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Russia: the liquidation of the Memorial NGO, a new blow for civil society

Putin’s Russia does not want to remember the crimes of the USSR. The Supreme Court judgment fell on Tuesday, on a freezing winter day: Memorial, created during perestroika, must be dissolved and put into liquidation. The NGO for human rights and for preserving the memory of victims of Soviet crimes (but also that of civilians killed during the Chechen wars) is in fact guilty of “repeated violations” of the law on the status of “police officers. abroad “.

This disturbing term refers to a law dating from 2012 which makes it possible to stigmatize any organization carrying out a “political activity” and receiving support from abroad, financial or moral, by designating it as a “foreign agent”. This infamous status is accompanied by heavy accounting and legal constraints.

Above all, it obliges “foreign agents” to preface the least of their “publications” with a paragraph in block letters which states the following sentence: “This content was created or broadcast by a foreign media or having function of foreign agent and / or a legal person having the function of foreign agent “. A presentation which aims of course to create a cordon sanitaire around an NGO or a media by frightening its potential partners or advertisers.

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The terms of the law are intentionally vague: almost everyone can be targeted and fall into the category of “foreign agent” at the whim of the Russian authorities. This is the case, among others, of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the association for helping detainees OVD-Info as well as certain independent media such as TV Rain or Meduza.

A highly respected organization

As early as 2014, Memorial found itself in the sights of power. Highly respected, the organization was founded in 1988 at a time when KGB archives were gradually opening, allowing the people to know the truth about a hidden part of its history, that of the Soviet repressions and their millions of innocent victims. Under the patronage of the nobelized physicist and dissident Andreï Sakharov, Memorial brings together historians who are working to collect documents, testimonies, and shed light on this past.

Le président russe Vladimir Poutine pendant la conférence annuelle du ministère de la Défense à Moscou, le 21 décembre 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Defense Ministry’s annual conference in Moscow, December 21, 2021

afp.com/Sergei GUNEYEV

In the following decades, archaeological fieldwork completed the meticulous work of historians in the ex-KGB archives. Memorial also organizes exhibitions and conferences, publishes books and films. Become the chronicler of the dark Soviet past, Memorial reconstructs the threads of the past and gives a name to the victims of repression and a meaning to their disappearance.

In the forests of Karelia, in the north of the country, the historian Yourï Dmitriev, member of the association, updates the mass graves of thousands of victims of summary executions at the hands of the Stalinist political police. In Moscow, Memorial contributes to the “Last Address” project, small metal plaques installed near the doors of buildings and bearing the name, occupation, date of birth and date of death of a victim of Stalinist repressions formerly living in this area. address.

Over the years, its activity has diversified. In addition to documenting the crimes of the Soviet period, there is the opening of a “human rights center”, which works on civilian victims of the Chechen wars and draws up a list of Russian political prisoners.

These activities help to put Memorial in the crosshairs of the Kremlin. In Moscow, the events organized by Memorial are regularly disrupted by big ultranationalist arms, more or less openly subject to power. Representative of the association in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova was assassinated in 2009. In a completely fabricated affair, the historian Yurï Dmitriev is accused of pedophilia. Subject to a Kafkaesque judicial procedure, he has just been sentenced to fifteen years of internment in a camp with severe regimes.

Un partisan de Memorial devant le tribunal de Moscou où l'ONG russe accusée de diverses infractions joue sa survie, le 23 décembre 2021

A supporter of Memorial in front of the Moscow court where the Russian NGO accused of various offenses are playing for survival, December 23, 2021

afp.com/Vasily MAXIMOV

On November 12, the Russian prosecution filed a complaint against the association. Officially, he accuses Memorial of “repeated violations” of the law on foreign agents. The association, argues the prosecution, has failed a dozen times in its obligation to mark some of its documents with the legal letterhead. As for the “center for the defense of rights”, it is accused of “justifying extremism” for its declared support for several political prisoners.

“According to the authorities, the repressions are a kind of natural disaster”

An obvious pretext, moreover half-heartedly admitted as such by the prosecutor during his pleadings. If the Russian authorities are so bent on Memorial, it is because they no longer want to tolerate historical narratives competing with their own. “Since the Soviet era and even today, the authorities would like us to see the repressions as a kind of natural disaster,” explained Yan Ratchinski, chairman of the memorial board of directors, a few days before the hearing on the 28th. December. There are victims, but no culprits. We have been saying from the start that they are victims of a state criminal policy. But the Russian authorities consider themselves to be the heir to Soviet power. this power was criminal, it would be to admit being the continuators of these criminals “.

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For the Kremlin, there can only be one version of history. A sanitized version, only made up of glorious military victories, and in which the state, whether imperial, Soviet or Russian, is always irreproachable. “However, the need to know remains, recalls Yan Ratchinski, and we always receive requests from families who want to know what happened to their ancestors. So, whatever the court decision, our activity to restore historical truth does not will not stop “.


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