‘Destroying Our Memory’: Russia’s Embattled Civil Society Rallies To Oppose Memorial Shutdown

“We consider this assault by the prosecutor’s office to be just one of many actions by the authorities in recent times that are systematically intended to suppress the institutions of civil society, among which Memorial occupies a leading position,” reads a November 12 statement by Moscow’s Sakharov Center.

It was just one of many gestures of alarmed support for one of Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights organizations in the wake of news that prosecutors had asked the courts to shut down International Memorial, an umbrella organization for Memorial’s regional branches, and the affiliated Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow. Prosecutors allege that Memorial has violated conditions imposed on it after it was designated a “foreign agent” organization — the Human Rights Center in 2014 and International Memorial in 2016 — and that its statements contain “signs of justifying extremism and terrorism.”

In the days following the November 11 announcement, civil-society activists and organizations — many of them burdened by the “foreign agent” label themselves — have rallied to warn that the Memorial case could be a watershed moment for the future of the country and to urge the public to show solidarity with the organization that maintains archives and carries out research into the Soviet state’s crimes against its own people, particularly those committed under dictator Josef Stalin.

‘A National Treasure’

The Moscow PEN center called Memorial “a national treasure of enormous historical, legal, and moral significance.”

“We are all citizens of the country where ‘half were in prison and half were guarding them,’” the PEN statement said – a phrase used to describe the Soviet era. “By destroying Memorial, the government is destroying our memory.”

“What can we do about it?” PEN asked. “How can we oppose this ‘bulldozer’ that is ploughing through Russia? By not being silent!”

Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, one of Russia’s most prominent living writers, announced on Facebook on November 12 that she was returning a Russian government literary prize that President Vladimir Putin had awarded her in 2002.

Her statement also denounced the assault on Memorial as an assault on memory: “Memorial is being taken away from me, the memory of those convicted and executed, of those who were thrown under a truck or who died of starvation, of those who froze to death in trucks on the road from one camp to another, of those tortured…of those who were just recently beaten in the streets or in police vans or precinct stations. Of those sitting in prison because of falsified cases. Of thousands of such prisoners who are so dangerous to the authorities.”

On November 15, dozens of Russian scholars and members of the Academy of Sciences issued an open letter praising Memorial for “not allowing us to forget about the millions of innocent people who died or were executed or repressed.” Calling them “victims of a war undertaken by a criminal regime against its own people,” the letter noted that more than 200 members of the Academy of Sciences were among them.

The destruction of Memorial, the letter stated, “is an attempt to deprive the nation of its memory, which we cannot allow if we want to avoid a repetition of an era of monstrous repressions.”

Political activist Roman Popkov wrote on Facebook that Memorial’s research into the crimes of the Soviet security organs was “one of the main reasons” why the Putin government wants to shut it down.

“What the government cautiously welcomed in the 1990s and barely tolerated in the early 2000s has now become unacceptable,” he wrote. The Federal Security Service (FSB) considers such work “a besmirching of its corporate ‘honor.’”

‘Discrimination Against Dissent’

Blogger Aleksandr Shmelyov wrote that Memorial was also targeted in part because it is old and well-established, owning its own building, which has long been a center of dissent.

“The attack on Memorial is an attack on civil society as a whole, from Dissernet to provincial clubs of dog enthusiasts,”he wrote, referring to a nongovernmental initiative that exposes cases of plagiarism in scholarly articles and dissertations — some of them by people who are now senior officials.

The Last Address, which has come under repeated attack in recent years for its efforts to install memorial plaques at the residences of Stalin-era victims, denounced the so-called “foreign agents” laws as “an instrument of pressure and discrimination against dissent” that is intended to “root out any independent…civic activity in Russia.”

The election-monitoring NGO Golos, which has also been dubbed a “foreign agent” organization by Putin’s government, called on “everyone who is not indifferent to the future of this country….to convene an emergency civic conference to work out collective measures to resist this targeted attack on civil rights and liberties.”

“Solidarity must not only be a matter of words,” the statement said. “Actions are needed.”

By November 15, more than 23,000 people had signed an online petition supporting Memorial and calling for the government to stop using the courts to shut down key civil-society organizations.


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