MOSCOW -- A Russian historian who was jailed on disputed pedophilia charges last year has died in a prison hospital after an appeal from prosecutors delayed his release on health grounds.
Sergei Koltyrin, 67, passed away overnight into April 2 after a long battle with cancer that predated his arrest in October 2018 and continued throughout his confinement at a prison in Medvezhegorsk, a town in Russia’s northern Karelia region where Koltyrin had worked as the local museum director.
Vladimir Koltyrin, his brother, told RFE/RL that a funeral was planned for April 6, but the body may be taken directly for burial since the region -- like others across Russia -- is in lockdown in connection with the coronavirus outbreak.
“They don’t allow us to assemble in the street,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re thinking about what we can do.”
On March 6, a court in Medvezhegorsk ordered Koltyrin’s release on humanitarian grounds, noting a deterioration in his health and arguing that he should be allowed to see relatives before he dies. But prosecutors filed an appeal against the judge’s decision and Koltyrin died before that appeal could be overturned.
Vladimir Koltyrin would visit him once every two months, and saw him most recently just over a month before his death. He told RFE/RL that Koltyrin appeared upbeat and was looking forward to leaving prison, and asked Vladimir to pick him up on his release day. But conditions in custody may have accelerated his physical decline.
“When a person is used to living in freedom, it’s hard to get accustomed to such conditions,” he said.
Sergei Koltyrin was arrested in October 2018 and sentenced the following May to 9 years in prison on charges of sexually abusing an underage boy, which he pled guilty to after initially denying. Another man, Evgeny Nosov, was given 11 years for allegedly acting as Koltyrin’s accomplice.
The case drew national attention because Koltyrin had been a vocal critic of plans by authorities to exhume Sandarmokh, a Stalin-era execution site in Karelia that is believed to holds the bodies of several thousand inmates of forced labor camps who were murdered there in the 1930s. Koltyrin’s supporters alleged that he had been pressured to confess.
Tamara Polyakova, a Karelia-based historian who regularly exchanged letters with Koltyrin during his time in custody, told RFE/RL that he did not complain of bad treatment by prison guards.
“My impression was that he was mostly depressed for other reasons, and was okay with the prison conditions,” she said. “Of course he might have not mentioned bad treatment even if it did occur.”
“But he was expecting to get out alive,” she added.
Anatoly Razumov, a friend of Koltyrin’s, said the prisoner had undergone an operation in January and may have suffered complications from it. In a letter he received in mid-March, Razumov said Koltyrin struck a depressing tone.
“I think he was essentially saying goodbye,” Razumov wrote in a text message.
Yury Dmitriyev, another local gulag researcher who helped discover Sandarmokh in 1997, was arrested in 2016 on pedophilia charges similar to those for which Koltyrin was convicted. His trial has been continuing since 2016, and Dmitriyev has continued to publicize Sandarmokh from custody by contributing to publications about its history.
On March 23, after Dmitriyev had spent 3 years behind bars, a court in the regional capital, Petrozavodsk, extended his pretrial detention for another three months, despite reports earlier this year that judges were preparing to issue a verdict in his case by late February.
Several thousand people have signed a petition calling for the 64-year-old Dmitriyev to be placed under house arrest for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that his age, his smoking habit, and an immune system weakened by years in custody leave him particularly vulnerable if he contracts the pathogen.
“The very peak of the growing coronavirus pandemic will find him in a prison cell,” the petition reads. “[Dmitriyev] does not represent any threat to society, and in current conditions his health is in serious danger."