The Yuri Dmitriev Affair
By Anna Yarovaya, 7X7
March 12 is, technically, the last day of historian Yuri Dmitriev’s term in police custody during the investigation of the accusations made against him.
According to Dmitriev’s attorney, the historian will probably be indicted and his case sent to court. Yuri Dmitriev has been accused of producing pornography.
Neither his colleagues, friends or people who have worked at some time with Yuri Dmitriev believe the charges are true. Many link his arrest to the work he has done his whole life: searching for the places where political prisoners were shot, compiling lists of victims of political crackdowns during the Soviet period, and heading Memorial’s Karelian branch.
But this article is not about the criminal case, which falls within the jurisdiction of law enforcement. Hoping for a objective investigation, we can only wait for a fair resolution to this situation. We decided it was important to tell readers about the cause to which the arrested historian has devoted his life.
This article might be called a series of interviews about Dmitriev. It has transpired we knew almost nothing about him. On the other hand, it has become clear why a man like him might have been seen as “inconvenient” by the current regime.
From the Author
I met Yuri Dmitriev in 2012. I was on assignment, shooting a story about the construction of houses on the site of a former cemetery, and it led me to the historian. The story first grew into a ten-minute TV program, and then ballooned into an investigative film. We visited archives and former burial sites, traveled to working cemeteries, sat at a computer for hours on end searching for documents, read articles from conventions and laws, and basically worked on the film, Northern Point, together.
What always struck me about Dmitriev was his enthusiasm, which materialized less in the help he gave me and more in his attitude to history, to events that had occurred many years ago. For example, in the same cemetery where I shot the film, he found the remains of a POW. None of the local authorities was in a hurry to bury the exhumed “youth,” as Dmitriev called him. So Dmitriev put the bones in his garage. A while later, he secured a spot in Peski Cemetery, found a sponsor to help him buy a gravestone, and asked the philologist Valentina Dvinskaya to translate the phrase “To the victims of war, disappeared but not forgotten” into German so that it could be engraved on the headstone. He did all this for an unknown man who had been killed over sixty years ago.
It was only later I realized that Yuri Dmitriev was the same Yuri Dmitriev who had founded the Sandarmokh Memorial Cemetery, who was involved in investigating the Krasny Bor Forest NKVD execution site in Karelia, who had catalogued over 13,000 names of victims of the Great Terror of 1937–1938 in Karelia and published them in The Book of Remembrance, which runs to thousands of pages.
The news of Dmitriev’s arrest was a shock to me. We had not communicated in a long while. A couple of years ago, we had planned to make a film about the burial of prisoners in the locks of the White Sea-Baltic Channel and the so-called Solovki execution transports. Dmitriev is indefatigable and has always been researching numerous topics. But it turns out that I’m not writing about them now.
Anatoly Razumov: The Solovki Quotas
Anatoly Razumov came to Petrozavodsk from Petersburg on Dmitriev’s birthday, January 28. His longtime friend and colleague was not allowed to visit Dmitriev in the pretrial detention facility.
— Я здесь, рядом, он это знает, — сказал тогда Анатолий Разумов в нашей беседе.
Indeed, he was nearby. He held a solo picket in support of his arrested comrade. For over an hour, Razumov stood on Petrozavodsk’s main street holding a placard that read, “Happy birthday, Yuri Dmitriev,” enthusiastically telling passersby about what his friend had worked on his whole life. It would have been an unpardonable mistake to turn down such a conversation.
Razumov and I spoke on the phone a couple of days later. I had a sense of déjà vu. The same thing had happened when Dmitriev had told me about the military cemeteries in Petrozavodsk. He had not just spoken, but had asked me a lot of questions whose answers I hadn’t known. “Ig-no-rance,” he would kindly drawl, ordering me to jot down the title of yet another book I “should have read before meeting” with him.
Razumov did not point out the gaps in my knowledge, but I heard about many things for the first time during our conversation. That was probably why the conversation did not turn into a proper interview. It was more of a monologue, a story about his friend, his cause, and his contribution to history. I decided it was vital to reproduce it verbatim, as Razumov told it to me, so readers could understand what a difficult and profound business Dmitriev had been involved in before his arrest.
The Book of Remembrance
I have worked in the Russian National Library (the Publichka) since 1978, and for over a quarter of a century I have been compiling and publishing The Book of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression. In 1987, I started gathering material, and in 1990, compiling a card catalogue based on the published lists of the victims. I retyped biographical information about them in their birthplaces: Minsk, Tallinn, Pskov, Petrozavodsk, Murmansk, Tver, Novgorod, Kiev, etc.
The first books of remembrance were published in the late eighties and early nineties. Books of remembrance were only taking shape as a genre then. There had always been lots of talk about the war, about the Great Patriotic War: as a topic it was always at the center of attention. But to compile books of remembrance about the war that included lists of the dead and missing in action was permitted only during the second thaw, in 1985. Prior to this, the names of the dead and the missing were not published. The first books of remembrance about the war were usually quite modest in terms of structure: surname, first name, patronymic. They didn’t even always include information about the place of death, and of course there was no personal information about these people.
But a mere four years passed, and we had permission to publish the names of the victims in newspapers, magazines, and books. We were permitted to clean up the burial sites of those who had been shot or died in captivity that had been found. It had been forbidden to write and say anything about the millions of those who had been killed and gone missing during the purges and crackdowns. Whatever person you asked about, nothing was known about him. Then suddenly we could publish this information.
Different people in different parts of the country were compiling books of remembrance. There were lots of enthusiasts, like me and Yuri Dmitriev, albeit not in every region of Russia. None of us had thought we would live to see this great day.
The first book published, in 1989, was The Book of Remembrance of Soviet Diplomatic Corps Workers, victims of purges during the thirties, forties, and early fifties. There were 130 names in the book.
Other books of remembrance were gradually published, regional books, books dealing with particular ethnic groups, with crackdowns against believers of different faiths, with particular sites where those had been shot were buried.
