Trying to Blur Memories of the Gulag, Russia Targets a Rights Group
Prosecutors are trying to shut down Memorial International, Russia’s most prominent human rights group, as the Kremlin moves to control the historical narrative of the Soviet Union.,
MOSCOW — In the days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the upheaval and uncertainty that gripped Russia were accompanied by a liberating climate of openness, in which free expression, historical examination and political dissent could flourish.
But in the two decades since Vladimir V. Putin took power, the government has steadily rolled back those rights. Mr. Putin has tamed the oligarch class, muffled the media, jailed religious groups and dissidents and suppressed political opposition.
Now Mr. Putin has set his sights on rewriting the memory of one of the most painful times in Russia’s turbulent history: the era of the gulag, when millions of Russians toiled and died, mostly in the first half of the 20th century. Russian prosecutors are moving to liquidate the archive and human rights center of Memorial International, the country’s most prominent human rights organization, which is dedicated to the remembrance of those who were persecuted by the Soviet Union’s often-brutal regime.
Activists and dissidents consider the threat to Memorial a watershed moment for independent thinkers in Russia — a sobering example of the government’s determination to silence its critics and sanitize the narrative surrounding the Soviet Union, which Mr. Putin views as a heady era of Russian influence and power.
Mr. Putin is obsessed with “making Russia great again,” said Aleksandr Baunov, editor in chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s website. “Putin’s Russia builds itself on the denial” of the 1990s, with its reforms, self-criticism and social and economic upheaval, Mr. Baunov said, because to him it represents the time in recent history when Russia was its weakest.
Eliminating Memorial, Mr. Baunov said, would help Mr. Putin suppress a forensic examination of one of Russia’s most shameful periods, even as descendants of its victims continue to grapple with the consequences.
“You know this expression ‘power vertical,'” Mr. Baunov said, using a term that has come to define Mr. Putin’s autocratic governing style. “The state wants to build a ‘Memory Vertical,’ too. It does not deny victim status to victims, but it wants to control the repression narrative.”
Two court hearings this week may decide Memorial’s fate. On Tuesday, Moscow’s City Court will consider allegations that Memorial’s Human Rights center “justifies terrorist activities” because it included members of imprisoned religious groups on its list of political prisoners. Later in the week, the Supreme Court will take up charges that Memorial International, which houses the group’s archive, violated a draconian “foreign agent” law.
This historical revisionism is painful for Lyudmila Yurmenich. Her father never spoke to her about his decade in the gulag, at a forced labor camp in the Arctic Circle notorious for its inhumane treatment of inmates.
“The fear was so strong, and the memory was too heavy,” said Ms. Yurmenich, 64, explaining that she found out about her father’s imprisonment from her mother only after he died.
Since then, she has taken solace from the work of Memorial International, which focuses on preserving the memory of the estimated 20 million people imprisoned in the gulag between 1929 and the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Inmates were forced to work long days at hard labor, often in freezing weather, and many died of starvation or disease.
On a recent evening, Ms. Yurmenich wandered through the exhibits in a warren of rooms at Memorial’s museum, which featured female inmates’ belongings like hand-sewn toys, wooden shoes and a fraying piece of twine used to divide bread rations.
“It is very important for me that this period is remembered in our country,” Ms. Yurmenich said, “so that this does not repeat itself, so that there would not be this much fear, so that this country can be free.”
Irina G. Galkova, Memorial’s museum director, said there are stark parallels between the era Ms. Yurmenich’s father survived and present-day Russia.
“Here you can see a vivid example of living memory which is directly connected to present times,” she said. “It’s a similar pattern. Of course it’s not exactly the same — there are different mechanisms, and different details. But you can recognize the same logic and the same evil standing behind it.”
She said she believed Memorial was under pressure for not only its archival work but also its advocacy for human rights in contemporary Russia, activities Ms. Galkova called inseparable. Memorial’s Human Rights Center monitors civil liberties and provides legal assistance to those who run afoul of the system. The organization has supported more than 1,500 cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The Human Rights Center announced on Nov. 11 that it faced possible liquidation, three months after releasing its tally of 419 political prisoners. Memorial said this was almost double the number during the late Soviet period, and significantly higher than in 2015, when it had 46 names.
The list includes the opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny, who was poisoned in an operation believed to have been organized by the government. The vast majority of those on the list, however, were jailed because of their religion, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are banned in Russia and have a status equivalent to terrorists.
As a result, prosecutors accused Memorial’s Human Rights Center of sanctioning “terrorist activities,” giving rise to Tuesday’s hearing.
The second hearing focuses on alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation, which has been used to target journalists, civil society activists and opposition supporters. The law forces them to use the label “foreign agent”– which critics say carries a connotation akin to the Stalinist era “enemy of the people” — in all public communication, which the prosecutors say the organization failed to do. The law also imposes onerous financial reporting requirements, and there is no way to legally challenge or reverse a foreign agent designation.
Though Memorial challenged its designation as a foreign agent before the European Court of Human Rights, it has complied with court orders to pay more than six million rubles ($82,000) in fines, Ms. Galkova said.
In the past 14 months the relevant auditing bodies did not find any instances of Memorial International failing to comply with the law, while authorities found only two minor violations by the human rights center, according to members of Mr. Putin’s Human Rights Council, an advisory body with little influence. In a statement, the group called the potential “forced liquidation of the oldest public organization” an “extraordinary measure” that was disproportionate to the violations.
If prosecutors succeed in forcing Memorial, it would set a grim precedent for the dozens of other entities and individuals the Russian justice ministry has labeled foreign agents.
Memorial has been under pressure for years. Yuri A. Dmitriev, a historian who discovered previously hidden graves of 9,000 of Stalin’s victims as part of his work with Memorial, was jailed last year after being convicted of pedophilia — a charge that rights groups called spurious.
In mid-October, about two dozen men raided Memorial’s offices, where a film about the 1930s famine in Ukraine was being screened. When the group called the police, officers locked the doors with everyone inside and then interrogated the organizers and their guests for six hours.
Still, many Memorial supporters retain hope that the prosecutor’s cases against the organization will be thrown out. In 2015, the Supreme Court rejected a suit brought by Russia’s justice ministry to close Memorial.
However, the political climate has deteriorated since then, and Mr. Putin’s government has made plain its intent to escalate its crackdown on dissent.
But Memorial’s organization’s loose structure — its branches across the country are loosely affiliated and operate independently — will ensure its continued survival, said Ms. Galkova, the museum director.
“As a last resort, we will start from scratch,” Memorial’s executive director, Yelena Zhemkova, said at a recent news conference. “We will find money again, we will find premises again, we will adapt again.”
It will also exhibit its collection of Gulag artifacts again, she said.
Alina Lobzina and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.