‘Who, if not us?’: Supporters of Russian political prisoner Yuri Dmitriev speak out
What makes people wait outside the closed doors of the courtroom, in hopes of seeing Dmitriev, a historian of the Gulag, for only a few seconds?
In the city of Petrozavodsk, Russian Gulag historian Yuri Dmitriev is on trial for a third time – and proceedings are coming to an end.
Over the past five years, Dmitriev has faced a series of charges, ranging from sexual abuse to illegal firearms possession. Now the Russian prosecution alleges that photos Dmitriev took of his young foster daughter constitute child pornography, though Dmitriev denies this, saying they were taken to document her improving health after the orphanage left her frail and sickly. Many believe the alleged crimes have been fabricated to prevent Dmitriev from continuing his historical research.
In 1997, Dmitriev located a mass gravesite, Sandarmokh, in his home region of Karelia, in northwestern Russia, where Stalinist executions were carried out during the 1930s. Since then, he has worked to compile lists of people who died in the massacres, which are now commemorated with a memorial complex. The Memorial Human Rights Association considers Dmitriev, who has spent much of the past five years in prison or pre-trial detention, a political prisoner.
But while the trials have been ongoing for years, Dmitriev’s colleagues and friends, and even people who do not know him personally, have travelled to support the historian in his confrontation with the Russian justice system.
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openDemocracy spoke to several of Dmitriev’s supporters to find out what motivates them: why do completely different people, previously unknown to one another, keep returning to wait outside the closed doors of the courtroom, in order to see Dmitriev for only a few seconds?
‘This helps me fight my fears’
Ekaterina Boykova, animator, St Petersburg
The first time I came to Petrozavodsk was when Yuri Dmitriev was acquitted in the first trial in 2017.
I found out about the case on Facebook and I was ‘hooked’. Then I read an article about it by Shura Burtin, and talked to the guys from the Moscow Film School, and came to believe that Dmitriev was not, in fact, guilty of what he is accused. I did not take the first step right away – I’m used to working alone, I do not like big groups of people. But when I saw Dmitriev in person – this was after his release in the first trial – I listened to what he was saying, and how, then I understood that he was a sincere person and was telling the truth.
That’s a skill of mine – I instantly cotton on to insincerity and lies. At my psychodrama lessons, we were taught to feel people, their moods. With Dmitriev, everything is pure truth. So I decided to visit the court when the next trial began, in part because very few people attend the courts. Apparently, Dmitriev’s research topic, the Soviet repressions, is too painful.
But for me, the repression – executions, burial pits in the forest – is also a scary topic, my body literally rejects it. But I see how many good people support Dmitriev, and I try to hold on. It turns out that the terrible, dark side of a person can easily rise to the fore, it’s enough just to give in! I also have this fear. But next to the people I meet in the corridors of the Petrozavodsk court, I forget that I am a coward – I love them very much and, perhaps, have become stronger as a result.
‘I wanted to understand everything myself’
Natalya Demina, mathematician and sociologist, science journalist, Moscow
When I first heard about Dmitriev’s arrest in the media, I thought ‘this is disgusting, this is paedophilia’. Then I read that article by Shura Burtin and my attitude changed. I met Dmitriev’s elder daughter, Katya Klodt, at the Gulag Museum in Moscow, and became even more convinced that Dmitriev was a completely normal person and that everything the official media said about him was doubtful.
But I am a journalist and I have to listen to all sides, evaluate all sides. When I began to travel to Petrozavodsk to attend the court sessions, I talked to Dmitriev’s lawyer, and with his relatives, friends, with people who have known Dmitriev for many years. I asked everyone, trying to understand for myself who is right and who is wrong. I realised that Dmitriev had a difficult character and that the situation in the family was rather difficult, that Natasha, Dmitriev’s foster daughter, was also a difficult girl. But when all this formed a single picture, it became absolutely clear to me that he was completely innocent.