I kept track of all the new publications on the history of the Soviet purges and crackdowns. We also needed a bibliography for Pages of History, a digest, published by Lenizdat, of which I was a co-editor. I kept track of the search for sites where the executed had been buried. I was educated not only as a historian but also as an archaeologist. Of course, I knew about the famous site of the Katyn massacre near Smolensk, which had been found long ago. But it was not common knowledge in the Soviet Union or, rather, you were not supposed to know about it, much less about other burial grounds. Of course, there were such burial sites near every major town and city in the Soviet Union.
In 1988, it was a bombshell when they found Kurapaty, an execution site from the time of the Great Terror near Minsk. I published the Belarusians’ story of the find in the Leningrad newspaper Smena, and we wrote wrote about Kurapaty in the Pages of History digest. Everything was read hot off the presses. The reporters at Leningradskaya Pravda called on Petersburgers to report all suspicious areas and find “our local Kurapaty.” Thus, in the spring of 1989, a special security facility was found in the village of Levashovo near Leningrad. It was the largest burial site of executed prisoners in the Soviet Union.
I followed all these developments closely. I knew, of course, about the work in the Karelia. Even before we had met, I had heard about Yuri and what he was doing.
In 1996, I was editing the second volume of The Leningrad Martyrology, which dealt with October 1937, and I needed to publish a list of the prisoners at Solovki Prison who had been shot. Where were they executed? Even state security officers in Petersburg didn’t know: they had no information about it. Yeah, they had been shot somewhere, and it was clearly not in Leningrad, because there was a record showing that one of the regular executioners, NKVD Captain Matveev, had been seconded to Kem in connection with this list of prisoners. That was all.
The second volume was published in 1996 with a preface by Dmitry Likhachov, and in July 1997 Sandarmokh was found. My Lord! There was no doubt prisoners transported from Solovki had been shot there in October and November 1937. That was the first time I heard Dmitriev’s name: in the reports about the find and from Petersburg members of Memorial, whom I knew quite well.
But I met Dmitriev later, as part of the Returned Names project. In 2000, an attempt was made to compile a single database containing the names of all victims of political persecution in the Soviet Union. It was an international project: we were supported by the Ford Foundation. During an academic conference in Nizhny Tagil, my colleagues asked me to be the project’s regional coordinator for Northwest Russia. I surveyed the entire region, and that was when I met Yuri personally.
Like Yuri, I’m from a military family. Our family wandered a lot. My father served in different places, mostly in his homeland of Belarus, but also with the Soviet troops in Germany. We lived for a time in Berlin, and then Eberswald. I was never able to make friends with my agemates, and I lost track of many of them. I started to make friends at university, and then on the job, the job I got at the library after finishing university. It was God’s will that I do this, that I found a vocation in life that totally suited me.
I had always been disturbed by the question of why it was wrong to think freely and ask questions, why a person’s life was so little valued that it could be ended just like that. A person should live a long life. Why are the tormented deprived not only of life, but even of a grave? You can imagine how I felt when it was possible to talk about executed prisoners. Nothing had been known about them. Not even their relatives said anything about them: either they lied or didn’t know. I took on the job of restoring memory. All the colleagues I met in this new life became kindred souls, but a select few became close friends. Yura was a close friend from the moment we met.
Yura immediately took me in his jalopy to Sandarmokh. We barely made it to Medvezhyegorsk in that wreck. From time to time, he would roll down the window for Veda (aka the dog Ved’ma, “Witch”), and she would happily bark at everything in the vicinity, thus replacing the horn, which didn’t work in that car, I think.
Yura showed me Sandarmokh. That was important to me. By that time, his book The Karelia Memorial Lists was nearly ready. I soon attended the book’s presentation. I opened up the packages from the printers (Yura taught me not to cut the plastic tapes but undo them), handed copies out to people, and made my own speech. It was a wonderful presentation. Everyone spoke very well, including the relatives of the victims, who regarded Yura as an important, valuable person. Since then he has been one of my greatest friends, and a wonderful person with whom to speak when I want to talk frankly.
He would come to Petersburg for presentations of successive volumes of the Martyrology and do what I had done at his presentation.
I liked Yuri’s position. I absolutely understood him. He would just say, “Old women need to know where their dead are buried, and I’m going to do everything to make that happen.” And he did what he could, and he still does that. I’m more in the habit of listening rather than asking questions, which complements his outgoingness and talkativeness.
Until the summer of 1937, Karelia was administered by the NKVD’s Leningrad Regional office, meaning that Karelian folk were persecuted here, and people from Leningrad ended up there: their lives crossed. Yura and I exchanged information about the victims: he gave me info about his victims, and I gave him info about mine. Finally, we set about comparing the information about the Solovki execution groups of 1937 and 1938. Sandarmokh had been found, but that was the first group of executed Solovki prisoners. It was the first execution plan, the first “quota.” 1,200 people were supposed to be shot, and 1,111 were shot outside of Medvezhyegorsk. When was the next detachment of executed prisoners? December 1937, the group of prisoners in which Pavel Florensky was shot. Where they were shot remained a mystery. There was no mention of it in the papers I had found in the state security archives in Petersburg. It was forbidden to include information of this sort in the instructions.
Here is an execution order, issued to Commandant Polikarpov: “509 persons [in fact, three people on the list had already been sent to Moscow] from the Solovki Prison should be shot.” But where? Seemingly, since Polikarpov was commandant of the Leningrad office, they would have been sent to Leningrad. At our own peril and risk, when we were editing the fourth volume of the Martyrology (dealing with executions in December 1937), we wrote that the Solovki prisoners had been shot in Leningrad. We published the fourth volume, but questions still remained. After all, there were no documents with accurate information.
