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Zoya Svetova: The Case of Yury Dmitriev and the Dragon from the Great Terror [Open Russia]

posted 12 Jun 2017, 03:41 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 12 Jun 2017, 03:52 ]
1 June 2017

By Zoya Svetova

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Оpen Russia]

The trial of Yury Dmitriev, director of the branch of Memorial human rights organization in Karelia, begins on 1 June in Petroazvodsk City Court in a closed hearing. He is accused of making pornographic pictures of his adopted daughter. “Committing acts of debauchery” and “illegal possession of basic firearm parts” were later added to that charge.

Yury Dmitriev was arrested 13 December 2016. The case against him was initiated on the basis of an anonymous complaint. Dmitriev himself stated that not long before his arrest, strangers got into his flat and rummaged through his computer. Photographs of his adopted daughter in a naked state were found on his computer during the subsequent police search.

The story, “What the Memorial Society is Hiding” was broadcast on the Russia-24 TV channel on 10 January 2017. Journalist Zoya Svetova spoke with Dmitriev’s attorney and his colleagues at the International Memorial Society in Moscow.

Attorney Viktor Anufriev: “If the verdict is to comply with the law, then Yury Dmitriev should be acquitted”

How does Yury Dmitriev himself explain his criminal prosecution?

His position is unchanged. All the photographs, on which the charges are based, were part of a so-called “daily health journal”. The photographs were made in order to record the physical development of his adoptive daughter, because she had fallen behind in physical development. There isn’t a hint of what he’s accused of in those photographs. My opinion, as defence attorney, is that his actions do not constitute a crime. And why has this case emerged? It’s worth looking beyond the scope of this case for the answer.

An expert opinion on the photographs was filed as the basis of the charges [of 140 photographs, experts found signs of pornography in nine — Open Russia]. We call into question its conclusion. There is a dispute over the analysis. We requested a repeat analysis; we cited reasons why the expert opinion did not inspire our trust and is not substantiated evidence. The investigators refused our request. We challenged this denial at the Petrozavodsk City Court, but the court also refused our request. This was strange, because our request had strong legal grounds. We appealed against that court's refusal at the Supreme Court of Karelia, and on 5 June our appeal will be considered. The court of first instance that is hearing the case can also appoint its own expert evaluation, but we would like to get the decision of the Karelian Supreme Court and see how it assesses the actions of the investigators. For us, that is important.

Will many defence witnesses appear in court?

Nine Photographs, which supposedly contain elements of pornography, are being used as evidence against Yury Dmitriev; i.e. he clicked the shutter nine times on his telephone or camera, then saved the photographs to his computer, and archived them. But he didn’t touch them anymore, didn’t distribute them, didn’t print them, didn’t look at them himself. He has explained why these photographs were necessary, and these explanations are entirely reasonable and well grounded. Therefore there are no witnesses for the prosecution in this case, just as there are no full-fledged witnesses for the defence. For example, his older daughter Katerina will speak in court. Just think for yourself: what kind of witness would she make for the prosecution? So, there are no witnesses as such. And that’s why there are no witnesses for the defence who would be able to say something about the circumstances of the case. Yes, we will have witnesses for the defence. We will enter a request for their examination in court. But in principle they will be people who know him from work, from his social activism, from his work on the excavation of Soviet mass burials.

Will his adoptive daughter appear in court?

Yes, she will be examined in the presence of her legal representative. She doesn’t say anything bad about Yury Dmitriev. She wants to live with him. She writes text messages to his older daughter Ekaterina. She asks when Papa will be released, she wants to be with him. So there are no witnesses who would accuse Dmitriev of anything.

And the Child Protection Services? Surely they can corroborate that they gave Dmitriev instructions to record the child’s development in photographs?

No, they didn’t give him such instructions. There are circumstances which forced him to make those photographs.

Do you hope that the case will fall apart in court?

If the verdict is to comply with the law, it must be an acquittal. It can’t be otherwise. But unfortunately application of the law can be something different, and that's why I cannot and will not make any predictions. There are two possible outcomes: a judgment in compliance with the law, in which case Dmitriev should be acquitted; or a judgment on the basis of other circumstances that have no relation to this criminal case. In the latter case, the outcome may be quite the opposite.


