STUMP » Articles » Update on Yuri Dmitriev: The Return of Punitive Psychiatry in Russia » 20 January 2018, 03:16

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Update on Yuri Dmitriev: The Return of Punitive Psychiatry in Russia   


20 January 2018, 03:16

I have written about Yuri Dmitriev earlier.

In a nutshell: he’s a man who made it his mission to document those persecuted by the Soviet system, and ended in graves in his corner of Russia.

He’s a very inconvenient local historian.


While the U.S. press gets caught up in bullshit stories about Russian activities (ooh, a few hundred thousand in ads!) and bullshit stories about mental stability, Russia is actually going back to the old Soviet tactic of institutionalizing political enemies.

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.

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.”

This is not a new tactic, and why not go back to what “worked” before? Instead of the “political prisoners” of the Gulag, let’s label the enemies of the powers-that-be as crazy. If you do not care for the truth, it makes for a convenient cubby to put the truth-tellers in.

I mean, everybody else is ignoring that ugly truth you were pointing at — clearly, you are crazy or you wouldn’t be pointing at the thing that everybody else is pointedly ignoring.

Dangerous History: Russia Slides Backward: A Note on Yuri Dmitriev and Moscow’s Return to Politically Directed “Punitive Psychiatry”

That page is from the year I was born: 1974.

While the blog post has the term “Slides Backwards”, it’s not clear to me that Russia ever really moved forward from the Soviet era.


This is not a matter of opinion. There are dead bodies in the forest. It started with Stalin, and it didn’t end with him.

The Bodies in The Forest: By Masha Gessen, from Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia, which will be published next month

The death certificates could contain perhaps two truths and a lie, sometimes one truth and two lies. “Place of death” was always a lie. “Cause of death” was usually a lie — “heart failure,” “pneumonia,” nothing at all — but sometimes the truth: “execution.” The line that was most likely to be true was the one that indicated the date of death. There was no telling, though; often the paperwork claimed that a gulag victim had lived long past the actual execution date. That was when there was any paperwork at all.

The early Memorial Societies looked for the bodies, the execution sites, the documents identifying the bodies — the truth. By restoring humanity posthumously, they hoped to restore humanity to the country itself. It seemed self-evident that once the facts were established, some sort of reckoning would have to follow.

In the second half of the 1980s, under perestroika and the accompanying policy of glasnost, Memorial Societies began their search. They started at Solovki, an archipelago in the White Sea where the first Soviet camp for political prisoners was set up in 1923. Many of Russia’s most prominent intellectuals had been interned there.

In 1989, the Leningrad Memorial Society organized what they called Days of Memory at Solovki. Two of the organizers — Veniamin Iofe, a fifty-one-year-old dissident and former political prisoner, and Irina Flige, his twenty-nine-year-old assistant — boarded a train filled with late-middle-aged people (mostly women) whose parents (mostly fathers) had been inmates. Between themselves, Iofe and Flige called their fellow travelers the daughters. Most of the daughters were carrying their parents’ freshly issued death certificates. Iofe asked to see them. A stout, square-shouldered man with tightly curled gray hair and tiny spectacles, he sat at one of the compartment’s gray Formica tables, a glass of black tea in one hand and a stack of death certificates in the other.

“Look,” he said. “This was a mass execution.” How did he know? Of the twenty death certificates in front of him, fifteen contained one of four dates of death, all in the same week in the fall of 1937.
Flige and Iofe were never given unfettered access to the archives at any prison, camp, or court. Yet through a fortuitous series of accidents, they were able to piece together the story of what happened at Solovki.
Matveev’s reports indicated that the execution site was nineteen kilometers from the barracks. Iofe and Flige narrowed the search down to a single road, and in July 1997 they took an overnight train there. They were joined by Yuri Dmitriev, the head of the Memorial Society in the nearest large city, and a military unit sent to help them with digging.

A short distance into the forest, they came upon ground that did not look normal. It dipped and rose, like the bottom of the sea. But it was the shape of the depressions that was particularly striking: they were large rectangles.

The soldiers had dug down about six feet — their heads were just below ground level — when they jumped out as though they had been bitten. They had hit bone.

Flige hopped into the pit. She was trained in archaeological digging: she had the brushes and the skills to clear away the soil and get a clear view of the stacks of bodies. The bodies lay atop one another, their heads all facing in the same direction. The skulls had bullet holes in them. The way Matveev did it was this: The inmates were tossed into a pit; Matveev stood in the pit and shot each person in the head with a handgun. When he was done, he climbed out, using the bodies like a set of stairs. The system was efficient: Matveev’s work was done in a few days.

Now what? Iofe and Flige had been in the memory business for years, but they had never actually found an execution site before. Dmitriev wanted to open up every one of the pits, exhume the remains, document the means of execution, catalogue every body. Flige was opposed. For better or for worse, these people were buried here now. They should be allowed their resting place, such as it was. What was the point of cataloguing every hip bone or even every skull? When Dmitriev was out of earshot, she called his preoccupation necrophilia.

The regional government scheduled a memorial ceremony at Sandarmokh for October 27, 1997 — the sixtieth anniversary of the first of Matveev’s days of execution. A memorial needed to be constructed — it was going to be a big event. What should it be like? This was Year Eighty since the Bolshevik Revolution, Year Sixty since the Great Terror, Year Forty-one since Khrushchev’s takedown of the cult of personality, Year Seven since the collapse of the Soviet Union — and this was to be the first memorial erected with government sanction at a known execution site.

Dmitriev commissioned a stone monument with an inscription. But there was no way to tell how many people had been killed there. Flige and Iofe had 1,111 names tied to specific execution dates. But there were clearly more bodies. With 236 pits, there had to be more than 2,000, probably a lot more, maybe more than 5,000. Flige and Iofe insisted on sticking with the known facts: between 27 october and 4 november 1937, 1,111 inmates of the solovki prison were executed here. This stone sits to the right of the road leading to the site.

But to Dmitriev, sticking to the known facts amounted to underreporting. He commissioned a larger stone directly opposite Flige and Iofe’s: Here in the Sandarmokh canyon, the site of mass executions between the years 1934 and 1941, more than 7,000 entirely innocent people were killed. they were residents of Karelia, inmates of the White Sea Canal camp, inmates of the Solovki prison. Remember us, people! Do not kill one another!

There is a lot more at the link, and I’m looking to get Gessen’s book when it comes out. You can see she has an extensive list of publications on Russia. I see her book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia received a National Book Award last year.


I have been peripherally involved in the PR campaign to keep info about Yuri Dmitriev live in the press outside Russia. But with Stu’s cancer, I had to step back.

So I’m keeping a record.

In this Google Sheets document, I am keeping a record of the press coverage, as well as related links to the Russian actions against Yuri Dmitriev.

John Crowfoot has built a website where he has amassed material: THE DMITRIEV AFFAIR: The Life’s Work and Trial of Yury Dmitriev. John Crowfoot and others can read the original Russian material and translate (I don’t know Russian at all).

While my keeping a record is mainly an effort of having Google news alerts, and following the public facebook group following Dmitriev’s plight, plus copy/pasting into a document, I think Yuri’s example of keeping a record shows how important it is.

It’s important to know who died, and when, and who sent those people to their deaths.

While people are screeching about being called mean names for their opinions in the U.S., we should remember that some are imprisoned just for wanting to have an accurate record of all those killed by Stalin and later Soviet leaders.

Get some perspective.

And know that the truth is important.