News Brief

Is Russia Borrowing From Stalin’s Playbook to Bury the Past?

A Russian historian who has devoted his life to documenting the victims of Stalin’s purges has been ordered to undergo psychiatric testing by a court, a ruling with echoes of measures once employed during the Soviet dictator’s brutal years in power.

It’s the latest chapter in what appears to be a campaign of state harassment against Yuri Dmitriev, who has spent 30 years searching for the mass graves of Soviet citizens who were interred in the forced labor camps known as the gulag.

In December 2016, he was arrested on child pornography charges after taking naked photos of his adopted daughter. The historian — who is head of a local chapter of the Memorial human rights organization — says he took the photographs as insurance, in case Russian social services accused him of beating her, the New York Times reported.

He says his trial is an effort to stop him and Memorial from revealing the full scale of how Russia’s communists treated their own citizens. Following Dmitriev’s arrest, one of the country’s most watched state TV channels, Russia 24, aired a report demonizing the historian and Memorial, which focuses on investigating Soviet-era crimes.

The trial is meant to send a warning, said Melissa Hooper of Human Rights First. “Don’t try to challenge the narrative of Russian strength, and don’t try to smear the Russian name by digging into the negative past.”

The New York Times reported that an expert group had found no pornographic content in Dmitriev’s photographs. But this week a court in the northwestern region of Karelia ordered that they be reviewed by other experts and the historian be sent to Moscow for psychiatric evaluation.

Soviet courts were notorious for sending dissidents to psychiatric institutions as punishment. Russia and other neighboring states have resumed the practice in recent years, with more than 30 similar cases of activists or journalists being detained in psychiatric institutions.

Together with Memorial colleagues, Dmitriev discovered a mass grave in 1997 holding the remains of more than 9,000 communist-era victims. The government has targeted Memorial too — which focuses on Soviet-era crimes — in the past, labelling it as a “foreign agent.”

But official attitudes towards investigating the past have hardened since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, with efforts to rebuild national pride taking precedence. President Vladimir Putin has been quoted as saying that “excessive demonisation of Stalin is one of the means of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia.”

Last year, Coda Story reported on the case of Ilmi Umerov, a Crimean Tatar political activist and vocal critic of Russia’s annexation, who was taken to a psychiatric facility there by officers of the FSB intelligence service. The doctor told him, “You just need to admit that you’re wrong and everybody will stop bothering you.”