January 01, 2022

Erasing Memory



Erasing Memory
Samples of Soviet-era camp garb from the Memorial museum. Memorial

Russian government tries to shut down Memorial

Since 1989, Memorial has been the heart of Russia’s human rights community. The organization was initially established to research Soviet-era political repression, but its focus widened as time went on. Today it has an office in central Moscow, a library of 40,000 books, staff working in its archives, putting on exhibits, updating two online databases, and publishing books on the Soviet period. Meanwhile, legal experts are helping citizens in jeopardy, in particular, writing appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, and keeping track of arrests and detentions during political opposition events.

All these activities are now under threat of a complete ban, because the government wants to close Memorial.

The ostensible reason for this is that the organization has been declared a “foreign agent” based on a 2012 law. The government created this classification to single out groups that engage in politics and receive foreign funding. Organizations deemed “foreign agents,” a particularly pejorative notion in Russia, must label all their communications with a disclaimer (see above). Because the law is imprecise and applied arbitrarily, Memorial employees even had the disclaimer printed on staff business cards, to make sure they were not violating the discriminatory regulation. Prosecutors however argue that Memorial is a serial violator of the rule because ten different items, including a post on Facebook linking to their website, were not marked. This despite Memorial having paid fines in full on all ten occasions and promptly affixing the degrading label to the items in question.

Данное сообщение (материал) создано и (или) распространено иностранным средством массовой информации, выполняющим функции иностранного агента, и (или) российским юридическим лицом, выполняющим функции иностранного агента.

THE DECLARATION REQUIRED OF “FOREIGN AGENTS”:
"THIS COMMUNICATION (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND/OR
DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET ACTING
AS A FOREIGN AGENT, AND/OR BY A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY
ACTING AS A FOREIGN AGENT."

The court case into whether the organization must be shut down was ongoing at press time, its absurd political nature evident in the prosecutors’ inability to answer a single question and the judge’s blocking of important witnesses. One such witness was an expert whose report argues that Memorial justifies terrorism. But the report, which serves as the basis of the case, is a carbon copy of a paper available in one of many websites offering ready-made essays and reports for college students. In a political case, however, neither these mishaps nor any evidence in Memorial’s favor will matter.

The “foreign agent” law was conceived as a repressive instrument to be arbitrarily applied against organizations, said Oleg Orlov, head of the board of Memorial’s human-rights arm. “Now they have finally decided to use this instrument,” he told Meduza.

“Memorial puts modern persecution that suspiciously reeks of political motives into the context of Soviet repression,” Alexander Baunov wrote recently for Carnegie Moscow Center. “This is what most irritates the modern (Russian) state, which wants to escape such comparisons and be ‘the state for all Russians,’ both perpetrators of repression and their victims.”


UPDATE: On December 28, 2021, the Russian Supreme Court voted to shut down Memorial International, and the next day a Moscow court ruled that Russia-based Memorial had to shutter.


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