Russia may dissolve Memorial, the country’s premier human rights group, in an attack on civil society and symbolic reversal of the freedoms won by dissidents at the fall of the Soviet Union.
A supreme court case, to be heard on Thursday, may mark a watershed in Vladimir Putin’s campaign to recast Soviet history by banning International Memorial, which began meeting in the late 1980s to shed light on atrocities and political repression under Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders.
A second case that began on Tuesday accuses Memorial’s Human Rights Centre – the other main branch of the organisation – of “justifying extremism”, by which a prosecutor argues is grounds for its dissolution.
Prominent Russian activists and western governments have protested against the cases, with the European Council commissioner for human rights calling the organisations “a symbol of the relentless fight 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 human rights protection in the country.”
Oleg Orlov, a Memorial board member, called the government’s case under the controversial “foreign agents” law baseless but said the ultimate decision would be a political one. “Anything is possible in today’s Russia,” he said in an interview. “The public support we have and the noise around this case leave us some kind of hope.”
Memorial’s advocacy for human rights and political prisoners, such as jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, had angered the government, said Orlov. But it had faced equal wrath for its research and educational activities on state-sponsored crimes under the Soviet Union, focusing not just on the millions of victims of gulag camps, forced deportations and violent purges, but also on the executioners and officials who ordered the atrocities.
“[The government] is ready to grieve for the victims of repressions, to say good things about them, remember them, but all of these words about the victims of repressions are almost like they’re talking about the victims of an earthquake, or of a flood. An accident,” said Orlov, a veteran human rights advocate, who joined the organisation in 1988. “That a government can be criminal … That’s unacceptable for 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 register of “foreign agents”, a punitive label that has been applied to much of the country’s independent media and NGOs. Increasingly, prosecutors have wielded the law as a cudgel to silence independent voices.
And yet, Memorial’s national network had survived Russia’s reactionary turn under Putin in the past decade, continuing to popularise its research into Soviet-era atrocities as it built a database of more than 3 million victims of political repressions.
That mission has grown more controversial as Russia has further tied its state identity to the Soviet victory in the second world war and as its conflicts with other post-Soviet and former communist states, as well as the west, often required historical arguments favouring itself rather than statements of contrition.
Nikita Petrov, a historian and researcher at Memorial, said in recent years government archives have increasingly blocked access to researchers as primary documents from the Soviet era have once again been shrouded in secrecy.
“We were enthusiasts who wanted to know more about history, tell people about their history,” said Petrov of joining the organisation in 1988. “When Russia chose to take a democratic, legal path forward, I couldn’t in my darkest dreams have imagined that everything would eventually start going in reverse. Probably I was naive then.”
Memorial was already at odds with the administration of Boris Yeltsin by the mid-1990s, as the group expanded into documenting state-sponsored crimes during the first Chechen war. Its continued activism has come at great personal risk: Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist and former board member of Memorial, was abducted in Chechnya and murdered in 2009. Orlov was acquitted of slander in 2011 for accusing the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, of being personally involved in her killing.
Its advocacy has continued to anger the government. Its human rights centre is under threat for including Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of a religious group that is considered extremist by the government, on its tally of more than 400 political and religious prisoners. That list also included Navalny.
Pressure has increased on the organisation since it released that list in August. In October, masked men raided Memorial’s headquarters during a screening of the film Mr Jones, about 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,” said Orlov, saying the organisation could lose a place to house its archive, library and museum of gulag artefacts. “And of course it will be very hard for the human rights centre … a lot of people will be left without help.”
Robert Latypov, the head of Memorial’s organisation in the Perm region, said the attack on International Memorial could threaten a “whole network of public organisations” across the country.
He first joined Memorial in 1995 as a volunteer at Perm-36, a former gulag labour camp that has been turned into a museum. “When you meet true dissidents who were imprisoned there, prisoners of conscience, and you speak to them in real life, it completely changes your perspective,” he said.
Local officials had often been supportive of Memorial’s mission, Latypov said, including taking part in reading names of victims of repression during an annual day of remembrance. But others have undermined independent efforts at documenting Soviet repressions, he said. Control over Perm-36 was wrested from local activists in 2014. The gulag camp became 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 Memorial expedition to a monument devoted to people from Lithuania and Poland exiled to the region.
“There are some lines, some taboos that you can’t cross,” he said. “They are always moving. They are hidden. But as soon as you cross them, the state lets you know immediately.”