(New York, NY) – A court in Russia today sentenced the historian and leader of a regional branch of the human rights organization Memorial Yury Dmitriev to 15 years in a penal colony. PEN America decries this decision as both a blatant attack on freedom of expression in Russia and a shameless attempt to deprive Russian citizens of historical truth. The verdict comes as prosecutors also seek to liquidate all domestic and international Memorial affiliate branches.

“This unjust verdict against Dmitriev and the years of persecution he has endured demonstrate the extent to which the Kremlin fears historical truth”, said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia director. “Yury is guilty of nothing but shedding light on one of the darkest chapters of Russian history. In recent years, the Putin regime has sought to rehabilitate Stalin—one of the worst dictators of the 20th century—in the popular consciousness in order to legitimize its own authoritarian rule. Today’s verdict proves how vital Yury’s tireless work has been in resisting this campaign. On January 28, Yury will turn 66 years old—15 years in a penal colony could effectively be a death sentence. Although it has cost him his freedom, Yury has always stood firmly on the right side of history, unbowed from the truth. We call on the Russian authorities to release Yury with immediate effect, and to cease their relentless attempts to distort history.”

Dmitriev, a historian and human rights activist from the city of Petrozavodsk, Russia, has identified thousands of camp graves and burial places of victims of mass executions of Stalin’s Great Terror in Karelia, a region in Russia’s far north bordering Finland. Since 2016, Dmitriev has spent multiple stints in detention under multiple politically motivated charges. On October 12, Karelia’s Supreme Court rejected his final appeal, widely seen as his last chance for acquittal. 

Read the full timeline of Dmitriev’s case here.

PEN America monitors threats to free expression in Eurasia among artists, writers, and journalists. Read more about the recent release of Russian actor Pavel Ustinov and PEN America’s statement on Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev’s illegal imprisonment.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT:  Adam Davis, adavis@pen.org