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Five Important Things That Memorial's Done (And Is Still Doing) For Russia

  • Daisy Sindelar

Founded in 1989 under the auspices of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, Memorial has led efforts to uncover communist-era repressions and fight discrimination in modern-day Russia.

Founded in 1989 under the auspices of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, Memorial has led efforts to uncover communist-era repressions and fight discrimination in modern-day Russia.

Russia's Justice Ministry has asked the country's Supreme Court to liquidate Memorial, the country's oldest and best-known human rights organization, which groups together more than 50 bodies nationwide.

Founded in 1989 under the auspices of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, Memorial has led efforts to uncover communist-era repressions and fight discrimination in modern-day Russia.

Here are some of the group's most vital achievements:

1. Exposing The Scope Of The Great Terror
Memorial's founding goal was to acknowledge, and document, the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism, which accounted for the deaths of an estimated 15 million-20 million people. Memorial began by erecting, in 1990, a monument dedicated to the victims of political repression. The so-called Solovki Stone -- a slab of rock taken from a Soviet labor camp in the White Sea's Solovetsky Islands -- stands on Lubyanka Square, the site of the headquarters of the KGB and its current successor, the FSB. Memorial also played an essential role in the 1991 passage of a law on rehabilitating victims of political repression and the creation of an annual day of remembrance on October 30. The group has helped countless Russians and others discover the fate of relatives who died or vanished under the communist regime, building over 20 years what is thought to be the country's most comprehensive database of victims, with more than 2.65 million names. In 2008, police raided Memorial's St. Petersburg office, confiscating the group's entire digital archive. The database has been restored, part of the group's exhaustive online resources.

2. Defending Defenders In The North Caucasus
Memorial's Human Rights Center, open since 1991, has been one of the leading rights watchdogs in the North Caucasus, opening an office in Grozny in 2000, when thousands of civilians were falling victim to kidnappings, torture, and so-called "sweeping-up" operations by both Russian federal forces and local militia groups. Memorial was forced to close its Grozny office after the 2009 slaying of activist and board member Natalya Estemirova, who was personally investigating "hundreds" of highly sensitive cases of kidnapping and murder. Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial HRC, was sued for defamation after accusing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of orchestrating Estemirova's assassination, but was eventually acquitted. At a time when virtually no independent voices remain in Chechnya, Memorial continues to publish near-daily bulletins on human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, including the recent arrest and beating of one of Chechnya's last remaining activists, Ruslan Kutayev.

3. Keeping The Past Alive
It's easy to say "Never forget." Doing it is another matter. At a time when Stalin's political legacy is gaining in popularity, Memorial has made public education a key aspect of its mission. In addition to sponsoring numerous films and documentaries highlighting totalitarian crimes, the group offers regular "terror tours" of Moscow's Lubyanka district, reminding audiences of the brutal efficiency of the Soviet regime's secret police and the continued failure of Vladimir Putin's Russia to account for the repressions of the past. Ivan Voronin of RFE/RL's Russian Service followed Memorial guide Pavel Gnilorybov through a recent tour of Moscow's notorious Lubyanka neighborhood.

4. Fighting Xenophobia
In 2003, Memorial announced the creation of an antidiscrimination center (ADC) aimed initially at promoting the rights of Russia's Romany population. The first bulletin issued by ADC Memorial trumpeted an innovative elementary school in St. Petersburg's Pushkin district that had successfully integrated Romany children into its classrooms with the help of an on-staff psychologist and an emphasis on cultural diversity. Since then, the group has broadened its scope to include the plight of labor migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus. In a 2012 study submitted to the UN, the Petersburg-based center alleged that Roma and migrants were routinely subjected to police torture. Prosecutors used the report as a pretext to launch a suit against ADC Memorial the following year, when it became the first major Russian NGO to receive a liquidation order for failing to register as a foreign agent. The center continues to operate, most recently focusing on Russian persecution of ethnic Tatars in Crimea and hosting roundtable talks on racism in soccer ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

5. Standing Up For Critics
Throughout its existence, Memorial has provided legal and moral support to jailed government opponents in Russia and the post-Soviet neighborhood, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Aleksei Navalny, Belarus's Ales Byalyatski, and Andrei Barabanov, Aleksei Gaskarov, and other participants in 2012's Bolotnaya Square protests. Memorial also maintains a closely watched list of political prisoners -- the latest additions include Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko -- and has penned open letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin stating its objections to the war in Ukraine.

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