TODAY is Good Friday in the Orthodox Christian calendar. All over the eastern Christian world, from villages in Greece and Romania to cathedrals in Moscow, it is a day of haunting ceremonies that re-enact the death and burial of Jesus. There are chants of deep lamentation, interlaced with quietly confident declarations that mortality has been conquered and life will prevail. This builds up to the noisy, exuberant Resurrection festivities which take place on the night from Saturday to Sunday.  This year, for some rank-and-file Russian Orthodox believers, the story of a just man unfairly accused but ultimately vindicated has even greater poignancy.

To the relief of human-rights campaigners inside and outside Russia, a brave historian who has devoted his life to uncovering, literally and metaphorically, the crimes of the Stalin era was largely acquitted this week of the surreal charges which had been laid against him. Prosecutors  were demanding a nine-year prison term. A court in northwestern Russia cleared Yuri Dimitriyev (pictured) of most of the accusations he faced, including those of “child pornography” and “depravity” which were based on photographs he took to trace the development of his infirm adopted daughter. 

As head of the local branch of Memorial, an organisation which investigates and records the atrocities of Soviet times, he had uncovered a mass grave near his home town of Petrozavodsk and shown that it contained victims of the Great Terror of the 1930s. His arrest in December 2016 was universally seen by supporters as a cynical attempt to muzzle him. Only one charge, that of possessing “parts of a firearm’’, was upheld and he will face certain restrictions on his freedom for several months as a result. But as a whole the verdict was a great relief. The politically compliant hierarchs who will lead this weekend’s Easter ceremonies in the biggest churches of Moscow have not had much to say about this touchstone human-rights saga but at lower levels of the church it has been different. 

Father Alexei Uminsky, a cleric who has won respect as shepherd of an Orthodox community in central Moscow for three decades, recorded a video in which he spoke of “absolute confidence” in Mr Dimitriyev’s innocence and his own “deep respect” for the campaigner’s work to uncover the crimes of the atheist Soviet regime. The priest assured Mr Dimitriyev that thousands of believers were praying for his acquittal and compared him to the persecuted Christians to whom St Paul addressed his epistles. 

The video was posted on a popular and well-connected Russian Orthodox website which is far from being a nest of liberal thinking, on theology or anything else. The fact that Mr Dimitriyev faced such charges is an indicator of some very dark forces at work in Russia: forces which don’t want people to be aware of the horrific human consequences of totalitarianism. As Father Alexei and his flock will doubtless be reflecting this Easter weekend, the outcome was a welcome reminder that dark forces don’t always get their own way, especially when they are confronted with absolute integrity.