Gulag historian punished for digging up Russia’s past, rights groups say

A Russian court has controversially convicted a respected gulag historian of sexual abuse of his adopted daughter, but handed down a sentence that should see him freed in the autumn – even though under the charges he could have been sent to a penal camp for 15 years.

Supporters of Yury Dmitriyev, the local head of a prominent rights group, Memorial, in Karelia in north-western Russia, said he was being punished for his work digging into Stalin-era massacres.

Memorial said the lenient sentence “can mean only one thing: the prosecution has no proof of Dmitriyev’s guilt. Nevertheless, these charges have already robbed Yury Dmitriyev of more than three years of freedom and ruined his adopted daughter’s life.”

His lawyer, Viktor Anufriyev, told reporters that with time served in pre-trial detention Dmitriyev, 64, would be free in three-and-a-half months. He said his client “knows he is not guilty”.

Dmitriyev was first arrested in late 2016 on child pornography charges, acquitted in 2018, and then arrested again later that year on sexual assault. He has denied all charges.

After a new trial, held behind closed doors, a judge in the city of Petrozavodsk on Wednesday found him guilty of sexually abusing his adopted daughter, sentencing him to three-and-a-half years in prison.

Dmitriyev’s biological daughter, Yekaterina Klodt, told reporters she looked forward to hugging her father “very soon”.

The historian spent decades locating and exhuming mass graves of people killed during the rule of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, including in the notorious gulag network of forced labour camps.

Memorial said his prosecution was part of a growing crackdown on dissenters and that he was targeted for calling attention to one of the darkest chapters in Russia’s history.

Dozens of supporters gathered outside the courtroom on Wednesday and some said the verdict was as close as the historian could get to an acquittal.

Yan Rachinsky, a director at Memorial, said the verdict allowed Russian officials to save face after a robust public campaign in Dmitriyev’s defence. “It won’t see a man die in prison,” he said.

A fellow historian, Anatoly Razumov, said the fact that Dmitriyev would soon get back to his work was a victory.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said on Facebook: “Yury Dmitriyev is a victim of the Russian state’s desire to trample on historic memory and those who cherish it.”

After the historian was initially arrested, in late 2016, he spent more than a year in pre-trial detention, before calls by prominent figures resulted in his release. Despite his acquittal in April 2018 he was detained again later that year because a higher court had overturned the not-guilty verdict.

Speaking in court during his trial this month, the historian, who was himself adopted, said he had done everything to raise his daughter to be happy and healthy. He also said it was important for people to remember their past. “The strength of the state is not in its tanks and guns, in its nuclear rockets or an ability to tell everyone to flip off,” he said. “No, the strength of the state is in its people.”