Memorial, the conscience of Russia banned by Putin

Memorial, the conscience of Russia banned by Putin

The emblematic Russian NGO memorial, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, shed light on the Stalinist purges for three decades, then Vladimir Putin’s repressions in modern-day Russia, before becoming a victim itself.

Last winter, the Russian judiciary ordered Memorial to be disbanded for violating a controversial “foreign agent” law, a decision that shocked both West and Russia and sparked an avalanche of convictions.

The dissolution of this pillar of Russian civil society, a symbol of democratization in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR, preceded the offensive in Ukraine by a few weeks.

Since then, the Kremlin has stepped up its crackdown on voices decrying its military campaign, with thousands of fines and hefty prison sentences.

On Friday, Memorial International President Ian Ratchinski stressed that receiving the Nobel Prize gives “moral strength” in “depressing times”.

Maria Podkolzina, 22, who is present at a hearing in another trial against the NGO, hopes this award will draw attention to the very complicated situation faced by Russian civil society.

“The fact that it was announced on the day of this hearing is quite ironic,” smiles Alexandra Savinova, a 21-year-old student.

However, the Russian judiciary in the evening ordered the seizure of the organization’s offices in Moscow, another blow to Memorial.

Founded in 1989, Memorial never stopped challenging the Kremlin before its dissolution, drawing the enmity of many officials and reprisals, including assassination attempts.

“We were only ten people and we thought perestroika would be the beginning of everything. But it didn’t happen that way,” Lev Ponomarev, 81, told AFP on Friday in Paris, where he received political asylum.

From Stalinist crimes to abuses in Chechnya, the organization founded by Soviet dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, has been instrumental in its rigorous investigations, particularly into Russian paramilitary abuses in Syria.

At the same time, Memorial compiled a list of political prisoners, provided them with assistance, as well as migrants and sexual minorities.

– “enemies of the people” –

The NGO became known in the West and enjoyed a great reputation there, above all through its work in Chechnya, a Russian republic in the Caucasus, the scene of two wars. In 2009 she received the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament.

During the Chechen conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s, Memorial staff were on the ground documenting the mistreatment of Russian soldiers and their local auxiliaries.

“She always hated power,” historian Irina Chtcherbakova, one of the founders, recalled last November.

In 2009, the head of the NGO in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova, was kidnapped in broad daylight and shot in the head in Grozny.

The authoritarian Chechen leader involved in this assassination, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is now one of the most ardent supporters of the attack on the Kremlin in Ukraine, in return called the members of the memorial “enemies of the people”.

In 2018, a new case prompted the NGO to withdraw from Chechnya: the conviction of its local manager Oïoub Titiev in a drug case denounced as a set-up.

– The memory obsession –

According to its founders, Memorial began its activities well before its official founding in 1989. Its aim at the time was to give a name to and pay homage to the millions of forgotten victims of Soviet repression and the Gulag.

In the 1960s and 1970s, activists began to secretly gather information about these crimes, and then to the public after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

“Memorial is the legacy of a movement, then an organization, which incessantly screams loud and clear that it was very dangerous for the memory of the dictatorship to disappear from the collective consciousness,” summarized historian Irina Shcherbakova.

With Mr Putin’s rise to power in 2000, that task has proven increasingly difficult as the Kremlin, which advocates a historical interpretation that glorifies Russian power, downplays Soviet crimes.

During the dissolution proceedings against the NGO, prosecutor Alexei Jafiarov accused Memorial of “creating a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state” and trying to “rehabilitate Nazi criminals”.

Memorial condemned other forms of pressure to silence them.

One of its historians, who worked on the Stalinist purges in Karelia (northwest), Yuri Dmitriev, was sentenced in December to fifteen years in prison for “sexual violence”.

In early April, a month after Russia’s attack on Ukraine began, Oleg Orlov, one of Memorial’s historical leaders, admitted to AFP that he had never seen a “darker period” in his life.

“What’s happening now isn’t comparable to what could have happened before (…) a country that left the totalitarian system is returning to it,” said the man who had begun to feel comfortable in the 1980s fight back by distributing leaflets against the Soviet war in Afghanistan.


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