On 10 February 2020, Kateryna Gamolina, member and employee of Memorial Deutschland, went to Petrozavodsk in the framework of the Solidarity mission of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Kateryna’s goal in Petrozavodsk was to support Yury Dmitriyev, a historian from Petrozavodsk and head of the Karelian branch of the human rights organisation Memorial. He has been under investigation or on trial since 2016, accused of crimes of a sexual nature, which were allegedly committed against his adopted daughter. The history of Yury Dmitriyev’s persecution and prosecution, and the details of his case, testify eloquently to the artificial, fabricated nature of the accusation and to Dmitriyev’s innocence. In this piece, Kateryna reflects upon her experience as trial observer, and explains why such missions are important.
The first time Yury Alekseyevich got arrested was on my birthday. Around the same time I became a member of Memorial Deutschland, and since then I have been following Dmitriyev’s case with the feeling that it concerns everyone who cares about the memory of the Soviet past.
On the evening of February 9, I managed to talk to Dmitriyev’s daughter, Katerina Claudt. Based on what she tells me, the word “uncertainty” best describes it all. It describes the general expectation of the end of the trial, the state of limbo Katerina and her children find themselves in, and even the fate of Dmitriyev’s dog. Their lives now largely depend on the verdict. Katya intends to fight for her dad until the end, but cannot even foresee what will happen in a week’s time. Will she manage to send her daughter to a summer camp? Is it worth it to plan for a future in Petrozavodsk? Dmitriyev himself once said: “If they put me in jail, I will sit still”. Staying in Petrozavodsk and in Russia in general in case of an acquittal is dangerous for everyone. Dmitriyev will not give up his lifelong work, but he obviously will not be allowed to proceed with it as before. Katya and her children may become hostages of this whole story and be used to put pressure on Dmitriyev.
During all these years, the Karelian historian’s old shepherd has been living in his owner’s apartment, and has been taken care of by Dmitriyev’s grandson, Danik. The dog is gravely ill, but nobody dares to put her down until Dmitriyev is released. So every day Danik takes the dog outside for some fresh air, washes it and feeds it. Danik is very attached to his grandfather, and the latter’s apartment is a special place for him; he often stays overnight.
Katya gives me a copy of the book called ” Sandarmokh: A place of memory” as a gift. It was presented on the author’s birthday, but without the author. Katya tells me more about her father. There are “only” three people in Dmitriyev’s cell. “He does not complain, he went to the bathhouse”. Once every few weeks his daughter and grandson visit him, and sometimes friends come. Every time, Dmitriyev makes his kind of jokes through the glass, on the prison phone. People write to him a lot, both from Russia and from abroad. He answers all the letters and passes them on to Katya, so that they will not get lost.
The last court session was scheduled for February 10. The witness and the expert from the defence were supposed to be interrogated before lunch, while the closing arguments between the parties would take place in the afternoon. At the end, Dmitriyev would make his final speech (for this purpose one of the “Moscow delegates” brought a dictaphone). The final verdict was supposed to be announced to Dmitriyev by the end of February.
There is a queue at the entrance, the contents of bags and passports are being checked. Judge Aleksandr Merkov already had another court session this morning, so Yury Alekseyevich was walked down the corridor to applause with some delay, at 10:45. His “support group” consisted of about thirty people: Katya and her son, Dmitriyev’s friends and people from other cities who care about his case. There were also representatives from the local TV channel “Rossiya-1”, bloggers, a “7×7” correspondent, a Swedish journalist and independent photojournalists.
Dmitriyev is led along the corridors by five or six bailiffs. “Do not step on anyone like last time,” says one of them to another, laughing. Dmitriyev tells the “support group” through his lawyer: do not be noisy. From time to time, court officials also ask people to be quieter.
But the noisy conversations in the hallways of the courthouse are another story. For some reason, the people who support Dmitriyev cannot help but be interesting interlocutors. One of them is a man who lives 100km away from Petrozavodsk in a forest cabin with two cats. In his spare time, he is writing a book and catches huge fish. He says that revolutions are made exclusively with money. If he had a lot of money, he would immediately change everything in Russia. He cautiously asks about refugees in Germany and justifies his somewhat conservative views on the German migration policy “with age and being old school”.
I then sit down next to a man with a stick and start talking to him. He is a “TRIZ master”, as written on his business card. An elderly blind scientist who is always accompanied by someone and who never misses a hearing. He goes out on the streets of Petrozavodsk with solitary pickets. “Have you heard that our Constitution is being changed?”
There is also an artist who makes temple mosaics, and in her spare time she makes textile panels illustrating her concerns about the current social and political situation in Russia. In her family, there were neither repressed individuals nor those who worked for this system. Regarding those who lived a morally peaceful life under Stalin, she says the following: “Only no one thought that instead of tomato juice they drink human blood.”
At noon, in the corridor, people started to talk about the court verdicts given in the “Set” case in Penza; it had just become known that the young men were given sentences of 6 to 18 years. Some of my interlocutors think that Dmitriyev’s sentence is set already, but that the judge is dragging out the deliberation process.
Only one witness from the defence, a repression historian, was questioned before lunch. After the interrogation, he gave a short interview to “7×7”. The second person who was questioned is a psychologist, an “expert on children’s issues”. Her testimony lasted almost until the end of the hearing. Both individuals were called by the defendant’s lawyer, Viktor Anufriev. Expectations that this will be the last session have not been fulfilled.
There is room for action or inaction in places where “human rights” are a desired, but not a real element of reality. In fact, we as an international community can do very little. Especially in a state where laws are enforced only selectively and international agreements are often ignored (and presumably will soon have less significance than the amended Constitution). In my opinion, open support for political prisoners, feasible assistance to them and their defenders and dissemination of information about unfair trials are the main ways to show solidarity with prisoners of conscience and all those whom the system has appointed as its enemies.
For me, the observation mission consists in maintaining a subtle energy and symbolic connection through kilometres, cultures and languages. In showing the defendants that people empathise with their fates and value their deeds; that those who believe them are more numerous than it seems; in helping those who defend their innocence; in sending a message to those who put them away that the outside world cares about lawlessness.
Solidarity is a fight against despair.
Kateryna Gamolina, student (BA Publicism and Communication Science; MA East European Studies at the Free University of Berlin); member (since 2016) and employee (since 2018) of Memorial Deutschland (Berlin); lacemaker and textile artist. Research interests: the handcraft and everyday life in the Soviet labour camps; the German antifascist’s publicism in the Soviet exile 1933-1945; the Soviet literary policy in the 1930-s.