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Jailed Russian historian exposing Soviet crimes awarded Sakharov prize

Jailed Russian historian exposing Soviet crimes awarded Sakharov prize
Article by: Yuliia Rudenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra

Today, on the 100th anniversary of Andrey Sakharov’s (1921-1989) birth, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee will present the 2021 Sakharov Freedom Award to Russian historian and dissident Yuri Dmitriev.

Who is Yury Dmitriev?

At a time when no one was talking about the crimes of the Soviet regime, Yuri Dmitriev became the very first person to bring up this topic. A Russian historian and dissident, he has dedicated his life to shedding light on the execution of victims of Stalin’s regime in Karelia, where dozens of thousands of people were killed and buried in mass graves. Dmitriev worked to collect the remains of the victims of terror and identified them by name. According to the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee Geir Hønneland, this way Dmitriev gave them back their dignity. Apart from this, Dmitriev has led the Russian organization Human Rights Center Memorial’s regional office in Karelia.

In 2020, Russia sentenced Dmitriev to 13 years of imprisonment on trumped-up accusations of paedophilia. This is the price he paid for doing his work to restore the memory of the victims. Dmitriev is regarded as a political prisoner by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and other leading human rights organizations.

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Who is Andrei Sakharov?

On 21 May 1921, Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), a Soviet nuclear physicist and “the father of the Soviet H-bomb,” dissident, Nobel laureate, and activist for disarmament, peace and human rights was born. Without a doubt, he was the most devoted opponent to Soviet totalitarianism. For that, Sakharov paid a high price. He was demonized by Soviet media, lost his job, and even was arrested and forced into internal exile.

Today, Russia exploits the same tools to crack down on its dissidents and human rights champions, who often get persecuted and meet the same fate as Sakharov. Russian historian Yury Dmitriev, who was put behind bars for fabricated charges after revealing Soviet crimes against dissidents, is one of them. In both cases of Yury Dmitriev and Andrei Sakharov, it was their human rights activism that cost them freedom. It is very fitting that today, the Sakharov prize was awarded to Yury Dmitriev.

Andrei Sakharov faced his first oppressive measures from the Soviet authorities after publishing the “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Co-Existence, and Intellectual Freedom” essay, where he expressed his progressive ideas inter alia about the rapprochement of the West and the USSR. The essay became extremely popular not only among the readers from the USSR but also the USA and the Netherlands. The Soviet response to Sakharov’s dissenting opinion was fast — he was removed from his position at the physics research institution.

This did not intimidate Andrei Sakharov. On the contrary, he commenced human right activism. In 1970, Sakharov co-founded the Committee of Human Rights in the USSR which then operated illegally. For his human rights championship, Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize. For the same reason, he was blackened and described as a capitalist turncoat by the Soviet media.

What is worse, after expressing disagreement with the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, Sakharov got arrested and forced into an internal exile to the Nizhniy Novgorod (back then, Gorky) city. Moreover, he was banned from any contact with any person who had not been approved by the Soviet secret police (KGB). Following Sakharov’s hunger strikes and protests against his captivity and the prohibition from the Soviet authorities to allow his wife Yelena Boner to leave the USSR for heart surgery, Gorbachev allowed the family to return home and Sakharov’s wife to have her surgery in the USA in 1986.

In 1988, the European Parliament established an annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought named after Soviet Andrei Sakharov to pay tribute to those who have committed their lives to human rights and championing freedom of thought. This year, it was awarded to Yuri Dmitriev.

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Edited by: Alya Shandra
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