A third group of Solovki prisoners, another 200 people, was shot on February 17, 1938. The details about what happened to them were even murkier. If the second group had been transported to the mainland for execution in early December (it was a warm year, and the shipping season ended late), it was altogether unclear where the 200 people were shot in 1938.
In 2004, I decided to go on an expedition. It is each individual’s plight that matters to Yura and me, not statistics. When you read the files, the person appears right before you, and he doesn’t let you go.
Yura and I agreed to travel to Solovki. I couldn’t find a more knowledgeable and closer person to help me look for something on the islands. We were armed with a description of the execution, drawn from the testimony of former Solovki Prisoner officers, interrogated during the Thaw: they claimed the 200 prisoners had been shot on the way from the Solovki Kremlin to the lighthouse on Sekirnaya Hill. I had never been to Solovki. I knew the local places names from looking at maps and papers. So we arrived there in 2004. It was the first tentative expedition. We walked around looking. Yura would immediately stop at any suspicious spot. We would pitch tent in some places and try to probe the soil, but we didn’t find anything.
We went again the next year. By then we had become friends with Father Matfei, rector of the Holy Ascension Hermitage, and he showed us all the suspicious spots on Sekirnaya Hill, drawing our attention to the vegetation, trees, and depressions. But I took ill then, and Yura wouldn’t let me go into the field. Yura is the sort of guy who is endlessly concerned about the people around him, albeit sometimes in a rough way. He laid me down with a temperature in a cell in the hermitage, and he went off with the writer Vasily Firsov, who had come along with us on the trip, to investigate one of the suspicious spots. Suddenly, they came running in: “We’ve found them!” Of course, I ran out to have a look and help them with the work. We then uncovered the remains of two prisoners who had been shot.
I was unable to make the trip in 2006: editing the forthcoming volumes of the Martyrology was taking up all my time. Teachers and students from the Moscow International Film School went to Solovki that year. They helped Yura clear the burial site of dry branches, undergrowth, and deadwood, and discovered many more pits. So the discovery of the cemetery where the executed prisoners were buried dates back to then.
And yet our long-standing goal of finding the site where 200 people were executed, the so-called third Solovki quota, has not been fulfiled. There were no more such mass executions on the islands. The site should be a trench or gigantic pit or series of pits. We haven’t found the place, but we’ll find it someday, just like the place where the group in which Florensky was shot, the so-called second Solovki quota. I think we should search near Lodeynoye Field, because the highly decorated executioner Shalygin was dispatched to the vicinity of the Lodeynoye Field Camp. I have told all this to Yura.
This arrest, you see… Not only did they trash his nest, his apartment, brazenly, tramping all over it in their boots, but they also dealt a blow to the work. I’d been helping Yura edit two new books of remembrance and had been sending him information from time to time. Yuri has edited another book of remembrance long ago: it just needs to be printed.
And when it comes to the search for the execution sites, the only hope lies with Yura’s expeditions. I have outlined the range of places to search, and Yura had set about searching. He had got his film school kids involved in the work. Yura and I have work to do together. I hope he will be released in a good frame of mind and finish the two books of remembrance, and I’ll persuade him to publish the third. And if we have the manpower, we will find the places where the second and third Solovki quotas are buried.
My Friend’s Arrest
Despite the fact Yuri is easy to get along with, he has keen insight into human nature. He is quite good at sizing up a person, sensing the direction his thoughts are moving. When he comes to Petersburg for the presentation of the latest volume of the Martyrology, what with his speeches, jokes, and irony, people here are just ready to idolize him.
I have thought about why this has happened to Yura now. I have my own opinion on this score, of course: how things were going in that direction, how everything was shaping up. I remember the Brezhnev era. I thought then I would not outlive the Soviet leadership, because I tried to speak my mind. Sometimes you’ll end up sweating like a pig, but if you can, you should try and speak your mind. Yura also acts that way and speaks that way, often in an absolutely denuded, harsh form. I imagine lots of people really don’t like either what he does or how he talks and acts.
Basically, it somehow happened the decision was made to shut him down, to knock him out of his work and life. For Yura is one of a kind, there is no one else like him anywhere else in Russia. And if he is shut down in this way, and it’s done a little more dirtily than usually, everyone else will hunker down. I won’t bother speculating about the specifics, but I’ve read my share of Soviet-era investigative files from the archives, and our modern justice system is based on that Soviet system, alas, not on the old Russian system. I know the clichés, we all remember them. “People don’t go to jail in this country for nothing.” “The prosecutor and the police see eye to eye on the case, and that’s how it should be.” “Our courts are the most humane and fairest in the world.”
I think all this will definitely start to recede someday in connection with some case. Will it be Yura’s case? I don’t know. But there is a chance they hung all this on the wrong man and don’t understand the strength of his spirit.
“They Always Existed”
I think about the horrible purges and persecutions of the Soviet era. I don’t think the crackdowns were harsher during one period and less harsh during a different period. They always existed. Only they existed relative to the political moment, and the persecutions were modified only in those terms. However the regime wanted to crack down on its enemies that was how it cracked down on them.
The current Russian legal system can be described as follows. If we call pre-revolutionary Russia Russia 1, it was followed by the Soviet Union, which wasn’t even Soviet Russia, but let’s call it Russia 2 for argument’s sake. Where do live now? At best, in Russia 2+, because there is no Russia 3. It hasn’t come into being. It hasn’t understood or realized itself. It has its roots in the Soviet past and grows out of that past.
The legal system of the current Russian state doesn’t hold a candle to the system that existed prior to 1917. It’s flesh of the flesh of the Soviet system. I have been interviewed on the subject several times, on the question of whether the purges could happen again and whether they could be even worse. But they are already happening: we have crackdowns right now. Could they intensify? Could they become scarier? You can never say never, but our job is to take a stand against political persecution and stand firm.
Dmitriev’s Daughter Katerina
Gleb Yarovoi, my husband and colleague, was the first to meet Katerina. He was the first reporter with whom Yuri Dmitriev’s eldest daughter agreed to talk about her father’s arrest. We then communicated through social networks, and there were money transfers for Dmitriev, which different people sent to Katerina through me. Then we finally met in person at Dmitriev’s house.
