RUSSIA: Arrest of historian sparks outcry

The arrest and seizure of research notes of a Russian historian investigating the wartime imprisonment of German troops and Russians of German descent has sparked outrage among academics and human rights activists. Figures from higher education internationally as well as within Russia have condemned what they see as part of a Kremlin-backed move to suppress discussion of the country's darker historical episodes.

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Mikhail Suprun, a professor of history at Arkhangelsk's Pomorskiy University who has been researching the fate of those Germans sent to Gulag camps in Russia's Arctic region, was briefly arrested in September by officers from Russia's security services.

His apartment was searched and papers that included his entire personal archive were seized. He and a police official who had been helping with his research at a local interior ministry archive were accused of 'violating privacy laws'. If proven, the offence carries a penalty of up to four years in prison.

With the help of the German Red Cross, Suprun had been studying the fate of German prisoners of war captured by the Red Army and Russian-speaking ethnic Germans, deported by Stalin's regime to camps in the Arkhangelsk region.

Thousands of German soldiers and ethnic Germans sent to the camps never returned and the German Red Cross is still trying to establish their fate. Russian interior ministry archives in Arkhangelsk list around 40,000 Germans deported to the region's Gulag camps between 1945 and 1956.

Suprun, who describes his arrest as "absurd", signed an agreement with local officials not to talk about the case but told Britain's Guardian newspaper he had been planning to write two books based on his research. He calculated he needed a further two or three years to complete the task.

His arrest - and that of police official Colonel Alexander Dudaryev who was accused of abusing his position - created an international outcry over what is perceived as a new, state-sponsored historical revisionism.

An attempt by Stalin's grandson Yevgeny Dzhugashvili to bring a libel case against Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta - renowned for its liberal views - stating that it had damaged Stalin's "honour and dignity" in a story that referred to him as a "bloodthirsty cannibal" was thrown out by a Russian court last month.

The newspaper said that newly declassified documents showed Stalin's signature on thousands of death warrants issued during the pre-war purges of the Communist Party and military.

The case was seen by many as a Kremlin-backed attempt to rehabilitate Stalin's reputation and the court's decision a rare victory for those attempting to bring to the attention of the Russian public the true story of those years.

Suprun's case has provoked dismay within Russia and abroad. Two separate petitions - one organised by leading Russian human rights activists, the other by academics from top universities across the country - are circulating via email, the internet and personal contact.

Historians and intellectuals worldwide, including Birkbeck College history professor and writer Orlando Figes, have described Suprun's arrest as unprecedented. Figes dubbed it part of a "Putinite campaign against freedom of historical research and expression" that suggested Russia's regime intended to "clamp down on the collection of personal data about the Stalin terror".

A petition calling for the criminal charges to be dropped against Suprun and Dudarev, backed by leading human rights activists that include Ludmila Alexyeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Committee, Lev Ponomarev, head of Russia's Human Rights Movement and Ernst Cherny, executive secretary of the Public Committee for the Defence of Scholars, said the case suggested that the "mentality of the Cheka" and other Stalin era police bodies survived in Russia's security services to this day.

"They have a stake in making sure that the truth about political repressions is never learned," the petition says. "Hence their attempts to intimidate the Russian academic community, of which the case of Suprun and Dudarev is an example."

The petition from Russian academics, including history professors from institutes such as Moscow's elite MGIMO foreign affairs university, said the arrests were anti-constitutional and in breach of international human rights protocols.

Suprun, who after his brief arrest left Russia for a temporary research assignment in Poland, has received the full backing of colleagues at Pomorsky University. Alexei Feldt, dean of the university's history department, told the Moscow Times that, "We know him to be a good scientist... and we have no doubt in him as long as this case is undecided and hope that it will be solved quietly and successfully."