RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
Noted historian Yury Dmitriyev, who is also the local head of the Memorial human rights group in Russia's northwestern region of Karelia, has arrived at a penal colony in Mordovia -- an area historically associated with some of Russia’s most brutal prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.
Dmitriyev's lawyer, Viktor Anufriyev, told the Interfax news agency on May 10 that his client is currently in Correctional Colony No. 18 in the town of Potma in Mordovia, where he will serve his 15-year prison term.
The town, with a population of some 4,000 people, is in Mordovia's remote Zubovo-Polyansk district. Its name, Potma, is translated from the local Moksha language as "neglected corner."
The notorious system of correctional colonies in Mordovia, established during the 1930s as part of the Soviet Union's feared gulag system, is still known as one of the harshest prison systems in the former Soviet Union.
The high-profile case against Dmitriyev dates back to 2016, when the historian, who has spent decades researching extrajudicial executions carried out in Karelia under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, was arrested over photographs of his foster daughter that investigators found on his computer.
The authorities said the images were pornographic, but Dmitriyev said they were made at the request of social workers concerned about the child’s physical development.
He was acquitted in April 2018, but the Karelia Supreme Court upheld an appeal by prosecutors and ordered a new trial. He was rearrested in June 2018 and then charged with a more serious crime of sexual assault against a minor.
In July 2020, Dmitriyev, 66, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years on a conviction for “violent acts of a sexual nature committed against a person under 14 years of age.” He has rejected the case, insisting that he is being targeted because of his research into the crimes of Stalin's regime.
Prosecutors, who had asked for 15 years in prison in the high-profile case, said the original sentence was "too lenient" and appealed. Dmitriyev's defense team, meanwhile, also appealed the case, insisting its client was innocent.
In September 2020, weeks before he was due to be released because of time served, the Supreme Court of Karelia accepted the prosecutors' appeal and added another 9 1/2 years onto Dmitriyev's sentence.
Dozens of Russian and international scholars, historians, writers, poets, and others have issued statements in support of the scholar, while the European Union has called for Dmitriyev to be released.
Dmitriyev’s research has been viewed with hostility by the government of President Vladimir Putin. Under Putin, Stalin has undergone a gradual rehabilitation, and the Russian government has emphasized his leadership of the Soviet Union while downplaying his crimes against the Soviet citizens.
Under Stalin, millions of people were executed, sent to labor camps, or starved to death in famines caused by forced collectivization. During World War II, entire ethnic groups were deported to remote areas as collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.
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