Prominent historians and human rights activists were shocked by a Russian Supreme Court ruling Tuesday to close Memorial International, which chronicled historical abuses of the former Soviet Union and identified victims of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's purges.
The human rights group, which has long drawn the ire of Russian officials, was found guilty of breaking a law requiring nongovernmental organizations and other groups to register as foreign agents if they receive foreign donations. Kremlin critics said the organization was targeted for political reasons.
Memorial International’s sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, which campaigns on behalf of political prisoners in modern-day Russia, is also under legal threat. Prosecutors in Moscow Wednesday will call for its closure on claims it has been justifying terrorism and condoning extremism in its publications.
“The persecution of International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Center is an affront to their noble missions and to the cause of human rights everywhere,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement late Tuesday.“The people of Russia – and the memory of the millions who suffered from Soviet-era repression – deserve better.”
Blinken further expressed U.S. solidarity with those in Russia who have been targeted for exercising rights to “expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”
“A power that is afraid of memory, will never be able to achieve democratic maturity,” Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum director Piotr Cywiński tweeted on Tuesday. Other historians said on social media that the ruling capped a year of crackdowns on Kremlin critics not seen since the Soviet days.
In a joint statement, the German branch of Amnesty International, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation decried the ruling, saying the Russian government “wants to monopolize individual and collective memory.”
Memorial International has chronicled the horrors of the Communist era since it was co-founded in 1987 by Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, four years before the end of the Soviet Union. Memorial historians located execution sites and mass graves of Stalin's “Great Terror,” also known as the “Great Purge,” and tried to identify as many victims as possible.
Several historians associated with Memorial International have been imprisoned in recent years, including Karelia-based gulag chronicler Yury Dmitriyev, who this week was sentenced to 15 years in a penal colony for allegedly abusing his adopted daughter.
Other historians say the charge against Dmitriyev was trumped up and leveled to silence him. Two other Gulag chroniclers also have been jailed on sex-related charges.
Kremlin authorities repeatedly have accused Memorial International of distorting history. Before Tuesday’s ruling, state prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said, “It is obvious that Memorial creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state.” Zhafyarov claimed the extensive lists of victims of Stalinist repression compiled by the organization also included “Nazi offenders with blood of Soviet citizens on their hands.”
“This is why we, the descendants of (WWII) victors, are forced to watch for attempts to rehabilitate traitors of the motherland and Nazi collaborators,” he added.
Stalin’s image has slowly been rehabilitated since Vladimir Putin came to power in the late 1990s, a rehabilitation that has included new statues and memorials being built, and officials no longer embarrassed to hang Stalin’s portraits.
Memorial historians say they are on the front line in a battle over history and the chronicling of the communist past.
“The very act of remembrance is frowned on,” St. Petersburg-based historian Anatoly Razumov told VOA in a recent interview. He said officials under Putin see the memorializing as unpatriotic, an act undertaken by fifth columnists to the benefit of Western foes.
Razumov said researching the Great Terror has always been difficult, even during the thaw years (the period after Stalin’s death in 1953) of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor. He said 1997 marked the beginning of the end of the thaw when it comes to the history of the Great Terror. In a presidential decree, Yeltsin declared 1997 as the Year of Reconciliation.
“After 1997, the topic was meant to go quiet. As far as the authorities were concerned, the topic was finished,” Razumov told VOA.
Memorial historians say Kremlin-backed academics have put a lot of effort into adding details to the story of the horrors that Russia endured during World War II at the hands of the German Nazis.
Last year, Russian prosecutors summoned surviving Red Army veterans to recall their battlefield experiences to help identify Nazis and their collaborators who carried out war atrocities in the Soviet Union.
The probe was linked by some observers to Putin’s renewed interest in historical memory. The Russian leader and former KGB officer has complained loudly that the Soviet Union’s huge wartime role and its losses have been downplayed for propaganda purposes by Western politicians and historians.
Putin has asserted Western popular culture overlooks Soviet sacrifices and focuses instead on events such as the Normandy landings of 1944. Some Western historians sympathize with Putin’s claim and his insistence the Soviet sacrifice in lives and treasure was much greater than the Western allies. But they question Putin’s rigid selectivity.
Timothy Snyder, a Yale University historian and author of “The Road to Unfreedom,” has accused Putin of taking “certain points from the past to portray them as moments of righteousness” while everything in between those moments is discarded.
Last year, Putin labeled those who disagree with the Kremlin’s version of history as Western “collaborators.” And the Investigative Committee of Russia has established a department to investigate “falsifications of history,” which rights campaigners and historians fear will be used to further stifle free inquiry.
United Nations Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor warned last month any dissolution of Memorial would be “a new low for human rights defenders in Russia,” whose “criticism of historical and contemporary human rights abuses has for many years made them the target of a government that is ever diminishing the space for public debate.”