Jurij Dmitriev is a Russian historian, director of Karelia regional section of Memorial, a Russian NGO established during perestroika years aimed at preserving the memory of the victims of Soviet repression. Over the years, Memorial has become the leading Russian NGO on historical remembrance and human rights monitoring, as well as the most important research centre on Soviet repressions.
Dmitriev has been working with Memorial since the 1990s, when, as an assistant to MP Ivan Čuchin, he began working in NKVD archives at Čuchin’s behest to compile the “books of remembrance”, anthologies containing thousands of names and biographies of the victims of Stalinism in Karelia. Besides unearthing tens of thousands of names thanks to his work as Čuchin’s assistant, since the early 1990s Dmitriev has been involved in the search for victims’ burial sites. Thanks to his work, and the work of other activists, two of the most important mass burial sites ever discovered in Russia were found, the forest clearing of Sandormoch (discovered in 1997 with Venjamin Jofe and Irina Flige) and Krasnyj Bor (a site also discovered in 1997 with Ivan and Sergei Čugunkov).
Since then, Dmitriev’s activity has been twofold: in addition to continuing his research, focused mainly on the victims of Sandormoch and Krasnyj Bor (thanks to the work of Dmitriev and other Memorial historians, these are the only mass shooting sites of which we know the victims’ names), Dmitriev has become one of the most important Russian remembrance activists, especially thanks to memorial celebrations held in Sandormoch on 5th August of each year. This role made him disliked by authorities, who started to desert the celebrations. Since 2014, when Dmitriev publicly denounced Russia’s occupation of Crimea in the presence of local officials, he has been subjected to increasing pressure. In December 2016, he was arrested on paedophilia charges: thus began the “Dmitriev case”, the most blatant case of persecution of an activist in Putinist Russia. It was an artfully fabricated case to target the activist and sideline him while the State tried to change the history of Sandormoch, claiming a far-fetched allegation according to which the forest clearing also contained the remains of Russian army soldiers killed by the Finns during the Continuation War (1941-1942), which was disproved by documents.
Dmitriev was subjected to three trials, all of which were marked by serious violations of the right of defence, leading to his sentencing to 15 years in a penal colony, despite the fact that all independent expert reports had disproved the prosecution’s case. Throughout the years of his trial and imprisonment, Dmitriev, who had become an icon of civic heroism towards Putin regime, used his visibility to shed light on the distortions of remembrance of the victims of Soviet repression in Russia and his research work: during his imprisonment he completed two volumes of biographical materials on the victims of Sandormoch and now that he is in a penal colony in Mordovia, constantly harassed by the directors of the institution, he is working on a new project on the Soviet camps in Mordovia. For his heroism, for his research, for his role as a disseminator of remembrance and for always maintaining great dignity in adversity, Dmitriev has been awarded numerous international prizes.