Many of my friends are guided by the TV, I have to convince them: you should think for yourself
I met with various people involved with the trial, who told me how they had been pressured and discouraged from coming to court, and that they were threatened with being dismissed from the courtroom. In effect, I arranged a small trial for myself – I listened to witnesses from both sides to figure everything out for myself. Now I go to Petrozavodsk regularly.
To me, it’s obvious that Dmitriev is not guilty, but when I tell colleagues at work about this, or strangers when I am picketing, I understand how difficult it is to convince people who watch our TV. My trips to the court are an opportunity to see everything for myself and get information first-hand. I advise everyone to come at least once.
“Maybe people will finally start thinking for themselves?”
Vladimir Malegin, chairman of the Karelian Education organisation, Petrozavodsk
When I learned from my friends, whom I trust, who Dmitriev is, I immediately realised that this person must be protected. Now I try to come to every court hearing.
I’ve read the books of Yuri Dmitriev and Anatoly Razumov, and this became another piece of evidence in support of Dmitriev's innocence. Although many of my friends are guided by what the TV tells them, I have to convince them: you shouldn’t listen to the TV, but think for yourself.
For example, I am not concerned by the fact that Dmitriev took photographs of his adopted daughter without clothes on, in order to prove that she was OK. I myself worked with children for many years, I went through training, I had to deal with the guardianship authorities, I know what they are – nothing can be explained to them with words, you can only prove something with photographs. And the fact that Dmitriev helped raise a silent, intimidated girl – who ate raw pasta, because she was poorly fed in the orphanage – into a successful student and a good athlete, well, this is not evidence for either the guardianship authorities nor for ordinary people.
I regularly go to single pickets in support of Dmitriev, I meet different people with different opinions, but even if people stop and ask questions, I already think that this is a victory. Because many people repeat what the TV says, and when you show them documents, they are surprised. And I’m glad: maybe people will finally start thinking for themselves?
“Who, if not us?”
Andrey Litvin, civic activist, Petrozavodsk
I have known Yuri Dmitriev for a long time, since the time when Sandarmokh was discovered. As one of the leaders of the Ukrainian National Society, I constantly collaborated with him, helping to organise trips to Sandarmokh. When I learned about Dmitriev’s arrest, I was shocked. Just a few days later, a support group for Dmitriev on Facebook was organized, and a month after his arrest, a public birthday party for him took place on the streets of Petrozavodsk.
When the court sessions began, I started attending almost every time. And I try to constantly organise pickets – both single and group actions – in support of Dmitriev. You have to debate with others, but most often you find people who repeat positions off TV. My former colleagues at the university tend to understand, but few dares to openly support him – the fear of speaking out, which we’ve had since Soviet times, is strong.
Why do I keep going to the hearings? Maybe it sounds a bit full-on, but if we don’t go – then who? And if you retreat, how can you then live in peace with your conscience?
“We are all guilty for allowing this horror to repeat itself”
Dmitry Tsvibel, civic activist, musician, Petrozavodsk
Dmitriev is my friend, and when a person is in trouble, they need help. Of course, I did not expect that he would be accused of such crimes, although he told me long before his arrest that he was being followed, that the police were calling him. It’s clear that something was being prepared for a long time, but no one imagined that it would be this.
At the very beginning, after Dmitriev’s arrest, I wrote to the law enforcement agencies to ask that Dmitriev’s case be dealt with honestly and impartially. They didn’t respond, and soon I saw a disgusting news story about Dmitriev, where they showed pictures of [his daughter] Natasha, which in itself is already a criminal offence.
All his life, Dmitriev tried to defend the memory of those who were condemned and executed on the most savage charges under Soviet rule. This wheel, it seems, has turned once again, and Dmitriev has fallen under it – we are all to blame for the fact that we allowed this repression to repeat itself.
Unfortunately, in Petrozavodsk as a whole people now view this case indifferently – to my great shame. Yes, they say, we understand everything, but this does not concern us, we have children, families.
Now a group of people has formed to support the Dmitriev case – at a different time, we might not have come together. This is already a good thing.
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