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What is Behind the Memorial Affair? by Hélène de Lauzun

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What is Behind the Memorial Affair?

The Russian non-governmental organization Memorial International has just been dissolved by the Russian government. The Center for the Defense of Human Rights, a subsidiary of the NGO, was also dissolved, triggering widespread criticism in the Western world. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken called it a “persecution” of the Memorial, while French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed his “indignation.”

According to the website of the NGO, the “historical, educational, charitable and humanitarian” Memorial brings together about sixty organizations, most of which are active in Russia. Among them, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights has specialized, in recent years, in the defense of human rights, particularly of political prisoners. The Memorial also has branches in Ukraine, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Czech Republic. 

Memorial International and its affiliate Center for the Defense of Human Rights are accused of failing to comply with the provisions of a Russian law on “foreign agents.” A 2012 law requires NGOs funded from abroad—a category that the Memorial falls into—to register as foreign agents and to explicitly disclose the fact that they receive foreign funding, which the Memorial has failed to do. In addition, its publications must be marked as from foreign sources, to allow for a critical assessment of their content. 

The two organizations, which have been subject to the law—since 2014 for the Memorial, and since 2016 for the Center—now stand accused of “systematically violating” these provisions. They are also accused of advocating “terrorism” and “extremism.” In terms of messaging, by memorializing Russian victims of dictatorship, the Memorial has been accused of distorting the noble memory of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 against Nazi Germany, and creating “a false image of the Soviet Union by presenting it as a terrorist state.” 

As a result, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that “violations of the rights and freedoms of individuals as well as repeated and gross violations of the laws of Russia constituted grounds for dissolution.” 

The defenders of the NGO hold Vladimir Putin behind the push for their dissolution, suspecting the Russian president of engaging in a form of ‘rehabilitation’ of the communist period and its crimes. Such criticism of Putin on this subject is tempting, but perhaps inaccurate. Indeed, Putin has publicly denounced the crimes of communism and the Stalinist dictatorship on several occasions. In 2015, a large Gulag museum was opened in Moscow to present the Soviet concentration camp system to the public, a decision Putin supported. Two years later, in 2017, Putin inaugurated, together with Patriarch Cyril, a “Wall of Sorrow” dedicated to the victims of political repression. This inauguration corresponded to the centenary of the Russian Revolution, as well as the 80th anniversary of the Great Terror, which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Russia from 1937 to 1938. 

This “Wall of Sorrow” was partly the result of the Memorial’s work. Indeed, the dedication of a monument to the victims of the dictatorship was born during Perestroika. In Moscow, as early as 1987, activists gathered in an informal movement to collect signatures to call for the creation of a memorial, which would consist of a museum, a research center, and a monument. At the beginning of 1989, this group, together with other activists, formed an association which was to take the name “Memorial.” This association was placed under the presidency of the dissident Andrei Sakharov who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Gradually the NGO set itself the goal of shedding light on the crimes of the Soviet Union and analyzing its system of repression. Its activities have taken many forms: excavations on the sites of massacres, publication of lists of victims, and collection of testimonies. The members of the Memorial were behind the first monument to the victims of the Soviet dictatorship—the installation on Lubyanka Square, (where the KGB had its headquarters), of a rock from the Solovki Islands, where one of the first labor camps, the precursor of the Gulag, was established during the Civil War. 

The Memorial’s work on the Gulag has not been criticized by the Putin regime. However, the regime became critically involved when the NGO began to publish lists of torturers. More than 40,000 names of the NKVD (the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) who were responsible for massacres have been disclosed, according to historian Nicolas Werth, head of the French branch of the Memorial. Such publicity the Russian government found offensive; since Russia does not engage in memorial trials, there was no sense in releasing the names. Putin, like the majority of Russians, has a special relationship with the history of their country—very different from that of Western countries. One of their ideals is to assume their history in its entirety, despite its harsh and bloody pages. Reparations made to former victims, or repentance for former crimes, does not exist there. One of the amendments proposed by the constitutional reform of 2020 recalled that “the Russian Federation is the legal successor of the Union of SSR within its territory.” Russia lives with this conviction, which is almost a trait of character: nothing can be taken away from the Russian past. 

In essence, the NGO drew the government’s disapproval because it gradually left the field of historical research to engage in much more political activities: the promotion of human rights, educational programs, and defense of political prisoners. This transition was not acceptable to the Russian government. In particular, the Memorial chose to focus on the explosive issue of the Chechen War of the 2000s—a key moment in contemporary Russian history, and an extremely sensitive subject in its memory. This period also corresponds to the very beginning of Vladimir Putin’s tenure of power after the Yeltsin era, when Russia faced deadly waves of Islamist terrorism.

Following the decision to dissolve the Memorial, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), to which Russia is theoretically subject as a member of the Council of Europe, asked the Russian government to “suspend” the dissolution of the Centre while it studied an emergency procedure sent by the NGO to the Court. The outcome of the Court’s request could not be less certain.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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