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A Quarter Century Of Rights Activism: Memorial Turns 25

A woman walks past graffiti saying "Foreign agents [love the] USA" on the building used by the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow in November 2012.
A woman walks past graffiti saying "Foreign agents [love the] USA" on the building used by the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow in November 2012.
MOSCOW -- Memorial, one of Russia's most venerable human rights and history organizations, is 25 years old.

Memorial began as a group of Soviet-era dissidents, including Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, that formed during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s. It came into existence as a formal organization when a few hundred activists met at a founding convention on January 26-28, 1989.

From these humble beginnings, Memorial has developed into one of Russia's flagship rights groups.

Memorial's 83-year-old chairman, Sergei Kovalyov, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the group's original focus was on rehabilitating the victims of political repressions in the Soviet Union and keeping their memory alive.

"What is Memorial? It's a memorial to the victims of political repressions," he said. "No one wanted to recognize them. At the time Memorial was organized, no one from the authorities intended to recognize that there [were] these repressions."

The group has amassed an exhaustive archive of Soviet records and documents that have become an invaluable resource to historians. Memorial was instrumental in the laying of a commemorative monument to the victims of the Gulag in 1990 on Moscow's Lubyanka Square in front of KGB headquarters.
Sergei Kovalev
Sergei Kovalev

In the early 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, Kovalyov entered politics, winning election to the Russian Supreme Soviet and its successor legislature, the State Duma. He chaired President Boris Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission and served as the State Duma's human rights commissioner.

With Memorial's assistance, he also successfully pushed through a landmark law on "rehabilitating victims of political repression."

Since then, Memorial’s rights work has taken it across Russia, including the restive North Caucasus, which has been rocked by two wars in Chechnya, and is sandwiched between iron-fisted local leaders and a militant Islamist insurgency.

Sometimes this work has come at a high price. In 2009, an activist with the group, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, and found dead the next day in the neighboring region of Ingushetia. The case has never been solved.

Prominent Memorial member Oleg Orlov has publicly accused Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's pro-Kremlin leader, of being behind Estemirova's killing. Kadyrov tried to sue Orlov for slander, but Orlov was acquitted by a Moscow court in 2011.

A quarter of a century since its founding, Memorial once again finds itself at loggerheads with the authorities, this time over new legislation requiring it and other groups that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents." The term is deeply derogatory in Russia as it implies seditious activity.

In late 2012, one of Memorial’s Moscow offices was daubed with graffiti that read: "Foreign agent [loves the] USA."

Memorial has resisted complying with the law. In December, a court in St. Petersburg ruled that the organization's local antidiscrimination division -- which assists victims of discrimination and xenophobia in Russia’s second city -- must register as a foreign agent.

Memorial intends to appeal the ruling, which it calls an attack on the organization's civil liberties.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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