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"We Are Memorial." A makeshift shrine to the human rights center created by supporters in St. Petersburg.

The year in Russia is winding down with a spate of events that have alarmed many observers about the intentions of President Vladimir Putin and his government.

First, the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor blocked the website of OVD-Info, which among other things has served as a clearinghouse connecting detained protesters with defense attorneys.

Then, a court in the northern city of Petrozavodsk sentenced prominent historian Yury Dmitriyev to 15 years in prison on indecency charges that supporters say were fabricated in retribution for his research into the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin and the Soviet government.

Next, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the shutdown of Memorial International, an umbrella human rights and historical research NGO that has played a prominent civil society role since the days of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness.

Police officers outside the Moscow City Court on December 29, as it declared that the Memorial Human Rights Center must be liquidated.
Police officers outside the Moscow City Court on December 29, as it declared that the Memorial Human Rights Center must be liquidated.

The same day, police in Irkutsk, Tomsk, Arkhangelsk, Barnaul, and Saratov detained and questioned former local coordinators for imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

It is, in fact, simply returning to totalitarianism and taking a bulldozer to all living things.”
-- Journalist Zoya Svetova

One day later, on December 29, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Moscow Memorial Human Rights Center, the flagship project of Memorial International in Russia.

Writing specifically about the Memorial International closure, longtime liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky argued that it marked “the transition from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian one.” The decision, he added, shows that Putin’s government “has proclaimed itself the successor of the Stalinist and Soviet regime.”

Journalist Kristina Astafurova wrote: “We enter 2022 without Memorial, with hundreds of political prisoners, with torture in our prisons, with dozens of people forced to emigrate just in the last year (and how many more will leave?).”

The Russian government’s intense, yearlong crackdown on dissent, independent journalism, and public activism comes amid speculation about the future as Putin’s current presidential term approaches its conclusion in 2024. Last year, the government pushed through a massive raft of constitutional amendments, the most important of which allows Putin to seek two more six-year terms and possibly remain in office until 2036.

Last September, the ruling United Russia party was awarded a constitutional majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in controversial elections that saw genuine opposition almost entirely sidelined.

Navalny was detained upon his return to Russia in January after weeks of medical treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020 that he blames on Russian security agents acting at Putin’s behest. Two weeks later, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for a parole violation that he denies.

When a state tries to ban working on the memory [of state terror] and glorifies the organizer of that terror, it is clear in what direction it is moving.”
-- Journalist Dmitry Kolezev

Navalny’s regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation were branded “extremist” and shuttered, and his followers have been facing intensified persecution, pushing many of them to flee Russia.

“It is a fitting end to a year that began with Navalny’s imprisonment,” wrote journalist Dmitry Kolezev, who noted that Gorbachev had helped open Memorial, President Boris Yeltsin had been a member, and now Putin has shut it down. “Now it ends with this -- the destruction of Memorial…. When a state tries to ban working on the memory [of state terror] and glorifies the organizer of that terror, it is clear in what direction it is moving.”

Journalist and activist Zoya Svetova similarly wrote, in reaction to the decision to close Memorial International, that Putin’s government has “decided to untether itself and to stop imitating democracy.”

The technology of Russia’s future has been turned into the technology of Russia’s death.”
-- Activist Roman Popkov

“It is, in fact, simply returning to totalitarianism and taking a bulldozer to all living things,” she wrote.

The Russian state’s assault on dissent has brought about collateral damage as well by co-opting institutions that should be dispensing justice and protecting democracy into the crackdown, observers said. Author and journalist Aleksandr Minkin argued that it was not just true that the “Supreme Court liquidated Memorial,” but also that “Putin liquidated the Supreme Court.”

Likewise, the Grani.ru human rights website posted on Twitter that “the ‘judge’ read out Putin’s verdict on closing the Memorial Human Rights Center.”

In regard to the government’s order to block the OVD-Info website, some observers saved their harshest criticism for Russian Internet giant Yandex for carrying out the state's order to block the site.

Yandex “was once a brilliant Russian company" and "a source of national pride,” blogger and activist Roman Popkov wrote, arguing that it has been “transformed into an instrument of censorship.”

5 Things To Know About Why Russia Closed Memorial
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“The technology of Russia’s future has been turned into the technology of Russia’s death,” he added.

Opposition activist Denis Bilunov called the liquidation of Memorial International a “strong signal.”

“It is like nailing down the lid of a coffin,” he wrote on Facebook. “I have the feeling that Putin’s steam engine cannot be diverted or stopped.”

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time

Some of the photos compiled over decades of work by Russia's Memorial International, which was ordered to be "liquidated" by the country's Supreme Court on December 28.

A skull, perhaps dug up by hungry animals, next to a typical gulag grave marker in Kolyma, in Russia's Far East.
A skull, perhaps dug up by hungry animals, next to a typical gulag grave marker in Kolyma, in Russia's Far East.

This haunting 1990 photo of human remains near a Soviet labor camp is one of more than 800 images published online by Memorial International, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the countless innocents who were repressed during the Soviet era.

