‘Something needed to be done’ A brief history of Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights group

A memorial wall at the “Week of Conscience” exhibition organized by the Memorial Society. 1988.Sergey Smolsky / TASS

Many people associate Memorial with the study of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror. But for more than 30 years, this organization has also carried out crucial human rights work, on top of preserving the memory of victims of Soviet-era political repressions. Memorial’s staff have played a key role in everything from hostage negotiations to helping refugees and political prisoners. Nevertheless, in November of this year, the Russian Attorney General’s Office moved to liquidate the group’s parent organization, Memorial International, for allegedly violating the country’s legislation on “foreign agents” by failing to include mandatory disclaimers on its public materials. In this brief history, Meduza looks back on the life and work of Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organization.

In 1987, when the Soviet Union had already begun large-scale reforms, a group of young economists from Moscow and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) organized a socio-political club in the capital called “Perestroika.” This discussion platform for advocates of change regularly drew several hundred people, who gathered in an enormous hall at the Central Economic Mathematical Institute. Their discussions went beyond economics, delving into the flaws of the Soviet system as a whole.

“At the speeches I [attended] the topic of repression arose maybe half the time. It was clear that this was the most interesting and important thing. It became clear that within this large audience of 400–500 people there were a sufficient number of people who, like me, wanted something else. We talked and agreed that the repressions were bad. We agreed that something needed to be done so that this would never happen again,” recalled Memorial’s current executive director Elena Zhemkova.

One day, after a regular meeting of the Perestroika Club, someone suggested that anyone who wanted to stay a little longer — and just like that the group that would become Memorial had its first meeting. 

‘The KGB didn’t put any obstacles in our way’

One of the society’s first initiatives was to establish a monument to the victims of political repressions in the USSR. Within six months, the activists had gathered several hundred thousand supporting signatures. By that time, they had already decided that not just a monument was needed, but a whole memorial complex, complete with a museum, archive, and library.

In June 1998, a rally was held near the Dynamo Sports Palace in Moscow, calling for a memorial to victims of repression. It was the first time that Andrei Sakharov — a living symbol of the Soviet human rights movement — spoke in front of such a crowd. Experienced dissidents had joined forces with the young activists (they even helped organize rallies). And within a year the movement had expanded beyond the capital, with branches popping up in Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Kharkov (now Kharkiv, Ukraine), Voronezh, Tomsk, and other cities. 

The future members of Memorial’s public board were elected openly. Volunteers on duty on Pushkin Square in Moscow urged every passerby to put forward their own candidate. The board was made up of those whose names came up most often — in the end, more than 20 people made the list, including Vitaly Korotich (the editor-in-chief of Ogoniok, a very popular magazine in the Perestroika era), Yuri Afanasyev (the future of rector of the Russian State University for the Humanities), poet Evgeny Yevtushenko, and politician Boris Yeltsin. 

The results of the open voteThe results of the open voteMemorial International Archive

Andrei Sakharov agreed to become chairman of the as yet unregistered organization. But Memorial would only obtain official status a year later, after the famous dissident’s death. For a long time, the authorities refused to register Memorial, citing various pretenses. As the well-known story goes, at Sakharov’s funeral in December 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told his widow, Elena Bonner: “We’ll think about how to perpetuate his memory.” “No need to think, register Memorial,” she replied. 

A month later, the authorities registered first the Moscow office and then the all-union society. And soon a monument to victims of political repressions also appeared — a stone Memorial activists had brought from the remote Solovki prison camp. The Solovetsky Stone was installed on Lubyanka Square, directly across from the KGB headquarters. The Moscow City Soviet of People’s Deputies approved the location. 

The Moscow City Soviet’s decision on erecting the monument The Moscow City Soviet’s decision on erecting the monument Memorial International Archive

“It’s hard to imagine now, but in the [late 1980s and in] the 1990s the KGB didn’t put any obstacles in [our] way. The [security] service’s employees were seriously afraid of lustration and a ban on their profession. At that time, there was a discussion in society about the need to put the KGB on trial,” recalls historian and Memorial employee Sergey Bondarenko.

The monument was unveiled on the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, October 30, 1990 — giving relatives of terror victims a place to bring flowers and honor the memory of their loved ones. 

With time, Memorial succeeded in realizing its early goals, setting up a museum, a research center, and a library. The museum’s collection is made up of personal items that once belonged to political prisoners (donated by their relatives). Memorial began exhibiting its collection in the late 1980s. 

Memorial’s research work includes constantly updating a database of victims of Soviet-era political repressions; it currently includes more than three million records. According to Memorial’s estimates, around 12 million victims of political terror across the former USSR should be legally rehabilitated. 

From history to human rights 

Although Memorial was originally conceived as an educational organization, its members quickly realized that they couldn’t just study the past and ignore the political realities of the present. 

“Under Gorbachev, those who were imprisoned on obvious political charges began to be released, but there were still ‘borderline prisoners.’ Some, like today, were prosecuted for fabricated felony offenses,” human rights activist and Memorial employee Oleg Orlov tells Meduza. “We started to deal with these political prisoners, collating lists, appealing to the prosecutor’s office, conducting pickets — this was Memorial’s first human rights track.” 

