Russia starts court case against post-Soviet human rights group Memorial
Russia may dissolve Memorial, the country’s premier human rights group, in a historic attack on civil society and a symbolic reversal of the freedoms won by dissidents at the fall of the Soviet Union.
A supreme court case, set to be heard today, 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 Stalin and other Soviet leaders.
A second case that began on Tuesday accuses Memorial’s Human Rights Centre – the other major branch of the organisation – of “justifying extremism”, 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 the 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.
Nikita Petrov, a historian and researcher who joined Memorial in 1988, said: “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.”