On December 28, Russia's Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, citing its alleged failure to mark several social-media posts with an official "foreign agent" status. Authorities in 2016 flagged Memorial for receiving funding from abroad.

The ruling caused widespread anger within Russia over what many see as an attempt to silence those who speak out about the atrocities carried out during their country's Soviet past.

A police building at a Tomsk labor camp in 1934. On the balcony are portraits of Soviet leader Josef Stalin (right) and Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a Polish-Soviet communist and secret police chief behind mass political killings known as the Red Terror. Slogans on the building include the phrase, "Only in the country of the Soviets is it possible to reform a person through labor."
A police building at a Tomsk labor camp in 1934. On the balcony are portraits of Soviet leader Josef Stalin (right) and Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a Polish-Soviet communist and secret police chief behind mass political killings known as the Red Terror. Slogans on the building include the phrase, "Only in the country of the Soviets is it possible to reform a person through labor."

The photo archive began at the inception of Memorial in 1989, when victims of the Soviet regime and their relatives began to donate images to the organization.

The stated goal of the archive is to "preserve the memory of the tragic pages in the history of our country, to collect historical evidence of the state terror and its victims, the resistance to the regime, and the difficult everyday life of the Soviet people."

A Kazakh Soviet official at a 1989 meeting to establish a Memorial branch in Nur-Sultan (then known as Tselinograd). The man reportedly shouted, "Go back to Moscow with your 'Memorial.'"
A Kazakh Soviet official at a 1989 meeting to establish a Memorial branch in Nur-Sultan (then known as Tselinograd). The man reportedly shouted, "Go back to Moscow with your 'Memorial.'"
Soviet police pose with a beluga whale they shot off Vaigach Island in 1930. A labor camp was set up that year on the island in the Arctic Ocean.
Soviet police pose with a beluga whale they shot off Vaigach Island in 1930. A labor camp was set up that year on the island in the Arctic Ocean.
A sign at an abandoned labor camp on Stalin's abortive Transpolar Mainline railway project. The sign reads, "Implementation of the fifth five-year plan will be a major step forward toward developing from socialism to communism."
A sign at an abandoned labor camp on Stalin's abortive Transpolar Mainline railway project. The sign reads, "Implementation of the fifth five-year plan will be a major step forward toward developing from socialism to communism."
A mugshot of a young woman under investigation in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison in 1949. Her fate is not mentioned in the original caption.
A mugshot of a young woman under investigation in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison in 1949. Her fate is not mentioned in the original caption.
Skulls of people shot dead who are presumed to have been prisoners in a concentration camp in Krasnoyarsk in the 1920s.
Skulls of people shot dead who are presumed to have been prisoners in a concentration camp in Krasnoyarsk in the 1920s.
Prisoners transport bricks in Tomsk in the 1930s.
Prisoners transport bricks in Tomsk in the 1930s.
Yulia Odintsova wears the first dress she sewed for herself, two years after being released from a labor camp. Odintsova was charged with 'anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation" and survived eight years in various forced-labor camps in Siberia before being released in 1952.
Yulia Odintsova wears the first dress she sewed for herself, two years after being released from a labor camp. Odintsova was charged with 'anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation" and survived eight years in various forced-labor camps in Siberia before being released in 1952.
Prisoners use a rudimentary rail system to transport logs outside a labor camp in the Leningrad region in the early 1930s.
Prisoners use a rudimentary rail system to transport logs outside a labor camp in the Leningrad region in the early 1930s.
A priest (left) and a peasant after their arrest in 1932 by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, for allegedly opposing the collectivization of the farming and logging industries in the northern Komi region.
A priest (left) and a peasant after their arrest in 1932 by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, for allegedly opposing the collectivization of the farming and logging industries in the northern Komi region.
A senior NKVD officer holds a book titled Basics Of Leninism in 1932.
A senior NKVD officer holds a book titled Basics Of Leninism in 1932.
A kennel for guard dogs at the Transpolar Mainline forced-labor project.
A kennel for guard dogs at the Transpolar Mainline forced-labor project.
Guards and other workers of a labor camp enjoy a holiday with their families in Karelia in 1940.
Guards and other workers of a labor camp enjoy a holiday with their families in Karelia in 1940.
Boots in an abandoned labor camp in Kolyma. The photo was made during a 2002 expedition to the camp, where prisoners once mined tin and uranium ore.
Boots in an abandoned labor camp in Kolyma. The photo was made during a 2002 expedition to the camp, where prisoners once mined tin and uranium ore.

After Memorial was ordered to be shut down on December 28, the organization released a statement vowing to continue its work, saying, "Memorial is more than an organization, even more than a just public movement. Memorial is the need felt by Russians to know the truth about our country's tragic past and the fate of millions of victims. There is no one who is capable of liquidating that need."

Memorial International is the parent organization of the Memorial Human Rights Center. On December 29, a Moscow court also ordered its closure, again due to alleged violations of the "foreign agent" legislation.

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