PETROZAVODSK, Russia – Five years ago this month, historian Yury Dmitriyev, the local head of the human rights group Memorial in the northwestern region of Karelia, was arrested at his apartment in Petrozavodsk. He was accused of taking pornographic images of his foster daughter, a charge he has staunchly denied, saying the photographs were taken at the insistence of social workers in order to monitor the girl’s development.
Dmitriyev is best known for his research into the victims of political repression in Karelia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He was instrumental in the investigation and memorialization of the Sandarmokh mass graves, where the bodies of at least 6,000 victims were buried.
As his case has gone back and forth between courts, Dmitriyev, who turns 66 next month, has spent almost all of the last five years in pretrial detention at a jail in Petrozavodsk, the regional capital.
The municipal court in Petrozavodsk is currently holding its third review of the case against Dmitriyev, who in September 2020 was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Prosecutors are seeking to increase the sentence to 15 years. Dmitriyev’s lawyers say that all of his appeals have been exhausted.
The trial comes as the Russian government is seeking to shut down International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, both of which have long been designated “foreign agent” NGOs. Their fate could be sealed by the Supreme Court and Moscow’s top court this week.
During his trial, the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service submitted questions to Dmitriyev and received written responses to some of them through a correspondence system run by the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). There was no explanation for the lack of answers to several of the questions.
The interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is presented below.
RFE/RL: How did you become a member of Memorial?
Yury Dmitriyev: I already knew a lot of people who were getting involved in Memorial [in the late 1980s]. At least, I knew a lot of the leaders -- people who were interviewing victims of repression and publishing lists of people who had been repressed.
Those were hard times, so [Memorial activists] were distributing humanitarian aid [to former repression victims]. In short, they were working in full accordance with their charter. At meetings of the Popular Front of Karelia NGO, we regularly discussed questions raised by Memorial.
After about a year or 18 months, I asked [Karelia Memorial activist] Pertti Vuori to look into the fate of my wife's grandfather, who was a fisherman from the village of Syamozero, who was arrested in 1937. Pertti learned that he had been executed. At one of our meetings at that time, he asked me to join Memorial. So I joined Memorial sometime in 1989.
RFE/RL: And what were you doing then?
Dmitriyev: I was taking humanitarian aid around in my car to former political prisoners. Several times we explored around the outskirts of the settlement of Derevyannoye, looking unsuccessfully for execution places. Next, I took on the story of the remains discovered at Besovets and Sulazhgorye. Only two years later, on October 30, 1991, were we able to get them reburied at the Zaretskoye Cemetery in Petrozavodsk. That was really the beginning of Memorial in Karelia.
Then I started working with Ivan Chukhin, a deputy in the Russian Supreme Soviet. Ivan asked me to help him compile a Book of Memory [aimed at documenting all the Karelian victims of Soviet-era political repression]. I agreed and spent several years working in the archives of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (which was still the KGB at the time).
Among our early international projects, I'd mention the erection of a memorial at the cemetery for German prisoners at the settlement of Padozero…. Gradually, I built up experience working with documents and working with human remains. And we continued providing material assistance to victims of repression -- groceries, money, and so on. We lobbied local laws in Karelia to help victims of repression. We didn't forget anyone…. The 1990s, compared to the Soviet period, was a time of freedom, a time when archives were being opened and it was finally possible to learn the truth about our ancestors.
RFE/RL: When did you start experiencing problems? When President Vladimir Putin came to power?
Dmitriyev: It is hard for me to answer that because I sort of fell out of working with Memorial for a time. After Ivan Chukhin died in 1997, other people took over the organization and, in short, we didn't see eye to eye. Several people left the organization with me, and we organized the Social-Legal Defense Academy.
RFE/RL: What is your opinion of the situation around Memorial today and generally with the harassment of rights activists?
Dmitriyev: Harassment is a normal phenomenon. It means that Memorial is stepping on the authorities' sore places. I trust Memorial, so that means we need to change the organism that has those sore places.
RFE/RL: Do you connect the criminal case against you with your work at Memorial? If you hadn't been doing that work, do you think you would have avoided the last five years of trials?
Dmitriyev: I think that the cases would not have existed at all. Who would care about a simple engineer?
RFE/RL: What can society do to support Memorial? And what can average people do to cultivate in the younger generation the respectful attitude toward history that Memorial demonstrates?
Dmitriyev: Through the family. Every family must know its own history. Such knowledge is the source of a sense of self-respect. I have been fortunate enough to learn the feelings of people who were repressed by the government throughout their entire lives. If I live long enough, I will write a book about that.