“When they came for Dad, they made such a mess there. They ripped out all the wiring, so now the lights don’t work and you have to bring your own,” Katya says by way of explaining the lamp sticking out of her bag.
The last time I had been in the apartment was three years ago. Cigarette smoke, the buzz of the computer, a cup of coffee, and a bar of Osobyi chocolate: that is how I remember working on Northern Point. I cannot imagine how I would have managed without Dmitriev. It was he who showed me an entire period in the history of Petrozavodsk, a time of POW camps, POWs who died in the postwar city from being worked to death and were buried, and the modern residential buildings erected a short time later on top of their remains.
The apartment is completely different now: empty, quiet, gloomy. Disturbed by the police, Dmitriev’s workplace is no longer cosy. A lone pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes lies amidst papers, cables from the computer equipment dangle from his desk, and amongst other books I see the blue cover of The Memorial Lists of Karelia, which Dmitriev and Ivan Chukhin worked on for many years. The apartment’s owner, torn on December 13 from his customary working atmosphere, gazes on the scene reproachfully from a portrait hung on the wall.
“He had a dog then, Veda, short for Ved’ma [“Witch”]. She was with him on all the trips, on all the digs. He found her on Friday the thirteenth, so he called her Ved’ma. He never went anywhere without here. When she died, Dad cried over her,” Katerina tells me, showing me a photo of a dappled mongrel, seated at Dmitriev’s feet.
There are lots of photographs, a whole album. We had come to Dmitriev’s apartment to get them.
Did your father tell you and your brother what he did, where he would go, what he was investigating?
Of course. I remember that Dad was constantly going on different digs. He was constantly studying skulls, bringing them home. I was still in kindergarten then. We probably didn’t pay much mind to the particulars of his work. But as long as I can remember, he would sleep a couple of hours day. He would sit poring over those cards, he constantly had to dictate something. When we were a bit older, he tried to explain things to us. For example, my great-grandfather, Mom’s grandfather, had been shot. Dad found Great-Granddad’s burial site in a memorial book: the Zaretsk Cemetery next to Exaltation of the Cross Cathedral in Petrozavodsk. I cannot speak for my brother, but I’m a daddy’s girl, and I have always been around him. We would be sitting together, and he would tell me about the plights of people, how they were arrested, and why they might have been arrested then. He was always interesting to be around. His work has always interested me from a personal viewpoint. It’s frightening and, at the same time, interesting.
Did you help him?
It depends. I think sometimes he would have gladly refused our “help.” Say, when my brother and I were teenagers, we were terribly curious about what was on Dad’s computer. We got on the computer and poked the keys. Dad came in, and he was totally shocked: we had accidentally deleted all his files. So then we had to sit there and help him restore everything. It was interesting at one time, but at a certain point it irritated me. Imagine: I was fifteen years old, my friends were waiting to go for a walk, and he would say, “Help me.” And I would sit and dictate to him, and he would be looking for each letter with one finger, hammering out the dates. I would freak out then.
The trips were probably more exciting? Did you often go on the expeditions?
I can’t say I went that often. But as they say, seldom but to the point. One day, Dad said to us, “Who’s going with me tomorrow to Medvezhyegorsk?” My brother and I immediately said neither of us was going, we didn’t want to. But at six in the morning, for reasons I can’t explain, I jumped out of bed when Dad was getting ready to go and said, “Wait! I’m going with you.” And so we set out for the digs. We lived in a cottage on the shore of a lake. Dad’s colleagues from Petersburg and a group of soldiers were with us. The amount of walking we did then was inexpressible. We were constantly on foot. Dad and his colleagues would split up and discuss things amongst themselves. Dad understood, of course, that I needed to eat, that I needed breaks, that it was hard for me, but all the same we walked and searched a great deal. Ultimately, we found what we were looking for. We found Sandarmokh.
How did a teenage girl react to such a find?
Probably because Dad was calm about it, I reacted to the remains more or less calmly. The soldiers chuckled nervously when they found bones, and there were people who fainted, wailed, and felt sick. I remember there were very many gadflies and horseflies. The mosquitoes seemed like paradise compared with them. I then had the impression (maybe I believed in the transmigration of souls) that the horseflies were the people we had found. And I felt peaceful and scared at the same time. It’s hard to convey the emotions.
Did you understand why your father did this work?
It came with time. I would often ask him why he was always sitting at the computer and writing or retyping something. He would say, “I don’t know who I was in my past life, but I’ve understood the meaning of my life now, and I know I have to do this.” When I was older, I would constantly tell him to relax and ask him how he could spend so much time sitting poring over the lists and working at the computer. He would say, “I can’t relax. I have to finish the book. They’re waiting for me.” Yet he didn’t do it for money. When The Book of Remembrance came out, people would tell him that he could sell it, maybe even for good money. But he would always reply, “I can’t make money off of people for whom these memories matter, because everyone should know where their loved ones are buried.” I came to a new awareness after his arrest. I knew that Dad had a lot of acquaintances, but I didn’t expect such support. When I told him how much his friends and colleagues had supported him, he even shed a tear.
Did you go on any more trips with your father after Sandarmokh and those finds? Do you have any desire to continue his work?
It’s very difficult. Not everyone is psychologically capable of coping with it. After Sandarmokh, I was in Krasny Bor Forest when the cemetery there was opened. We went there several years ago. They had this program: children sang songs, there was a portable belfry that people played, and very poignant poems were recited. I haven’t been to Sandarmokh for a long time. A lot of people used to go there, crowds of people. But nowadays fewer and fewer people make the trip. The last few years, however, my son has gone there. He is now the same age I was when we found Sandarmokh. So the baton has been passed, as they say.
Valentin Kaiser: The Work Is His First Wife
Valentin Kaiser is a longtime friend of Yuri Dmitriev. The news of his friend’s arrest certainly shook him, too. Kaiser has been setting up a shipping museum in a basement room at the River Academy. Now he recalls that he once helped Dmitriev establish a Museum of Victims of Political Repression, but city hall evicted it due to the tenant’s utter pennilessness.
Yura and I met in the 1980s, when the Popular Front formed. Back then, Yura cried, “Clobber the Communists!” He was an assistant to Ivan Chukhin, a deputy to the USSR Supreme Soviet. In his book The Practice of Terror in Karelia, Chukhin wrote, “I took up this question to rehabilitate my father, because I found his signature on thirty-four execution orders.” After Chukhin passed away, Yuri continued his cause.
Have you helped Dmitriev in his work?
I have tried to help Yura, but it’s quite difficult to help him. Working with this stuff, especially digging, is quite difficult. I once traveled with him to Krasny Bor Forest, where we found Japanese spies in a common grave. There were these green lacquered shoes in the grave: there was one Japanese woman in the city then. There were also twelve pairs of leather shoes: they belonged to the Japanese spies. I watched the soldiers digging and dragging them out. It’s not my thing. It’s quite heavy psychologically. There are many investigative files where the pages are covered in blood or torn. Only he alone could cope with this specifics of this, as well as the digging and reburials. Moreover, he did it in keeping with the scientific method, measuring and describing everything.
At one time, Yura had a Museum of Victims of Political Oppresion, at 25 Lenin Prospect, in a basement. He had collected wheelbarrows there, hardware, and God knows what else. But then the mayor’s office leased the space commercially, and Yura dragged everything in bags to a garage.
Recently, Dmitriev said something was about to happen. Did he share his thoughts and worries with you?
A year ago, Yuri said they were trying to put the squeeze on him. It’s my opinion, but I think the top brass really didn’t like what he was doing. The children of the people involved in the executions are usually amongst the top brass. They really don’t like it when people start making names and surnames public.
There was this incident. When Ivan Chukhin passed away, his last book, The Practice of Terror in Karelia, was published. The book’s final chapter is untitled: it contains the surnames of the men who did the shooting. During the book’s presentation at the university, a young man expressed his outrage: “Who gave you the right to mention my father’s surname?” Yuri said to him, “First, I didn’t write the book. Go to the cemetery and ask Ivan Chukhin why he did it. Second, if you had any brains, you’d keep your mouth shut. If you had a conscience, you’d hang yourself from a rope for having a dad like that.” Yura is an abrupt fellow by nature. He can tell anyone to go frack himself, even a minister.
You think it’s revenge for being too active?
Well, they sentenced someone from Moscow Memorial to seven years in prison [?], and now they’re trying to get at the rest of them to put an end to their cause. But I don’t think it will work out for them, because human souls are immortal. I’ll give you an example. When we took people to Sandarmokh for the first time, we had just stepped onto the path, and it was quiet in the forest, not a hint of a breeze, and suddenly the crowns of the trees stirred so furiously that this roar resounded over the whole forest. Yura said then that people’s souls had waited so many years to be remembered.
I certainly don’t believe Yura could do the things of which he has been accused. First, he’s not stupid: there’s no point being involved in this nonsense. Second, when I spoke with the police investigator, I told him that in order to do what Yura has been accused of, one would need lots of time, but when would he have managed to do the huge amount of work he was doing? Women avoided him because the work was his first wife.
Olga Kerzina: They Have a Pure, Cheerful Relationship
Olga Kerzina is director of the Moscow International Film School. Like many of the people with whom I spoke, she was drawn to Yuri Dmitriev by a passion for history and, specificially in her case, an interest in Solovki. But Kerzina is not simply an associate of Dmitriev’s but also the godmother of his youngest daughter.
Everyone with whom I’ve spoken while writing this article has told me about they met Dmitriev? How did you meet?
In the early 2000s, we had a project entitled Freedom. We were trying to understand how freedom was understood by people imprisoned in the 1930s, for these were people from the aristocracy and the intelligentsia, and how the process works nowadays. We made a film about the Solovki Camp, interviewing the convicts who were still alive then. As part of the expedition, we went to a juvenile penal colony in Vologda. That was our itinerary. But there was one other stop, Petrozavodsk. We were trying to figure out who worked on history here, and that’s how we found Dmitriev. He immediately amended our itinerary and took us to Sandarmokh. Thus, in 2000, the first generation of students met him. That’s when we got the idea to make trips to Solovki. All we knew then was that it was the first camp established under Lenin. So of course when we met Yuri in Petrozavodsk, his stories made a big impression on us. He inspired us with the idea of erecting a monument on Solovki. In 2002, we erected a memorial cross (produced in the Solovki cross-making workshop of Georgy Kozhokar) in the Philipp Pustinya. We regard it as an echo of the inspiration we felt after meeting Dmitriev.
Meaning your relationship began as a working relationship?
Yes, and with stories about how to work with history, what its peculiarities and features are. But we really got to know each other and became friends later. In 2005, Yuri found an burial site on Sekirnaya Hill on Solovki. It was a really serious place for us. In 2006, he asked us to work on a memorial. In the summer of 2006, we had seven days of intense work with Dmitriev on Sekirnaya Hill. We had a lot of help from Father Matfei. He and Yuri supervised the work. So you could say our real collaboration began with the establishment of a cemetery on Sekirnaya Hill in 2006.
The film school kids, as many people call them, are in fact teenagers, children, basically. What was their attitude to work that was anything but childish? Even many adults cannot cope with this work psychologically.