Sergei Krivenko, member of the Human Rights Council, board member of the International Memorial Society, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group: “The prosecution of Dmitriev is politically motivated.”

Yury Dmitriev is a very well-known person. He is an independent historian, the creator of Books of Remembrance, and instrumental in the finding and commemoration of Sandarmokh [one of the largest burial sites of victims of the Stalinist repressions in NorthWest Russia – Open Russia]. He located Krasny Bor, another burial site near Petrozavodsk, and many places in Karelia where people were shot. This is a man who works to preserve the historical memory of the Great Terror. And the situation is very nuanced: on the one hand, his activities are supported by the Karelian government. In 1997, when Sandarmokh was found, the region's government supported all the independent initiatives and speedily made the area accessible. In the course of the past twenty years a tradition has grown up: on August 4, the day the Great Terror began, a Day of Remembrance is marked in Sandarmokh. This tradition has carried on uninterrupted for the past 20 years, and Yury Dmitriev is one of the organisers and a leading participant in the events. On the occasion of his 60th birthday last year, the regional government presented him with a diploma and official recognition. But after 2014, in connection with well-known events [in Ukraine – ed], Yury Dmitriev’s activity in organising international days of remembrance in Sandarmokh began to irritate certain forces in Karelia and the law enforcement agencies.

He actively invited delegations from Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic States. Sandarmokh is a place of international remembrance, where people of many nationalities, many foreigners, and the flower of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were shot. It was probably the trend in Russia towards self-isolation that led some influential people to become uncomfortable with delegations from other countries coming and taking part in these events alongside the Karelian authorities.

This is most likely the only reason that led to an instruction being given, in slang terms, to “shut Yury Dmitriev up." Why do I say that? This criminal prosecution against him does not stand up to criticism. And a closer look at the indictment, and at the way things are going, shows that the charge is absolutely fantastical and groundless.

He is accused of making pornographic photographs of a naked girl – his adopted daughter – that are taken from a family album. This is a contemptible trick that kills two birds with one stone: it discredits both Memorial and Dmitriev. And it’s entirely unfounded. I’ve known Dmitriev personally for 20 years, and went on an expedition to Solovki with him and his adopted daughter. Their relationship is not unusual in any way. Social services observed this family for the eight years the girl spent living with Dmitriev, and there were no instances of assault or any other kind of incident. The girl gave good testimony during about Dmitriev during the investigation, and Dmitriev himself pleaded not guilty. When there is no basis for the charges, you can see how they tried to build the case against him: at first they tried to find evidence that he had been distributing pornography.

No evidence was found that these photographs had ever been shared either online or via file transfer; they were kept on Dmitriev’s home computer. His only aim in photographing his adopted daughter was to monitor her health: when he took her from the children’s home she was suffering from dystrophy. None of the photographs used to incriminate him featured unusual objects or strangers. They were purely for the purpose of monitoring her health. This fits with Dmitriev’s character. He unearths burial sites, ranges across Karelia, and he is “fixated” on the idea of recording things, he records everything: the bones he finds at burial sites, all the remains. And so he easily took to the idea that he should record this girl’s health. And so the 140 photographs found on his computer are mostly taken face-on, in profile, from the side and from the back.

The girl stands before the camera, and he takes photos of her from various different angles and in various years of her life. Last year, after she had recovered her strength, there was no longer any need for recording and he stopped taking these photos. As far as I remember, the last photo dates from 2015.

From my point of view, this is a completely contrived prosecution, with a political motive.

There is his interview and the testimony of his friends and colleagues to show that during the last year before his arrest he felt that he was the object of particular attention - he was the object of some kind of surveillance, and there were weird phone calls. And this all got worse in the last few months, when the discussion about executioners and victims began. Especially after they declared Memorial a foreign agent NGO. Most likely, all these circumstances untied the hands of certain groups of people who thought: now that it's permitted to persecute and discredit Memorial on a federal level, we'll go and do it on a local level as well.

