian was set to go free this November.

Yet a closed appeal hearing on Tuesday suddenly overruled earlier sentencing guidelines, with the court ruling Dmitriyev should serve out an additional 10 years in a maximum security prison.

Dmitriyev has always denied the sex abuse charges and says they were motivated by shifting state attitudes toward his discovery of the remains of thousands of prisoners killed during the Great Terror period under Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin in the 1930s.

Dmitriyev’s lawyer was unable to attend the hearing due to health issues and a court-appointed lawyer was given three days to acquaint himself with the sprawling case instead.

In a letter to friends ahead of the hearing, Dmitriyev said he told the court he refused the substitute defense lawyer.

Memorial, the human rights group with which Dmitriyev was affiliated, denounced the harsher sentence as “illegal, unjust, and politically motivated.”

“Today’s sentencing — is the revenge of a system that came after the Soviets and wants again to betray the silenced names” unearthed by Dmitriyev, said the group.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow also condemned the court’s ruling.

“The Karelian Supreme Court’s decision to prolong historian Yuri Dmitriyev’s already unjust sentence by an outrageous 10 additional years is another step backwards for #human rights and historical truths in #Russia,” spokeswoman Rebecca Ross said on Twitter.

On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin traditionally did not comment on court decisions but would “more attentively become acquainted” with the case.

Troubling discovery

The origins of the case date to 1997, when Dmitriyev and two colleagues discovered a mass grave of some 7,000 remains in Sandarmokh, a remote wooded area in northwest Russia.

They had uncovered the remains of Soviet political prisoners executed by Stalin’s secret police at the height of his repression of opponents, both real and perceived, from 1937-38.

“We were searching for those prisoner remains for nine years,” says the head of Memorial in Saint Petersburg, Irina Flige, in an interview with VOA.

FILE - A giant stone marking the site, known as Sandramokh engraved with the words "People Don't Kill Each Other" at a mass grave where thousands of victims of Stalin's Great Terror were executed, outside Medvezhyegorsk, Russia, Aug. 9, 2006.
FILE - A giant stone marking the site, known as Sandramokh engraved with the words "People Don't Kill Each Other" at a mass grave where thousands of victims of Stalin's Great Terror were executed, outside Medvezhyegorsk, Russia, Aug. 9, 2006.

The site became an annual point of pilgrimage for surviving relatives scattered across the former Soviet empire.

“We should remember those who perished by the evil will of our government leaders,” said Dmitriyev in recalling the finding during his closing statement to the court in July.

“That’s what I consider patriotism.”

Only that view increasingly clashed with shifting views of the darker chapters of Soviet history under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Stalin’s repression has never been whitewashed completely, Putin’s government has encouraged the violence of the era be “balanced” with the Soviet leader’s positive achievements — such as leading the USSR to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

In the case of Dmitriyev’s discovery at Sandarmokh, the shifting cultural landscape saw pro-Kremlin historical groups maintaining that the victims’ remains belonged not to Soviet prisoners, but Red Army soldiers killed by Finnish troops in World War II.

The majority of historians have cast doubt on those claims, but state media have embraced the new interpretation.

“The memory of the terror — it’s not some deep dark past,” Irina Flige of Memorial tells VOA.

“The systemic crimes of the Soviet authorities and the systemic crimes of today’s government overlap. Both think they have the right to do with a person however they wish.”

Legal troubles

Dmitriyev’s troubles with the law began in 2016, when authorities charged him with possession of child pornography. Additional charges of nonviolent sexual abuse of a minor and illegal possession of “components of a firearm” were later added, after investigators discovered a half-broken Soviet-era rifle in his home.

He was acquitted of all charges except for illegal weapons possession in 2018 and sentenced to probation.

Only months later, the decision was overturned by the region’s Supreme Court, and new sexual abuse charges were filed based on Dmitriyev’s treatment of his underage adopted daughter.

Dmitriyev has always denied the charges and says he took photographs of his daughter to document her improving health from malnutrition experienced during early years in a Russian orphanage.

Critics of the case also point to the conviction of Sergei Koltyrin, a fellow local Gulag historian and proponent of Dmitriyev’s research, on separate child molestation charges in 2019 as showing a pattern of sidelining inconvenient voices with sordid allegations.

Koltyrin, 66, died in prison last April from cancer.

A chorus of supporters

Over time, Dmitriyev has become a cause celebre within Russia.

In 2019, more than 200 of Russia’s leading artists and musicians issued an appeal to the government to release him.

On the eve of Tuesday’s ruling, another 250 leading human rights activists, historians, scientists, and writers issued a public appeal out of concern the court would extend Dmitriyev’s detention.

The group voiced concerns that — without access to his lawyer — Dmitriyev was essentially left to defend himself.

Lev Shlossberg, a liberal politician with the Yabloko party, called the court decision “unfortunately expected” given the lasting ties between Russia’s current day security forces and their predecessors in the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

“Dmitriyev’s investigation of NKVD graves in Sandarmokh, it appears, concern very influential people in the security services. Possibly, the direct descendants of the executioners.”

The NKVD was the Soviet Union’s interior ministry.