oDR: Analysis

Russia targets its oldest human rights group, Memorial

Memorial ‘personifies’ Russia’s link to Europe. Little wonder then authorities are making their final moves against the organisation

Thomas Rowley
22 March 2023, 3.08pm

The day started with Russian law enforcement searching the homes of nine senior members of the country’s oldest human rights organisation, Memorial.

Apparently, there was reason to believe that these Nobel Prize-winning historians and rights defenders had been “rehabilitating Nazism”. Investigators had allegedly found that three names on Memorial’s list of historical “Victims of Communist Terror” had not, in fact, been rehabilitated by the Soviet authorities after their conviction for collaborating with the Nazis. (Ironically, those three names also appear in a memory book published by law enforcement in the Russian republic of Tatarstan.)

Memorial’s error – on a list that ran to three million names – was enough to warrant investigation on a criminal charge. It could end in a hefty fine or a prison sentence of up to five years.

Then, at around 4pm local time, outside a central Moscow police station, Memorial board member Oleg Orlov revealed to journalists that he was to be investigated for “discrediting the Russian army” in a Facebook post. He was being questioned at the police station in a separate case.

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As Russian missiles rained down on Ukraine in November last year, Orlov posted about an article in the French outlet Mediapart.

He wrote: “The bloody war that the Putin regime has unleashed in Ukraine is not only the mass killing of people, the destruction of infrastructure, the economy and cultural sites of that remarkable country.

“It is not only the destruction of the foundations of international law. It is also a heavy blow against Russia’s future.”

By focusing on the facts, Memorial invited the Russian public to make up its own mind about what had happened in the 20th century.

With that Facebook post, Orlov joined roughly 200 other people accused of “discrediting the Russian army”, a new crime swiftly brought in after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Several activists, including prominent opposition politician Ilya Yashin, have already received lengthy prison sentences for this new crime. Dmitry Ivanov, who ran an anti-war Telegram channel that shared information about Russian war crimes in Ukraine, was sentenced to more than eight years in prison on 7 March. Almost as if Russian law enforcement had quotas to meet, it was announced on the same day that two other people, including a prominent actor, were to be investigated for “discrediting the Russian army”.

law enforcement memorial

Law enforcement prepare to conduct a search of Memorial's office in Moscow


Memorial's Facebook page

Preserving memory

If you know anything about Memorial, it is that it likes lists. Lists of names of the men, women and children whose lives were turned upside down and destroyed by Bolshevik and later Soviet power.

Indeed, first-time visitors to Memorial’s offices in central Moscow would be shown its archives, where files and documents – the bare facts of people’s lives – are just sitting in boxes waiting to be sorted out decades later. Perhaps it was those boxes that city law enforcement started removing from the building later in the day, according to footage released by Russian independent media.

Memorial’s painstaking project of recovering individual stories from the last century always seemed to sidestep politics somehow, switching the public focus to individual human dignity rather than dissecting the forces of history. It was as if, by focusing on the facts, Memorial invited the Russian public to make up its own mind about what had happened in the 20th century.

“The authorities have a pretty strong deficit of ideology, and that means that anything they perceive as having a pro-Western ideology becomes their main enemy”

Sasha Krylenkova, rights defender

But this work inevitably carried a political charge, according to rights defender Sasha Krylenkova, as Memorial has combined its investigation into what happened in Russia in the 20th century, with work on contemporary Russian human rights violations. These include the crimes committed by Russian forces in Chechnya, violations of the rights of political activists and protesters inside Russia and human rights violations in Ukrainian territories currently occupied by Russia.

Krylenkova said: “The meaning of Memorial’s work is not only about preserving memory, but creating a unity of time and space – there is never a moment [according to the organisation] when the repressions have ended [...] They draw our attention to the fact that state violence is a process, sometimes there is more of it, sometimes less, but it never disappears.”

She added: “Perhaps it is in this combination of reflections on the past and [contemporary] defence of human rights that the Russian authorities see the biggest threat to themselves.”

Beyond this powerful work both on the past and present, Memorial’s employees are currently under investigation as they have continued their work despite the organisation’s formal dissolution in December 2021 by order of Russia’s Supreme Court.

audience liquidation Memorial

Outside the courtroom at the hearing on Memorial's liquidation



“It currently seems that the Russian authorities are keen to target the individuals who work there and not just the organisation as a structure," French journalist Etienne Bouche, author of a forthcoming book on memory politics in Russia, told openDemocracy.

The very fact that Memorial’s leaders have become so prominent in Europe, rights defender Krylenkova said, is probably one of the reasons the Russian authorities are pursuing them so vigorously.

“Memorial personifies Russia’s connection with all the European organisations that the Russian authorities are fighting against, from the European Court of Human Rights and ending with the Nobel Prize,” she added.

“The authorities have a pretty strong deficit of ideology, and that means that anything they perceive as having a pro-Western ideology becomes their main enemy.”

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