On December 28 and 29, Russian courts ordered the closure of International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center, pushing ahead with an intense clampdown on civil society by seeking to shutter an organization that has worked with dogged determination to expose the Soviet state’s crimes against the people and shine a light on abuses in Russia today.
RFE/RL looks at seven people whose work displays the breadth, depth, and impact of the organization the state is shutting down.
Arseny Roginsky: Memory And The State
Historian and human rights activist Arseny Roginsky was born in the town of Velsk, Arkhangelsk Oblast, where his father, a Soviet engineer, had been exiled during Stalin’s purges.
In the 1970s, the younger Roginsky published samizdat materials; in the 1980s, he served four years in prison for his dissident activities. The official charge was “falsification of documents.” He was rehabilitated in 1992.
He became a founding member of Memorial in 1989, when he joined a grouping that was looking for ways to record the oral histories of those who had survived the purges. He became chairman of Memorial in 1998, and he worked there until his death in 2017.
Here is what Roginsky said about Memorial’s role in preserving the memory of the purges:
“Everyone feels for the victims of terror. Some mayor, or even some governor, feels for the victims of terror. President [Vladimir] Putin feels for innocent victims. Ordinary people also feel for innocent victims. It’s like when everyone lights candles in church. But whose terror was it? Who committed it? If we don’t understand that, nothing will go beyond the mourning ribbon of sympathy.
"This is what neither ordinary people, nor governors, nor presidents think about. So, who was behind the terror in our view? And who was behind the terror from the point of view of all those people expressing their sympathy?
'It’s not clear if you look at it through their eyes. It’s like an epidemic in the Middle Ages. The mass consciousness perceives the source of terror as if it were an epidemic: We were living our lives and then a plague came, and many people died -- and then the plague left, and we lived on. But it wasn’t like that. Memorial gives a simple answer: It was terror committed by the state against the people.”
Sergei Kovalyov: 'Their Lives Were Important To Us'
A Soviet dissident who later became a Russian lawmaker, Sergei Kovalyov was a speaker at a rally of the victims of political terror in the Druzhba park on Moscow’s outskirts in 1988. That rally, followed by a petition to erect a monument to the victims of Stalin’s terror, marked the start of Memorial.
Kovalyov was its head for a while; in 1994, he became Russia’s first human rights commissioner. Before that, he wrote Article 2 of the Russian Constitution -- on the rights and freedom of man and citizen -- as well as the law On Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression. In 1993, he was elected to the State Duma and was a lawmaker for 10 years. He pointedly quit the post of human rights commissioner in 1996, in protest against the use of the Russian Army in Chechnya and President Boris Yeltsin's policies of force.
Kovalyov died in 2021. Current Time filmed him talking in 2020 about the events of 1995 in a hospital in Budyonnovsk where he, together with other rights activists, voluntarily traded himself for 1,500 hostages taken by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.
“The main official objective [of the authorities] was to defeat Basayev’s gang at all costs; that was the only thing that mattered to them. This meant winning by assault. Assault, whatever the cost. The fate of a huge number of hostages was not taken into consideration -- that’s the standard Soviet way.
"Our reasoning was different. To us, the lives of the hostages were important. But what to do? The idea was to reach a coordinated decision that would value the lives of hostages. There were three sides taking this decision: [Prime Minister] Viktor Chernomyrdin, Shamil Basayev, and Sergei Kovalyov. Obviously, each one had a team behind them.
“We needed to reach a compromise to save the lives of hostages, and for that a big price had to be paid: letting Basayev and his troops leave intact. If you prioritize the lives of hostages, it’s a natural plan, and I think the only reasonable and humane one -- because there were many hostages and there would have been many victims in case of military assault on the hospital. There was no other peaceful solution. No other bloodless solution.
“[The hostage crisis in Budyonnovsk] is rarely remembered today. The reliability of memories depends on many factors. The biggest one is the atmosphere in the country. Let’s be straightforward about it: This government is not just far from democratic principles, it’s the opposite of them. It deliberately resists them.”
Oleg Orlov: Work In The Caucasus
Oleg Orlov became a rights activist at the end of the 1970s, making leaflets protesting the war in Afghanistan. In 1995, he accompanied Sergei Kovalyov in Budyonnovsk during the negotiations, and later on the bus with the volunteer hostages.
When the second Chechen war began in 1999, Orlov became head of Memorial in the North Caucasus. From that moment on, for over two decades, the main direction of the work of rights activists in the region, particularly in Chechnya, has been the struggle against extrajudicial executions and abductions.
In 2006, Orlov left his seat on the human rights commission to protest Putin’s remark that the murder of Novaya gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya had damaged Russia more than her publications did. In 2007, Orlov and three REN-TV journalists were kidnapped in Ingushetia; they were taken to a field and threatened with death. In 2011, the investigation into this case was closed.
Since 2009, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been engaged in a legal battle with Orlov, who publicly held him responsible for the murder of rights activist Natalya Estemirova. Orlov lost his case in civil court (although the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his right to freedom of speech was infringed upon) but was acquitted of a libel charge in criminal court. Kadyrov has appealed the verdict.
Recently, Orlov has been helping the suspects in the Ingushetia protests case. He helped defend Zarifa Sautiyeva, who has been sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. (Male defendants received sentences of up to 10 years.) Orlov maintains that those convicted in the case were trying to stop the violence after police began disbanding a peaceful rally against giving away land to Chechnya.
“The federal government has clearly decided that there should be no more games of democracy in Ingushetia,” Orlov said. “[In 2019] big rallies were held peacefully without any disruption. At the same time, similar rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg were violently suppressed. So why allow democracy and freedom in Ingushetia? It should be suppressed, too. And then what happened, happened. The situation was clearly used to destroy any opposition.
“But it was the opposition leaders on the square [in Ingushetia’s capital, Magas] who persuaded the young men to stop resisting and leave. Yet, this event became an excuse for starting political repressions in the region. Opposition leaders have been framed. There’s a list of names in almost every paragraph of the charges: Barakhoyev, Sautiyeva, Pogorov, and so forth. Allegedly, they called for violence and were guided by political hatred toward the authorities of Ingushetia. But their actions were nothing but a legitimate public and political activity. What they did on the square in Magas was stop the escalation of violence.”
Natalya Estemirova: Death In The Caucasus
A schoolteacher from Grozny, Natalya Estemirova became a rights activist shortly before the second Chechen war. In 2000, she joined Memorial. She’d go to villages and gather information about kidnappings, killings, accidental victims of “counterterrorism operations.” She demanded access to detention facilities and fought for the rights of inmates. She collaborated closely with Anna Politkovskaya and accompanied her in 2005 when she visited Ramzan Kadyrov at his residence for an interview for Novaya gazeta.
After Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, Estemirova started reporting for Novaya gazeta about the events in Chechnya; those reports were bylined Memorial. She was killed in the summer of 2009. She was kidnapped outside her home in Grozny, and later that night her body was found in Ingushetia. Her 15-year-old daughter, Lana, became an orphan.
Here is what Natalya Estemirova said about the changing conditions for women in Chechnya in one of her rare, filmed interviews, in 2009:
“There is a new problem, the situation of women. Previously, the conditions were hard for everyone, but now the regime takes advantage of women by humiliating them. Females must now wear head scarves in all state institutions, from a primary school to a public office. We are told it’s a way to preserve traditions. That’s a lie. Traditionally, both men and women must have their heads covered, but we don’t see men forced to do it, only women. Young security guards are eager to reprimand women [for not wearing a head scarf] even if the women are older, which contradicts Chechen traditions. If anything, you cannot reprove a woman who is not [a relative].
"So instead of preserving Chechen traditions, we see them being destroyed and inequality introduced in the society. This enables some men, particularly those with confidence issues, to take it out on successful women who can provide for their families and make a career: These men say that women are inferior, that they can be told, ‘Do that and not that,’ and no one will argue with that.”
Yury Dmitriyev: 'The Goal Was Simple: To Bury Them Like Human Beings'
At the end of the 1980s, regional offices of Memorial appeared across the U.S.S.R., many of them in Russia. These were not official branches of some legal body, but rather associations of like-minded people who wanted to talk about the terror, restore the memory of repressions, and rehabilitate the victims.
The office of Memorial in the Karelia Oblast capital of Petrozavodsk was established by a former police investigator, Ivan Chukhin. He was soon joined by his friend Yury Dmitriyev. They started making the list of terror victims in Karelia and looked for the burial sites.
In 1997, Dmitriyev found the bodies of people executed by firing squad in Sandarmokh. Not only did he find their mass grave, exhume the remains, and rebury them, but he also restored the name of each one of the 6,241 people killed. After days spent in archives and in the woods with a spade in his hands, Dmitriyev, a factory worker, turned into a local history expert and a public figure.
This is his recollection of the first excavation and reburial:
“What we saw was an excavator that had stopped, guys from the prosecution office, a police investigator, and municipal officers of all ranks. There were about 15 of us there standing around, not knowing what to do about the discovery. I’d gone to medical school and knew some anatomy, so judging by bone pattern, I concluded where the head was. I took a skull out, brushed it, and saw a hole in the back. Those people had been shot.
"So, what do we do? [Someone said:] “Let’s dig them back in! Who cares?” I said: ‘Guys, what do you mean "dig them back in"? What about burying them?’ ‘It’s none of our business.’ They were just standing there, looking at each other. It’s a common state for some men: idling about, not wanting to take up any additional work. [So I said:] ‘If you don’t give a damn, I’ll do it.’
“I went there for several weekends, collecting the bones, putting them in bags, and taking them to garages. I made friends with a tractor driver, and once he called me and said, ‘There are more bones uncovered in a quarry.’ I went to pick them up. I found some more things: mugs, glasses, underwear, and so forth. I got covered by landslides a couple of times -- and digging out was not easy. The idea of finding out who these people were and why they were executed came later. At first, there was a simple goal: to bury them like human beings.
