‘The Sledgehammer Has Come Down’: Outrage, Dismay As Russia Moves To Shut Down Its Oldest Human Rights Group

Graffiti painted outside Memorial's offices in central Moscow in November 2012 says "Foreign agent. Love USA."  

Shortly after it received a notice from Russia’s Supreme Court saying prosecutors were seeking its closure, Russia’s oldest and perhaps most revered human rights group, Memorial, shared the news in a tweet that summed up the reaction of its staff: "We can’t believe it."

And yet, many observers of Russia’s increasingly authoritarian turn under President Vladimir Putin were not surprised by this development.

Memorial, which for more than 30 years has painstakingly documented Soviet-era crimes and defended Russians’ right to due process even as it faced an increasing hailstorm of court cases and convictions, was already under immense pressure after it was tagged with a "foreign agent" label that forced it to operate under strict rules.

Memorial soon started racking up large fines for alleged violations of its duty to advertise its "foreign agent" status. Its nationwide network of activists –who have worked to shed light on dark pages of the Russian and Soviet past, in particular the Soviet state’s crimes under Josef Stalin, and to counter official statements that muddy the waters — have been fined and even jailed in what critics said was retaliation for their work.

"The state criminalizes the activity of civil organizations. And now it criminalizes the memory of victims of the state," Andrei Kolesnikov, who chairs the Russian domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter. "Without de-Stalinization, Russia is doomed to backwardness."

The Prosecutor-General’s Office appealed to the Supreme Court to order the closure of International Memorial, which acts as an umbrella group for other parts of the movement, including its regional branches and the Memorial Human Rights Center. The court has scheduled a hearing on the request for November 25.

The signs, analysts say, had been there for a while. Events held by Memorial had occasionally been disrupted by unwanted guests, and on October 15 police locked 20 people inside the group’s Moscow offices after a film screening was gate-crashed by a state TV film crew and several dozen masked men shouting obscenities.

The NGO was showing Mr. Jones, a movie focused on the Holodomor famine in Ukraine, which historians say was a result of Stalin’s policies. The dictator’s legacy has been gradually rehabilitated under Putin, observers say, even as Memorial has fought against that rehabilitation and for transparency about Stalin’s crimes.

"The case has been in the making for quite [some] time," Jens Siegert, a Russia-based German political analyst, wrote on Twitter in reference to the latest move against Memorial.

Cases against some of Memorial’s activists have gone on for even longer. In one of most prominent, in Karelia near Finland, amateur historian Yury Dmitriyev is still seeking to appeal the ruling of a court that sentenced him to 13 years in prison in September 2020 after convicting him of sexually abusing his foster daughter, a charge he contends is a politically motivated fabrication.

As he was being tried, a government body oversaw excavations at a gulag gravesite that Dmitriyev had helped uncover — and whose significance the state has sought to undermine.

But the move to shut down Memorial, which was founded in the "glasnost" era of the late 1980s and has remained Russia’s most prominent human rights organization, also comes at a time when much of Russia’s civil society and political opposition is being targeted by a persistent crackdown that is unprecedented in the post-Soviet era.

Much of that crackdown has focused on Russian individuals and organizations declared "foreign agents" by the state, which requires them to declare any foreign funding they receive to submit regular burdensome audits. International Memorial was added to the "foreign agents" registry in October 2016.

In a statement on November 11, it made no bones about what it alleges is the real motivation behind the legal campaign. "The decision to abolish International Memorial is politically motivated," the NGO said. "It aims to destroy the organization, which deals with the political repressions of the past and fights for human rights today."

Memorial Chairman Aleksandr Cherkasov (file photo) Memorial Chairman Aleksandr Cherkasov (file photo)

In an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, Aleksandr Cherkasov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, said the NGO had long been under pressure but had tried to continue working despite the state waging a war of attrition against it.

"People always ask, why precisely now?" he said of this latest attempt to shut down Memorial.

The authorities have tried various tactics to force the group to wind up operations, he said, "and they’ve now made a decision, and the sledgehammer has come down."

Anton Benediktov of Current Time and the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report

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