Russian human rights group under threat. What soured the Kremlin?

Russian human rights group under threat. What soured the Kremlin?

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters/File

A vessel carries hundreds of candles to be released on the water to commemorate the victims of Soviet repression in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Oct. 30, 2006. The action was organized by the human rights group Memorial, which was long a partner of the Kremlin but is now at risk of being shut down in a Kremlin crackdown.

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November 22, 2021

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Over the past year many groups and political activists formerly tolerated by Russian authorities have suddenly found themselves under attack. Even the country’s biggest permitted opposition group, the Communist Party, has found its activists arrested for attempting to protest alleged vote-rigging in recent elections.

And now human rights organization Memorial may be next. The internationally respected group, which often worked together with Russian authorities to document the repressions of the Stalin era, could be shut down if the Supreme Court of Russia rules against it Nov. 25 for allegedly violating Russia’s vague “foreign agent” laws.

Why We Wrote This

Human rights group Memorial has been critical to giving Russia a cleareyed view of its Soviet past. But the once-supportive Kremlin no longer wants to deal with any criticism of the state.

Those laws require all published materials and social media posts to contain a lengthy disclaimer alerting readers that the material “fulfills the function of a foreign agent,” because the organization receives foreign funding while engaging in what authorities deem political activity. The organization has been trying to comply with the requirements of the law, even while protesting that it should not apply to Memorial. But authorities have gone after cases where the disclaimer was inadvertently omitted.

“We understand that this is a political case,” says Tatiana Glushkova, a lawyer for Memorial. “Memorial isn’t being threatened with closure because it’s breaking the law. It’s because it criticizes the government.”

Moscow

Russia’s most venerable and internationally respected human rights organization, Memorial, has deep roots within Russian society.

It was founded in the Soviet Union more than three decades ago by dissident Andrei Sakharov – with Kremlin approval – to repair the historical record and stimulate the national conscience. It has often worked together with Russian authorities to unearth and document the murderous repression of the Stalin era.

Even Vladimir Putin has supported major projects to memorialize the victims.

Why We Wrote This

Human rights group Memorial has been critical to giving Russia a cleareyed view of its Soviet past. But the once-supportive Kremlin no longer wants to deal with any criticism of the state.

So it was unthinkable even a few months ago that the organization could be threatened with forcible shutdown at the hands of Russian authorities. But that is where it stands now.

If the Supreme Court rules against it Nov. 25 for allegedly violating Russia’s intricate and often vague “foreign agent” laws, the country’s once hopeful civil society growth may stall without one of its main cornerstones, as an official campaign to silence independent voices gathers steam.

Over the past year many groups and political activists formerly tolerated by authorities have suddenly found themselves under attack. Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was allegedly poisoned by Russian secret services, arrested upon his return to Russia, and saw all his support groups shut down as “extremist.” Independent media have been branded as “foreign agents” and forced into a struggle for survival. Even Russia’s biggest permitted opposition group, the Communist Party, has found itself under legal assault and its activists arrested for attempting to protest alleged vote-rigging in recent elections.

And now Memorial may be next, despite an outpouring of public support in recent days – not only from the human rights community, but also open appeals by major figures like former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and petitions with tens of thousands of signatures – calling on authorities to reverse a prosecutor’s demand earlier this month that Memorial be liquidated.


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“If someone fell asleep in September 2020 and just woke up today, they would not recognize our civil society landscape,” says Tatiana Glushkova, a lawyer for Memorial. “That’s how badly, and rapidly, the situation has deteriorated.”

“This is a political case”

Memorial’s sister organization, Memorial Human Rights Center, is also facing closure. It applies the lessons of history to call out contemporary abuses and identify political prisoners – who currently number almost 500, more than any time since the USSR’s collapse, according to the group.

Both organizations are accused of failing to observe the terms of the “foreign agent” laws over the past five years. Those laws require all published materials and social media posts to contain a lengthy disclaimer alerting readers that the material “fulfills the function of a foreign agent,” because the organization receives foreign funding while engaging in what authorities deem to be political activity.