Members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights came to Karelia, we went to the child protection services, to the prosecutor's office. We'll follow the course of the trial through our lawyer. We'll follow this matter as it develops, and give our own evaluations.

Right now one of the basic features of the case that further shows how the matter was "made to order" is that the investigator never gave permission for an independent review to be conducted. The Centre which conducted the review is currently facing, an enormous number of questions. It was this same Centre which provided the evaluation in the Jehovah’s Witnesses case, in the case of Pussy Riot. In fact, they have carried out reviews in many political trials.

In order to strengthen the prosecution, the investigators brought forward a further two counts: "depraved activity", which consisted of "Dmitriev being aroused during the photographing of a child" and, as an appendage, "illegal possession of weapons".

At his home he kept an old popgun, which is not a weapon, with a drilled-through barrel. Dmitriev either found it somewhere, or took it from the boys who used to play with it. Upon his arrest the popgun was handed over to the inquiry, which determined that it was not a firearm. Nevertheless, the investigators left this charge in place. I think that it will fall away in court if the judge shows objectivity, but the charge on the other counts will remain. Basically, it is games of this kind being played by the investigation that demonstrate how the case is "made to order".


Aleksandr Daniel, International Memorial Society: "Dmitriev dug up those graves, and a dragon from the Great Terror crawled out and devoured him"

Over the years of his work Yury Dmitriev became not only a splendid field researcher. He also became unique and unsurpassed as a kind of harvester of archives. This led to entirely unique results: You know that phrase that everyone always quotes, that line of Akhmatov - "I'd like to call you all by name", well - he alone actually did it! Dmitriev gave the St Petersburg Memorial a database of archive materials he had compiled for one of our projects, a virtual tour of Sandarmokh - and we used only a fragment of this database for the project. So you see, he turned Akhmatov's poetic metaphor into a precise characterisation of the outcome of his research. Here were 13,411 individuals condemned during the time of the Great Terror. Here were their family names, their patronymics, the years of their birth, their place of residence, professions, place of work, occupations, the date of their arrests and their they all were. All this biographical data, each person by name. And if you want, you can find out exactly the same about the 8,338 people condemned by the Karelian “Troika” [a three-person tribunal that ruled in the cases]; you can find out about the 2,091 people condemned by the Moscow “Dvoika” [a two-person tribunal that ruled in the cases], through Karelian records. If you want, you can find out about the 1,828 of those condemned by the "Dvoika" who were shot?

I spent two absolutely remarkable months last summer going through the whole of this database. I examined it from every angle and could not tear myself away. There is no other Russian region where the Great Terror has been studied to such an extent, right down to the very last person. We all know a lot about the Great Terror at the national level – there are databases of orders, memoranda, decrees – but we know virtually nothing at the regional level. All we have are encrypted telegrams between the regions and the Lubyanka. And even then not all the telegrams, just a select few. These encrypted telegrams mostly contain statistics rather than specific names. There are no people, just numbers. Only in Karelia do we have everything at the level of individual people, and that is all thanks to Dmitriev. The database shows how these orders and decrees from Moscow were put into effect in Karelia, in the BelBaltLag (the White Sea–Baltic Camp). Everything can be traced day by day, month by month. The database could be used to create a new branch of historical knowledge, a sociology of the Great Terror. Without mincing words, what Dmitriev has managed to do is a monumental feat of research.

He is a terribly, monstrously ‘inconvenient’ person who has no respect for rank. We are all rather afraid of our superiors, even if just a little, but he is afraid of nothing. He is as fearless as a fox terrier and can step on people’s toes and get in their way. It was he who drove the human rights work in Karelia.

Of course, I didn’t believe for a second that there was anything bad in those photographs they charged him with, but I was initially afraid that other people who don’t know Yury might believe it. That danger has passed now though, thank goodness, and it passed thanks to the overzealousness of the investigators. The charges immediately began to multiply. Suddenly he was not just being charged with pornography but also ‘lewd acts’, that is the photographs themselves were found to be ‘lewd acts’. This was still not enough, however, so he was then charged with possessing a rusty old gun. The moment I found out about the rusty gun, I started to relax. Now no one will believe a single word of the charges. Everyone in Russia knows that when the accusations are being piled up, it means the investigators haven’t been able to sew a case together. That’s why they’re running around like headless chickens.

Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that Dmitriev will be acquitted, because it has also made clear that there is considerable interest in convicting him, whatever the initial reasons, to shut him up. But now they are all terribly interested in convicting him to defend the honour of their department. For this reason, I am not very optimistic.

But then I know Yury and the most important thing for him is what his friends and regular people think of him. There is not a single normal person now who will believe a word of the charges against him.

Shura Burtin made a very good observation in his article. He said we can look at the case against Dmitriev not so much in terms of a handful of simple reasons. We need to have certain 'mystical' reasons in mind. Dmitriev dug up all those graves of the victims of the Great Terror, and a dragon crawled out of them and devoured him. A dragon from the Great Terror. Even the charges are typical of the years of the Great Terror – how many people were charged in 1937 and 1938 with possessing guns! A huge number.

I remember my grandmother, Alla Grigorievna, once told me about how she was found to be in possession of a ‘Monte Cristo’ air gun and they accused her of wanting to use the gun to shoot Comrade Stalin. It wasn’t even a gun, just the barrel – the breechblock and stock were missing. I should say that at that time, the investigator eventually cleared my grandmother of this charge, replacing it with the more straightforward charge of “Anti-Soviet agitation”. These days, however, the investigators seem to be of a standard lower than those of 1937. 

Letter sent by Yury Dmitriev from his detention centre

Anna Yarovaya was one of the first journalists to report in depth on the case brought against Yury Dmitriev; her article appeared on the website 7×7. It concludes with a letter sent to her by Dmitriev from the detention centre (SIZO) in Petrozavodsk, where he is being held, and reads in part:

Dear Anna

Thank you for your warm words of support!

I had no idea that such a banal event as the arrest of a “Khottabych” [a reference to a genie who figures in several films based on a children’s story - trans.would attract so much public attention. [For me], the reaction of ordinary people to the destruction of my family is very important. The family is crucial: it shapes the personailty and prompts the individual to action. Any encroachment by the state on the family provokes indignation among normal people. The enormity and presumptuousness of the accusations that have been made against me only underline the “humanity” of our current government. 

I do not fear the future. The worst thing that could happen has already happened: [our adopted daughter] Sveta [not her real name – AY] has been taken away from us. She has lost her family for the second time and, at the whim of the state, has been tossed back into the situation from which, with considerable difficulty, I rescued her eight years ago.

During the eight years she lived with our family, Sveta grew from a small, sick little girl into an independent-minded young lady with a well-developed view of the world, a wide range of interests, the ability to help others, and full health. Sveta on her own initiative chose the Orthodox faith as her main pillar of support in life. She independently decided to take part in sports. That too was a very successful decision. In a single academic year, she won three medals and our city’s champion’s cup for her grade. Sveta became so organically integrated into our family that we forgot that she had not been with us since birth, and Sveta gave us the same love back. [...]

How can we return Sveta to our family? How can she be raised and given a good education? These are the questions that now concern me far more than how many years the state is preparing to give for me as punishment for my civic position. I don't see any other explanation for my "sudden" prosecution. [...] Whose path did I cross? I have not yet found an answer. But I do understand that everything happens according to God’s will.

So far, I do not understand what role the Lord will give me for the next few years of my life. Whether He has chosen me to be a martyr, or a preacher, or to play some kind of unifying role—the time will come when I will find out for sure. And then He will show me my way. In the meantime, I and my lawyer are fighting for our rights, we are fighting against the bias of the investigation and the blatant lies of the charges brought against me.

Meeting with Katyushhka helps me to stay sane and rational, as do the warm letters of support that I receive from all over the country, and my daily conversations with God.

I am following with great concern the events taking place in the country. Unfortunately, the worst predictions come true, and I fear that big trouble awaits not just me but everyone.

I am concerned for you. I am praying for you.

Yury Dmitriev
11 February 2017. Pre-Trial Detention Centre No. 1 Petrozavodsk

Translation by Anna Bowles, Elizabeth Teague, Mark Nuckols, Nicky Brown and Will Dudley