The Grave-Hunter, Hunted

‘The Yuri Dmitriev case is, perhaps, the most important thing happening in Russia right now’

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger on Yuri Dmitriev and his travails. Today, Mr. Nordlinger expands that piece in this space.

At an Oslo Freedom Forum in September, Vladimir Kara-Murza made a point. He is the Russian democracy leader, twice poisoned, twice surviving. When the Russian government wants to lock up its critics, he said, it usually takes care to trump up charges. You don’t go to prison for opposing Putin. Well, you do, but the government’s charge may be embezzlement, terrorism, or murder.

For confirmation, we could ask such political prisoners as Oleg Sentsov, Alexei Pichugin, and Oleg Navalny.

In Crimea, the authorities locked up Volodymyr Balukh for daring to fly a Ukrainian flag. But before they locked him up — they loaded the loft of his house with illegal explosives and ammo. That’s how they do it.

Probably the dirtiest card in the Kremlin’s hand is child pornography, or any other kind of child abuse. Everyone recoils from it, everyone is repulsed by it. The person accused of such a crime is stained forever. The Kremlin played this card in Soviet days, and it is playing it now. The longstanding word is kompromat, i.e., compromising material.

In a December 2016 article, the New York Times reported, “The idea that Europeans and Russian opponents of the Kremlin are sexual deviants with a taste for pedophilia is a strange but recurring theme in Russian propaganda.”

The Kremlin’s latest victim, where the child-porn card is concerned, is Yuri Dmitriev. A journalist, Maria Eismont, made this striking, entirely plausible statement: “The Yuri Dmitriev case is, perhaps, the most important thing happening in Russia right now.”

Dmitriev is a legendary researcher in Karelia, the region in northwest Russia. He is legendary for grave-hunting. He finds mass graves of the Stalin era; he identifies the victims therein; and he honors them. For many years, he has been associated with a group called “Memorial.”

Memorial was founded at the instigation of Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and dissident. Its purpose is to promote the truth about the past, and to promote democracy in the present. In recent years, the Putin regime has harassed and threatened Memorial. The group’s offices have been raided. In 2014, the justice minister called for the group to be shut down. Last year, the regime labeled Memorial a “foreign agent.”

This is a damning charge in Russian society. The government wants people to believe that its critics are tools of foreign interests, enemies abroad.

And here is an amusing — darkly amusing — detail: What got Memorial labeled a “foreign agent” is that the group had criticized the government’s revival of the tag “foreign agent” from Soviet days.

Obviously, Putin’s Kremlin does not like Memorial’s promotion of democracy. But why does it object to the truth about the past? The Kremlin is becoming more and more defensive of the Stalin era, and of the Soviet era at large. Monuments to Stalin are reappearing. Putin himself told an interviewer — Oliver Stone, the American filmmaker — “Stalin was a product of his time. You can demonize him all you want, or, on the other hand, talk about his contributions to victory over Nazism. But the excessive demonization of Stalin is just one way to attack the Soviet Union and Russia.”

A blogger, Vladimir Luzgin, said that the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 — a basic historical fact. He was prosecuted for saying so. He got away with a fine of 200,000 rubles (about $3,500). He was lucky: He could have been sent to prison. Luzgin was represented by a lawyer from Memorial.

In November 2016, Memorial did something upsetting — upsetting to the Kremlin: It released a list of 39,950 NKVD agents. (Those were the initials of the secret police from 1934 to 1946.) The list was available on the Internet. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. In Karelia, Yuri Dmitriev was getting anonymous phone calls. Did he have further information on NKVD agents? Would he or Memorial release more?

Shortly after, he was arrested.

Dmitriev was born in 1956 and spent his first years as an orphan. Eventually, he was adopted by an army officer and his wife. Here is a tidbit from his boyhood: One day, he and some other kids were playing soccer, kicking around a skull—a human skull. Later, of course, Dmitriev would wonder about skulls such as this. He would wonder obsessively.

He has devoted his life to uncovering graves and finding out all he can about the people buried in them. His life has been one great act of remembrance. He has compiled Books of Remembrance, as they are known. His daughter Katia told an interviewer, Anna Yarovaya, “I remember that Dad was constantly going on different digs. He was constantly studying skulls, bringing them home.”

Dmitriev is an unusual man, to say the least. He is cranky, stubborn, and righteous. He grew his hair long and grew a long beard to go with it. His friends started to call him “Gandalf,” after the wizard in The Lord of the Rings. Picture Dmitriev going off on a dig in his threadbare jalopy (a Niva). He is smoking Belomor cigarettes (nasty). With him is his faithful German shepherd, Veda, a variation on Ved’ma, which means “Witch.” Dmitriev gave the dog that name because he found her on Friday the 13th.

Arriving in a village, he would not approach the people in charge. The authorities, if you will. He would approach the grandmothers, the old ladies. And he would not bring up his subject directly. Instead, he’d say, “Tell me: Where are people afraid to go around here? Where are the forbidden places? The haunted places?” They would tell him.

And this led to graves.

Dmitriev played a major role in discovering the site known as Sandarmokh, outside the town of Medvezhyegorsk, in Karelia. At Sandarmokh, more than 9,000 people were buried. They were murdered in 1937 and 1938. Some 1,100 of the 9,000 came from the Solovki prison camp, which Alexander Solzhenitsyn would dub “the mother of the Gulag.” Among the 9,000 were some 60 nationalities.

Let’s have a few names, shall we? Father Peter Weigel, a Volga German priest. Nikita Remnev, a carpenter. Prince Yasse Andronikov, a military officer, actor, and theater director. Camilla Krushelnitskaya, an organizer of the Catholic underground.

The name Yuri Dmitriev, by the way, is revered by the families of the dead — the discovered.

Every year at Sandarmokh, there is a Day of Remembrance. It is August 5 (the date of an infamous order, in 1937, instructing camp administrators to kill). For years, Russian officialdom supported this day, and participated in it. Gradually, they fell away, as the government adopted a different tone. In the months before his arrest, Dmitriev felt that they would come for him. He sensed that he was being monitored. When he related this to his daughter Katia, she said, “Oh, Dad, stop being James Bond!”

On December 10, 2016, they called him in for questioning. After several hours, he was allowed to go back home. He found that the place had been ransacked and that someone had been on his computer. Three days later, they indeed came for him. They arrested him. The charge? Producing and distributing child pornography.

With his first wife, Dmitriev had two kids, Katia and Yegor. With his second, he adopted an orphan, an act that was important to him. He himself had been an orphan, remember, and adopted. The child’s name was Natasha. She was three years old. She was sickly, stunted, all skin and bones. Her head was full of lice.

One day at nursery school, those in charge saw what they thought were bruises on Natasha’s body. They washed off, however. The marks had been left by newsprint.

Everyone in Russia knows about treatment by mustard plaster, an old-fashioned remedy. You apply it to the skin, and you might put newspaper pages between the plaster and the skin, to provide a little insulation. This is what the Dmitrievs had done with Natasha.

In any event, the incident at the school spooked Dmitriev. He did not want Natasha taken away from the family. He thought that he should keep a record for social services. He had always been a meticulous — indeed, obsessive — record-keeper. It’s what he did. So, he started photographing Natasha, nude, at regular intervals. Front, back, left, and right. He wanted to chart her progress — her gain of weight, for example. He did this until she was nine. (She was eleven at the time of her father’s arrest.) Dmitriev kept the photos on his computer in folders marked “Health Diary.”

And on the basis of these photos, the government charged him with the production and distribution of child pornography.

In January 2017, a month after Dmitriev’s arrest, state television ran a segment headlined “What Does Memorial Have to Hide?” (Targeting Dmitriev, you see, was a way of getting at Memorial.) They showed some of the pictures, obviously fed to them by the prosecution.

Before long, the government dropped the original charge, which was simply too ridiculous to sustain, even in a rigged system. They have instead charged Dmitriev with committing indecent acts (taking the photos) and possessing “the main elements” of a firearm (a broken-down old rifle found in Dmitriev’s home).

The trial began on June 1. It is closed to the public and the press. There has been the “usual alliance between the prosecution and the judge,” as John Crowfoot puts it. (Crowfoot is an expert on Russia in general, and this case in particular.) A verdict has been expected for weeks now. None has been forthcoming — but human-rights activists are not hopeful. “When they want to convict you, they convict you,” is the sentiment.

None of Dmitriev’s friends and colleagues believes that he did anything immoral or illegal. He may be eccentric, they say — a righteous eccentric — but he is no perv, and he has been a wonderful father. Yet to explain what he did is awkward. Ordinary people around the country are inclined to think, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” They are inclined to think, “They don’t prosecute you for nothing.” Shura Burtin captures this perfectly in a long, searching article. And even the suspicion of pedophilia is powerfully damaging, as the Russian government well knows.

The purpose of Dmitriev’s prosecution, say his supporters, is to discredit the accused’s work and to scare off others from the same work. This is straight out of the Soviet playbook. “My father is paying a big price for what he revealed,” Katia has said.

At the same time, he has gained admirers, including me. But forget me, a foreign journalist. Here is Alexander Gelman, a famed, octogenarian Russian writer: “This trial has helped us recognize a remarkable man. It is a barbaric way of discovering good people, but in Russian society it has proved very effective. In this sense, the trial has done something worthwhile.”

Back in the 2000s, Dmitriev grumbled, “We don’t know the past, and we don’t want to know.” This was when the Karelian government erected a monument to Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief who rose to premier of the USSR. Just this summer, state television aired a piece saying that the victims at Sandarmokh were not victims of the Soviet government at all; rather, they were Soviet POWs, murdered by the Finns.

“It is worth noting,” this program informed the public, “that the ‘discoverer’ of Sandarmokh, Yuri A. Dmitriev, is now on trial for sexual crimes against his underage daughter. That is the kind of person he is, this harmless, ‘angelic’ investigator who has written about the ‘horrors’ of Stalinist repression and, supposedly, revealed the significance of that ‘bloody’ regime.”

For nearly 50 years, the Kremlin lied about the Katyn massacre. Apparently, they are up to their old tricks.

I will tell you something about the urge to uncover mass graves. And the related urge to give the people buried in them proper memorials. At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned an Oslo Freedom Forum in September, where Vladimir Kara-Murza spoke. Also speaking was Marina Nemat, an Iranian dissident, long in exile. When she was a teenager, she was an inmate of Evin Prison in Tehran, a prison that is one of the most unspeakable places on earth. She made it out of Evin alive, and out of Iran alive, but some of her friends did not.

“One day I will go back home,” she said, “and I will search, and I promise you I will find every single mass grave in that country, and there are many. I will walk on my knees, and I will find every one of them. I will dig the dirt with my own bare hands, and I will make sure that those young women, and young men, are remembered.”

From his prison cell, Yuri Dmitriev sent a letter to Anna Yarovaya. “I’m not afraid of the future,” he wrote. “The worst thing that could happen has already come to pass: Natasha has been taken away from us.” Dmitriev is a strong believer, and he said that his fate is in God’s hands.

To read Yarovaya on Dmitriev, go here. To read John Crowfoot, go here. To read Natalia Shkurenok, go here. Sabra Ayres, here. Maria Eismont, here. Again, Burtin is here.

In one of his Books of Remembrance, Dmitriev has a foreword. It contains some pithy lines. “The moral of the story is brief: Remember! As is my advice: Take care of one another.”



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