Trying to cloud memories of the Gulag, Russia targets rights group
MOSCOW – In the days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the upheavals and uncertainty that gripped Russia were accompanied by a climate of liberating openness, in which free expression, historical scrutiny and political dissent could flourish.
But in the two decades that have passed since Vladimir V. Putin took power, the government has gradually reduced these rights. Mr. Putin tamed the oligarch class, stifled the media, jailed religious groups and dissidents, and suppressed political opposition.
Today, Mr. Putin has set himself the goal of rewriting the memory of one of the most painful periods in Russia’s turbulent history: the era of the gulag, when millions of Russians toiled and fell. dead, mainly in the first half of the 20th century. Russian prosecutors are preparing to liquidate the archives and human rights center of Memorial International, the country’s largest human rights organization, which is dedicated to the memory of those who have been persecuted by the often brutal regime of Soviet Union.
Activists and dissidents consider the threat to Memorial a watershed moment for independent thinkers in Russia – a sobering example of the government’s determination to silence its critics and clean up the narrative surrounding the Soviet Union, which Mr. Putin sees as a heady era of Russian influence and power.
Mr. Putin is obsessed with the idea of ââ”making Russia great again,” said Aleksandr Baunov, editor-in-chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center website. “Putin’s Russia is built on the denial” of the 1990s, with its reforms, its self-criticism and its social and economic upheavals, declared Mr. Baunov, because it represents for him the time of recent history when Russia was the weakest.
Removing the memorial, Mr Baunov said, would help Mr Putin remove a forensic examination from one of Russia’s most shameful times, even as the descendants of its victims continue to suffer the brunt of it. consequences.
“You know that term ‘vertical power’,” Baunov said, using a term that has come to define Mr. Putin’s autocratic style of government. âThe state also wants to build a ‘vertical memory’. He does not deny victims the status of victim, but he wants to control the narrative of the repression. “
Two court hearings this week could decide Memorial’s fate. On Tuesday, the Moscow City Court will examine allegations that Memorial’s human rights center “justifies terrorist activities” because it included members of jailed religious groups on its list of political prisoners. Later this week, the Supreme Court will hear charges that Memorial International, which houses the group’s archives, violated a draconian “foreign agent” law.
This historical revisionism is painful for Lyudmila Yurmenich. His father never told him about his decade spent in the Gulag, in an Arctic Circle forced labor camp, known for its inhumane treatment of detainees.
âThe fear was so strong and the memory too heavy,â said Ms. Yurmenich, 64, explaining that she only learned of her father’s imprisonment from her mother after his death.
Since then, she has found solace in the work of Memorial International, which focuses on preserving the memory of the estimated 20 million people imprisoned in the Gulag between 1929 and the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. The detainees were coerced. from working long, hard working days, often in freezing weather, and many died of starvation or disease.
On a recent evening, Ms. Yurmenich walked through the exhibits in a maze of rooms at the Memorial Museum, which featured inmates’ belongings like hand-sewn toys, wooden shoes, and a piece of frayed string used for divide the rations of bread.
âIt is very important for me that this period is remembered in our country,â Ms. Yurmenich said, âso that it does not repeat itself, so that there is not so much fear, so that this country can be free. “
Irina G. Galkova, director of the Memorial museum, said there are stark parallels between the time Ms Yurmenich’s father survived and present-day Russia.
âHere you can see a vivid example of living memory that is directly linked to the present time,â she said. âIt’s a similar model. Of course, it’s not exactly the same – there are different mechanics and different details. But you can recognize the same logic and the same evil behind it.
She said she believed Memorial was under pressure not only for its archival work, but also for its advocacy for human rights in contemporary Russia, activities Ms Galkova called inseparable. Memorial’s Human Rights Center monitors civil liberties and provides legal assistance to those who violate the system. The organization has supported more than 1,500 cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The Human Rights Center announced on November 11 that it was facing liquidation, three months after releasing its tally of 419 political prisoners. Memorial said this was almost double the number at the end of the Soviet period, and significantly higher than in 2015, when there were 46 names.
The list includes opposition politician Alexei A. Navalny, who was poisoned in an operation allegedly organized by the government. The vast majority of those on the list, however, have been imprisoned because of their religion, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are banned in Russia and have a status equivalent to that of terrorists.
As a result, prosecutors accused the Memorial Human Rights Center of sanctioning “terrorist activity,” which prompted Tuesday’s hearing.
The second hearing focuses on alleged violations of Russian “foreign agents” law, which has been used to target journalists, civil society activists and opposition supporters. The law requires them to use the label “foreign agent” – which critics say has a connotation similar to the Stalinist-era “enemy of the people” – in all public communications, which prosecutors say the organization did not. The law too imposes onerous financial reporting requirements, and there is no way to legally challenge or revoke a foreign agent designation.
Although Memorial challenged his designation as a foreign agent in the European Court of Human Rights, he complied with court orders to pay more than six million rubles ($ 82,000) in fines, Ms. Galkova said.
In the past 14 months, relevant oversight bodies have found no cases of non-compliance by Memorial International, while authorities have found only two minor violations by the human rights center , according to members of the Human Rights Council Putin, an advisory body with little influence. In a statement, the group called the potential “forced liquidation of the oldest public organization” an “extraordinary measure” that was disproportionate to the violations.
If prosecutors were successful in forcing Memorial to shut down, it would set a grim precedent for the dozens of other entities and individuals the Russian Justice Ministry has branded as foreign agents.
Memorial has been under pressure for years. Yuri A. Dmitriev, a historian who uncovered the previously hidden graves of 9,000 of Stalin’s victims as part of his work with Memorial, was jailed last year after being convicted of pedophilia – a charge the groups advocates have called it false.
In mid-October, about two dozen men broke into Memorial’s offices, where a film about the 1930s famine in Ukraine was being shown. When the group called the police, officers locked the doors with everyone inside, then questioned the organizers and their guests for six hours.
Still, many Memorial supporters remain hopeful that the prosecutor’s lawsuits against the organization will be dismissed. In 2015, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Russian Justice Ministry to shut down Memorial.
However, the political climate has deteriorated since then, and Mr. Putin’s government has made clear its intention to step up its crackdown on dissent.
But Memorial’s loose structure – its branches across the country are loosely affiliated and operate independently – will ensure its continued survival, said Ms Galkova, the museum’s director.
“As a last resort, we will start from scratch,” Memorial Executive Director Yelena Zhemkova said at a recent press conference. “We will find money, we will find premises, we will still adapt.”
It will also be exhibiting its collection of Gulag artifacts again, she said.
Alina Lobzina and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.