The film school students weren’t involved in the digs, because it’s a serious business. A prayer has to be performed, and the whole thing is complicated. But you should realize this place on a hillside was an impenetrable forest, a pine and spruce forest. It was hard even to walk through it without scratching yourself. Basically, we cleared the whole place from scratch. We pruned the dry branches, carried away fallen trees, and made stairs from the boulders. Then we set up benches, dragged sand from a quarry to fill in the graves, and helped erect the crosses. Vasily Firsov and Yuri were doing the excavations then, and we did everything else, but under Dmitriev’s guidance. For example, we marked the premises of the cemetery. First, we wrapped tape around the trees, and then we drafted a map so the cemetery would be included on the map of Solovki.
As far as I understand, work on the Solovki memorial went on for many years?
And it’s still underway. In 2007, we put up a stand there, and then a chapel. In 2008, a memorial cross in memory of the Solovki neo-martyrs was erected next to the cemetery. That cross was also built in Georgy Kozhokar’s studio. The main breakthroughs happened in 2006 and 2007: they were the most dynamic years. Then we took a break, because Yuri adopted Sveta [name changed] then. We resumed work in 2011. But the cemetery is a burial site from 1929, and Dmitriev was looking for the third group of Solovki prisoners transported off the islands and shot, and then the second group as well, the group in which Pavel Florensky was shot.
Meaning there have been other expeditions to find the Solovki quotas?
After Anatoly Razumov hypothesized that Lodeynoye Field was the next place where prisoners were transported and shot, we organized an expedition there. Yuri and Sveta joined us then, and after that she took part in all our summer expeditions. So it turns out that since 2011, we have gone on two summer expeditions, to Lodeynoye Field and Solovki. Yuri tried to be involved in both trips.
We have somehow impercetibly segued to Sveta’s appearance. I know that you’re her godmother, and this choice mattered a lot both to Dmitriev and to the girl herself. How did you make this decision?
He introduced Sveta to us in 2009. She was still small then, and he wasn’t traveling anywhere then. He just came to see us in Petrozavodsk. And when he took her on an expedition for the first time, our kids made friends with her right away, of course. She’s a wonderful child. Yuri had long spoken of the fact he want to baptise her, and he wanted to do on Sekirnaya Hill, because the place meant so much to him, it was so bound up with his work. It was Father Matfei who baptised her. He took it seriously. I know he discussed it with Katya. And the choice was a serious one to him, an important aspect, partly due to the fact that he had been adopted himself, and as long as he had the strength he wanted to give another person the same chance. At the same time, he took great care of her during these trips, and yet it mattered that she be able to do everything herself: cook, dress herself, and clean up. He raised an independent lady.
The decision was obvious for me. After the Solovki expeditions, after all the hard work we had done (hard both physically and emotionally), when you experiece such extreme moments, you come to know a person and get closer.
We have found out what Yuri Dmitriev is like as a friend, colleague, and father. What is he like to you?
Of course, he’s amazing. What do our students find interesting? His determination to pursue his cause, the fact he fears nothing, that he seeks the means to do something even when obstacles arise and things don’t work. Well, and the goal itself is noble. He has a very profound understanding of his cause. Also, you can always count on him. The summer of 2007 was quite chilly. It was raining buckets the whole time, the temperature was around ten degrees Centigrade, and we had to work in the rain, but the bathhouse hadn’t really been set up yet. The students were really freezing. He then fired up the stove and showed how to caulk the windows, how to start a fire in the rain when the firewood is damp, and how to chop firewood generally. Basically, he was an exemplar of how to survive in difficult conditions. And despite the fact that outwardly he seemed harsh and abrupt, it was only outwardly. In fact, he’s a quite sensitive person on the inside, and a truly good father.
I’ll tell you an interesting story. In 2014, when we worked in Lodeynoye Field, he and Sveta came. He was then still working as a guard at a factory. He got his pay once and brought it home, but Sveta took it to school and handed it out to the children. I was stunned by his reaction. He was glad that the child was growing up to be a generous person, that she didn’t take it all for herself, but gave it to her friends. Meaning he wasn’t angry or upset. He was genuinely glad that his child was generous. And the kids gave nearly all the money back.
In a nutshell, how can you call this a father-daughter relationship?
It’s impossible to convey. They have a pure, cheerful relationship. It’s amazing how one can strike out against a loved one like that. It’s hard to live that down.
Are you planning an expedition to Solovki this summer?
Yes, and we hope to be going with Yuri.
Irina Flige: Sandarmokh
Irina Flige is head of Memorial’s Petersburg branch. In 1997, she was a member of the expedition to the Medvezyegorsk District during which she, Venianim Iofe, and Yuri Dmitriev discovered Sandarmokh.
When I found out that Flige was coming to Petrozavodsk with the commission from the Presidential Human Rights Council, I had to see her. We met not just anywhere, but in Sandarmokh. It probably could not been any other way.
Irina, tell me how you met and worked with Yuri Dmitriev. We could probably say that Sandarmokh introduced you?
Quite right. The fact is that Sandarmokh was found thanks to the work of two search teams. Starting in the late 1980s, Veniamin Iofe and I searched for huge number of people who had gone missing on Solovki in 1937. Our search was gradual, and by 1997 we were led to the Medvezyegorsk District by different sources, to this place. But what does it mean to be led to a place by archival documents? It means being led to the place with the accuracy of a single square kilometer. And at that moment, the spring of 1997, we met Yura. He and Ivan Chukhin had been working together for many years searching for people shot on verdicts rendered by the so-called Karelian NKVD troika.
Did he have more accurate information about the execution sites?
It wasn’t quite that way. Basically, the execution site was not listed on certificates of implemented death sentences in all regions. Karelia is an exception in this sense. The place of execution is listed on nearly all the certificates, but to the nearest settlements, for example, Petrozavodsky, Segezha, Medvezhyegorsk, and so on. By the time we met, Yura had been searching for the burial sites of people shot after being sentenced to death by the Karelian troika for many years. He had found Krasny Bor, and different points in the vicinity of Petrozavodsky. And he had his own notions of where this place was located in the vicinity of Medvezhyegorsk. When we met, we immediately had a common research interest and we agreed to make a trip here. That was July 1, 1997. The three of us, Yura and I, led by Veniamin Iofe, came here. Although in fact there were five of us, because Yura’s daughter Katya and his dog were with us.
How much time did you spend searching and digging?
One day. You wouldn’t believe it: one day! The fact was that we were fantastically well prepared. We had found this spot in the archive documents and came here. So set to work. In May, however, Iofe had made an agreement with the Medvezhyegorsk District administration. Its head supported the expedition and had agreed with the nearest military unit, which sent soldiers to do the work of uncovering the burial pits.
The soldiers were digging. It was one empty pity after another, and at the same they were giggling. Yura was dubious that we should search near the quarry mentioned in certain documents. He began running around in circles. Then he walked up and said, “I think I’ve found them!” He showed us two saucer-like shapes on the ground. In summer, they were quite visible: as time passed, the mass burial pit was sinking. We moved to this spot with the soldiers. They dug just as cheerfully, giggling as they did. Then suddenly they jumped out of the two-meter-deep pit (the burial was quite deep) as if they were on springs, frightened. That same day we summoned the prosecutor’s office, and the site was designated a mass grave.
Was the decision that there would be a memorial cemetery here taken promptly?
Yes, a memorial was opened here on October 27. 1997 was the sixtieth anniversay of the Great Terror, the sixtieth anniversary of the executions. At that time, we regarded October 27 as the day the first verifiable executions took, the first executions of the Solovki quota. Later, in 1998, and this is quite important, at Memorial’s behest, the Karelian government and the Medvezhyegorsk District administration established a International Day of Remembrance here at Sandarmokh. Its date, August 5, marks the beginning of mass punitive operations of the Great Terror in 1937. People travel here from every region of Russia and from other countries. This commemoration has gone on for almost twenty years.
How does Sandarmokh differ from other mass execution sites?
Many execution grounds have been located, but many of them do not have clear boundaries. We don’t where they begin and end. Here the entire grounds have been reliably identified and fenced off. The second things is that now we know all the names of the people executed and buried at Sandarmokh.
Are days of remembrance held at all the execution grounds?
Yes, days of remembrance of the victims of the Soviet terror are held in various parts of the country. But these are usually regional commemorative days, attended by people from that region. This is how they are held in Petersburg, Moscow, and all the major cities. Sandarmokh is different, because here there are lots of people who were not inhabitants of Karelia. There were the convicts of Solovki and the Belbaltlag, who were shot in 1937. These people were not free. They were either convicts or so-called special settlers who had remained in Karelia after serving their sentences. So the memory of these people draws people from different parts of Russia and different countries.
Sandarmokh is a unique piece of completed research. It is to Yura’s tremendous merit that he collected all the information, and today we know by name all the people who lie here. In October 2016, we launched the Sandarmokh website and produced a mobile app. We really hope the site will be popular. Indeed, the number of views of the site already shows that it’s popular.
Sandarmokh is unique in another way. When we speak of memory, quite often at many historical commemorative sites these two notions—history and memory— diverge a bit. History and memory only partially intersect, because of traditions, because of legends, because of incomplete historical date, incapable of refuting these legends. This is how it is at Levashovo in Petersburg. If we speak of Levashovo as a commemorative site, it is the Great Terror in Leningrad that is commemorated. If we speak of the historical aspect, it’s all quite confusing. Of the 19,450 people interred there, we can identify only eight thousand. The others are unknown. In this sense, Sandarmokh is also a unique place. The names attached to the site have been completely verified.
You have said that in the past two years the Karelian leadership has either been prejudiced against or has just ignored the days of remembrance held in Sandarmokh. What is the reason for this?
It’s difficult for me to say why this is. I don’t know what motivates them, and I find it hard to assess it. But I can say for certain that the tradition of holding the International Day of Remembrance on August 5 at Sandarmokh cannot be broken. This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the Great Terror and the twentieth anniversary of the discovery of the cemetary at Sandarmokh. So this year the days of remembrance will be especially solemn. In any case, round figures are quite important in human memory. The children of the victims, who are old and have been herew many times, attach a special importance to coming this year. For them, it will be eighty years since their father or grandfather was executed. We’d like to thionk that this year the commeroration will be organized properly, up to par, with the support and involvement of the authorities.
Can you imagine the day without Yuri Dmitriev?
It’s quite hard to imagine. But I’m an optimist, and I think that Yura will be involved in the commemorations on August 5.
There is a rather heated discussion on the political aspect of the case against Dmitriev going on right now in Petrozavodsk, and in Russia per se. What do you think about this?
Like all of us, I am sure that everyone realizes the case is a frame-up. And when a case is a frame-up, it becomes political for that reason alone. But we won’t be guess who ordered the frame-up, although it will come to light sooner or later. Right now we have to do what we can and what we’re able to do: mount a public campaign in defense of Yuri Dmitriev.
Sergei Krivenko: Memorial
I had not planned to write about the arrest, but as I wrote the article, the idea that the Dmitriev case was the yet another demonstrative flogging of free-thinking people grew more and more firmly in my head. Many people link Dmitriev’s arrest to Memorial. Memorial itself links the Dmitriev case to the organization’s work.
As Sergei Krivenko, a board member of the International Memorial Society, told me, after the film on nationwide television in which Dmitriev’s case smoothly segued into an account of Memorial, almost no doubts remained that the arrest was linked to the organization’s work.
After Dmitriev’s arrest, there was talk that the Karelian branch of Memorial had not been active, and that Dmitriev himself, allegedly, had nothing to do with the organization’s work. We realize that this is far from the case. As a member of Memorial, tell us how Dmitriev ended up in Memorial?
Yuri Dmitriev has always been in the Memorial movement. We communicated with him, and he took part in events and conferences. There has always been a branch head in Karelia, but in recent years this person was not particularly active since he was elderly. In 2014, however, we underwent re-registration, and we needed a presence in the regions. Dmitriev took over this work in Karelia. He went through the formalities of establishing a Karelian Republican Branch of the Memorial Society and headed it.
