MOSCOW — A Russian amateur historian who spent decades unearthing the graves of Stalin’s victims was found guilty on Wednesday of sexually assaulting his adopted daughter, charges that rights groups, his family and friends have dismissed as blatantly fabricated for political reasons.
The conviction of the historian, Yuri A. Dmitriev, by a court in the northwestern region of Karelia ended a long campaign by the authorities to silence a scholar and rights activist whose work had challenged the Kremlin’s glorification of Russia’s past, including the Soviet era.
Some of Mr. Dmitriev’s supporters drew comfort from the fact that the court, despite handing down a guilty verdict for sexual violence against a minor, sentenced the historian to just three and a half years in jail, far less than the 15-year sentence requested by prosecutors and less than the prison term required by law for the crime he was convicted of.
He was found not guilty of illegal arms possession and of exploitation of children for the production of pornography.
Because of the long period of time Mr. Dmitriev has been held in pretrial detention, he should be released by the end of the year.
Anatoly Razumov, the director of the Center for Recovered Names in St. Petersburg and co-author of a book with Mr. Dmitriev that listed the names of thousands of people killed by Stalin’s secret police in Karelia, said he had been “ready for anything” during the trial, but was happy Mr. Dmitriev would soon be released.
“The struggle goes on but getting him home soon is a small victory,” he said.
The human rights group Memorial, whose Karelia branch Mr. Dmitriev headed, found little to celebrate, noting that the sentence, while milder than it could have been, “is not fair,” and denounced the whole trial.
“The absolute groundlessness of the accusations was obvious from the start,” the group said in a statement. “Such a verdict on such a grave charge means one thing: The prosecution has no evidence of Dmitriev’s real guilt in violent acts of a sexual nature toward his underage adopted daughter.”
Alexei Lidov, a prominent Moscow art historian, described the decision as a “nauseating” effort to avoid acknowledging that the case was bogus while sparing the target of security service fabrications from a lengthy period of jail time.
“The wolves have been fed,” he said in a Facebook post, “The honor of a uniform is more important than the truth and the man.”
The Russian authorities have frequently used accusations of pedophilia to demonize their critics, apparently calculating that sexual violence against minors is so offensive that nobody would speak up for the accused.
Mr. Dmitriev’s case, however, attracted widespread condemnation as an example of Russia’s highly politicized justice system, with scores of respected Russian scholars, writers, artists and historians rallying to his defense. Human Rights Watch last month dismissed the charges against Mr. Dmitriev as “spurious.” The European Union also weighed in, demanding in April that the historian be released and the charges against him be dropped.
His defenders believe that the case was driven mostly by politics, particularly a desire by the authorities to defend historical narratives promoted by President Vladimir V. Putin.
Mr. Putin has made the celebration of Russian history, particularly the country’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, the bedrock of a state ideology in which Russia is always a victim of crimes committed by foreigners and almost never a perpetrator of crimes against its own people or other nations.
Commenting on Russia’s history in a recent interview on state television, Mr. Putin said: “We have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”
But Mr. Dmitriev complicated the government’s narrative when he dug up the bones of hundreds of Stalin’s victims at Sandarmokh, a remote forest in Karelia, and documented the crimes of the Soviet state during the Great Terror of the 1930s. Since his arrest, a historical research group funded by the Kremlin has sought to undermine his work by digging up what it says are the bones of Russian soldiers killed at Sandarmokh by Finnish troops during World War II.
Mr. Dmitriev was first arrested in 2016, initially on child pornography charges, and later acquitted by a Karelia court, only to have prosecutors launch a new case against him in 2018 on the more serious charges of sexual violence against a minor. Prosecutors later added additional charges relating to firearms.
The judgment, handed down on Wednesday by the municipal court in Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, is the latest in a series of court decisions in recent weeks that have targeted journalists and others caught up in a rolling crackdown on dissent at a time of growing economic hardship because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Putin’s approval rating has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years but a national plebiscite early this month on constitutional changes opened the way for him to remain as president until 2036. Under the terms of the old Constitution, he was supposed to step down at the end of his current term in 2024.
Mr. Putin has increasingly turned to history to rally public support, pushing ahead, despite the coronavirus pandemic, with a huge military parade in Red Square last month to mark the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany.
The view that the burial ground at Sandarmokh contains victims of Finland during the war, as well as of Stalin’s secret police, has found little support among serious historians, but has won wide favor with Russian nationalists who blame foreigners for all of Russia’s problems. The Military Historical Society, an organization set up by a Kremlin decree in 2012, has been particularly active in undermining Mr. Dmitriev’s work and promoting a guilt-free version of Russia’s past.
Mr. Dmitriev was first arrested after investigators raided his home and found naked pictures of his adopted youngest daughter, Natalia, on his computer. A court in the Karelia region capital, Petrozavodsk, cleared him of these charges in 2018 after hearing testimony that the pictures of his daughter had been taken simply to monitor the medical condition of the girl who, at the time of her adoption, was malnourished and had severe developmental problems.
Citing unspecified “new circumstances,” Karelia’s highest court in 2018 voided the acquittal and ordered a retrial on more serious charges of sexual assault against a minor. The head of a local museum who had assisted Mr. Dmitriev at Sandarmokh was also arrested and charged with pedophilia. He died in prison earlier this year.
The Kremlin does not deny Stalin’s crimes and Moscow now has a large museum dedicated to the Gulag, a network of prison camps run by the dictator’s secret police. But Mr. Putin has put such intense focus on celebrating Russia’s victory against Nazi Germany in 1945 that efforts by people like Mr. Dmitriev to commemorate less glorious episodes of the past are often viewed with mistrust or outright hostility by the Kremlin’s vast propaganda apparatus and Kremlin-endorsed historians.
Oleg Matsnev and Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.