The independent Memorial Human Rights Center was founded in 1991. Its work expanded constantly: in addition to political prisoners, Memorial activists began dealing with contemporary military conflicts, putting together reports from hot spots. 

During the First Chechen War (1994–1996), Memorial’s staff worked on the ground in Chechnya — effectively functioning as a replacement for the office of Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner, Oleg Orlov recalls. “We had been in the conflict zone since 1994. We monitored the observance of human rights, spoke with [Chechen] militants, [the Russian] military, and the civilian population. We wrote reports about what was actually happening and, of course, tried to secure the release of prisoners and hostages,” he explains. 

Memorial’s Oleg Orlov was part of the group of negotiators sent in during the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis in June 1995. In the end, most of the hostages were released, but the militants demanded several buses so they could return to Chechnya. For a few more days, 139 volunteer hostages remained with the terrorists, acting as “human shields” — Orlov was one of the volunteers. 

“It doesn’t matter that the terrorists were able to get away. Catching them was the job of the security forces. But the children [held hostage in] that terrorist attack survived, and many of them now have children of their own,” the human rights defender says.

Orlov continued to work in the Caucasus after the end of the war. Starting with the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s, Memorial’s staff visited every conflict zone in the former Soviet Union. 

The human rights group’s activists also stepped up to help civilians displaced by these conflicts. In 1996, Memorial set up a dedicated program for aiding migrants and refugees under the leadership of rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina. Today, Memorial’s Migration and Law network has 33 reception centers across Russia. The flow of refugees fleeing war has slowed over time, but the organization is still hard at work, focusing its efforts on helping labor migrants facing dire conditions in Russia. 

Mounting pressure

The early 1990s were perhaps the only relatively peaceful period in Memorial’s history. To this day, some Russian human rights activists consider those years a “golden time,” says Memorial’s Sergey Bondarenko; a time when legislators listened to them and the security forces agreed to cooperate.

The pressure on Memorial ratcheted up rapidly in the 2000s, especially in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2007, Memorial’s Oleg Orlov and journalists from REN TV were kidnapped from a hotel in Ingushetia and beaten up. The crime was attributed to unspecified “destructive forces” — no charges were laid. In 2009, Memorial human rights advocate Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered in Chechnya. The perpetrators were never found, but Memorial is convinced that the Chechen authorities were behind the killing. 

The pressure hasn’t let up since. Just a few years ago, the head of Memorial’s Chechnya office, Oyub Titiyev, was arrested for alleged drug possession. A week after his arrest, Memorial’s office in neighboring Ingushetia was burned down. The rights group decided to shut down its Chechnya office for security reasons. 

After the start of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, the battle against Memorial and other human rights organizations became part of state policy in Russia. The law on “foreign agents” was adopted in 2012; the Memorial Human Rights Center was blacklisted as a “foreign agent” a year later. Its parent organization, Memorial International, was slapped with “foreign agent” status in 2016. (In September 2021, Russia’s Justice Ministry designated monitoring group OVD-Info a “foreign agent” on the grounds that it received funding from Memorial). 

In 2020, the head of Memorial’s Karelia office, historian Yuri Dmitriev, was sentenced to 13 years in a maximum-security prison colony after being convicted of sexual assault against a minor. Memorial maintains that the case against Dmitriev is fabricated and politically motivated. 

Memorial’s Moscow Office was stormed in October 2021, during a screening of a film about the Holodomor. The police who arrived on the scene locked the attendees inside the building and made every person provide a statement about how they found out about the film screening. According to Memorial, the “attackers” were simply released.

A month later, prosecutors moved to liquidate Memorial International, accusing the rights organization of violating Russia’s legislation on “foreign agents” — in particular, by failing to include mandatory disclaimers on its public materials. 

* * *

In addition to the Solovetsky Stone on Lubyanka Square, Moscow now has a second monument commemorating victims of Soviet-era political repressions. The Wall of Grief, located at the intersection of the Garden Ring and Academician Sakharov Avenue, was solemnly inaugurated on October 30, 2017, by President Vladimir Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill. 

“Lists of political prisoners have become a familiar feature of the [political] landscape, and a Wall of Grief is being unveiled by the person who has been creating this landscape for 18 years,” commented Memorial International executive director Elena Zhemkova at the time. 

Human rights activists warn that the Russian authorities want to establish a monopoly on all sensitive topics. “Unfortunately, the government is aiming to subjugate dangerous spheres,” says Memorial’s Sergey Bondarenko. “There can be remembrance. But it shouldn’t include any independent, [non-government] organizations. Everything should be understood by the authorities. ”

The trial on the liquidation of Memorial International resumes on December 14. A separate hearing on the liquidation of the Memorial Human Rights Center is scheduled for December 16. “Our future now depends only on people and broad support,” underscores Svetlana Gannushkina. 

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Story by Ekaterina Mishchuk and Konstantin Valyakin

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart


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