MOSCOW – Russia’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the country’s largest human rights organization should shut down, signaling President Vladimir V. Putin’s long-standing determination to control the narrative of some of the most painful and painful chapters. most repressive in Russian history.
The court ordered the liquidation of Memorial International, which chronicled the harrowing persecutions in the infamous Stalinist-era labor camps in an effort to preserve the memory of its victims. The group, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents more than three decades ago, has become a symbol of the country’s nascent democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The move comes after a year of widespread crackdown on opposition in Russia as the Kremlin has acted aggressively to quell dissent – in the news media, in religious groups, on social networks and especially among activists and political opponents, hundreds of whom have been harassed, imprisoned or forced into exile.
The closure of Memorial is also another step in Mr. Putin’s efforts to recast Russia’s legacy into a series of glorious achievements and soften the image of the often brutal Soviet regime. As the state opened a comprehensive Gulag history museum in Moscow and Mr Putin laid flowers on a new monument to victims of Soviet repression, the increasingly emboldened Kremlin took aggressive steps to remove alternative interpretations of Russian history by organizations it does not control.
In particular, Mr Putin is eager to convince the Russians that their country is surrounded by enemies who wish to oversee its demise, a tactic he recently adopted in demanding that NATO ensure that it does not expand further. east to Russia. As such, the Kremlin wants the Russian public to focus on foreign enemies rather than crimes committed by local dictators.
In recent years, Mr. Putin has shown a keen interest in shaping the interpretation of Russian history, publishing his views in lengthy articles on the Soviet Union’s key contribution to victory over Nazism and “l ‘historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. His point of view includes a renunciation of democratic measures taken in the 1990s, which included reform, self-criticism, and social and economic upheaval.
The hearing drew dozens of protesters outside the courthouse, and subsequently families of those affected by Stalin’s crackdowns and opposition figures expressed outrage, pointing to the worsening level. of repression under Mr. Putin.
Ilya Miklashevsky, 65, whose father and grandfather were both jailed in the gulag, said Memorial’s closure represented “another step down”, adding that “the country is slowly collapsing” .
Sergei Mitrokhin, a Russian opposition politician, said Memorial was “the last obstacle on the way to the complete stalinization of society and the state”.
“What we have now is still light Stalinism,” he said, speaking on Ekho Moskvy, a radio station. “I’m afraid it will get a lot worse. It is a tragedy for our country.
Memorial International oversees archives of victims of Soviet persecution, mainly during the Gulag era, the forced labor camps where Russians were imprisoned in harsh and debilitating conditions. Its database contains more than three million names, or no more than a quarter of all victims, according to the organization’s estimates.
Memorial’s lawyers dismissed all charges against the group as unfounded and called its persecution “politically motivated.” In a statement, Memorial said its members intend to “find legal ways” to continue their work.
Jan Z. Raczynski, chairman of the board of Memorial International, said the group intended to appeal the decision and would be allowed to operate for at least a month while the appeal was in progress. instance. It is not known what will happen to Memorial’s archives and other physical objects, including those he exhibits in an underground museum in Moscow.
In a separate hearing on Wednesday, the Moscow City Court will rule on the closure of the Memorial Human Rights Center, which lists current political prisoners in Russia. The center is accused of “justifying terrorist activities” by including members of banned religious organizations on the list.
The list includes Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, who was poisoned in a clandestine operation allegedly organized by Russian special services. In Siberia on Tuesday, authorities raided the homes of two regional leaders of Mr. Navalny’s political movement, described as “extremists” by a Russian court in June.
Mr Raczynski said Russian authorities seek to whitewash Soviet history and the prosecutor directly addressed historical issues in arguments before the Supreme Court, although the case ostensibly concerned a violation of the law on foreign agents. .
The legal push, he said, was aimed at shutting down both Memorial’s historical research into Soviet repressions and current human rights advocacy. The two branches of the group’s work are linked, he said, and both are now “seen as undermining the authority of government.”
Criticism of Soviet policies, he said, runs counter to the current government’s “propagandistic concept that” our government has always been good.
“There is an old, banal formula that anyone who does not know the past is doomed to repeat it,” Mr. Raczynski said. “The situation of the last decade shows that we are moving in this direction. “
In another signal of the state’s efforts to block Memorial, a Russian court on Monday extended the tenure of Yuri Dmitriev, a historian who chaired the group’s regional office in Karelia, to 15 years from 13 years. Mr Dmitriev, who discovered mass graves resulting from Stalin’s brutalities, was convicted of sexually abusing his adopted daughter, a charge he denied.
The judge’s ruling on Tuesday cited what she called repeated violations of the Foreign Agent Law. Adopted in 2012, the measure has been criticized by the country’s opposition as a vehicle intended by the Russian state to quell dissent. It orders all organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in loosely defined political activity to label themselves as “foreign agents,” a designation that carries the stigma of being in the pay of foreign governments.
The law imposes onerous requirements on named persons, including extensive financial disclosures. Memorial executives say they have done everything possible to comply with the demands, even though they consider the law unconstitutional.
Memorial’s executive director Yelena Zhemkova said mistakes are possible in her gargantuan task of keeping a casualty register, but they are “always corrected”.
“What Memorial is doing represents 33 years of hard work by many, many people,” Zhemkova told the court. “We are working for the good of our people and our country. ”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Aleksei Zhafyarov, the prosecutor, said that Memorial had “only speculated on the subject of political repression”, but in reality was trying to portray the Soviet Union as “a state terrorist ”and aimed at“ rehabilitating Nazi criminals ”.
Mr Zhafyarov’s statements echoed earlier comments by Mr Putin, who called Memorial “one of the most reputable organizations” in a meeting with his human rights council this month. , but also accused him of glorifying the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Mr. Raczynski, chairman of Memorial’s board of directors, said the state’s arguments were specious.
“The attorney general said that we were trying to portray the Soviet Union as a terrorist organization,” he said. “Well, we don’t have to try. The Soviet Union was a terrorist organization. In no other country have so many citizens been imprisoned on false political charges.