The Russian Justice Ministry has moved to dissolve one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations, in a step that would silence a longtime Kremlin critic at a time of deepening conflict between Russia and the West, Michael Birnbaum reports for the Washington Post:
The suit filed against the Russian Memorial Society aims to shutter a venerable group that was founded in the waning years of the Soviet Union to document abuses committed against critics of the reigning Communist leadership. The group has pressed to open once-secret archives about political prisons and dissidents and to arrange for reparations and services for victims of political persecution.
“Russia has never recognized the crime of the Soviet regime, the crimes of the Stalin regime and the millions that died — there was no repentance,” said Lev Ponomarev, one of the founders of the organization. “The Memorial Society works so that a new authoritarian society will not appear. So the significance is huge.”
Over the years, Memorial has inspired thousands of students’ papers and collected witness testimonies about the history of repression, the dissident movement, and Gulag prisoners, Anna Nemtsova writes for the Daily Beast:
In Russia, which Freedom House rates as “Not Free,” organizations like Memorial are seen as unpatriotic, especially those supported by foreign grants. Memorial and other NGOs registered against their will as “foreign agents” in the past two years say they acted solemnly in the interests of all Russian citizens.
The role or mission Memorial plays in Russia might be seen as crucial, as it awakened the country’s historical memory, presenting history as an unbroken whole of the past, the present, and the future. But it is not the reality of history, it is the mythology that is being promoted under Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia’s presidential Human Rights Council has said that there are “no grounds” for closing down Memorial.
Founded in 1989 under the auspices of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, Memorial has led efforts to uncover communist-era repressions and fight discrimination in modern-day Russia, RFE/RL’s Daisy Sindelar notes, listing some of the group’s most vital achievements:
1. Exposing The Scope Of The Great Terror Memorial’s founding goal was to acknowledge, and document, the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism, which accounted for the deaths of an estimated 15 million-20 million people. Memorial began by erecting, in 1990, a monument dedicated to the victims of political repression. …. The group has helped countless Russians and others discover the fate of relatives who died or vanished under the communist regime, building over 20 years what is thought to be the country’s most comprehensive database of victims, with more than 2.65 million names. In 2008, police raided Memorial’s St. Petersburg office, confiscating the group’s entire digital archive. The database has been restored, part of the group’s exhaustive online resources.
2. Defending Defenders In The North Caucasus Memorial’s Human Rights Center, open since 1991, has been one of the leading rights watchdogs in the North Caucasus, opening an office in Grozny in 2000, when thousands of civilians were falling victim to kidnappings, torture, and so-called “sweeping-up” operations by both Russian federal forces and local militia groups. Memorial was forced to close its Grozny office after the 2009 slaying of activist and board member Natalya Estemirova (right), who was personally investigating “hundreds” of highly sensitive cases of kidnapping and murder. ……
3. Keeping The Past Alive It’s easy to say “Never forget.” Doing it is another matter. At a time when Stalin’s political legacy is gaining in popularity, Memorial has made public education a key aspect of its mission. In addition to sponsoring numerous films and documentaries highlighting totalitarian crimes, the group offers regular “terror tours” of Moscow’s Lubyanka district (above), reminding audiences of the brutal efficiency of the Soviet regime’s secret police and the continued failure of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to account for the repressions of the past. ….
4. Fighting Xenophobia In 2003, Memorial announced the creation of an antidiscrimination center (ADC) aimed initially at promoting the rights of Russia’s Romany population. …. In a 2012 study submitted to the UN, the Petersburg-based center alleged that Roma and migrants were routinely subjected to police torture. Prosecutors used the report as a pretext to launch a suit against ADC Memorial the following year, when it became the first major Russian NGO to receive a liquidation order for failing to register as a foreign agent. …
5. Standing Up For Critics Throughout its existence, Memorial has provided legal and moral support to jailed government opponents in Russia and the post-Soviet neighborhood, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Aleksei Navalny, Belarus’s Ales Byalyatski, and Andrei Barabanov, Aleksei Gaskarov, and other participants in 2012′s Bolotnaya Square protests.
“We help people realize that Russia’s past and present are very much connected—that most probably explains why attacks on Memorial in the past few years grew so frequent and now remind us of a war,” Human Rights Center Chairman Alexander Cherkasov told The Daily Beast.