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Battle for Russia’s past

About the author
Tatyana Kosinova is founding figure in the St Petersburg branch of Russia's leading human rights organisation Memorial

(Editor's update: on 24 February, shortly after publication of this article, the St Petersburg City Court overturned the 20 January court ruling regarding the illegality of the raid and confirmed that the material confiscated from Memorial will not for the time being be returned).

From a judicial point of view, the first move was extremely encouraging. For on January 20th, In the Dzerzhinsky Court in St Petersburg  Judge Andrei Shibakov ruled that the search was illegal. Following the complaint filed by Memorial, the police officers of Petersburg's Central District were forced to justify their action in court. Memorial demonstrated that the law enforcement and security authorities were powerless before an independent court. Many observers thought that this was the end of the affair.

But on the very next day, the Senior Assistant to the Petersburg Central District's Prosecutor Vladimir Vasyukov launched an appeal, which meant that Shibakov's verdict did not enter into force. The Memorial case will come before the St Petersburg City Court again on February 24. In the meantime, the confiscated electronic archives, hard disks and other material on Soviet history that Memorial has collected over the last 20 years have not been returned.  

The case has more to do with the country's history than with Memorial's own story. Why did the security services want to punish Memorial? That is the real question.

Were they really after Andreyev?

Let us look first at their own explanation. On 16 January, Mikhail Kalganov from the Petersburg Central District investigations department explained to the Dzerzhinsky Court that their ‘urgent' need to carry out the search was connected to one Alexei Andreyev, former editor of the newspaper Novy Peterburg.

Police surveillance of the office on Rubinstein Street in March and November 2008 revealed that Andreyev visited it twice, he said. Kalganov had been working on a criminal case against Kalganov since September. According to him, Andreyev could have hidden material and financial documents ‘of interest to the investigation' there. This was the only reason Kalganov gave for conducting the search.   

Or was it about the Litvinenko film?

There have been those who have maintained from the outset that the real reason had to do with Andrei Nekrasov's film ‘Bunt. Delo Livinenko' (Rebellion - the Litvinenko Affair). The film was screened twice at the office on Rubinstein Street in November 2008. In the past Memorial has also screened two previous documentaries by the same director - ‘Detskiye rasskazy (Chechnya)' (Children's Tales (Chechnya)) and ‘Nedoveriye' (Distrust). The screenings were attended by no more than 100 people. Although the dates were mentioned on the radio,  the film could hardly be said to have caused a stir in St Petersburg.

The director's dacha in Finland was vandalized in the spring of 2007, when the film was being edited for screening at the 60th Cannes Film Festival. The Russian Embassy in France also demanded that the film be excluded from the programme of Russian films due to be shown at the Nantes Film Festival. But otherwise, although the film is said to be ‘banned in Russia' there have not been any public scandals involving the film. In fact, it is available on several websites and is regularly handed out at pickets in various cities. Andrei Nekrasov himself attended one screening in Moscow on November 20, and another at Memorial in St Petersburg three days later, and answered questions from viewers and the press. He entered and left the country freely and was not stopped on any occasion.  

During the search of Memorial's office, the disk with the film lay in full view on a table next to one of the computers from which the investigators removed the hard drive. The film did not interest them. They did not touch commercially packaged and marked disks, only those with no titles or with title written in marker - working copies. For example, they did confiscate a copy of a disk with a film about Ukrainian dissident Vasily Stuse. But even very respectable publications have speculated that Nekrasov and his film were behind the search.   

So what was the real reason?

Memorial's Director Irina Flige has suggested that you do not know someone's motives, you should look at the result. The objects confiscated include data bases containing biographical information on more than 50,000 victims of Stalin-era repressions; the results of searches for hundreds of burial sites of the repression victims; collections (more than 10,000 images and texts) belonging to the Virtual Museum of the Gulag, a unique web resource uniting more than 100 Russian regional museums and more. "Perhaps the prosecutors and the investigating committee have finally started to take an interest in our past history?" Flige suggested.

