Among the most positive developments in the last years of the Soviet Union was the mushrooming of so-called informal groups, which demonstrated that Russia, too, had the makings of a civil society. There was a wide variety, from a campaign to abolish Article 6 of the Constitution, enshrining the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, to ecological groups to monarchists to the extreme nationalist Pamyat’.
But out of this cacophony of voices, one spoke with a particular clarity and seriousness: this was Memorial, set up to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s purges and document this especially dark chapter of the Soviet past. Its inspiration and first chairman was the dissident nuclear physicist, Andrei Sakharov, and its work was continued by his wife, Yelena Bonner, after his death in 1989.
More than 30 years on, Memorial’s two entities, International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, have been ordered to end their work after falling foul of Russia’s 2012 law on foreign agents. The judgments, from separate Moscow courts, prompted outcries from Memorial’s supporters in Russia, from the US State Department and ministries across Europe, and from the Council of Europe, which pleaded for the closures to be suspended while alternatives were explored.
There is a risk, however, that the chorus of denunciations, which have largely treated the orders to “liquidate” Memorial as an accomplished fact, leave the impression that these respected – and highly necessary – NGOs are doomed. All is not lost – yet.
The actual legal breach boils down to the two organisations’ understandable resistance to the requirement, under the 2012 law, not only to register as a “foreign agent”, but also to tag all their content and publications accordingly. This label is intended to signal that the organisation receives money from abroad, but of course the term “foreign agent” carries the same stigma as it would in any other country. The organisations were also taken to task for opaqueness in declaring their structures and sources of funding. It is possible that Memorial could yet place itself on the right side of the law without sacrificing either its principles or its unique and essential work.
The two organisations have announced their intention to appeal, and the order to close remains suspended until then. Its leaders also say that, while the court orders are a blow, “liquidation”, even if it happened, would not halt Memorial’s archival and research work, which could carry on legally. That remains to be seen.
But Memorial is no stranger to struggle. It had a difficult birth – like so much that is worth having in Russia then, and now. It was initially turned down for registration, before becoming an acknowledged presence not just in the discursive landscape of the fading USSR, but in the physical landscape of Moscow, with a simple rock, taken from the White Sea prison camp of Solovki, dedicated to “the victims of political represssion” and sited right in front of the Lubyanka.
Thereafter, Memorial went from strength to strength. After the break-up of the USSR, it became International Memorial, given its presence not just in Russia, but in other former Soviet states. It has an impressive research operation, with archives on the Gulag and, among other subjects, on the still-sensitive issue of the Ostarbeiter – Soviet citizens taken to Germany and its occupied territories as forced labour.
Without Memorial, it is hard to imagine that Moscow would now have the “Wall of Grief” – the monument to Stalin’s victims, on the city’s inner ringroad that was inaugurated in 2017 by President Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church – or the Gulag museum, or that the school curriculum would include sections of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’.
Its sister organisation, the Memorial Centre for Human Rights, focuses on contemporary rights issues, where it has an equally impressive record of campaigning – against Russia’s two Chechen wars, and taking up the case of persecuted minorities, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that of the imprisoned anti-corruption campaigner and opposition figure, Alexei Navalny.
It does not take much imagination to suspect that it was this work, perhaps more than the archival research, that has brought Memorial into conflict with the authorities. An ominous aspect of the court’s judgment was its apparent acceptance of prosecutors’ claims that the human rights centre’s work included “justififying extremism and terrorism”.
For all that, Memorial’s obituaries should not be written quite yet. But the campaigning should not be left to foreign governments and NGOs. The specific reason why these two affiliated organisations were hauled before the courts was that they receive, indeed rely on, foreign funding, notably from Germany and Canada. The purpose of the Foreign Agents’ Law – modelled so Russian officials often say, on the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – is to discourage, or at least make transparent, the presence of foreign money in domestic politics.
Why is it that Memorial, an organisation founded by Soviet-era dissidents to commemorate and document Russia’s own past, has to receive the bulk of its support from outside Russia? The pessimistic answer might be that too few Russians care about elucidating their past to support its work – and that includes super-rich exiles, who prefer buying football clubs to sponsoring truth-telling. Memorial’s claim to survival would be infinitely stronger if, 30 years after the Soviet collapse, it could call on more of its compatriots to make its case.
Mary Dejevsky is an Independent columnist on foreign affairs, having previously been the paper’s foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington.