Nine photos Russia put a historian on trial twice for supposedly abusing his foster daughter sexually. Here’s how Yuri Dmitriev became a ‘political prisoner.’
On July 22, the Petrozavodsk City Court convicted historian Yuri Dmitriev of committing violent sexual acts against his underage foster daughter and sentenced him to three and a half years in prison. Because of time already served in pretrial detention, Dmitriev should go free in November 2020. This was his second trial. In April 2018, the same court acquitted him of molesting his foster daughter and using her to create child pornography. Two months later, that verdict was overturned and investigators brought new charges against Dmitriev, this time accusing him of sexual abuse. Dmitriev maintains his innocence and says he’s been persecuted because of his efforts to uncover mass graves from the Stalinist period. Meduza reviews how the case against Karelia’s most famous historian unfolded.
Police first arrested Yuri Dmitriev — a historian and the head of the “Memorial” chapter in Karelia — on December 13, 2016. The authorities received an anonymous tip that he was archiving nude photos of his foster daughter, who was 11 years old at the time. The police found roughly 200 such images on Dmitriev’s computer. According to his lawyer, Viktor Anufriev, the photographs showed the girl from the front, back, and side. (The television channels Rossiya-24 and Ren-TV later broadcast some of these images.) Dmitriev told investigators that he kept records of the girl’s physical development to track her health problems and defend himself against “guardianship arbitrariness,” in light of hostility from the local child services. In an interview in June 2018, Dmitriev said the process of becoming the girl’s legal guardian was arduous and he struggled with suspicious state officials, including a kindergarten teacher who once mistook pen marks on the girl’s body for bruises and promptly alerted the authorities.
Though Russian law prohibits criminal prosecutions on the basis of anonymous tips, officials immediately charged Dmitriev for child pornography and child sexual molestation. He was also charged with illegal weapons possession, apparently for owning a licensed, inoperative firearm. Because the case involved a minor, the proceedings were closed to the public.
The police discovered almost 200 photographs on Dmitriev’s computer, but prosecutors cited only nine. According to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the images in question were taken when Dmitriev’s foster daughter was three years old. They apparently show her sitting and lying down in positions where her genitals are visible. Explaining the photos, Dmitriev reportedly told the court that his foster daughter asked him to photograph her summer tan. A year later, he took four more nude photos when the girl complained of groin pain. He says she suddenly started crying one evening when his wife wasn’t home and he noticed some vaginal discharge. He says he planned to call the doctor the next day and wanted a record of her condition. “The next morning, [the girl] confessed to us that she slipped in the bath and her legs parted,” Dmitriev told the court. The final photo in question was taken in 2012 when the girl, then six years old, complained of groin pain after horseback riding. Dmitriev apparently photographed her while she was sleeping “so as not to embarrass her.”
The first expert evaluation of Dmitriev’s photos was completed by the “Sociocultural Expertise Center” (perhaps best known for designating the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation of the Bible as extremist literature). The center’s specialists determined that the photos constitute child pornography. Sergey Sergeyev, a local art critic, also submitted expert testimony claiming that Dmitriev’s photos are pornographic.
But a second forensic team selected by the non-governmental “Federal Department of Independent Judicial Expertise” came to the opposite conclusion, finding that it’s plausible Dmitriev was using the photos to track the girl’s development for the local social services. A third study by experts at the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry also rejected the idea that Dmitriev’s photos constitute child pornography. In testimony for the defense, National Institute of Sexology President Lev Shcheglov also argued that the images are not pornographic.
Three separate expert review boards cleared Dmitriev of any symptoms indicating deviant sexual behavior. A psychological examination of Dmitriev’s foster daughter also found no evidence that his actions caused any psychological disorder.
On April 5, 2018, the Petrozavodsk City Court acquitted Dmitriev on the charges of child pornography and sexual molestation, but he was convicted of illegal weapons possession and sentenced to strict probation for two and a half years. Given the time he’d already served in jail, this period was reduced to three months.
On June 14, 2018, Karelia’s Supreme Court overturned Dmitriev’s acquittal and returned the case to investigators, following an appeal by state prosecutor Elena Askerova and the foster daughter’s biological grandmother, Valentina, with whom the girl has lived (more than 370 miles from Petrozavodsk) since Dmitriev’s arrest.
Dmitriev says the grandmother is erratic and was previously stripped of her custody rights. The foster daughter was raised until the age of three and a half in the orphanage that employed her grandmother, who has another four grandchildren, one of whom she raised. “She wanted to raise another, but child services said no for some reason. She asked me to help, and I even tried, but it didn’t work out,” Dmitriev said in an interview in 2018.
On June 6, 2018, the grandmother also filed a police report against Dmitriev. According to Novaya Gazeta, Valentina testified that her granddaughter confided in her after Dmitriev’s acquittal that he’d touched her genitals on multiple occasions. When the girl allegedly expressed suicidal thoughts, Valentina says she turned to the local children’s rights commissioner, Gennady Saraev, who brought the two women to Petrozavodsk, where the girl supposedly “either remembered something or decided to say something negative about Mr. Dmitriev,” the historian’s attorney told Meduza. Igor Perov, the lawyer representing Dmitriev’s foster daughter, told journalists that the girl’s allegations followed Dmitriev’s public statements in April 2018 indicating that he planned to take her back. “It was her fear of returning to foster care,” Perov explained.
On June 27, 2018, prosecutors announced new charges against Yuri Dmitriev, accusing him of violent sexual acts against a minor under the age of 14. That same day, he was arrested more than 110 miles from Petrozavodsk for violating the terms of his probation. His lawyer, Viktor Anufriev, says his client knowingly disobeyed the court in order to visit a remote church and pray for a deceased friend. Dmitriev apparently brought a change of clothes with him because the prayer would take place in the water and not because he supposedly planned to flee the country.
As before, Dmitriev maintains his innocence. In testimony obtained by Novaya Gazeta, Dmitriev explained that he “may have touched [the girl’s] clothes and may have gone under her clothes” when he smelled urine. He says he knows what his foster daughter was describing in her testimony. Dmitriev told the court that the girl had bedwetting issues beginning in the second grade when he separated from his wife and he started raising his foster daughter on his own. Hospital discharge paperwork confirms the girl’s issues with bladder control.
Dmitriev’s lawyer, his supporters, and independent experts suspect that his foster daughter’s testimony was given against her will. Describing the Karelian Supreme Court hearing where Dmitriev’s acquittal was reversed, Viktor Anufriev told journalists that Dmitriev’s foster daughter said she felt “upset and disgraced,” but he believes she was pressured to say this. Dmitriev’s older daughter, Ekaterina Klodt, says she used to talk on the phone to Valentina and chat with her foster sister on social media until she abruptly stopped responding. The girl also cut off ties with students at the Moscow International Film School whom she befriended while accompanying Dmitriev on excavations. Attorney Igor Perov said he views these efforts to contact his client as an “attempt to exert psychological pressure” on the girl and her grandmother.
In April and May 2018, Dmitriev’s foster daughter met with psychologist Elena Rudenkova, the director of Karelia’s Diagnostic and Consulting Center, where Dmitriev took required classes on foster parenting. In the April meeting, Rudenkova found no signs that the girl had suicidal thoughts. (Another examination by a different group of doctors at a psychological clinic in Petrozavodsk also detected no mental disorders, depression, or neuroses.) Rudenkova’s second session included the girl’s grandmother and a state investigator named Maxim Zavatsky. Both of Rudenkova’s examinations were recorded on video and Novaya Gazeta published the following excerpt:
“How long did this happen?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Tell me, did he touch you for a long time?”
“He touched you for a long time, yes…”
The transcript differs from the girl’s official testimony (which was not filmed), where statements like “I don’t remember” evolved into detailed affirmations of the allegations. For example, “a few times” became “many times” and the statement “quickly” became “at least a minute, no more than five minutes.”
Dmitriev’s lawyers presented testimony from linguists at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Language Institute who studied the interrogation transcripts and concluded that the girl spoke “under communicative pressure” in response to leading questions that sometimes twisted the meaning of her previous answers. Veronika Nurkova, a psychology professor at Moscow State University, also criticized Elena Rudenkova’s psychological examination of Dmitriev’s foster daughter.
Back during the first trial, “Memorial” human rights group declared Yuri Dmitriev to be a political prisoner. The group’s leaders argue that the case is the authorities’ attempt to discredit Memorial and disrupt Dmitriev’s efforts to document and memorialize the victims of the Stalinist repressions. As evidence that Dmitriev’s case is politically motivated, Memorial cites a news segment that aired on state television shortly after his arrest titled “What Is Memorial Hiding?” where the network showed some of the photos recovered from Dmitriev’s computer.
Yuri Dmitriev also attributes his prosecution to his work as a historian. From 1988 until he was arrested in 2016, he worked independently and with colleagues to find the final resting places of victims executed during the Great Terror and compile lists of everyone buried there. In 1997, working with St. Petersburg “Memorial” researchers Veniamin Iofe and Irina Flige, Dmitriev found one of the Karelia region’s biggest mass graves from the Stalinist period: more than 6,000 bodies at Sandarmokh.
Since 1998, local citizens, regional officials from around Karelia, and delegations from civic groups in Ukraine, Finland, Poland, and Georgia have gathered in Sandarmokh every year on August 5 to honor the prison-camp inmates executed by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s. In 2016, however, Karelia stopped sending representatives to the ceremony. A month earlier, two local historians, Yuri Kilin and Sergey Verigin, argued that Sandarmokh could also be the burial grounds of Soviet POWs killed by the Finns.
In late August 2018, the Russian Military Historical Society (founded by former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky) led a search expedition in Sandarmokh to look for the bodies of Soviet soldiers “killed in Finnish concentration camps” in the early 1940s. The first dig uncovered the remains of five people and another excavation the following summer found another dozen bodies. The Russian Military Historical Society subsequently declared that Kilin and Verigin were right.
In response to these expeditions, Memorial has accused Medinsky’s group of trying to obscure the history of the Great Terror by hiding it behind other victims whose very existence remains questionable. The human rights organization also warned that more digs could threaten the memorial site erected in Sandarmokh. The descendants of those who died at the Soviet prison camp also signed an open letter demanding an end to the excavations.
In October 2018 (after the Russian Military Historical Society’s first expedition but before the second one), police arrested Medvezhyegorsk District Museum director Sergey Koltyrin, who maintained the memorial site in Sandarmokh and publicly criticized the theory advocated by Yuri Kilin and Sergey Verigin that Finns executed Soviet POWs on these grounds. Like Dmitriev, Koltyrin and his acquaintance, Evgeny Nosov, were charged with sexually abusing a minor. Though colleagues say he’d never do such a thing, Koltyrin confessed and was sentenced in May 2019 to nine years in prison. On March 4, 2020, a judge waived the punishment, citing Koltyrin’s poor health, but prosecutors challenged the ruling and he remained in prison, where he died a month later.