Any discussion of the documentation of the crimes of the Soviet Union will inevitably involve Memorial, a Russian organization dedicated to uncovering and archiving the crimes of the Soviet Union. With a database of over 2.65 million names of the victims of Soviet repression, Memorial is the foremost authority in Russia on the lives and stories of those killed by the brutal communist regime. However, Memorial has been the target of substantial legal harassment in Putin’s Russia. A police raid in 2008 and lengthy legal battles over their designation as a “foreign agent” under a 2012 law has made Memorial’s work increasingly difficult. This harassment is part of Putin’s larger effort to suppress knowledge of Soviet crimes in a bid to centralize power.
On December 4, 2008, Memorial’s office in St. Petersburg was raided by masked policemen armed with truncheons who stole the organization’s hard drive collection, which took over twenty years to build. The police claimed that the raid was due to Memorial’s participation in an extremist newspaper called New Petersburg, which Memorial denied any involvement with. Many suspect that the real reason Memorial was raided was that it screened Rebellion: the Litvinenko Case, a film about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, which is banned in Russia. In response, Memorial challenged the government in court—and won. Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer representing Memorial, said that the attempt by prosecutors to link the organization with extremist literature was a clear attempt to discredit it.
This was not the end of Putin’s persecution of Memorial. In 2012, Putin approved a law which required nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register as “foreign agents” if they received funding from foreign sources and engaged in political activity—a term that received only the most nebulous definition. In 2014, when it saw that Russian NGOs were not going to voluntarily adopt this highly negative designation, the Russian legislature amended the law, giving the Justice Ministry the authority to unilaterally declare groups “foreign agents.”
Despite the Russian government’s claim that the label is a “mere formality,” the “foreign agent” name is a damaging smear. The same phrasing was used in Stalin’s time to refer to spies and traitors with foreign loyalties. Today’s connotations are the same. The designation makes it more difficult to receive funding and also stifles relationship-building with government agencies. Some NGOs have chosen to shut down rather than be branded “foreign agents.”
The Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow and its branches in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and the Komi region were put on the list of “foreign agents” in 2015. A few days later, the Memorial Human Rights Center received word that the Justice Ministry accused them of calling for regime change. The evidence put forward included Memorial’s criticisms of Putin’s involvement in Ukraine, its allegations that Russian troops were participating in the Ukraine conflict, and its accusation that the Russian government had used prosecuted protestors under bogus charges. Criticism of the government was being equated with calling for its overthrow. The St. Petersburg branch of Memorial was put on the “foreign agent” list for receiving funds—in some cases, one-time grants for research purposes—from the European Commission, the US National Endowment for Democracy, New College Oxford and Middlesex University, among others. Memorial’s international branch was added to the “foreign agents” list in 2016.
These attacks on one of Russia’s most important NGOs fit into a larger pattern. Dissident has written in the past about the falsification of history in Putin’s Russia. While Putin himself is not a communist, he wants to appropriate the power and prestige of the Soviet Union’s superpower past. He does not take kindly to people criticizing it. Moreover, exposure of Stalin’s tyranny highlights Putin’s own autocratic ways. Historical truth is no harmless thing in Putin’s Russia, and his blatant attacks on Memorial show the depths to which Putin will sink in order to bury it.
Want to read more about Memorial? Check out “The Origins of Memorial” to read about how this historic NGO began and “Old Wounds, New Memorials: the Last Address Project” to read about one of its recent initiatives.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation will be honoring Memorial at the Centennial Commemoration Dinner and Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom Ceremony on November 9. Please visit the Centennial Commemoration website for further details.