29 April 2020
Liudmila Ulistkaya, writer
For three years, the system has continually ground down the Karelian historian, Yury Dmitriev, who has managed to draw incredible public attention to the subject of Stalin’s repression in the face of jingoistic tributes to Stalin and the laying of flowers on the grave of the man who organized the worst genocide in Russian history. Yury Dmitriev, whether intentionally or not, by his work to unearth information about the victims of repression in Sandarmokh, threw down a challenge to the system and paid for it. A vexatious criminal case was fabricated against him, which fell apart. But it did not prevent the historian from being sent first to a psychiatric hospital and then to a pre-trial detention centre, where 64-year-old Yury Dmitriev remains to this day. At the height of the pandemic, this could prove fatal for an elderly person whose health has already been severely compromised over the past three years. People who are concerned about the fate of the historian have started a public campaign in his defence. A public petition demanding the immediate release of the historian gained more than 7,500 signatures in just three days.
Writer Liudmila Ulitskaya is one of those who has taken an active role in the case of the historian. Evgeniya Chirikova talked to her about the fate of Yury Dmitriev and about the tactics needed to defend the man charged under one of the most vexatious articles of the Criminal Code, one who has also been deprived of the opportunity to publicly prove his innocence.
Evgeniya Chirikova: You came to Petrozavodsk for a court hearing in Dmitriev’s case.
Liudmila Ulitskaya: In my eyes Yury Dmitriev is a true hero of our time. He took on the noble and very difficult task of reinstating the remembrance of those who died during the repressions.
Evgeniya Chirikova: Several days ago, a petition appeared calling for the release of historian Yury Dmitriev from the pre-trial detention facility in which he is being held, owing to the threat of the pandemic. In three days, the petition garnered more than 7,500 signatures. What are your thoughts on this initiative? Is there a chance it could lead to the historian’s release?
Liudmila Ulitskaya: Those who are striving to secure Dmitriev’s release would certainly hope so. We will just have to hope that they are successful. However, I should also add that a more humane, enlightened regime, within the current conditions of the coronavirus epidemic, would have enabled the majority of inmates who were not serving sentences related to assault or terrorism to be moved to house arrest. Not only is Dmitriev’s life at risk from the virus but so are the lives of the other 602,000 inmates currently in prisons and camps.
Evgeniya Chirikova: Why in your eyes was a previous attempt to get Yury Dmitriev released from prison successful? What specifically helped achieve that?
Liudmila Ulitskaya: I think that one of the senior officials (for the sake of political correctness that’s what I’ll call them, although I can think of another name that would be more fitting) couldn’t take the pressure, causing them to eventually give in to public opinion. And they put all their efforts into using Dmitriev’s single violation of his mandated disciplinary regime (he left home to go to a cemetery and a monastery), to once again put him behind bars.
Evgeniya Chirikova: What would you say to those who say things like “your petitions don’t work” and “it’s all pointless, the powers that be have made their decision and that’s that”?
Liudmila Ulitskaya: All these petitions are aimed precisely at getting those “powers that be” to overturn their decision. I think the campaign needs to keep going rather than die down if Dmitriev is to be released.
Evgeniya Chirikova: Do you think the authorities see Dmitriev as such a threat that even during the pandemic they are afraid of releasing him from the pre-trial detention facility, in spite of him being senior in years and obviously not a danger to society, in addition to which, despite their efforts over the past three years, they haven’t been able to prove his guilt?
Liudmila Ulitskaya: I don’t think that they are afraid of Dmitriev. Rather, another factor is at play here: the authorities feel threatened when their actions are disapproved of, and indeed all the more so, when they are resented. As ridiculous as it might sound, what they really want is to be “loved” by people. In other words, they want to be obeyed unconditionally. This is what they keep drumming into us – you the public keep quiet everything will be fine.
Evgeniya Chirikova: What should be done in closed criminal proceedings, when the charges are as bad as they can be and it is not possible to clear your good name publicly? [Among other things, Yury Dmitriev is accused of “depraved actions” against his adopted daughter, a minor, and the trial is taking place behind closed doors under the pretext of protecting the interests of the child – ed., Activatica]
Liudmila Ulitskaya: Request open proceedings. It is in the interests of both Dmitriev and his adopted daughter, Natasha. She is being shamelessly manipulated using the dirtiest of tricks.
Evgeniya Chirikova: In your novel Jacob’s Ladder, set during the Stalin era, the main character is a wonderful, intelligent, versatile man who ends up in prison three times. It is written in such a way that you really empathise with him and feel desolate and impotent when yet another completely innocent person gets chewed up by the system. Can you see an analogy with Dmitriev’s fate? And is there a difference between the nightmare of today and the lawlessness of the Stalin era?
Liudmila Ulitskaya: If you are looking for an analogy, then it is probably that the current government likes ‘Stalinism’ as the idea of a ‘strong hand’. Much changes in Russian life, but there are things that remain unchanged: the secret police are still closely linked with the government, and our country’s entire Soviet history is a story of ‘two kingdoms’, where two forces were secretly battling each other for supreme power. These two forces were the Communist party and the secret police. There is a considerable difference between the eras of ‘Stalinism’ and ‘Putinism’: the current rulers are self-serving and amoral and have no particular interest in ideology. You could even say that they are unable to find any way of generating social and political ‘cohesion’ except for victories in the Great Patriotic War. Khrushchev’s powerful idea of ‘catching up and overtaking’ has failed completely. The paradox is that it is Dmitriev who possesses the moral qualities that annoy the authorities so much. This moral superiority, along with his strong, independent character, has really irritated the local authorities, who have done everything possible to inflate his case and bring a false charge of paedophilia against Dmitriev. Their plan was that this false charge would deprive Dmitriev of the sympathy and support of those naive people who obediently listen to the media’s shameless slandering of Yury Alekseevich Dmitriev, an honest and decent man.
Yury Dmitriev is a laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights.