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‘Who’s a patriot?’ Facing 15 years in prison, Russian historian Yuri Dmitriev delivers closing statement in court. Verdict expected on July 22.

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Larionov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On Wednesday, July 22, a court in Petrozavodsk will announce its verdict against Yuri Dmitriev, the local historian accused of sexually abusing his foster daughter. The case began back in December 2016, when police responded to an anonymous tip and raided Dmitriev’s home, discovering nude photographs on his computer of his then 11-year-old foster daughter. After one incriminating report, a second forensic study of the photos found no signs of pornography, and three expert review boards cleared Dmitriev of any symptoms indicating deviant sexual behavior. In April 2018, he was acquitted, but the region’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling after two months and returned the case to prosecutors, who promptly brought new charges. Dmitriev’s second trial — the one about to end — has been closed to the public, but the newspaper Novaya Gazeta has learned the essence of the case: Dmitriev allegedly touched his foster daughter’s groin several times to check the dryness of her underwear. (Hospital discharge paperwork confirms that the girl had bedwetting issues when she was in the second grade.) Yuri Dmitriev denies any wrongdoing and Meduza is publishing the text of the closing statement he made in court on July 8. This is the first time these remarks have appeared in the news media.

May it please the court, this is already the second time I’ve made a closing statement in this endless process. And I’d like to clarify my position — if it isn’t already clear to the court — about why I am the man I am, why I act as I do, and why I ended up in this cage.

Your honor, I have already made it plain that I am perhaps not an ordinary person like most others. What I mean is, I was born a healthy, normal person, but I don’t know who my biological parents were, where they were from, what nationality they were, what faith, or what culture. And this has fueled in me a great search for my own roots. I’ve been trying for more than 30 years now, so far without much success, but I still think I’ll get to the truth at the bottom of all this someday — I’ll find out what blood courses through my veins and what genes animate me. That is why, as a child who was adopted when he was one and a half, orphancy is a subject I hold dear and experience personally. 

Yes, many crave to learn their own roots. But why do this? You do it to find out to which culture you belong. Now, I’m not saying I’m some high-born type. What matters to me is understanding which people claim me as a son. Because what separates human beings from insects — from butterflies or beetles — is the fact that we have memory. And this memory of our own ancestors, preferably going back seven generations or more, makes you more independent in your judgments, and it allows you to draw better conclusions because the memory of different generations is concentrated in you. I lack such knowledge, unfortunately, which is why I strive for it.

Why am I saying all this? So that you, your honor, can understand the motives that guided my actions when I took in a child who also lost her parents and guardians. So whatever obstacles there were on this path — created out of thin air, at the request of one or two administration officials — they weren’t so insurmountable that my wife and I weren’t able to welcome the child into our family. The court knows what actions were taken; this is reflected in the case materials. We won’t dwell on this now. Instead, let’s confine ourselves to the fact that the victory in the fight for guardianship drove me to be more attentive to everything related to the presence of a child in our family.

During this trial, the prosecution has said we failed to track [our daughter’s] health properly. This is the second clause in the family agreement: I must monitor [the child’s] physical health. And that is why, as you have seen, your honor, everything is documented. Maybe I got ahead of myself, but I embraced the same recommendations made by government officials even before [Russia’s 2018] telemedicine law came into effect. 

Our honorable prosecutors say there is no law on telemedicine, and our honorable doctors in Karelia insist that the Health Ministry never issued any such order. And yet the order is known in Moscow, where it’s been observed for two years already. Moreover, I can also tell you that a telemedicine laboratory was created at our medical institute back in 2008 on the basis of one of these orders. It exists and there are guidance materials that cite the order. And if our honorable doctors in Karelia say it’s impossible to reach a diagnosis using photographs and snapshots… Maybe it is impossible, but a [healthcare] professional can certainly hypothesize about the presence of a disease and direct the child to the right specialist. 

A woman came here and testified as an expert… I can’t say for certain what her position is because I don’t have the hearing’s minutes. But she determined, based directly on a certain photo, that the child was suffering from an illness. I can see when someone has broken bones or lacerations, and I can take certain actions, like bandages, splints, and ice. But what happens if I don’t understand what’s going on hidden inside the child? 

That is why I repeatedly sounded the alarm about [my daughter’s] low weight. When we took in the child at three and a half years, she weighed 12 kilograms [26.5 pounds]. At 11, when she was taken from our family, she weighed 24 kilograms [53 pounds]. That’s a first grader’s weight, but [she] was already in fifth grade. She was always 25 to 30 percent below average and that worried me a lot. 

In kindergarten, when she was six, she had her first visit with an endocrinologist. The clinic’s doctors spent a long time carefully examining her neck, her thyroid, and her lower abdomen (meaning, her pelvic organs). The other kids went into the office and left after seven or eight or 10 minutes. We spent 30, maybe 40, minutes in that office. “It doesn’t seem like there’s anything terrible, but there’s something.” “Let’s wait until next time and then maybe it will become clearer.”

The girl was pretty active in sports. She ate well. You’ll have to forgive me but we ate meat seven days a week: beef, lamb, and chicken, plus good sausage and garnish at breakfast. We didn’t scrimp on food — three was enough money, thank God. Still, the child was skin and bones. So it really weighed on me.

Late in 2016, our doctors finally caught something. First, they sent us to the city children’s hospital for further examination, and then they proposed more tests at the [Karelia] children’s hospital. Sadly, I don’t know if she ever got these tests because I was taken into custody literally a month earlier, on December 13. 

We met with all the other specialists, too. At the last medical examination, an eye doctor said the eyesight was dragging a bit because the child was playing a lot on her smartphone. So I made an executive decision and I replaced her phone with a regular one without all the games that would wreck her eyesight. I told her: “Hold on. Let’s see what happens before New Year’s. If your vision comes back, I’ll return your phone.” Incidentally, I also promised her that I’d also buy a new tablet if she finished the quarter without any Ds… She’d already cracked two of my tablets.

Your honor, I want to say again that I never took any heinous actions against [my daughter]. What they’re trying to pass off as something approaching erotic touching is just an interpretation of parental care. I didn’t fumble around, I didn’t look, I didn’t touch, I didn’t grope, and I didn’t caress or anything like that! Everything invented here by our friendly investigator and zealously repeated by our beloved prosecutor is false.

Now let’s talk about the reason I took in [the child]. I’ve already explained why and I’ve already explained how it happened and how I tracked her health. Now I’ll explain the reason I brought a child into my family.

You see, I’m eternally grateful to my parents — to the ones who raised me. I’m talking about Alexey Filippovich Dmitriev, a career officer and a front-line soldier, and my mother, Nadezhda Dimina. They were both from simple peasant families. Dad was from Siberia in the Tymen region and mom was from Vologda, from some remote village. They met during the war and got married in 1946. Dad was wounded three times: once by a bullet, once by shrapnel, and once by a bayonet that left a scar just below his heart (the blade got him too low and the German ended up shot).

When they realized that the Lord would not give them their own children (obviously due to the hardships and deprivations they suffered during the war), they performed what I believe to be their own civil feat: they took me in from the orphanage. They nursed me to health and raised me to be the man standing here now in this cage who can look them in the eyes without shame. Without shame, I say. [Both of Dmitriev’s parents died in 2000 within five days of each other.]

Following their example and remembering that they granted me life, my wife and I decided to take in a child and raise her in accordance with the same principles on which we were reared. All the actions we took both to bring [the girl] into our family and to ensure that she grew up healthy, active, and so on are regulated by the laws of the Russian Federation — both by the Domestic Relations Law and other statutes.

I believe — and the Russian Federation’s Constitution supports me in this — that the state’s strength isn’t in tanks and guns or nuclear missiles and the ability to send everyone to kingdom come. No, the strength of the state is in its people. How people behave in a state determines how the state develops and how it grows richer and wiser. That’s why we wanted, in accordance with these wishes of our Constitution, to raise a young woman — well, for now just a girl, then a teenager, and then a young woman — so that she would be a useful member of our society. 

We never forced any values onto the child. We never said that you have to love your dad because he’s the dad. We never said you have to love your mom because she’s the mom. The child should do this on her own in response to our love. We didn’t say you have to love the state. A person should do this on their own when they feel the care of this state. As a matter of fact, that’s why I had [my daughter] baptized, or rather I allowed [her] to be baptized, so late.

The first time she started talking about the possibility of wearing a cross around her neck was in kindergarten when she saw another kid wearing a cross. “Dad, I want one of those.” Well, her dad explained to her that it wasn’t just a decoration. I explained that when she grows up and wants to believe in God, she’ll choose whatever she likes best, and she can get baptized then, too, if she wants. That’s why we baptized [our daughter] so late, at the age of nine. At eight, she expressed a wish to be baptized and I sent her to Sunday School for a year, so she could understand what faith is and so people who know about it could explain to her what it means and teach her how to do it properly if she still wanted to be baptized. After finishing Sunday School, I asked her again if she wanted to be baptized and she said: yes and I know why. Nobody forced her to do it, nobody urged her on, and there were no enticements. 

And somehow here the Lord gave his blessing — there’s no other way to put it. [My daughter] was honored to be baptized in the Solovetsky Islands at an ancient, holy monastery. In addition to being ancient and holy, it’s also, from the perspective of our modern history, a terrible place; it’s the home of the infamous “SLON” Solovki prison camp. 

[My daughter] was baptized at the Voznesensky Monastery on Sekirnaya Mountain. In the 200 years this small monastery has existed, you can count on one hand how many people have been baptized here. It’s a very strict monastery and a very holy and tragic place. In the old days, women weren’t allowed on Sekirnaya Mountain at all. They can come now, but not one young lady had ever been baptized there. [My daughter] was the first and only. And I thank the Lord that he allowed [my daughter] to be baptized there.

In the Soviet years, during the 1920s and 30s, this was a place of punitive confinement where hundreds of people were held in the most unbelievable conditions and held before they were shot for capital crimes. They were shot literally 30-40 meters [about 115 feet] from this church — it was one of the first cemeteries I discovered in the Solovetsky Islands.

And somehow the senior priest and the entire monastery’s archpriest didn’t oppose [my daughter] being baptized according to the monastery rite on Sekirnaya Mountain. And when that sacrament was done, I honestly warned [my daughter]: now you’ll face great trials because once a person is granted so much — once they’re baptized in such a place — the Lord will test their strength.

At home, by herself, she sometimes prayed. (Walking by, I’d see her.) And now, when I asked her grandmother in your presence, your honor, if [my daughter] goes to church and I heard that she does not, I understood why I do not feel that mutual connection [with her]. After all, probably for the first seven or eight months, I knew and I sensed inside myself that I had the same feelings as [my daughter]. That’s just how we’re built. We were simply that in tune with each other. If the child was scared, then I felt it. If the child was cold, I was, too. I knew when she was hot. If she scored a goal or missed a shot in practice, I could sense that, as well. 

People today like to talk about patriotism and I’m sorry but patriotism never really enters the conversation. Who’s a patriot? A patriot is someone who loves their homeland. For some reason, the only thing we like to take pride in these days is military feats. I’m sorry but a homeland is a mother. Sometimes mom gets sick and sometimes mom struggles with something. But do we stop loving her when that happens? No. I don’t know if it’s for better or worse, but my path is to return from oblivion those people who perished because of our state. They were unjustly accused, shot, and buried in the woods like stray animals. There’s nothing indicating that people are buried here. The Lord gave me this cross to bear, maybe, but the Lord also gave me this knowledge. I have managed, not often but sometimes, to find the locations of mass human tragedies. I match them to names and I try to make room for memory in this space because memory is what makes a person a person.

I can say the following about “military patriotism”: My dad fought on the front lines and we celebrated May 9 [Victory Day] long before it became a holiday. I remember it was in ‘65, and we [celebrated] it even before ‘65.

My mom had six sisters. All their husbands fought on the war’s front lines. And here’s the thing: at the table, these people spoke least of all about victories. Because the war for them meant tragedy and pain. And there were no flags. The victory was grief, first and foremost, and the memory of those who died.

I agree completely and entirely with our state that we must remember those who died in the war because it’s part of our shared memory. But we must also remember the people who died due to the malice of our state. And that is what I consider to be patriotism. This is what I taught [my foster daughter] and this is what my [biological] children, Egor and Katya, know, as do my grandchildren and the schoolchildren and students with whom I’ve worked. Probably all civilized people know and understand this. That is why, your honor, I believe this case, which we’ve been discussing and reviewing for three and a half long years, was created specifically to discredit my good name and to cast a shadow on the graves and cemeteries of the Stalinist repressions’ victims that I managed to unearth and to which people are now flocking. 

Why this case was launched in the first place, I don’t actually know. To put a stop to human memory? That’s a doomed pursuit. To deprive me of the chance to participate in all this? I’ve been out for three years now and it’s not going away. 

That is why, your honor, when you retire to your deliberation chambers, I ask you to study and verify everything again carefully. I am innocent of the wrongdoing described here in many volumes. I tried to raise the child as a respectable citizen and as a — and I’m not afraid of this word — patriot of our country. I did everything possible to make this happen. Maybe even more than the school, workshops, and others do.

That, I believe, is everything I want to stay. Thank you.

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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