Magazine | October 16, 2017, Issue

The Grave Hunter, Hunted

Yuri Dmitriev at work in 2006
Russia’s Yuri Dmitriev on trial

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.

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 latest victim is Yuri Dmitriev. His case, said Maria Eismont, a Russian journalist, 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. He has long 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. 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.

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. One day, he and some other kids were playing soccer. They were kicking around a skull they had found — a human skull. Later, Dmitriev would wonder about these skulls. 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 approach the grandmothers, the old ladies. He did not bring up his subject directly. Instead, he would say, “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 (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 day of the site’s discovery). 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 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 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, which was important to him: He himself had been an orphan, adopted. The child’s name was Natasha and 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 were residue of a treatment that the Dmitrievs had been applying to their daughter’s skin.

The incident spooked Dmitriev, and he thought that he should keep a record for social services. So he started photographing Natasha, nude, at regular intervals. Front, back, left, and right. He wanted to chart her progress. 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.” One folder for each year. All his life, Dmitriev had been a meticulous, compulsive record-keeper.

On the basis of these photos, the government charged him as they did. In January, a month after his arrest, state television ran a segment headlined “What Does Memorial Have to Hide?” They showed some of the pictures, obviously fed to them by the prosecution.

In due course, the government dropped the first charge — the production and distribution of child porn — which was too ridiculous to sustain. They have instead charged Dmitriev with committing indecent acts (taking the pictures) 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. 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. 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. Katia has said, “My father is paying a big price for what he revealed.” At the same time, he has gained admirers. Here is Alexander Gelman, a famed octogenarian 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.

From his prison cell, 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.

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

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