A Russian historian devoted to exposing the horrors of Stalinism has just been handed an unexpected new jail sentence, reports Sarah Hurst

One of the most outrageous penalties yet handed down in Vladimir Putin’s Russia has just been given to Gulag historian Yuri Dmitriev: this week his prison sentence was abruptly increased from three and a half years to 13 years.

The 64-year-old from the Karelia region bordering Finland has been subjected to criminal prosecutions since first being arrested in December 2016. He was charged with making pornographic images of his adopted daughter, but proved that he was keeping a health journal about her.

Dmitriev’s case has attracted support from international human rights groups, with fellow historians suggesting his work exposing Stalin’s crimes is shunned by political leaders in modern Russia, with President Putin seeking to portray the country as a global superpower.

In 1997, Dmitriev located the Sandarmokh forest site where thousands of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror were executed. Over 9,000 people of more than 58 nationalities were shot and buried there in communal pits in 1937 and 1938. Dmitriev spent the subsequent decades working to identify the victims and writing books about Stalin’s Terror. In 2014 he became chairman of the Karelia branch of the ‘Memorial’ historical and civil rights society. 

Dmitriev was held in prison after his arrest and put on trial in June 2017. At the end of that year he was taken to Moscow and forced to undergo a psychiatric assessment. In January 2018 he was released from custody, and in April he was acquitted of the pornography charge against him, which is an almost unheard-of event in Russia. He was convicted of possessing parts of a shotgun and given three months of probation plus community service. 

But Putin’s terror didn’t end there. The prosecutor appealed against Dmitriev’s acquittal and it was overturned by Karelia’s Supreme Court in June 2018. Shortly afterwards Dmitriev was arrested and another charge was added to his case: this time one of sexual assaulting his adopted daughter. He was again held in jail before his trial and in July 2020 was acquitted of the original charges but found guilty of sexual assault, and sentenced to 3 and a half years in prison. He would have been due for release in November because of his time served.

Now, he is set for an additional 10 years in prison.

“The Karelian supreme court’s decision to prolong historian Yuri Dmitriev’s already unjust sentence by an outrageous 10 additional years is another step backwards for human rights and historical truths in Russia,” US Russian embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross said on Twitter.

In his final statement in court in July, Dmitriev said that Russia takes pride only in military successes. “I fully and completely agree with our Government that we should remember those who died in the war, because that’s a part of our memory,” he said, “but we also need to remember the people who were killed because of the ill will of the leadership of our state. And that is what I consider patriotism.”

Dmitriev himself spent his early years in a Soviet orphanage and didn’t know his biological parents. He has spent the last 30 years searching for his roots, he told the court.

“It’s important for me to find out of which people I am a son,” he said. “Because a person differs from an insect – from a butterfly or a Colorado beetle – by having a memory. And that memory about our ancestors… makes a person more independent in their thinking, it allows us to draw more correct conclusions, because the memory of the generations is concentrated in you. I don’t have that knowledge, unfortunately, which is why I’m trying to find it.” 


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