An Archivist of Forgotten Deaths, Forgotten Himself

Mána Taylor Hjörleifsdóttir
3 min readJun 22, 2020


Yury Dmitriev is a Human Rights activist and historian working in the Northwest part of Russia, a place called Karelia. He is a researcher, archivist, and archaeologist in his own right, and is currently trying to create an archive of those who died anonymously, and whose bones were recently found in forests by him and his team. These unmarked burial sites are usually a sign that there had been a mass executions, that the skulls and bones were thrown into the forest with no respect to their identities. Dmitriev therefore creates cemeteries and memorial sites for these individuals, giving proper burials to forgotten strangers, victims of state persecutions and other violent deaths. He usually places flowers or other symbols to mark their presence and to commemorate their dying, but sometimes he has found names of these individuals and has catalogued them as well.

There is not enough discussion in the news about the work he is actually doing, and more coverage on what he has been arrested for, which is reinforcing this state censorship of the past. This is a way that the Russian government is making it more difficult for him to do this important work of cataloguing and archiving the forgotten deaths, which they want to remain underground. It seems evident that the government is indirectly involved, but still a lingering presence and reason why free speech and the freedom to be politically active is difficult. Since Putin was elected in 2006, more than 62 Russian journalists have been killed. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who had covered the Chechnyan war, was shot in her apartment elevator on the day of Putin’s birthday. This can’t be a coincidence.

He had adopted a foster child, who was malnourished and had some health complications, before he took her into his care. He took photos of her to send to hospitals to show her health improvement, but these were found in a folder on his computer. Recently, what has been more covered in the news, is the fact that he is on trial. He was arrested for these photos, based on the assumption that these were pedophilic, neglecting the medical part. His daughter was sometimes naked in the photos to show the doctors he was in contact with the certain parts of her disease that were improving, as he lived far away from a city that had a doctor specializing in her condition. Despite these photographs not being pedophilic at all, he was arrested in 2016 and put into prison for about a year.

He was arrested again in April 2018, and is currently awaiting a hearing, which has been delayed and is now uncertain. There are many uncertainties, just as there are uncertainties about how we will die, where, who will remember us. There are also uncertainties about his situation facing these trials. He is a historian and has been working on writing, which remains unpublished because of his arrests. The false allegations are interrupting a potential historicizing and memorializing of this important work. The fact that his arrests are interrupting this from happening could also be evidence for a possibility that the government is trying to prevent his publishing.

When he was released from prison the first time, he said in an interview “It should not be so that a person disappears without a trace. A person must have a grave. Therefore, people differ from butterflies. Butterflies have a short life and without a trace of memory, but people live longer and with memories lasting beyond their lives. Memory makes us human and people of nations.” Dmitriev’s work reveals the importance of a grave, a site where death and life are remembered and given a proper place. He is also educating, and creating a longer lasting archive of deaths that have not been given the proper mourning and memorializing. Someone’s death is valued in the memories that those alive have.

Just as people shouldn’t be buried without a trace, he should not be forgotten. We should work on remembering him in the correct way, fighting against the government suppression of him and his important work.