MOSCOW -- They came, they say, to clear the debris-strewn cemetery of an abandoned village once inhabited by Lithuanians exiled to the area under Josef Stalin, and to honor the memory of deceased relatives. They're now charged, authorities say, with defacing the area and flouting Russian migration laws.
Prosecutors in the Perm region have launched criminal charges against members of a commemorative expedition organized this month by Memorial, a Russian NGO that documents victims of Stalin-era repression and hosts regular trips to sites of memory across the country.
"We're shocked. Really shocked," Vladas Ulinskas, a Lithuanian member of the group, told local media.
According to Robert Latypov, who heads Memorial's Perm branch and in 2000 founded the expedition series, called Along The Rivers Of Memory, volunteers traverse the region each summer seeking out places where people exiled as part of Stalin-era deportations lived. They put up crosses, small obelisks, and erect plaques detailing what little is known of those settlements and the people who populated them in the 1940s and 1950s.
This year, a group of 10 people -- five Lithuanians, four Russians, and an Italian -- traveled to the village of Galyashor with a similar aim. Several hundred ethnic Lithuanians settled in and around Galyashor after Stalin deported thousands from territories seized by the Soviet Union following the defeat of Nazi Germany. In the 1950s, the Lithuanians began leaving the village, and in 1974 it was abandoned.
The volunteers, Latypov said, spent several days clearing the area around a local cemetery outside Galyashor that had been affected by recent storms. They removed rotten trees, mowed the grass, raised collapsed headstones, and interviewed elderly inhabitants of other villages about their interactions with the erstwhile Lithuanian exiles. It was the fifth such expedition organized in Perm this summer.
"The previous four trips passed without a hitch," Latypov said in a telephone interview. "We also had international groups, we also conducted interviews, we also put up memorial signs. Authorities never placed obstacles in our way -- they even thanked us."
But this trip was different.
On the final day of the clean-up operation, as the group prepared to return for the night to the nearby village of Velva-Baza, Latypov said a group of policemen, customs officers, and officials from the Perm Environment Ministry arrived at the site to question them about their activities.
The following morning, they came to Velva-Baza to charge one of the group's members with illegally felling trees, a crime punishable by up to three years in jail. Another, a local pensioner called Leonid Ladanov, was charged with violating customs regulations by registering one of the Lithuanians at his home, while the individual ended up staying the night elsewhere. Under Russian law, "bogus registration of a foreign citizen" carries a potential three-year sentence.
"This was clearly a setup," Latypov told RFE/RL. "The authorities decided this expedition should be stopped, and that someone should be punished."
Established in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Memorial is now supported by a range of major international NGOs regularly attacked by the Russian government as fronts for a purported Western campaign to destabilize Russia. Memorial itself has long been portrayed by state media as working to undermine patriotism among Russian youth and discredit the country. In recent years, it has been declared a "foreign agent" by the Kremlin and subjected to burdensome inspections and restrictions on its work.
As the Russian government stands accused of seeking to downplay the history of Stalinist repressions in favor of advancing a positive narrative of the Soviet role in World War II, the NGO's activists across the country have faced an atmosphere of growing hostility toward their work from local authorities.
In Chechnya, Memorial activist Oyub Titiyev was arrested last year on drug-possession charges that the NGO said were trumped up to circumscribe his human rights work in Russia's North Caucasus. He was granted early release in June after receiving a four-year jail sentence earlier this year.
And in Karelia, the head of Memorial's chapter is being tried on charges of sexual abuse against his adopted daughter that supporters say are fabricated. Yury Dmitriyev discovered a Stalin-era execution site in the region in 1997; as he languishes in remand prison, the area is now being excavated by authorities in a bid to rewrite its origins and, critics allege, dilute its place in the broader history of Stalin's repressions.
Latypov said he had few doubts that the pressure against Memorial's Perm chapter is an effort to shut down his expedition series, and "is connected to a broader effort to pressure Memorial and interfere with our work."
In comments to the Russian daily Kommersant, the Perm authorities denied that they were obstructing the activities of Memorial and other civil-society groups. "But the work should not violate the norms of Russian law," a representative said.