The search took place on the eve of the international conference ‘The History of Stalinism - Results and Problems of Study', which took place in Moscow on December 5-7, 2008. The conference was unprecedented in Russia in terms of the calibre of people attending and the range of subjects covered. The conference witnessed the start of the intellectual battle against Memorial. This was connected with a journal called Russky Zhurnal - Rabochiye tetradi (Russian Journal - Working Papers) which began publication last May. According to its editors, its aim is to "reveal the fabric of ideas behind the most important events in Russian political, cultural and economic life". Its December issue, entitled ‘The Politics of Memory', was timed to coincide with the opening of the Moscow conference on Stalinism, where it was distributed.  Everyone interpreted its appearance as an "ideological attack on Memorial" (Alexander Daniel) and as a justification for ‘seizing' the ‘politics of memory' (Boris Dolgin).  

Is Russia's past the real battleground?

When seen in the context of the emergence of the patriotic idea of the ‘glorious Soviet past' the transition to open confrontation with Memorial seems predictable. The re-emergence of this idea dates back to November 2003, when, at a meeting with historians, Putin said that textbooks should "cultivate a sense of pride in Russia's history, a sense of pride in the country, especially in young people". At that time, no clear interpretation was attached to this phrase. But five years later, in a climate where Russia is increasingly being regarded as a newly resurgent great power, encircled as before by enemies, Stalin's image has come to the fore once more.

We have two starkly opposing views of the Stalin period. On the one hand, there are those, like Memorial, who see Stalinism as a criminal regime responsible for decades of state terror. On the other, there are those who see the Stalin period as an age of glorious victories and grand achievements. The ideologues behind the authorities' history policy incline to this view. For the last eight years, the political elite has needed this second vision in order, as Andrei Roginsky has put it, to "consolidate society, restore the unquestioned authority of the state and strengthen the state's ‘vertical of power'".

Return to the past, but not altogether

For most of us at Memorial, this is by no means the first time we have been subjected to a search. We remember too when our relatives, friends or colleagues were searched, when they used to comb through our books and research. We thought all that belonged to another life, before glasnost and perestroika - indeed before the Khrushchev thaw. Everyone recalls that although the KGB and the prosecutors were never very competent, at least they always used to write out a detailed list of everything confiscated in the search protocol. This time, those who carried out the search could not even be bothered to do that.

However, the country has changed, and while they were still searching Memorial's office, the complaint was already on the desk of Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin. It is now possible to file complaints against any action by the special services in court. Russia's media, however much people complain about its bias, also gave the story independent coverage from the start.

Maybe in the long run it is no bad thing that Russians should learn to fight for their rights in court. Judge Shibakov did not go so far as to call the search at Memorial unjustified, and his ruling essentially confirmed that the investigators did have the right to carry out searches at public organisations under even the most absurd pretext. Memorial did not dispute this ruling because "the court stipulated the investigators' obligation to strike out the violation committed and return all objects and documents confiscated during the search, which was Memorial's main demand".

The court case against the search confirmed that Memorial has been under surveillance by the secret services. The criminal case against the former editor of Novy Peterburg was just a convenient but useful pretext for creating a scandal, accusing Memorial of extremism, and sidelining independent investigators. While the Memorial case was being heard, in a decision completely independent from criminal case No 601466, the Russian Supreme Court has confirmed the St Petersburg City Court's October ruling that the closure of Novy Peterburg was illegal. It is planned to restart the newspaper under its old name by spring. This is further evidence of the more than tenuous link between the pretext for the search and the reality.    

Effects of the raid

In the end, the raid has been counter-productive from the attackers point of view. The incident has been the focus of attention at home and abroad for the last two months. U.S. State Department officials and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly have expressed their concern at the actions of the Russian authorities and the absurd accusations against Memorial. Hundreds of well-known historians, academics and archivists in Russia and around the world have protested.

It is not Memorial that will suffer in the end. Its projects are now getting more attention than ever from historians, journalists and philanthropic funds, and it is has been nominated for a third time for the Nobel Peace Prize. The investigators and prosecutors are the ones whose credibility is more likely to suffer damage. Boris Dolgin, editor of Polit-ru, agrees. "It is hard to imagine anything more damaging to the country and its political leadership than a campaign against academics, public organisations and cultural figures."

We will soon see if the court's original ruling will be confirmed - the next hearing is on 24 February. It may take longer before it becomes clear whether the attacks against Memorial are going to continue, and if they do, in what form.


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