ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In 1946, at the height of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s cultural offensive against “bourgeois” art, the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. issued a resolution condemning this city’s foremost literary magazines, Zvezda and Leningrad, and in particular their publication of the supposedly seditious works of satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko and poet Anna Akhmatova.
Accused of poisoning Soviet minds, the two writers were fired, shunned by the powerful Writers’ Union, and stripped of their income and status. The episode, which paved the way for a purge that became known as the Leningrad Affair, would be cited as an example of authoritarian persecution of independent artists and help elevate Zoshchenko and Akhmatova to the pantheon of dissenters seen as sacrificing their own creative freedom by standing up to the totalitarian regime.
But it wasn’t until 50 years later, in 1996, that Veniamin Iofe, a historian of Stalin-era repressions, uncovered an official document proving that Zoshchenko and Akhmatova had become collateral in an internecine Communist Party conflict targeting Stalin’s chief ideologue, Ivan Zhdanov. For Irina Flige, Iofe’s widow, the story of Zoshchenko and Akhmatova’s downfall — and the black-and-white interpretations it prompted — contains important lessons for observers of another prosecution taking place in modern Russia: the trial of Yury Dmitriyev, a gulag researcher who on July 22 was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on a child sexual-abuse charge he and his supporters say was trumped up to silence him.
“The authorities work under a different logic,” Flige said in an interview at the St. Petersburg offices of Memorial, a prominent NGO that documents the crimes of Russia’s totalitarian past. “The people who decided to arrest Dmitriyev — we don’t know what their intentions were.”
State prosecutors had asked the judge presiding over the trial in Petrozavodsk to sentence the 64-year-old to 15 years in a penal colony. To his supporters, the far softer punishment, which due to time served means Dmitriyev will be released in September, confirms that the evidence presented was weak and unconvincing.
“The absolutely groundless nature of the accusations was obvious from the outset,” said Flige, who heads the St. Petersburg branch of Memorial’s historical research center. “And a sentence like this on such serious charges means one thing: The prosecution had no evidence that Dmitriyev was guilty of any abusive sexual acts toward his adoptive daughter.”
In July 1997, Dmitriyev, Iofe, and Flige discovered a mass grave of prisoners of the gulag forced-labor camps, hidden in the forests of Karelia near Russia’s border with Finland. Over the next two decades, Dmitriyev would devote himself to documenting the identities of the 7,000 former gulag inmates thought to have been executed at the site, known as Sandarmokh, as well as the countless others murdered at similar sites scattered across Russia’s north.
He continued the work even after his arrest in December 2016 on suspicion of producing child pornography and committing lewd acts with his adopted daughter, charges that he has vehemently denied from the outset. He was acquitted in April 2018, but Karelia’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial that June after a graver charge was added — "violent acts of a sexual nature committed against a person under 14 years of age" – launching a new case that culminated with the July 22 judgment.
Dmitriyev’s second trial unfolded in parallel with a state-backed campaign to dig up part of the Sandarmokh burial site in a bid to prove a controversial theory advanced by several Russian historians: that among the skeletons lying in Sandarmokh are hundreds of Soviet POWs executed by the Finns, who occupied Karelia during World War II.
Sergei Koltyrin, a local museum director and critic of the excavations, was sentenced last May to nine years in prison on the same child sexual-abuse charges that Dmitriyev has fought. He died in a prison hospital less than a year later, after an appeal from prosecutors delayed his release on health grounds.
Flige, who is well-acquainted with Dmitriyev since his tenure as the head of Memorial’s chapter in Karelia, says he was someone the authorities viewed as “inconvenient.” But while she believes his arrest was likely connected to his historical research, she expressed skepticism at the idea that there was a special order to arrest him in connection with Sandarmokh.
'To End Human Memory?'
“The conflict of the individual and the state, the conflict between truth and falsification, are conflicts inherent to modern Russia. A free person sooner or later enters into a conflict with the state,” she said. “In the case of Dmitriyev, these things came together. That’s why in the popular imagination, he and Sandarmokh merged.”
On July 20, in his closing statement ahead of the trial’s conclusion, Dmitriyev sought to justify the painstaking attention he gave his adopted daughter — who arrived in his family with health issues related to malnourishment — and issued a scathing rebuke of the politics of memory engaged in by President Vladimir Putin’s government, which has challenged all criticism of the Soviet Union’s conduct before, during, and after World War II and downplayed the significance of Stalinist repressions.
“For better or for worse, my road [in life] is based on retrieving from oblivion those people who died by the hands of our state, having been unjustly accused, executed, buried in forests like homeless animals,” he said, according to a transcript of the statement released without attribution by news outlet Meduza. “God gave me, perhaps, that cross to bear, but God also gave me that knowledge. Sometimes — occasionally — I find places of mass human tragedy. I match them to names and try to make of that place a place of memory, because memory is what makes a human being human.
“I completely agree with our state that those who died in [World War II] should be commemorated, because that’s part of our memory,” he continued. “That’s why, your honor, I believe that this case…was specially created with the aim of discrediting my name and casting a shadow over the graves and cemeteries of victims of Stalinist repressions, which I managed to open and to which people now flock. Why was this case started? I certainly don’t know. To end human memory? Those actions will not achieve that.”
Flige refrained from speculating about the specific reasons for Dmitriyev’s arrest, and suggested the truth may emerge in the years to come. But she said his conviction, and the controversial excavations at Sandarmokh, signal an escalation of an ongoing campaign to transform Russia’s official narrative on history in a way that relativizes at best, and whitewashes at worst, the darkest episodes of its past.
“There is a campaign aimed against objective historical research, and it’s nationwide,” she said. “But the aim is not to rewrite history. It’s to devalue it, to devalue memory. To create a hybrid history.”