On May 21, the day of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Andrei Sakharov, the Norway Helsinki Committee awarded the Sakharov prize for freedom to the Russian historian Jurij Dmitriev, motivating this choice with the existence of a “direct line between Sakharov’s struggle and that of Dmitriev in today’s Russia ”. At the center of one of the most important court cases in Russia in recent years, until his arrest in 2016, Yuri Dmitriev was known only to gulag history specialists and the descendants of the thousands of victims of the years of the great Stalinist terror..
In 1997 Dmitriev and other activists found mass graves containing the bodies of more than seven thousand victims of Stalinism in Krasny Bor and Sandarmoch, two wooded towns in Karelia, western Russia.. Sandarmoch, in particular, has since become an important memorial site for the gulag, a “memorial cemetery” with dozens of monuments and photographs of the victims scattered among the trees.
Everything changes on December 13, 2016, when Dmitriev is arrested on suspicion of producing child pornography and illegally possessing firearms. Doubts about the accusations arise from the moment of his arrest and push Memorial, the Russian NGO founded by Sakharov and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 (of which Dmitriev is a part), to talk about a mounted case. Dozens of intellectuals, activists and ordinary citizens launch an unprecedented campaign of support. The decision of the authorities to credit a theory put forward by two local historians and aimed at arguing that in Sandarmoch, in addition to the victims of Stalin , there are also the corpses of Red Army soldiers, killed by the Finnish army during the so-called continuation war between the two countries, between 1941 and 1944. The thesis, based on hypotheses discredited by the vast majority of historians and not supported by any archival document, it would therefore reduce the responsibilities of the Russian army towards its fellow citizens. Within a few months it was decided to have excavations carried out in the Sandarmoch mass graves.
At the end of the trial, on April 5, 2018, Dmitriev is acquitted of the charges of creating child pornography material and sentenced to two and a half years for illegal possession of weapons (the accusation refers to fragments of a disused rifle found in his garage). : the evaluations of independent experts, which fully exonerate the historian from the most infamous accusation, are decisive. A few weeks later, however, the sentence is canceled by the Supreme Court of Karelia and a new trial is started on the basis of new allegations of sexual abuse.
The second trial takes place along the lines of the first, between support campaigns in Russia and abroad and new revelations capable of casting further shadows on the accusatory system: the independent experts called to evaluate the accusations declare that the adopted daughter was forced to admitting the “abuses” (ie the gesture, by Dmitriev, of ascertaining whether the child had urinated) in an atmosphere of psychological pressure on the part of the investigators. The verdict, issued on 22 July 2020, confirms the factual inconsistency of the accusations: Dmitriev is again acquitted of the charge of creating child pornography material and also of the charge of illegal possession of weapons (which, moreover, he had confessed) and is sentenced to three and a half years for abuse. A de facto acquittal, given that the article for which he is indicted provides for a minimum sentence of 12 years.
The last hope
The story does not end there, because on appeal the Supreme Court of Karelia, for the second time, cancels the verdict of the Petrozavodsk court, sentences Dmitriev to 13 years of detention in a penal colony and orders a third trial for the charges of creating child pornography material. The sentence is handed down while Dmitriev’s defense lawyer is forced into solitary confinement due to the covid. Despite the defense’s requests to postpone the hearing, the court assigns Dmitriev an official lawyer, who is given three working days to read the thousands of pages of the case. Upon reading the sentence, Dmitriev, via video link, is silenced whenever he complains of not being able to hear what is being said.
The numerous violations that occurred during the trial prompt the defense to appeal to the third court of cassation in Petersburg, which however confirms the ruling of the Supreme Court of Karelia. Despite having appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (whose sentences Russia is not obliged to respect), in fact the hopes of Dmitriev – who is currently facing the third trial on the charges from which he was acquitted twice – they are hanging by a thread. The defense prepares the appeal to the Russian federal supreme court, which, however, has no obligation to consider the case. If he were to refuse to do so, the last hope would be Putin’s act of leniency.
The Dmitriev case and the excavations at Sandarmoch are the most striking events of the war of memory on the gulags that has been waged in Russia for several years. The collective trauma of Soviet repressions has been taboo for decades, and after a brief period of openness at the turn of the events that marked the end of the USSR, it became a silent presence in Russian society until, starting in 2012, the state has decided to deal with it directly, launching a series of initiatives, such as the financing of the renovated museum of the history of the gulag, the creation of a Memory Fund and the inauguration of a huge monument to the victims of the gulag, the Wall of Pain.
At the same time, the attacks on NGOs that have dealt with the memory of the gulag since their birth (including Memorial), almost all registered in the register of “foreign agents” under a 2012 law and frequently fined, have highlighted the desire to silence independent voices, unable to accept what Putin said during the inauguration of the Wall of Pain in 2017: that the gulag is a terrible page of the Russian past, which must certainly be remembered, but avoiding to deal with the past . The attacks on Memorial, which has published the names of dozens of material perpetrators of death sentences during Stalinism, and on Dmitriev, who has repeatedly publicly condemned the Soviet state for killing its own citizens, seem to suggest that there is no more room for who wants to remember what happened without filters.
Sandarmoch’s “rewriting” aimed at making it a place of memory linked to the war, the revival of Stalinism and the recent project aimed at reviving the use of forced labor by Russian prisoners on the Bam, the railway built mainly by prisoners of the gulag between 1932 and 1953 seem to confirm that an attempt is underway, on the one hand, to appropriate the memory space of the gulag, and on the other to propose a more acceptable vision of Soviet horrors.
In the preface to a book he worked on in prison and in the few months he spent free between trials, Dmitriev writes that he was targeted because he proposes a different idea of the relationship between citizens and institutions in Russia: ” Not the individual at the service of the state, but the state at the service of the individual ”. About 500 pages of biographies of citizens killed by the Soviet regime follow.