Russia’s Supreme Court has ordered the closure of International Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights group.
Memorial worked to recover the memory of the millions of innocent people executed, imprisoned or persecuted in the Soviet era.
Formally it has been “liquidated” for failing to mark a number of social media posts with its official status as a “foreign agent”.
That designation was given in 2016 for receiving funding from abroad.
But in court the prosecutor labelled Memorial a “public threat”, accusing the group of being in the pay of the West to focus attention on Soviet crimes instead of highlighting a “glorious past”.
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Memorial, which opened in 1989, became a symbol of a country opening up to the world – and to itself – as Russia began to confront its worst chapters. Its closing is a glaring example of how President Vladimir Putin has folded the country in on itself, dismissing criticism – even of history – as a hostile act.
As the decision was read out in court, there were screams of “shame!”
The verdict also highlights the surge in repression in modern-day Russia, where Memorial’s own human rights wing now lists over 400 political detainees and independent organisations and media are increasingly labelled “foreign agents.”
Memorial’s lawyers contended in court that the organization’s work was useful to the “health of the nation.” They declared Memorial to be a friend of Russia, not an adversary, and denounced the liquidation case as ludicrous and “Orwellian.”
The extensive database of victims of political repression that the organisation has compiled over three decades of labour was one of the sites that the group neglected to label as “foreign agents.”
The team maintained that any faults had been fixed and that shutting down a well-known and respected organisation because of minor technical errors was excessive.
The justice ministry claimed that the social importance of a group could not be used as an excuse for breaching the law. However, the prosecution’s closing remarks revealed a deeper reason for the case.
“Almost totally concentrated on distorting historic memory, first and principally about the Great Fatherland War [World War Two],” Alexei Zhafyarov told the court, accusing the group of portraying the USSR as a “terrorist” state.
Vladimir Putin places a high value on the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War Two, as part of his nostalgic yearning for the days when Russia was a superpower – a far more appealing subject for many Russians than the parallel history of secret courts, prison camps, and execution squads.
“Why should we, the conquerors’ descendants, be ashamed and repentant rather than proud of our victorious past? Someone is most likely paying for the memorial “In court, the prosecutor stated.
“They chose us because we are strong and visible, and because we upset them,” Memorial board member Oleg Orlov told that recently about the decision to close an organisation he has been involved with since its inception.
“Authorities are politicising history these days, but we say things they don’t like. We bring up terrible memories from the past, which irritates people “he stated
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Russia commemorates victims of Soviet tyranny with a memorial wall.
The organisation has been under fire for years, but it became even more so after Russia was swept by a passionately patriotic wave in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The memorial’s walls were damaged with graffiti, its work was smeared as subversive on state television, and it was labelled a “foreign agent” in 2016 – a slur disturbingly evocative of Stalinist times, when individuals labelled “enemy of the people” were hunted and purged.
In October, a nationalist mob came on stage at Memorial’s Moscow offices to watch Mr Jones, a film about the Stalin-era famine in Ukraine that killed millions, labelling the audience “fascists” and chanting, “Hands off our history.”
The Memorial Human Rights Centre, a sister organisation dedicated to documenting contemporary political persecution and human rights atrocities, is also facing closure due to alleged violations of the foreign agents statute. This week, a decision in its own lawsuit is likely.
The decisions will be challenged, according to Memorial, including at the European Court of Human Rights.
The prosecution against both, according to Oleg Orlov, is supposed to serve as a warning: “The attack on us is intended to send a strong message to all of Russia’s civic society. ‘Look!’ they exclaim. If we can do it with them, then liquidating all of you won’t be a problem.'”
“The moment has come to clean up the field once and for all.”