Russia may dissolve Memorial, the country’s leading human rights group, in an attack on civil society and a symbolic reversal of the freedoms won by dissidents with the fall of the Soviet Union.
A supreme court case, to be heard on Thursday, may mark a milestone in Vladimir Putin’s campaign to reshape Soviet history by banning the International Memorial, which began meeting in the late 1980s to shed light on the atrocities and political repression under Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders. .
A second case that began Tuesday accuses the Memorial Human Rights Center, the organization’s other main branch, of “justifying extremism,” for which a prosecutor argues that it is grounds for dissolution.
Leading Russian activists and Western governments have protested the cases, with the European Council human rights commissioner calling the organizations “a symbol of the tireless struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in the post-Soviet area and beyond. . Dissolving them would have significant negative consequences for civil society as a whole and the protection of human rights in the country ”.
Oleg Orlov, a member of the Memorial board, called the government’s case under the controversial “foreign agents” law unfounded, but said the final decision would be political. “Everything is possible in Russia today,” he said in an interview. “The public support we have and the noise surrounding this case leaves us with some kind of hope.”
Defending the Memorial for Human Rights and political prisoners, such as jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, had infuriated the government, Orlov said. But he had faced the same ire for his research and education activities on state-sponsored crimes under the Soviet Union, focusing not only on the millions of victims of gulag camps, forced deportations and violent purges, but also the executioners and officials who ordered the atrocities.
“[The government] He is willing to cry for the victims of the repressions, to say good things about them, to remember them, but all these words about the victims of the repressions are almost as if they were talking about the victims of an earthquake or a flood. An accident, ”said Orlov, a veteran human rights defender, who joined the organization in 1988.“ That a government can be criminal… That is unacceptable to them in principle. Russia is not ready to say these words. But we say them. “
Both branches of Memorial were early additions to Russia’s registry of “foreign agents”, a punitive label that has been applied to much of the country’s independent media and NGOs. Increasingly, prosecutors have used the law as a stick to silence independent voices.
And yet Memorial’s national network had survived Russia’s reactionary turn under Putin in the past decade, continuing to popularize its research on Soviet-era atrocities while building a database of more than 3 million victims of political repressions.
That mission has become more controversial as Russia has further linked its state identity to the Soviet victory in WWII and its conflicts with other post-Soviet and former communist states, as well as the West, often required historical arguments to be drawn. favor themselves. What declarations of contrition.
Nikita Petrov, a historian and researcher at the Memorial, said that in recent years government archives have increasingly blocked access to researchers as primary Soviet-era documents have once again been shrouded in secrecy.
“We were enthusiasts who wanted to know more about the history, tell people about their history,” Petrov said about joining the organization in 1988. “When Russia decided to take a democratic and legal path forward, not even in my darkest dreams I could have done it. I imagined that eventually everything would start to go backwards. I was probably naive then. “
Memorial was already at odds with the Boris Yeltsin administration in the mid-1990s, when the group expanded to document state-sponsored crimes during the first Chechen war. Her continued activism has come at great personal risk: Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist and former member of the Memorial board, was kidnapped in Chechnya and murdered in 2009. Orlov was acquitted of defamation in 2011 for accusing the head of the Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to be personally involved in her assassination.
His defense has continued to anger the government. His human rights center is threatened by including Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of a religious group that the government considers extremist, in its tally of more than 400 political and religious prisoners. That list also included Navalny.
Pressure has mounted on the organization since it published that list in August. In October, masked men stormed the Memorial headquarters during the screening of the film Mr Jones, about the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and his reporting on the Holodomor, the Stalin-era famine that killed millions of peasants in Soviet Ukraine during the 1930s.
“This is one of the last remaining places in Moscow where we can hold open public talks,” Orlov said, saying the organization could lose a place to house its archive, library and museum of gulag artifacts. “And of course it will be very difficult for the human rights center … a lot of people will be left without help.”
Robert Latypov, head of the Memorial organization in the Perm region, said the attack on the International Memorial could threaten a “whole network of public organizations” across the country.
He joined Memorial in 1995 as a volunteer at Perm-36, a former gulag labor camp that has been turned into a museum. “When you meet real dissidents who were incarcerated there, prisoners of conscience, and you talk to them in real life, it completely changes your perspective,” he said.
Local officials have often supported the Memorial’s mission, Latypov said, including participating in the reading of the names of the victims of the crackdown during an annual commemoration day. But others have undermined independent efforts to document Soviet crackdowns, he said. Control over Perm-36 was taken away from local activists in 2014. The gulag camp was turned into a state museum with no “people, no excursions, no life.”
And then there is Latypov’s own experience: His home and office were raided by the FSB after a commemorative expedition to a monument dedicated to people from Lithuania and Poland exiled in the region.
“There are some lines, some taboos that cannot be crossed,” he said. “They are always on the move. They are hidden. But as soon as you cross them, the state alerts you immediately. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism