‘Occupying the places of memory’ Gulag specialist Andrea Gullotta explains what’s at stake in the criminal case against historian Yuri Dmitriev
On July 22, the Petrozavodsk City Court will render its verdict in the case against historian Yuri Dmitriev, who’s accused of sexually abusing his foster daughter. State prosecutors have asked the judge to imprison him for 15 years, though Dmitriev’s friends and colleagues insist on his innocence. Human rights activists say the case is political and warn that Dmitriev is being persecuted for investigating mass graves from the Stalinist period. To learn more about Yuri Dmitriev’s contributions to the study of Soviet repressions and how scholars in the West view his trial, Meduza spoke to Andrea Gullotta, a lecturer in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Glasgow, who specializes in Gulag literature.
In April 2018, Petrozavodsk’s city court acquitted Yuri Dmitriev of sexual misconduct against a minor and producing child pornography. On both counts, the alleged victim was his underage foster daughter. Dmitriev’s exoneration was nothing short of astonishing in Russia, where acquittals accounted for just 0.36 percent of all verdicts by judges in the first half of 2020. The moment didn’t last long, however. A few months later, in June 2018, Karelia’s Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and sent Dmitriev back to pretrial detention. This time, he’s charged with sexual abuse.
In December 2016, police raided Dmitriev’s home and found nude photos of his foster daughter, who was 11 years old at the time. Dmitriev says he recorded the images to track the girl’s development because she has health problems.
The nature of the allegations created some early obstacles to rallying international scholars in Dmitriev’s defense, University of Glasgow lecturer Andrea Gullotta admits: “When we organized a few public events in the West during the first trial, people had doubts. The charges are horrible — maybe some of the worst in the world — and people wanted to know why he took those photographs. We explained everything we knew from Dmitriev’s colleagues and the journalists who worked on the case. After we explained everything, people understood. That was very difficult, but now I think nobody has any doubts about his innocence.”
Gullotta says he first learned about Dmitriev and his work in 2010, when he was doing fieldwork on his dissertation about the Solovki prison camp on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. Hearing about the research, other scholars told Gullotta that he ought to contact Yuri Dmitriev, a local historian in Karelia. “He helped me a lot,” Gullotta says. “He has a spectacular archive.”
Just a graduate student at the time, Gullotta says he had no idea who Dmitriev was or any knowledge of the massacre in the Sandarmokh forest, where Dmitriev led an excavation crew in 1997 that discovered evidence of a mass grave containing the remains of an estimated 7,500 political prisoners executed by the Soviet police in 1937.
When Gullotta visited Dmitriev’s home 10 years ago, he says he saw a photograph of him in a uniform and asked if he’d been a soldier. “Let me show you what war’s really about,” Dmitriev told him and then showed him photos from the Sandarmokh excavation. “I understood then that I was in the presence of a giant,” says Gullotta.
Together with translator John Crowfoot, Gullotta drafted a petition in Dmitriev’s defense that’s now been signed by more than 400 scholars and artists in 27 countries. There’s also an English-language website devoted to the “work and trials of Yuri Dmitriev,” where an international audience can learn about his research and get updates about his trial.
Dmitriev has been jailed since his acquittal was overturned more than two years ago. Last year, he co-wrote a new book called “Sandarmokh: A Place of Memory.” Gullotta says the book demonstrates Dmitriev’s remarkable diligence: “I think the very fact that he’s working in such a terrible situation says a lot about what kind of person he is.”
“It’s always been very hard for all of us working on the Gulag to find information about the identities of prisoners. I ran into this problem when I was working on a book about the Solovki camp. I had about a list of maybe 100 names, but it was still very hard to find information about these people. Now anybody who wants to work on the history of Sandarmokh will have all the names, all the lists, and all the victims’ biographies. That’s thanks entirely to Dmitriev and his researcher colleagues,” says Gullotta, citing Dmitriev’s groundbreaking work in Sandarmokh and on Krasny Bor (another mass grave in Karelia where Dmitriev uncovered the remains of 1,193 Stalinist repression victims and help identify many of them).
Yuri Dmitriev’s work has been important for fellow historians, but Gullotta says he’s also a valuable public intellectual, using interviews and articles to remind Russians that the Gulag was a nightmare not just for the victims but for everyone. “Personally, I’m 100-percent sure that the Gulag, like the Holocaust and the Second World War, was a global phenomenon — and not because the victims were different nationalities, but because it was when a state decided to kill people and wipe out their identities. Such a situation is very important for humanity,” says Gullotta.
The history of the Gulag and Soviet repressions, Dmitriev has argued in his writings, is the story of the state deciding what to do with its citizens. In a healthy society, he says, this relationship should be reversed. If Russians understood their own pasts better, it would totally reform their attitude about the state, Dmitriev believes. “I think this is an important concept,” says Gullotta. “We see what’s happening now in America, where some police officers are killing Black people and the authorities are supporting killers. This, too, is an example of the state deciding what to do with people. We can be thinking about what kind of citizens we are and what kind of state we have. It’s a problem that affects everyone in the world.”
While Russia’s 20th century was particularly brutal, the Gulag presents special challenges in terms of historical memory because its bloodshed was so morally ambiguous. There aren’t clear villains and victims, says Gullotta. Russians killed Russians, Ukrainians killed Ukrainians, brothers reported brothers, and so on. The Gulag has never enjoyed an ideal research climate, either, he explains, pointing out the intellectual shortcomings and distractions that limited progress during the Khrushchev and Gorbachev eras, when archival access cracked open. “As a result, not only historians but also society hadn’t yet reflected sufficiently on the memory [of the Gulag],” argues Gullotta.
Admittedly, the Russian authorities have done a lot of good for the memory of the Gulag, investing in new museums and contributing to the fact that Russians are talking about the Gulag more now, Gullotta says, but he faults the state for persecuting troublesome NGOs as “foreign agents” and trying to “occupy the memory.” The authorities target people like Yuri Dmitriev who don’t conform to the narrative that the bad past is over and it’s now time to focus on the bright future, says Gullotta. “There’s now an attempt to occupy the places of memory and grab the historical memory of the Soviet repressions from the hands of NGOs and independent researchers,” he says, warning that the Dmitriev case is “the most important moment in this war.”