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Russia’s Supreme Court dissolves Memorial

Dec 29 2021

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.

Free Russia Foundation Condemns the Signing of the Treaty on the “Incorporation of New Territories into Russia,” De Facto the Annexation of the Occupied Territories of Ukraine

Sep 30 2022

On Friday, September 30, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic,” as well as the occupation administrations of Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, signed treaties in the Kremlin on “joining Russia.”

Free Russia Foundation strongly condemns the decision of Vladimir Putin and his administration to continue the illegal annexation of the occupied territories in Ukraine. The forcible change of international borders at the expense of another sovereign state and the so-called “referenda” that preceded it are a serious violation of the foundations of international law and cannot be recognized under any circumstances.

Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation: “Today Vladimir Putin has de facto announced the illegal annexation of the occupied territory of a sovereign state. The signing of this treaty is a blatant violation of the fundamental norms of international law and the Charter of the United Nations, of which Russia is a member. Such actions by the Russian President, together with previously announced military mobilization and nuclear blackmail, only lead to an escalation of the conflict and new human sacrifices. In the modern world, borders cannot be redrawn at gunpoint. Russia’s actions are illegal and unacceptable to the civilized world.”

Free Russia Foundation, which provides support to Russian activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, calls on all countries and international organizations to join us in resolute and public condemnation of Russian military aggression and its illegal actions to tear away the territory of sovereign Ukraine. We urge you to call on the Kremlin to cease its hostilities and leave the territories it has seized.

Free Russia Foundation Condemns the Kremlin’s Decision to Annex the Occupied Territories of Ukraine and Preparations for Mobilization in Russia

Sep 20 2022

On September 20, 2022, the occupation authorities of the self-proclaimed republics “LNR” and “DNR” and other occupied territories of Ukraine, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, hastily announced that they would hold “referendums on joining Russia” in the near future. The authorities of the “LNR” and “DNR” added that the vote will take place as early as this week, from September 23 to 27, 2022.

On the same day, the Russian State Duma introduced the concepts of “mobilization,” “martial law” and “wartime” into the Russian Criminal Code. The deputies voted for the law in the third reading unanimously — all 389 of them. Now voluntary surrender, looting and unauthorized abandonment of a unit during combat operations will result in imprisonment.

From the first day of the war unleashed by Putin’s regime and its allies against independent Ukraine, Free Russia Foundation, which supports Russian activists, journalists, and human rights activists forced to leave the country because of direct security threats, has condemned the crimes of Putin’s regime against independent Ukraine. We respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states and consider human life and freedom to be of the highest value.

The forthcoming “referendums”, mobilization, and martial law are a collapse of the whole system of “Putin’s stability,” the illusion of which the Kremlin has been trying to maintain since the beginning of the full-scale war with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is preparing to blatantly violate international law once again and launch an attack on democracy and freedom in Ukraine and Europe. Any statements by the Kremlin that residents of the occupied territories of Ukraine want to become part of Russia are false.

Three decades ago, the Ukrainian people proclaimed the independence of their state. Since 2014, the world has seen that Vladimir Putin has undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and any attempts at anti-war protest in Russia through military force, repressive legislation, false statements, and massive state propaganda. Despite all the suffering inflicted on Ukraine, Putin has failed to achieve this goal: Ukrainians continue to show fortitude and determination to defend their country at any cost, and Russian anti-war resistance continues despite repression.

We consider any attempts to tear away Ukrainian territory through so-called “referendums” categorically unacceptable and call on state institutions and international human rights organizations to join the demand for an immediate end to the war and the liberation of the occupied territories. Any war brings suffering to humanity and endangers peace. We will not allow a totalitarian dictatorship to prevail and we will continue to fight for Ukraine’s independence and Russia’s democratic future.

Free Russia Foundation announces the appointment of Vladimir Milov as Vice President for International Advocacy

Sep 01 2022

September 1, 2022. Washington, DC. Free Russia Foundation announces the appointment of Russian politician, publicist, economist, and energy expert Vladimir Milov as FRF Vice President for International Advocacy.

In her announcement of Vladimir’s new role, Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation, remarked: “I am delighted to welcome this distinguished Russian civil society leader to our team. I am certain that Vladimir will become our force multiplier and make a profound contribution to FRF’s mission, including strengthening civil society in Russia, standing up for democracy defenders who oppose war, both inside and outside the country, building coalitions and mobilizing supporters. Vladimir Milov’s professional skills and extensive experience in human rights advocacy will help us come up with effective and innovative approaches to combat the authoritarian regime and repression that the current Russian government has unleashed against citizens of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.”

Vladimir Milov was born on June 18, 1972. From 1997—2002 he worked in government agencies, more than 4 years of which were in senior positions, from assistant to the Chairman of the Federal Energy Commission to the Deputy Minister of Energy of Russia.

Vladimir Milov has bravely and publicly called out the authorities for monopolizing the economy, and encroaching into public and political life of Russian citizens. Milov’s profile as an opposition leader rose thanks to his joint project with Boris Nemtsov. The report titled “Putin. Results,” condemned the activities of the Russian government during Putin’s presidency. In 2010, Mr. Milov headed the Democratic Choice movement, which later served as the basis for the creation of a political party with the same name.

In 2016, Mr. Milov became an associate of the unregistered presidential candidate Alexei Navalny. On May 11, 2017, he began hosting a weekly segment on the economy, “Where’s the Money?” on the NavalnyLIVE broadcast on YouTube.

In April of 2021, he left Russia for Lithuania amidst persecution of Alexei Navalny’s organizations. In February of 2022, he categorically condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On May 6, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Justice added Vladimir Milov to the list of media outlets considered as “foreign agents.” Vladimir Milov is a regular guest expert for the world’s leading media outlets — CNN, CNBC, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal.

Kara-Murza faces a new charge as the Kremlin cracks down on its opponents

Aug 04 2022

Russian pro-democracy politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who’s been in jail since April for allegedly spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military, now also stands accused of “carrying out the activities of an undesirable organization,” which names Free Russia Foundation in the newly filed charge.

Free Russia Foundation, unconstitutionally designated as an “undesirable” organization by the Russian government in June 2019, did not organize an event on political prisoners in Moscow in 2021. FRF does not have any presence or programs inside Russia. Additionally, FRF has never conducted any work in the State of Arizona.

FRF strongly condemns the new charges brought against Vladimir Kara-Murza by Russian authorities and demands the dropping of all charges against him and calls for his immediate release.

“All actions of the Kremlin directed against Russian opposition politicians and activists have nothing in common with establishing the truth. They are instead aimed solely at getting rid of opponents of Putin’s regime,” FRF President Arno stated.

Free Russian Foundation and Boris Nemtsov Foundation launch “Russians for Change” fundraising campaign

Jul 25 2022

Russia is not Putin. We are Russia.

We aim at sharing this message with our friends around the world — therefore, in cooperation with Boris Nemtsov Foundation we are launching “Russians for Change” fundraising campaign.

We are going to be telling the stories of active pro-democracy anti-war Russians who have not lost their hope. US nationals also participate in this campaign: Francis Fukuyama, investigative journalist Casey Michel, and alumni of Boris Nemtsov Foundation media school.

Thank you for your donation:

The Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom honors the political legacy of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal opposition politician assassinated in Moscow in 2015. It promotes freedom of speech and education along with the vision that Russia is a part of Europe.