He roused the Dragon

Alexander Daniel (Memorial) on the Dmitriev case

<< No 23 (256) 12 June 2017 >>

Over the years of his work Yury Dmitriev became not only a splendid field researcher. He also became unique and unsurpassed as a kind of harvester of archives. This led to entirely unique results: You know that phrase that everyone always quotes, that line of Akhmatova – “I’d like to call you all by name”, well – he alone actually did it!

Dmitriev gave the St Petersburg Memorial a database of archive materials he had compiled for one of our projects, a virtual tour of Sandarmokh – and we used only a fragment of this database for the project. He turned Akhmatova’s poetic metaphor into a precise characterisation of the outcome of his research. Here were 13,411 individuals condemned during the time of the Great Terror. Here were their family names, their patronymics, the years of their birth, their place of residence, professions, place of work, occupations, the date of their arrests and their sentences… here they all were. All this biographical data, each person by name. And if you want, you can find out the same about the 8,338 people condemned by the Karelian “troikas” [extra-judicial three-person tribunals]; you can find out about the 2,091 people condemned by the Moscow “dvoika” [an extra-judicial two-person tribunal], through Karelian records. If you want, you can find out about the 1,828 of those condemned by the “Dvoika” who were shot?

“Dmitriev dug up those graves, and a dragon from the Great Terror crawled out and devoured him”

dmitriev on siteI spent two remarkable months last summer going through the whole of this database. I examined it from every angle and could not tear myself away. There is no other Russian region where the Great Terror has been studied to such an extent, right down to the very last person. We all know a lot about the Great Terror at the national level – there are databases of orders, memoranda, decrees – but we know virtually nothing at the regional level. All we have are encrypted telegrams between the regions and the Lubyanka. And even then, not all the telegrams, just a select few. These encrypted telegrams mostly contain statistics rather than specific names. There are no people, just numbers. Only in Karelia do we have everything at the level of individual people, and that is all thanks to Dmitriev. The database shows how these orders and decrees from Moscow were put into effect in Karelia, in the BelBaltLag (the White Sea–Baltic Camp). Everything can be traced day by day, month by month. The database could be used to create a new branch of historical knowledge, a sociology of the Great Terror. Without mincing words, what Dmitriev has managed to do is a monumental feat of research.

He is a terribly, monstrously ‘inconvenient’ person who has no respect for rank. We are all rather afraid of our superiors, even if just a little, but he is afraid of nothing. He is as fearless as a fox terrier and can step on people’s toes and get in their way. It was he who drove the human rights work in Karelia.

Of course, I didn’t believe for a second that there was anything bad in those photographs they charged him with, but I was initially afraid that other people who don’t know Yury might believe it. That danger has passed now though, thank goodness, and it passed thanks to the overzealousness of the investigators. The charges immediately began to multiply. Suddenly he was not just being charged with pornography but also ‘lewd acts’, that is the photographs themselves were found to be ‘lewd acts’. This was still not enough, however, so he was then charged with possessing a rusty old gun. The moment I found out about the rusty gun, I started to relax. Now no one will believe a single word of the charges. Everyone in Russia knows that when the accusations are being piled up, it means the investigators haven’t been able to sew a case together. That’s why they’re running around like headless chickens.

Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that Dmitriev will be acquitted, because it has also made clear that there is considerable interest in convicting him, whatever the initial reasons, to shut him up. But now they are all terribly interested in convicting him to defend the honour of their department. For this reason, I am not very optimistic.

But then I know Yury and the most important thing for him is what his friends and regular people think of him. There is not a single normal person now who will believe a word of the charges against him.


Shura Burtin made a very good observation in his article. He said we can look at the case against Dmitriev not so much in terms of a handful of simple reasons. We need to have certain ‘mystical’ reasons in mind.

Dmitriev dug up all those graves of the victims of the Great Terror, and a dragon crawled out of them and devoured him. A dragon from the Great Terror. Even the charges are typical of the years of the Great Terror – how many people were charged in 1937 and 1938 with possessing guns! A huge number.

I remember my grandmother, Alla Grigoryevna, once told me about how she was found to be in possession of a ‘Monte Cristo’ air gun and they accused her of wanting to use the gun to shoot Comrade Stalin. It wasn’t even a gun, just the barrel – the breechblock and stock were missing. I should say that at that time, the investigator eventually cleared my grandmother of this charge, replacing it with the more straightforward charge of “Anti-Soviet agitation”. These days, however, the investigators seem to be of a standard lower than those of 1937.

Alexander Daniel, International Memorial Society, was interviewed by Zoya Svetova before the trial opened.

More on Dmitriev in this issue:

Victor Anufriev (defence attorney) — Dmitriev and the Dragon

Sergei Krivenko (Memorial) — A political prosecution

Yury Dmitriev — A letter from prison