In Focus

Why the closure of human rights group Memorial is a ‘bad omen for Russia’s future’

Dubbed ‘Russia’s conscience’, the watchdog shone a light on the atrocities of the Soviet era

For 32 years, Memorial, Russia’s top human rights group, has “worked to commemorate victims of Soviet repression” and to promote “open debate”, said Rachel Denber in The Moscow Times. Dubbed “Russia’s conscience”, the group shone a light on the atrocities of the Soviet era, from the mass executions of the Great Terror to the millions condemned to forced labour in the Gulags; it also examined current human rights abuses. But it will do so no longer.

Last week, Russia’s supreme court ordered Memorial’s closure. The pretext was an alleged failure to adhere to Russia’s repressive “foreign agents” law, which requires groups that accept foreign money to include a disclaimer on all public statements – and is often used to punish organisations the Kremlin deems unfriendly.

Memorial will appeal the decision, but it’s unlikely to succeed, since the closure is entirely in keeping with the Kremlin’s “relentless determination” to “wrestle back” control over discussion of Russia’s turbulent history.

Memorial’s closure is “a turning point in the history of post Soviet Russia”, said Le Monde (Paris). Founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, among others, it started in the 1980s as a dissident group, but in 1992 became a publicly recognised institution.

In the 1990s, its historians gained access to archives to lay bare the atrocities of Stalinism – including by listing some three million Gulag victims. Yet in the 2000s, it fell foul of Vladimir Putin’s determination to glorify the Soviet Union. In 2016, it was listed as a foreign agent and one of its historians, Yuri Dmitriev, was arrested for alleged sexual abuse (his jail term was increased to 15 years last week). Now, the Kremlin has closed it altogether; the prosecutor alleged that Memorial had “created a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state”.

The decision shows just how far Putin is willing to go to “whitewash Russia’s Soviet history”, said Valerie Hopkins and Ivan Nechepurenko in The New York Times. And his efforts are working: thanks to his glorification of Stalin, a record 70% of Russians now believe he played a positive role in Russian history.

Both Memorial’s historical work and its determination to denounce repression in the “new Russia” made it a“mortal enemy” of Putin’s Kremlin, said Andreas Rüesch in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Zurich). But by shutting off criticism of even its darkest times, Russia is condemning itself to “intellectual narrowness and a climate of paralysing fear”. Memorial’s closure is a “bad omen for Russia’s future”.

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