MOSCOW (Reuters) - Yuri Dmitriev spent years locating and exhuming the mass graves of people executed during Josef Stalin’s Great Terror. Eight decades after one of Russia’s darkest chapters, it is his reputation, not Stalin’s, that is on trial.
The historian, 61, is being tried on charges brought by state prosecutors of involving his 11-year-old adopted daughter in child pornography, illegally possessing “the main elements of” a firearm, and of depravity involving a minor.
If convicted of the charges, which he denies, he faces up to 15 years in jail.
Fellow historians, rights activists and some of Russia’s leading cultural figures say Dmitriev has been framed because his focus on Stalin’s crimes has become politically untenable under President Vladimir Putin.
They say his real crime is dedicating himself to documenting Stalin’s 1937-38 Great Terror, in which nearly 700,000 people were executed, according to conservative official estimates.
His arrest followed close on the heels of the release by Memorial, the organization for which he works, of a list of more than 40,000 Stalin-era secret policemen, a move that raised an outcry among some of their descendants.
With a national election due in March that Putin is expected to contest and win, anything that jars with a Kremlin narrative that Russia must not be ashamed of its past is unwelcome.
Reuters was unable to independently determine if the case against Dmitriev was related to his work. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the government did not play any role.
“It’s not like that,” Peskov told Reuters. “The Kremlin is not involved in such cases.”
Historians, relatives and rights activists are not convinced. Show trials were common in Stalin’s era. History, they say, is repeating itself.
“It’s unfortunately not a one-off case,” said prominent historian Nikolai Svanidze, who sits on an official body that relays human rights concerns to Putin.
“The authorities are taking a hard look at historians. They regard history, or our past, as an ideological selection process. Honest historians are seen as political opponents.”
Blogger Vladimir Luzgin found that out last year after reposting an article on social media which said Stalin’s Soviet Union had conspired with Nazi Germany to invade Poland in 1939. A court found him guilty of knowingly distributing false information and fined him 200,000 roubles ($3,368.43).
Luzgin could not be reached for comment.
The case against Dmitriev centers on whether or not naked photos he took of his daughter from 2008 to 2015 are pornographic, as state investigators allege.
The girl was adopted at age three after a drawn-out court battle with social services because Dmitriev, an adoptee himself, was deemed to be too old. He and his second wife separated soon afterwards.
Dmitriev’s lawyer, Viktor Anufriev, said his client, who is used to meticulously photographing evidence in his professional life, took the pictures twice a year to document her physical condition in case of further problems with social services.
He became particularly worried after carers at the girl’s nursery school expressed concern about marks on her skin that turned out to be residue from a medical dressing, Anufriev told Reuters.
The daughter has not made a complaint, he said. Dmitriev could not be reached for comment in jail in north-west Russia, where he has sat since his arrest in December. Anufriev expects a verdict in the case, which started on June 1, on Sept. 1.
One of Dmitriev’s two children from his first marriage, Yekaterina Klodt, told a Moscow news conference in June the allegations were “absurd” and likened the trial to a circus.
She and her children spent a great deal of time with Dmitriev and his adopted daughter and considered themselves “one family,” Klodt said. Dmitriev was a wonderful father to her as well as to his adopted daughter, who was now distraught to have been separated from him, she said.
She linked his prosecution to his work, including the discovery of the mass graves.
“Not everyone liked what he did,” she said.
The Investigative Committee of Karelia, whose investigators submitted the case for prosecution, did not respond to Reuters’ questions about whether there was a political side to the trial, saying only that there was enough evidence to open a criminal case. The committee declined to elaborate on its evidence.
Putin has called Stalin “a complex figure”.
“Excessive demonisation of Stalin is one of the ways to attack the Soviet Union and Russia, to show that today’s Russia bears some kind of birthmark from Stalinism,” he told U.S. filmmaker Oliver Stone in June.
He also noted that “the horrors” of Stalin’s rule should not be forgotten. But some historians fret that the annexation of Crimea, which Kremlin-backed TV cast as a righteous replay of World War Two, has emboldened Stalin’s admirers.
Monuments and memorial plaques to Stalin are springing up in different Russian regions. State-approved textbooks have softened his image, and an opinion poll in June crowned him the country’s most outstanding historical figure.
As head of the local branch of Memorial, which documents Russia’s Soviet past, Dmitriev was part of a team that found a mass grave at Sandarmokh in the north-west in 1997.
More than 9,000 people, many of them members of the Soviet intelligentsia, were executed at the site. Many had been imprisoned in the Gulag labor camps and forced to build one of Stalin’s showcase projects, the White Sea-Baltic Canal.
Dmitriev made it his mission to find other graves, pieced together victims’ identities and published tens of thousands of names.
He is also the organizer of an annual international commemoration of victims that attracts diplomats from countries like Ukraine, which are critical of Putin. After Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, Kiev boycotted the event.
The release of the 40,000 names in November caused a new furor. Though Dmitriev was not involved in compiling the list, he started getting anonymous calls afterwards asking if he had similar information he planned to release, Anufriev said.
He was arrested on Dec. 13 by police acting on an anonymous tip, the lawyer said. Three days earlier, someone had broken into his home just as he was answering a summons to appear at a local police station to explain why he owned a hunting rifle.
His computer was accessed and 144 images of his daughter copied or printed off, Anufriev said.
An expert group called by state prosecutors told the court it believed nine of the images were pornographic.
A medical expert called by the defense, Lev Shcheglov, disagreed with their assessment. In a video posted to social media, he also questioned the group’s qualifications because it was made up of an art historian, a maths teacher and a pediatrician.
Three of the nine images leaked to state TV were broadcast with the girl’s face, breasts and pubic area blurred. They show her standing straight and alone, with bookshelves in the background. Her arms are raised in one and by her side in the other two.
“Is this pornographic material? No,” Shcheglov said, and described the prosecution’s case as “madness and absurdity”.
As for the guns charge, Anufriev said that Dmitriev owns parts of a sawn-off shotgun, but it is an old hunting rifle that doesn’t fire, and no bullets have been found.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall