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An 'Ideological' Campaign: Kremlin Steps Up Pressure On Banned Human Rights Group Memorial

Supporters place candles and flowers at the Solovetsky Stone in St. Petersburg after Russia's Supreme Court ruled that Memorial must be liquidated for breaking the law on foreign agents, on December 28.

Russian law enforcement on March 21 carried out searches at the homes of at least eight members of the human rights organization Memorial, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Ukrainian and Belarusian activists last year, as well as at the organization's Moscow center. Many of the members were detained and questioned.

The investigation is the latest Kremlin assault on Memorial, which has spent decades exposing the crimes of the Soviet government -- particular during the era of dictator Josef Stalin -- against its own people. The organization was banned in Russia in December 2021 for purportedly violating the country's draconian laws on so-called foreign agents.

"Apparently now it has been decided to end everything," said journalist and activist Sergei Parkhomenko, noting that Memorial's researchers continued working after the ban under an informal project called Support For Political Prisoners -- Memorial. "They'll push some to leave the country and others will be imprisoned. Those who aren't broken by being imprisoned will be intimidated with some other horror."

"I think some people will definitely go to prison," he added. "They will be jailed in order to make an impression on others. But a lot of their members are elderly and not in the best of health. I hope they don't jail everyone, but they will definitely jail some people."

'Just A Pretext'

The latest probe into Memorial stems from a denunciation filed by a public organization called Veterans of Russia, which claimed some of the people included on Memorial's list of victims of Soviet political repression had been convicted of collaborating with the Nazis and never rehabilitated. Investigators have focused their query on three names on Memorial's list of millions of victims.

The accusation of "rehabilitating Nazism" is absurd, said Sergei Davidis, the co-chairman of Memorial who has left Russia because of the persecution.

Supporters and journalists gather outside a court building after a hearing of the Russian Supreme Court on the closure of Memorial, in Moscow on December 28, 2021.
Supporters and journalists gather outside a court building after a hearing of the Russian Supreme Court on the closure of Memorial, in Moscow on December 28, 2021.

"Even if there was some sort of mistake on Memorial's part and if the names of three people, among the millions on the list, shouldn't actually be there, that would not be a reason for a criminal case," Davidis told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "There would be no ‘rehabilitation of Nazism.' Clearly it would be a technical error caused by a lack of information -- and the government itself, which has closed all the archives and doesn't admit investigators to work with the documents, is responsible for any lack of information.

"Of course, [the accusation] is just a pretext," he said.

Aleksandr Verkhovsky is the head of the Sova rights monitoring center, which itself is facing a bid by the Justice Ministry to shut it down for allegedly violating the foreign agent laws.

"I believe they want to liquidate Memorial once and for all," Verkhovsky told RFE/RL, "because they continue their activity, and the government can't tolerate that. The accusations that have been presented are quite inept, but anything will work if the goal is to frighten people."

Memorial Co-Chairman Sergei Davidis says the accusations against the group are just a pretext.
Memorial Co-Chairman Sergei Davidis says the accusations against the group are just a pretext.

"Of course, Memorial is not just an organization, but a symbol of the suppression of human rights by the authorities," said Vyacheslav Bakhmin, chairman of the banned Moscow Helsinki Group and the Sakharov Center, another human rights and historical-memory organization that has been branded a foreign agent and is under growing pressure from the state. "Even after it was shut down, the activity of its former members really upset the authorities."

Russian law enforcement on March 21 also announced the opening of a criminal probe targeting Memorial head and longtime human rights activist Oleg Orlov, accusing him of "discrediting the armed forces" with his statements about Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

'No Immunity'

Davidis argues the actions of the state go beyond mere efforts to frighten activists. The criminal article on rehabilitating Nazism, he said, is "ideological" and intended to discredit Memorial in the public's eyes. He notes that no particular defendant has been named in the investigation and that it is not possible to determine which of the organization's thousands of activists over many years might have added the three names to Memorial's database.

"As I understand it, if it is not possible to determine the perpetrator, then there is no case," he said.

WATCH: Here are five things to know about why Russia closed the Memorial Human Rights Center in December 2021.

5 Things To Know About Why Russia Closed Memorial
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"This is a warning, a bid to wipe Memorial out of the public space and also an attempt to push those activists who remain in Russia out of the country," he added. "It is an attempt to discredit the very name Memorial in the eyes of the public, which has been conditioned to believe everything the government says and does."

Memorial emerged in 1987 out of widespread public discussion under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of the government's dark history of political repressions. Organizers sought to establish an organization that would create an archive and library of information related to the victims of Soviet repressions.

However, the research center they envisioned never materialized, and after Vladimir Putin -- a former officer in the Soviet KGB -- came to power in 2000, access to government archives was systematically restricted. Nonetheless, Memorial opened branches across the country and in other former Soviet countries, where volunteers uncovered and publicized available information about victims and recorded oral histories of those who had experienced the Stalin-era gulag.

They also searched for the graves of Soviet-era victims. Historian Yury Dmitriyev, the head of Memorial's office in Petrozavodsk, suffered years of criminal prosecution after he discovered the bodies of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Stalin's victims at Sandarmokh in the Karelia region. He is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence.

In 2014, Memorial was added to the govrnment's list of organizations purportedly acting as foreign agents. In December 2021, a Moscow court liquidated Memorial for allegedly violating the requirements of that designation.

In 2022, Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties and Ales Byalyatski, the jailed founder of the Belarusian rights group Vyasna.

"In Russia, that prize offered no immunity from repression," journalist Parkhomenko commented.

Written by RFE/RL feature writer Robert Coalson based on reporting by Current Time correspondent Yury Baranyuk. RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report