Josef Stalin may have killed anywhere from 20-40 million people, but looking for their graves is ever more dangerous in Putin’s Russia.
Yuri Dmitriev would know. He’s on trial for crimes he claims are made up by the Kremlin as punishment for daring to go looking.
Dmitriev is a 61-year-old historian with the group Memorial, which documents the crimes of the Stalin era. Memorial recently released the names of some 40,000 Soviet-era secret policemen, causing controversy when relatives protested that they might face a backlash from victims. It’s partially because of that, and partially because of an upcoming election where Russian President Vladimir Putin is running on a platform of unabashed pride in Russian history that Dmitriev and his supporters believe he’s been arrested.
The Russian government disagrees. They’re charging Dmitriev with counts of child pornography, alleging that the historian abused his adopted 11-year-old daughter by photographing her inappropriately. Dmitriev’s other children, however, dismiss the charges and claim that Dmitriev was documenting that there was no abuse in the twice a year photograph sessions, after a lengthy court battle to gain custody of her made him wary of social services. His children claim that his profession as a historian led him to this meticulous documentation.
Sergei Krivenko, fellow Memorial board member and friend of Dmitriev, had this to say: “I’ve known Dmitriev for 20 years, and it’s totally absurd to agree with such accusations. As far as can be judged, this is a picture of two girls (his adopted daughter and granddaughter, they are about the same age), running naked to take a bath in the bathroom, a typical family photo. The picture was on his home computer, and, according to Dmitriev’s wife, no one posted it on the Web. This is provocation.”
It’s not all that uncommon for Russians to document the daily for self-preservation. Many Russians use dash cameras because of corrupt cops and unequal application of the law, something the world discovered after a 2013 comet was caught by multiple bystanders going about their daily business. Hard evidence like video and photographs help contravene claims from cops looking for a bribe or drivers with better connections to local officials, even in small cases like fender benders.
In Peter Pomerantsev’s book Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible, Pemoerantsev details a pharmaceutical businesswoman who ran afoul of hitherto unenforced drug regulations. She endured a lengthy arrest and an uncertain future, largely, she believed, because someone with connections to the government didn’t like her competition. In a country where the legal code has still not fully reconciled its czarist, Soviet, and post-Communist laws, such confusion is both common and useful for the Kremlin. According to Pomeranstsev, most people could be guilty of a crime at any given time.
Dmitriev’s work runs up against Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet nationalist ideology, which hopes to restore Russia to great power status and seeks to oust NATO and American influence from what was once the Soviet Union. Putin sees restoring Stalin’s image as part of that mission, especially since Stalin oversaw the USSR when it was at the height of its power in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The victorious leader of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia, is a hero to Putin’s United Russia.
Putin has gone so far as to even restore much of the old Soviet national anthem. But the remembrance of Soviet crimes makes the regime uncomfortable, especially since the late Soviet Union was discredited by public revelations of its mass human rights violations. “Knowledge like that has become increasingly uncomfortable in a Russia that no longer wants to distance itself from its murderous past,” wrote the Washington Post.
[Featured Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]