The first steps towards exonerating Russian Gulag historian Yuri Dmitriyev

This Russian historian spent 13 months in pre-trial detention on fabricated child pornography charges. The latest court proceedings confirm that he’s just as “normal” as the rest of us.

Anna Yarovaya
2 March 2018

Yury Dmitriyev is brought before court in Petrozavdosk, March 2017. Image still via YouTube / Semnasem. Some rights reserved.Yuri Dmitriyev, a Russian researcher of Stalin-era repressions and head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, spent 13 months in pre-trial detention in 2016-2018. In a case that has attracted solidarity and support in Russia, Dmitriyev was arrested in December 2016 and charged with producing child pornography, the supposed evidence for which consisted of photographs of his adopted daughter. As part of the police investigation, two experts were called upon to evaluate the photos: one of them considered them pornographic; the other not.

The case is still running, but a court has now ruled that there was no need for Dmitriyev to remain in detention and on 27 January he was released from custody on condition that he not leave the country. Dmitriyev returned home on the eve of his 62nd birthday. On 27 February, Petrozavodsk’s city court confirmed that a medical assessment carried out at Moscow’s Serbsky Institute has found Dmitriyev suffers from no psychiatric or sexual abnormalities, and that the “incriminating” photographs on Dmitriyev's computer were not pornographic. 

The support group is out in force

“There’s no more space, you’ll have to take your coats with you,” says the cloakroom assistant in a slightly annoyed tone. The cloakroom at Petrozavodsk city court was obviously not designed to cater for the number of people who have turned up to observe the latest session in the Yuri Dmitriyev case. The ushers are noticeably nervy, because 15 minutes before the court session is due to begin, an indecently long queue has formed in front of the security gate – it’s blocking the main door. When people ask rhetorical questions about why the cloakroom couldn’t be enlarged to cater for the increased number of cases being heard, the staff answer wearily that this is the judicial department’s responsibility, and nothing to do with them.

In a long, narrow corridor on the second floor of the court building, people are packed like sardines: more than 40 of them have come to support Yuri Dmitriyev. They are still not letting anyone into the courtroom: the case is being heard in camera because it involves personal information about Dmitriyev’s adopted daughter, who is underage. But in conversations in the corridor there is none of the stress that was palpable two months earlier, when Dmitriyev arrived in handcuffs and witha police escort.


Katerina and students in the cloakroom at Petrozavodsk city court. Photo courtesy of the author.The older spectators sit on the wooden benches along the walls, but most people stand – or rather, come and go between small groups, depending on their connection with the case. At the entrance to the courtroom, Dmitriyev’s elder daughter Katerina is telling students from Moscow’s International Film School that her father is already completely at home in the court building (today, he began his visit by criticising the security protocols). Nearer the staircase, local civic rights activists, who are also members of Dmitriyev’s support group, are talking amongst themselves. They have chosen their spot with care: anyone passing by is handed a badge with a picture of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician murdered in February 2015, and a slogan reading: “Russia will be free”.

In the centre of the corridor, a dozen people have crowded round Marietta Chudakova, who has come to the city for the first time to support Dmitriyev. Chudakova, a literary specialist and public figure with a PhD in philological sciences who is well acquainted with the ins and outs of the Russian and western judicial systems, shares her impressions of both the trial and public reaction to it:

“This is really typical of the slimeballs who began this whole farce. It’s not enough for them to have him put on trial and sent to prison – they want to blacken his reputation as well. So we not only owe him our moral support, but need to show the judges that the public does actually react to things like this, even though they sometimes seem totally indifferent.”

Reporters from the Karelia state TV company, noticing the interest Chudakova has aroused, also come over to record her comments. “I’ll say exactly the same thing to you on camera, as I said to these guys – about the slimeballs, the smear campaign and the trumped-up charges. Only you have to promise not to misquote me,” she tells the TV crew. They make their promise, and Chudakova repeats her phrases about slimeballs, as well as lots more interesting stuff about Russia’s judicial system. The crowd applauds.


Marietta Chudakova. Photo courtesy of the author.This is probably only the second time since the start of the trial that applause has been directed at someone other than Yuri Dmitriyev himself – he has been greeted and accompanied by ovations at every court session. At the end of December, people also applauded when lawyer Viktor Anufriyev announced that the judge had decided to release Dmitriyev from pre-trial detention. And now there is applause for Chudakova. The TV crew also, by the way, kept their promise and didn’t misquote her statements. Or rather, they just left her out of the report shown on state TV.