According to Ms. Glushkova, Memorial had been trying very hard to comply with the requirements of the law since it was imposed, even while protesting that it should not apply to the organization. But authorities have gone after cases where the disclaimer was inadvertently omitted as well as social media posts where a person using material did not know it was required.

“The labeling laws are very unclear,” she says. “You have to put this label on everything you publish, even business cards and social media posts.”

She gives the illustration of a recent book fair where Memorial was selling its publications to the public. Those published after 2016 had the disclaimer printed in the required way but older ones, obviously, did not. So whenever someone would buy one of those books, the vendor would use a rubber stamp to apply the disclaimer, while explaining the reason to the buyer. But authorities have declared the inventory of older, unstamped books to be in violation of the law. That, says Ms. Glushkova, is one of the main examples being brought in the case against the organization.

“Our understanding is that authorities want to shut down both Memorial organizations,” says Ms. Glushkova. “We understand that this is a political case. Memorial isn’t being threatened with closure because it’s breaking the law. It’s because it criticizes the government. When you are working on a political case like this, you know the outcome doesn’t depend on your [legal] arguments, but other factors. … Unfortunately, we don’t have support inside the government.”

“They don’t like the way Memorial does it”

Experts say that Memorial has been swimming against the tide of public indifference for a long time. In the late Soviet period, stimulated by Mr. Gorbachev’s glasnost policies, the ugliest sides of the USSR’s history were brought to light, public opinion was deeply shocked, and Memorial was born with official support to continue unraveling the horrors of the past.

But “since the 1990s, this cause of [exposing and documenting the crimes of Stalin] has gone out of fashion,” says Lyubov Borusyak, a sociologist and researcher with Moscow State Pedagogical University. “Maybe half the population knew that Stalin was an executioner, but the majority gradually preferred to see him as the winner of the war. …

“In this context, Memorial looked increasingly to people as an organization that wanted to concentrate on the bad sides of Soviet history, while people wanted to forget that and embrace sweet dreams about the past. … For Russian liberals, Memorial is a symbol. It embodies one of the last strongholds of the struggle for historical truth. And they fear not just for Memorial, but for what may happen to themselves in future.”

It’s not clear why Russian authorities have turned on Memorial after decades of coexisting with it. Most experts see it as part of an accelerating campaign to close down any space for independent political action or criticism amid deepening antagonism with the West, a stagnating economy, and uncertainties about the continuing stability of Mr. Putin’s regime.

Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser, says that the West has fought a hybrid war against Russia for the past several years, mobilizing politically active nongovernmental organizations to undermine the government. He says Memorial did great work in the past, but it is now a liberal bastion whose publications openly vilify Mr. Putin and whose human rights wing champions the cause of terrorists and other extremists and refuses to condemn human rights violations in other places, like Ukraine and the Baltic states.

“Memorial is a former human rights organization that is now part of the anti-Putin coalition,” he says. “Russian authorities believe that it works with Western intelligence agencies to undermine Russia. The question is not why it’s being brought to justice now, but why not years ago?”

Masha Lipman, senior associate at the PONARS Eurasia program at George Washington University, says the hybrid-war idea is being used by Russian authorities to crush all critical voices across the political spectrum.

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“We have reached a point of chronic confrontation in relations with the West. If we look at how we got here, I think we’ll agree that both sides are to blame,” she says. “But for Russian authorities today, any perceived disloyalty – and that includes a broad range of non-state activities that authorities deem undesirable – are all-too-easily branded as ‘agents of the West.’ …

“It isn’t that the government opposes mourning the victims of Stalin’s repressions, it’s that they don’t like the way Memorial does it. It is seen as disloyal. From the state’s point of view, it’s OK to grieve the victims, but not to question the system of authority that led to the repressions, or to assign blame to the perpetrators, as Memorial seeks to do,” she says. “I look at this pressure on Memorial as part of a general line of stepped-up repressions that is picking up speed.”

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Mark Sappenfield
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