“If Stalin raised his head, he would be glad!” A scrupulous Russian historian reacted in this way to the announced start, this week in Moscow, of the processes that could culminate in the dissolution of Memorial, the non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the victims of political persecution and terror in the Union Soviet.
Founded in 1988, in the midst of perestroika (the liberalization undertaken by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev), Memorial, whose origins was the Nobel Peace Prize Andrey Sakharov, is today a respected and branched entity. Her activities include the investigation and pedagogy of history, as well as the defense of human rights, a field in which she has been very active, especially in relation to the Chechen war in the 1990s, and in the denunciation of abuses of representatives of the State against the citizenship.
Memorial has a large and valuable archive of documents, personal testimonies and objects related to the gulag (Stalinist concentration camp system). These files have served as the basis for numerous historical studies and also to support more current complaints before the European Court of Human Rights, located in Strasbourg.
By being financed with international funds, the Ministry of Justice of Russia included Memorial in the list of “foreign agents”, based on a law passed in 2012. In all its activities and in its presentation, Memorial is obliged to declare its status as “Foreign agent”, something that in the Russian popular mentality has negative connotations and is associated with the profession of spy.
This month the State Prosecutor’s Office has requested the dissolution of the NGO, accusing it of “repeated transgressions” of the legislation and the Constitution of the country. The Russian prosecutor alleges that the entity failed to properly mark its status as a “foreign agent” in various publications and events, including the sale of books at a fair in Moscow’s Red Square.
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The harassment campaign against Memorial is reflected in a set of processes against the different legal entities that make up the NGO. On Tuesday, November 23, a Moscow court begins the hearing of the case against the human rights section of Memorial, which faces the added charge of “justifying terrorism and extremism” (an accusation that, if confirmed, carries criminal consequences ). On Thursday, November 25, the Supreme Court of Russia will initiate another process against the international section of Memorial. The future of the NGO and its properties, including the Moscow headquarters, is uncertain. In case of losing, it is not clear what would happen to its valuable files, according to Oleg Orlov, one of the leaders of the entity. The dissolution of the veteran NGO would mark a significant step in the monopolization of historical memory by the Kremlin.
Many figures from the world of politics, history and culture have mobilized in defense of Memorial, including Natalia Solzhenítsina, the widow of the writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and the two living Russian Nobel Peace Prize winners, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev , the director of the newspaper Nóvaya Gazeta, Dmitri Murátov. Both say they share the “concern and unease” that the demand to close Memorial has caused in the country. The laureates have urged the Prosecutor’s Office to withdraw their claim and have asked the Supreme Court to delay the hearing of the case to give an opportunity to settle the conflict without a court involved.
“The activity of many years of Memorial was always aimed at reestablishing historical justice, preserving the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who perished or suffered in the years of repression, and not allowing something similar to happen now. or in the future ”, indicated Gorbachev and Murátov. The continuation of Memorial’s work “responds to the interests of the Russian state and society,” they stated.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.