"Once I found a shoe with a loose galosh. There was a piece of newspaper shoved behind the heel to stop the galosh from squishing. I took that piece of evidence to the prosecutor’s office, but they said: ‘It’s illegible.’ I took a sable brush and baby soap and spent two weeks over that piece of paper before the text reappeared. Then I went to the library to identify the newspaper. It was Krasnaya Karelia from September 1937.”
Dmitriyev made Sandarmokh an international memorial site visited by people from Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania. According to one theory, the criminal case lodged against him had something to do with the fact that, despite all warnings, he kept looking for the names of executioners in the archives and invited Western politicians to Sandarmokh.
In 2016, Dmitriyev was charged with taking pornographic images of his 11-year-old foster daughter. He denies it, saying that the photographs were taken at the insistence of social workers in order to monitor the girl’s development. Neither his relatives nor his colleagues believe he is guilty.
In 2018, he was acquitted and freed for a short period of time before the prosecutor’s appeal was supported by a court. Dmitriyev was additionally charged with sexual violence, sentenced to 3 1/2 years of prison, and then charged again with producing child pornography and sentenced on December 27 to 15 years in total. As the alleged victim was a minor, all the court hearings were closed. Only Dmitriyev’s lawyer was allowed to study the case. So far, Yury Dmitriyev has spent five years in jail.
Nikita Petrov: Biographer Of Executioners
A holder of a degree in chemistry, Nikita Petrov took part in the seminars of the recently established Memorial at the end of the 1980s. In 1990, he became deputy head of the Memorial research and education center. Petrov visited archives and researched periodicals before becoming a professional historian. He was invited as an expert on the Communist Party case at the Constitutional Court and supervised the filing of KGB and Communist Party archives after the collapse of Soviet Union.
As a historian, he specializes in the security services, particularly the Soviet NKVD and KGB, and is regarded as a leading expert in that sphere by his colleagues. In 2008, he received a PhD in history from the University of Amsterdam. Based on his archive findings, he writes biographies of the executioners, saying that “negative information is something you should share with people.”
His most renowned books include Stalin's Loyal Executioner: People's Commissar Nikolai Yezhov and The Executioners: They Followed Stalin’s Orders.
Petrov fights for declassifying some archive cases. This is how he described the position of the Federal Security Service (FSB) on classified documents in an interview with Mediazona in 2016:
“We still don’t have access to the internal documents and reports about mass arrests. They are stored in the state security service archives, so now they are FSB archives. Under Yeltsin’s 1992 decree on the declassification of documents related to mass repressions and human rights violations, these documents must be declassified. But, in fact, only a small portion of them have been declassified.
“Without those documents, you cannot tell a consistent story of the mass repressions and violations of human rights. There are isolated facts and documents, but not the full picture.
"Everything related to the work of agents is classified to avoid disclosing their code names and real names. The FSB also classifies everything related to foreign-policy activities and intelligence. Operational materials are classified, too. You can study those that remained in Ukraine. But the FSB thinks that researchers shouldn’t know the methods of security services. They don’t even hide it. They say, 'Not much has changed there.' It sounds wild, barbarous, and contrary to our laws -- but it’s still being said.”
Irina Shcherbakova: 'Hear Their Lives Out'
A founding member of Memorial, Irina Shcherbakova is responsible for the educational activities of the foundation. She is one of the curators of the current exhibition Women’s Memories Of The Gulag. She designed a school course -- called Man In History. Russia 20th Century -- that teaches teenagers to work with sources, analyze the past, and talk about the events of the past.
Shcherbakova is a historian and philologist. In 2017, she was awarded the Enlightener Prize for her book The Sign Won’t Wear Off about the people who were brought to Germany in the 1940s as forced workers and were afraid to talk about their experiences for decades after the end of World War II.
Impressed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Journey Into The Whirlwind, Shcherbakova started recording the memories of repressed women in the late 1970s, years before Memorial was founded.
“I had an instinctive understanding that I needed to hear their lives out,” she said. “I started with women from the Kolyma labor camp. It was particularly interesting because of Ginzburg’s text. They all referred to that text. I’d ask: ‘What do they remember about her? What kind of relations did they have?’ Kolyma is the scariest place of all: hell. Shalamov’s camp prose was less well known then, but those women understood it very well.
“There were recurring scenes from the investigation stage [of their ordeals] in their stories. I remember some extraordinary cases: The wife of a Kazakh prosecutor was let out of prison and given clothes and makeup to have a date with him. She was supposed to pretend that she hadn’t been arrested so he would believe her and testify.
“Many stories were similar, so sometimes you felt like a spectator watching a children's play and knowing what’s going to happen next. ‘It’s not your granny, it’s a wolf! Don’t go there, he’ll eat you!’ They would tell their stories, and I already knew what would await them as the wives of “enemies of the people.”