So it turns out the opinion that Dmitriev’s arrest is consciously directed against Memorial is not groundless?
You would reach this conclusion based on the segment shown on Rossiya 24. Since two topics, Dmitriev and Memorial, are linked in the segment, you could say there is an underlying cause having to do with Memorial’s work.
At the meetings of the Presidential Human Rights Council in Karelia, when we talked about preserving memory, I detected two clear trends. On the one hand, the local authorities support all commemorative work. Even Dmitriev himself has been awarded a certificate of appreciation from the Republic of Karelia for his work in preserving historical memory. They are grateful for this work. At the same time, however, officials let it slip that this work should not be politicized. We don’t need foreign delegations or any interest on the part of foreigners. We’ll deal with it ourselves. But Dmitriev was quite active. Many foreign delegations went through him. Apparently, this didn’t suit the authorities entirely. At any rate, that was the impression I had.
In mid 2016, the Finnish newspaper Kaleva published an article by Petrozavodsk State University Yuri Kilin, which was subsequently cited by Izvestia and Zvezda TV. These publications argued that Sandarmokh was a place where Finnish invaders executed Soviet prisoners. So again the rhetoric leans toward the notion that Memorial had distorted reality.
I think this is a general trend. There is no single coordination center, where the conspirators sit and lay their plans: now we’ll publish this article, and then we’ll do something else. The article was published in line with the zeitgeist, which is marked by the rehabilitation of Stalin’s name and anti-western rhetoric generally. I think everything has just converged. It resembles the situation in Soviet times when the authorities tried to draw attention away from Katyn, where Polish officers had been executed. The Soviet authorities found a tiny Soviet village called Khatyn, which had been burned to the ground by the Nazis, and they talked about it. It really was burned to the ground: that’s a fact. But subsequently Memorial’s researchers found documents in the archives that confirmed the Central Committee had pushed this news in order to blur the public consciousness: Khatyn/Katyn, either the Germans killed people there or they hadn’t. It is the same thing in this case. They are foisting a certain current of opinion on Sandarmokh. Maybe it was the Finns who did the shooting, maybe not. It produces an ambiguous perception.
What do you know about any changes in Dmitriev’s case after the Human Rights Council’s visit?
I know that during our visit, they sped up the case: they wanted to submit it for trial. That was what the defense attorney said after talking with the police investigator. But after our visit, the case was again sent back for further investigation. They had not filed charges yet. As for Sandarmokh, there will be a request in our recommendations, which are still being drafted, a request we will also send under seperate cover, that the council and the government of Karelia jointly participate in the August 5 International Day of Remembrance at Sandarmokh.
It was interesting to observe society’s reaction after Yuri Dmitriev’s arrest. People seemingly split into two camps, all vying with each other to assert they didn’t or did believe the accusations. Everyone tried to remember something that would tip the majority in his or her favor.
Interestingly, in the arsenal of those who tried to mock Dmitriev, there were no arguments, while many people had never met Dmitriev and knew nothing about him or his work. Yet for some reason they considered it their duty to come up with something and voice it to the public. But let these thoughts remain with the people who thought them.
I decided it was important to publish letters of support from people who knew Dmitriev personally, people who were not afraid to speak out personally in their defense. Of course, these are only a few of them. [The original Russian article contains a selections of such letters — TRR.]
This was where I should have ended the article, and I had finished it and nearly published it. But for some reason I put it off. After I found this letter in my mailbox, I understood why. Apparently, it was a sign.
I publish the following letter with the permission of its author, that is, Yuri Dmitriev.
Good day, Anna!
Thanks for your kind words of support.
I could never imagine that such a trivial event as the arrest of Old Khottabych would cause such a public outcry. What matters is the reaction of normal people to the destruction of our family. The family is the most important thing. It shapes the personality and prompts a person to action. Any encroachment on the family by the state causes outrage among normal people. The enormity and impudence of the accusations against me only confirms the “human” essence of our current government.
I’m not afraid of the future. The worst thing that could happen has already come to pass: Sveta [name changed — Anna Yarovaya] has been taken away from us. She has again been deprived of a family and, at the whim of the state, plunged back into the life from I wrested her with great difficulty eight years ago.
Over the eight years spent in our family, Sveta went from being a tiny, sensitive girl to a completely independent young lady with a well-formed worldview, a variety of interests, the capacity to help people, and quite hardy health. Sveta independently chose the Orthodox faither as her main support in life, and she independently made the decision to take up sport. That was also quite a happy decision. In a year, she won three medals and won the city championship in her weight category. Sveta merged so organically with our family that we had forgotten she hadn’t been with us since birth, and Sveta responded to us with the same love.
How to return Sveta to the family? How to raise her and give her a good education? These are the questions that worry me more now than how many years the state is preparing to send me down for my civic stance. I see no other reasons for my “sudden” prosecution. Whose toes did I step on? I haven’t found an answer yet. But I realize that everything happens according to God’s will.
So far I cannot understand what role the Lord has given me for several years of my next life. Either I have been chosen to be a martyr or preacher or some kind of unifying element. The time will come and I will find out for sure. And then He will show me my way. But for the time being my attorney and I are fighting for our rights, fighting against the bias of the investigators and the blatant lies of the charges.
The meetings with Katya, the kind letters of support that have been arriving from different corners of the country, and daily conversations with God have helped me remain a reasonable, sensible person.
I follow the events in Russia with great anxiety. Unfortunately, the worst predictions are coming true, and I’m afraid that a great sorrow (for everyone) is not long in coming.
I’m worried about you. I’m praying for you.
February 11, 2017
Pretrial Detention Facility No. 1, Petrozavodsk
This story is originally posted on the 7x7-journal.ru and re-published as part of Eyes on Barents, a collaborative partnership between media organizations and bloggers in the Barents region