Russia’s Supreme Court dissolves Memorial
International Memorial Society, which documents Soviet-era repressions, was charged with breaching a law on foreign agents, as well as “whitewashing Nazi criminals” and “distorting the image of the USSR as a terrorist state.”
What Happened this Week
By a December 28, 2021 ruling, Russia’s Supreme Court dissolved the “Memorial” International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society, satisfying petition by the Attorney General’s Office, which charged that the organization repeatedly violated Russia’s laws on “foreign agents” by failing to disclose its “agent” status in content shared on social media.
In his closing statements, prosecutor Alexey Zhafyarov accused Memorial of “distorting the image of the USSR as a terrorist state” and said the group “whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals.”
“Why are we now, descendants of the victors, forced to watch impunity for traitors to the homeland, Nazi collaborators? Why, instead of being proud of the country that won the war and liberated the entire world, we are being asked to repent for our, as it turned out, hopeless past? Probably because someone is paying for it. That is the real reason behind the aversion with which Memorial vehemently denies its status as a “foreign agent”. That is the real reason why an organization that claims the honorable role of the nation’s conscience does not really want to be reminded in every publication that they are paid for. And if we take these motives into account, the state has requirements to consider that the repeated disregard of the requirement of the law to indicate the status of a ‘foreign agent’ is a gross violation of the law,” the prosecutor opined theatrically.
Representatives of Memorial rejected the claims of the General Prosecutor’s Office, insisting that there are no legal grounds for closing down the organization.
Henry Reznik, a prominent Russian attorney representing Memorial, emphasized at the end of his statement that “Memorial contributes to the health of the nation. And to remove it from our history would be to promote the idea that the state is always right.
Another Memorial advocate, Maria Eismont, said the organization was dedicated to fighting for the openness of information, yet was accused by prosecutors of hiding the truth. She quoted George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” to describe the prosecution’s case, saying: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
After the ruling, Jan Raczynski, chairman of the board of “International Memorial”, asserted that the organization intends to appeal the verdict, and if necessary, will file an appeal with the ECHR. He also noted that there would be no changes in the work of the organization until the appeal is considered.
After the announcement of the verdict, Memorial supporters chanted “Shame!” outside the court. Earlier same day, the police arrested several Memorial supporters gathered near the court building who held up signs with slogans such as “Hands off Memorial.”
On December 29, 2021, a day after Russia’s Supreme Court dissolved the Memorial International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Memorial’s Human Rights Center, satisfying petition by city prosecutors who argued that the organization’s financial activities are “non-transparent.”
Prosecutors claimed the Memorial Human Rights Center “justified the activities” of several Islamist terrorists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Artpodgotovka left-wing nationalists by naming them as persons persecuted for religion and as political prisoners.
Prosecutors criticized the organization for supporting uncoordinated protests allegedly aimed at “destabilizing the country.” They also accused Memorial of receiving foreign funding from Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, and other countries, as well as of compiling a list of political prisoners maintained by Memorial. All of this, according to the prosecutor’s office, is aimed at forming a negative attitude toward the judicial system of the Russian Federation.
Defense lawyers for Memorial say they plan to appeal the ruling.
Final court deliberations seem to have been deliberately set for the very end of the year, with the expectation of minimal public attention. But the plan failed. On December 29, a crowd of over a hundred gathered near the courthouse, chanting slogans in support of Memorial.
Russian and International Reactions to the Court Ruling
On December 28, 2021, International Memorial issued an official statement regarding the decision of the Russian Supreme Court.
“The decision of the Supreme Court has once again confirmed that the history of political terror, organized and directed by state power, remains for Russia not an academic topic of interest only to specialists, but an acute problem of our time. Our country needs an honest and honest appraisal of its Soviet past; this is the key to its future. It is ridiculous to assume that the judicial liquidation of the International Memorial will remove this issue from the agenda. All of Russian society needs to remember the tragedies of the past. And not just Russian: the memory of state terror unites all former Soviet republics.”
Memorial assured that it will appeal the Supreme Court’s decision. “And we will find legal ways to continue our work,” the organization added. “Memorial is not an organization, it’s not even a social movement. A memorial is a need of Russian citizens for the truth about its tragic past, about the fate of many millions of people. And no one will be able to ‘liquidate’ this need.”
“Even by the standards of the year 2021, the liquidation of Memorial is an extraordinary event. It is monstrous. The only meaning of the destruction of Memorial is in the brazen demonstration of force… The Supreme Court decision shatters the delicate balance Russian society has been holding for decades,” says a statement from the authoritative Russian newspaper Meduza. “You can try to change attitudes toward history, but you can’t cancel history. Those who fight the past have no future.”
Nyuta Federmesser, head of the Moscow Palliative Care Center and founder of the Vera Hospice Foundation, called the court decision “a disgrace to live with at about the same time.” “Memorial was founded by Academician Sakharov. Memorial is one of the country’s most worthy endeavors. Memorial is memory. Memory cannot be liquidated, it cannot be killed,” she stated.
Boris Vishnevsky, deputy of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, directly accused Vladimir Putin of closing the Memorial. “How the heirs of the executioners are afraid of those who keep the memory of the crimes. And yes, this decision could not have been made without the consent (or initiative) of Putin. He is the direct perpetrator of it,” Vishnevsky stressed.
Renowned Russian human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who fled Russia in September after authorities charged him with disclosing state secrets when he was representing a journalist charged with treason, said the verdict sends a message that anyone engaged in activism faces possible prosecution. “Yes, it’s a new, dark and difficult era, but it will end, too,” Pavlov encouraged.
Writer Viktor Shenderovich called the liquidation of Memorial “an empty fuss”. “Who can forbid us to remember our dead? The murderers are making a fuss in vain,” he pointed out.
Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky stated that with this decision the Russian authorities declared themselves the successor of the Stalinist and Soviet regime. “Memorial was liquidated because it tells the truth. It is a transition from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian regime. This is another step toward war,” he said in a statement.
Dmitri Gudkov, an opposition politician, stressed that the Russian court’s decision in the Memorial case is absolutely worthless for civil society. “Except that they will not destroy the memory, nor will they be able to declare political prisoners as criminals in the eyes of society. And the fact that we are declared a war of extermination is not news. Only we will win in the long run: they will simply die out in the long run.”
Condemnations of the ruling poured in from rights advocates and political figures around the world as well.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called the ruling “a blatant and tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history.” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, called the decision “heart-breaking” in a tweet. Denmark’s foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, said Memorial’s liquidation “is another step in the deplorable degradation of human rights” in Russia. And Sam Zarifi, secretary general of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, called it “another step toward darkness” for Russia.
Over the past month, dozens of Russian and international organizations, politicians, scientists, and cultural figures have also spoken in support of Memorial. Among them were Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the first president of the USSR.
What Memorial Stands for and What it Symbolizes
The Memorial International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society, known simply as Memorial, is Russia’s oldest and most authoritative and respected human rights organization.
Memorial was established in the late 1980s during the “perestroika” reforms in the USSR. Between 1987 and 1990, while the USSR was still in existence, 23 branches of the society were set up and became active. When the Soviet Union collapsed, branches of Memorial in east and south Ukraine remained affiliated with the Russian network. By 2018, Memorial had more than 60 branches and affiliated organizations throughout Russia, with a quarter of them established in 2014 or later.
The organization was set up by Soviet dissidents — including renowned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov — during the final years of the Soviet Union. It is focused on researching and documenting the Soviet abuses in the gulag, a vast web of prison camps where political prisoners toiled and died, many of them executed on the basis of concocted evidence.
Memorial has developed an archive of the case files of more than 60,000 Soviet victims of state repressions, its searchable database containing 3 million names of victims, and its database with the names of nearly 42,000 people who worked for the Soviet secret police from 1935 to 1939, when repression peaked.
International Memorial was added to the “foreign agents” registry in October 2016.
The organization’s human rights wing, Memorial Human Rights Center, faced a similar court hearing to address charges of justifying terrorism and extremism, which could also result in its liquidation. The center focuses on contemporary human rights abuses. It released a tally of the 419 political prisoners jailed in Russia several months ago, and it has helped more than 1,500 Russians take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to challenge rights abuses by Russian authorities
The Biggest Achievements of Memorial
Preserving Historical Memory
Since 1988, Memorial has been collecting personal effects of victims of political repression and their relatives. Over 33 years, the collection has accumulated tens of thousands of letters, photographs, items of clothing and other artifacts that tell about the Great Terror in USSR.
Memorial is also a scientific institution, which constantly replenishes the database of the politically repressed; it already contains more than three million records on the victims of terror. In archive of the organization it is possible to find lists of people shot in Moscow; lists of those sentenced to the highest measure of punishment by Stalin’s personal order; more than thousand memoirs about GULAG camps from its prisoners and workers; information on personnel structure of NKVD. The “Topography of Terror” project gives the memory of repression a geographical dimension: it is a directory of places in Moscow and the Moscow region associated with political terror. In addition, Memorial researches the repressions against religious groups, Russian Germans, and Polish citizens.
Commemoration of Victims of Repressions
One of the society’s first initiatives was to erect a monument to the victims of political repression in the USSR. It was decided to start with the collection of signatures. They were collected on the Arbat and Pushkinskaya Square, and when the police started detaining the agitators, they moved to clubs, theaters and concerts. After six months, the activists had several hundred thousand votes. By that time, the Memorialists had already decided that their goal was not just to erect a monument, but to create a whole memorial complex with a museum, an archive, and a library.
The memorial was opened on the Memorial Day of the victims of political repressions — October 30, 1990. So the relatives of the victims of repressions got a place where they could bring flowers and honor the memory of their relatives. In 2007 near Solovetsky stone an action “Return of Names” took place during which all people who wished could read out loud the names of victims of political terror. Memorial came up with the idea of this action as a counterweight to the official rallies. Since then it has been held annually.
Assistance to Refugees and Victims of Military Conflicts
Although Memorial was initially conceived as an educational organization, its members soon realized that they could not do no more than study the past and ignore the current political agenda. Thus in 1991 the independent Memorial Human Rights Center emerged. Its work was constantly expanding: in addition to political prisoners, Memorial members dealt with contemporary military conflicts, prepared reports from hot spots, searched for and released hostages from the First and Second Chechen wars.
Svetlana Gannushkina, who cooperated with Memorial on the problems of refugees, participated in the creation of the Human Rights Center. In 1996 she succeeded in separating the work with migrants within the framework of the Center for Human Rights into a separate field, with reception offices in the regions; this is how the network Migration and Law came into being (by 2021, 33 reception offices opened throughout Russia). Over time, there were fewer people fleeing the war conflicts, but the work of the organization did not end: the Human Rights Center focused on labor migrants who found themselves in terrible conditions in Russia.
Defending Human Rights in The North Caucasus
Memorial’s Human Rights Center 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 killing of activist and board member Natalya Estemirova, who was personally investigating cases of kidnapping and murder. Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial HRC, was sued for defamation after accusing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of orchestrating Estemirova’s assassination but was eventually acquitted. At a time when virtually no independent voices remain in Chechnya, Memorial continues to publish near-daily bulletins on human rights abuses in the North Caucasus.
Defense of Political Prisoners and Critics of the Regime
Throughout its existence, Memorial has provided legal and moral support to jailed government opponents in Russia, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Aleksei Navalny, Belarus’s Ales Byalyatski, and Andrei Barabanov, Aleksei Gaskarov, and other participants in 2012’s Bolotnaya Square protests. Memorial also maintains a closely watched list of political prisoners, fighting with Kremlin regime.
How the Kremlin Started its Prosecution of Memorial
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 era,” a time when legislators listened to them and the security forces agreed to cooperate.
The pressure on Memorial intensified 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.
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.
The Karelian branch of Memorial was deprived of its head in 2020: historian Yury Dmitriev was sentenced to 13 years in a strict regime penal colony on charges of child sex abuse. On December 27, 2021 Dmitriev’s sentence was increased by two more years: from 13 to 15 years. Memorial says that the case was a fabricated and politically motivated one. Dmitriev was responsible for drawing up lists of the repressed in Karelia and conducting search operations at the sites of the shootings. In the late 1990s, a search group led by Dmitriev discovered execution pits in the Sandarmoh woods where the victims of 1937-1938 repressions were buried.
Finally, on November 11, 2021, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office has asked for the liquidation of International Memorial. The organization was accused of violating the legislation on “foreign agents,” specifically the absence of appropriate labeling in its materials.
During a recent meeting with the Presidential Human Rights Council, Vladimir Putin responded to a question about the federal case against International Memorial by pointing out that the group accidentally listed three Nazi combatants among the victims of the Stalinist Terror. Memorial’s executives say the group’s shortage of resources makes such errors possible, and researchers do their best to correct any inaccuracies as quickly as possible. 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.