Anufriyev raises a laugh

It would, of course be an exaggeration to say that the entire courtful of people has waited for the decision quietly. No one has expected any pleasant surprises from the prosecution for a long time, and Petrozavodsk’s public prosecutor Elena Askerova arrived in person to represent her department. Another “catch” is likely enough.

The prosecutor’s office has tried several times to send the photographs connected with the Dmitriyev case to (putting it mildly) dodgy and incompetent organisations for examination, and then insisted on a second, in-patient psychiatric assessment of the accused himself, on grounds of “suspected sexual abnormalities”. The assessment was carried out at Moscow’s notorious Serbsky Institute, where Dmitriyev had to spend New Year and the whole of January 2018. The assessment report is the main thing to be discussed at today’s court session.


Viktor Anufriyev. Photo courtesy of the author.Contrary to Anufriyev’s expectations – yesterday he predicted a court session lasting several hours – both the prosecutor and the judge left the courtroom after only one hour. Anufriyev and Dmitriyev followed a few minutes later. The defence lawyer announced, in his usual, slightly ironic manner, that the Serbsky assessment had revealed no psychiatric or sexual abnormalities in Dmitriyev.

“The report says that, like all of us, Dmitriyev is a slightly odd person, but perfectly sane,” began Anufriyev with a smile, after which he had to pause for several seconds to allow the laughter in the corridor, and afterwards the hissing of the staff (“There are other sessions taking place in adjacent rooms”) to die down. Behind Anufriyev, Katerina is already hugging her father, and his close friends follow her example.

Anufryev then continues, quoting the experts’ conclusion:

“There are no sexual abnormalities: the report states clearly that he is not a paedophile, he took the photos of his adopted daughter for a completely different reason, and, taking his general approach to life into account, he tried to protect himself from any possible removal of his adoptive daughter from his family. He did no harm to the child.”

Any further details seem only to interest the media people, who continue to ask technical questions: when will the next court session take place, when will the two sides make their statements, and can we expect a conclusion to the case in the near future? Despite the defence insisting on a second examination of a witness, Anufriyev hopes that case won’t drag on: the witness will be examined on 14 March, on 20 March the lawyers will put their cases and the trial should be concluded by the end of the first month of spring.


Yuri Dmitriyev (in the centre). Photo courtesy of the author.Dmitriyev himself still refuses to comment on the court case, but is happy to talk about his feelings after his first month of freedom after a year of detention:

“For the moment, I’m concentrating on regaining my physical strength. And, despite all my bluster, the 13 months I spent there have had an effect on my psychological health as well, and I’m trying to recover from that too. I’m getting back to my interrupted work, assembling all the material I was working on and trying to get my head round where I was with it and how I can continue in the same vein.”

Thanking again everyone who supported him during his trial and came back again (“It’s one thing when they see you off quickly and you just hear applause, and another when you can talk to people”), Dmitriyev invites everyone on a short excursion:

“It has somehow happened that when people have come to my trial, they also absorb information about the repressions that took place here. Today we’ll make a trip to the Zaretsk cemetery [where the official memorial to Soviet victims of political repression stands] and I’ll talk about how these graves appeared and who [is buried there]”.

Dmitriyev carries on his good work

The trip is not planned to take long: in Petrozavodsk it is the coldest day of this winter, with thermometers showing minus 27 degrees. The memorial at the Zaretsk cemetery is covered in snow: the last time there was such a crowd there was on 30 October, on the memorial day for the victims of political repression. So the first thing the visitors do is to clear the snow from the graves, to read the names of the people buried there. More than a quarter century has passed since the remains of political prisoners shot near Petrozavodsk have found their final resting place.


Visitors at the Zaretsk cemetery. Photo courtesy of the author.“This is the first row of graves we found, 13 coffins,” Dmitriyev begins, talking about their work in 1990-1992, “and then we found six more. We picked them like mushrooms in the quarry beside the Sulazhgorsky [Karelian: Suoluzmägi] brickworks. We shovelled sand from the quarry and the bones just fell out of it and we collected them in bags. We spent two years working on them to prove that they were the remains of Stalin’s victims, and then we were allowed to re-bury them here.”

Anatoly Razumov, the historian and archaeologist who heads the “Returned Names” Centre at Russia’s National Library is a friend of Dmitriyev and his partner on many expeditions. Razumov tells the visitors that, according to his sources, newly independent Russia’s first official ceremony to bury Stalinist victims was held here, in 1992.

5 March: this article has been updated to reflect that the forensic analysis received by Petrozavodsk court also stated that the images of Dmitriyev's adopted daughter were not pornographic. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData