Russia gulag historian awaits verdict in ‘sham’ trial

Russian historian Yury Dmitriyev spent decades locating and exhuming mass graves of those killed in summary executions during Stalin's rule
AFP/File Alexander NEMENOV

Petrozavodsk (Russia) (AFP) – A Russian historian who has researched and exhumed Stalin-era mass graves is set on Thursday to receive a verdict in a child pornography trial that supporters have denounced as a sham.

Activists say the case against Yury Dmitriyev is an attempt by authorities to muzzle the outspoken historian who has chronicled one of the darkest chapters in Russia’s history.

Prosecutors have requested nine years in a “harsh regime” colony for the 62-year-old, who is the head of rights group Memorial’s branch in Karelia in northwestern Russia.

Dmitriyev has been tried behind closed doors on child pornography and other charges in a case that has outraged Russia’s human rights activists and liberals.

Some expect the verdict and the sentence to serve as a barometer for the country’s direction under the fourth Kremlin term of President Vladimir Putin, who extended his rule until 2024 in an election last month.

Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said he did not believe that Dmitriyev would be acquitted.

“There is no hope of anyone concerning themselves with civil society or giving it more freedom — this will not happen under any circumstances,” he told AFP.

“I think it will be a guilty verdict.”

A judge was initially expected to deliver the verdict on Tuesday but the hearing was postponed.

– ‘Uncomfortable person’ –

Dmitriyev spent decades locating and exhuming mass graves of those killed in summary executions during Stalin’s rule.

Alexander Cherkasov, a senior director at Memorial, said the case against the historian, an “uncomfortable person” for Moscow given his work and stance against the authorities, had been fabricated, telling AFP there had been multiple procedural violations.

“His activities do not make ideological and administrative bosses happy,” he added.  

Dmitriyev was arrested in late 2016 and spent more than a year in pre-trial detention where he was subjected to psychiatric evaluation before being released last January after calls of prominent figures to free him.

The historian denies the charges. 

Dmitriyev’s defence says the photographs were taken to track the health of his adopted daughter Natalya due to the child’s malnourished state.

The pictures were seized during an illegal search after an anonymous tip-off to police.

Experts, who last examined the pictures, came to a conclusion that they were not pornographic but the prosecution took issue with that finding, according to the defence.

“Essentially, this means that prison awaits anyone who has naked pictures of children or grandchildren in their home photo album,” said top independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

– ‘Dear dad, I miss you’ –

Instead of delivering a speech in his defence last week, Dmitriyev read out in court a letter his adopted daughter sent him while he was in pre-trial detention last year.

“Dear dad, I miss you very much. I am hoping that you will be released soon,” said the hand-written letter a copy of which was published by Novaya Gazeta. 

“Love you with all my heart,” said the letter decorated with red hearts.

The girl now lives with her grandmother, who originally sent the child to an orphanage before the historian adopted her.

Dmitriyev helped open the Sandarmokh memorial in a pine forest in Karelia in memory of thousands of victims — including many foreigners — executed in 1937 and 1938.

He was released from pre-trial detention after prominent figures including Natalia Solzhenitsyna, the widow of the Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and acclaimed film director Andrei Zvyagintsev urged he be freed.

Rights groups have accused Putin of seeking to whitewash Stalin’s crimes amid patriotic fervour whipped up by state propaganda.

Historians estimate about one million people perished in Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s out of around 20 million who died under his three-decade rule before his death in 1953.

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