The Russian government has closed the country’s largest human rights organisation, Memorial, for being ‘foreign agents,’ ending decades of human rights work.
Memorial International was established in 1989 to expose the crimes and oppression of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin. Stalinist crimes include the mass internal deportation of 2 million members of ethnic minorities, with over 250,000 of them dying. This work includes “rehabilitating the victims of Soviet terror,” according to the group’s lawyer, Tatiana Glushkova, in a statement to CNN following the court’s verdict. Memorial’s founders include Arseny Roginsky, an anti-Soviet critic and historian, and Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and whom the European Union named the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after. The Russian Supreme Court ordered the organisation’s closure on Dec. 28, following claims by the prosecution and Russian President Vladimir Putin that Memorial International was guilty of “terrorism.” The court agreed, stating that Memorial portrayed “the USSR as a terrorist organisation.”
This effectively means that Russia has adopted an official stance of revisionism towards Stalin. In 1932 and 1933 alone, Stalin’s policy of agricultural collectivisation resulted in a famine that lead to the death of up to 8.5 million people, especially in Ukraine, where the death toll is so high that some historians claim that what the Ukrainians call the ‘Holodomor’ was a targeted campaign by Stalin against Ukrainians.1 by ignoring the darker parts of the Soviet Union’s history, the Russian government is portraying the communist state in a much more positive light, and erasing millions from history.
Memorial International’s sister organisation, the Memorial Human Rights Centre, was closed on Dec. 29. It opposed oppression carried out by the post-Soviet Russian government, and maintained a list of political prisoners and members of religious minorities that were wrongfully arrested for acts of terrorism, based solely on their religion. It has also investigated human rights violations carried out by the government against minorities in the Caucasus region, and has provided support to the victims. The Moscow City Court shut down the group for the same reasons that Memorial International was shut down.
Memorial maintains its innocence, denying that it is guilty of being a ‘foreign agent,’ a term whose legal definition is reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Memorial International board member Oleg Orlov told CNN that this decision by the courts is “purely ideological.” Memorial has promised that even if the organisations are shut down, the people will continue to do the same work, demonstrating that they are not willing to let Putin’s government silence them.
Memorial has received support from around the world following the Russian government’s actions. Following the Dec. 29 decision, the United Nations Human Rights Office condemned Russia’s treatment of innocent human rights organisations. Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, Marie Struthers, took to Twitter to criticise Russia for erasing the lives of the victims of Stalin’s gulag camps. The United States and German governments have also sided with Memorial. Russia has not responded to a request from the European Court of Human Rights to suspend the rulings until an investigation can be carried out.
At the same time, the Russian government has shut down the Civic Assistance Committee, which helps refugees and migrants. and OVD-Info’s website has been blocked in Russia, and the government is pressuring social media platforms to suspend all of OVD-Info’s accounts. OVD-Info monitors political arrests in Russia and provides legal support for political prisoners, which earned it the designation of ‘foreign agent.’
This is yet another alarming event in a trend towards flagrant disregard of human rights in Putin’s Russia. 2021 marks 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Jan. 2021, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia guilty of human rights violations in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. This is the same region that the Memorial Human Rights Centre has been involved in, and where there has been a series of conflicts since the fall of the Soviet Union. Those wars have seen Russia expand its influence into sovereign states in the region, backing separatist factions like the partially recognised Republic of Abkhazia.
January also saw the Russian government arrest Alexey Navalny, one of the regime’s harshest critics. This was followed by Navalny’s organisation being labeled an extremist organisation in June, and then the arrest of two high-ranking members of that network on Dec. 28. Navalny was on the list of political prisoners that the Memorial Human Rights Centre was maintaining before the Russian government cracked down on them.
Russia has also stepped up its aggression towards Ukraine, with tens of thousands of soldiers amassing near their shared border. It is already known that Putin regrets the fall of the Soviet Union. Georgia and Ukraine, among other countries, were members of the USSR, alongside Russia. Combined with the Soviet-style use of the term ‘foreign agent,’ the removal of human rights groups, and the disbanding of an organisation seeking to reveal the true nature of Stalin’s regime, this aggression suggests that it is not unreasonable to assume that Putin has similar ambitions for territorial expansion and internal power.
As Putin’s Russia ramps up its oppression of human rights and removes organisations that could advocate for or protect Putin’s opponents, or expose what his government is doing, it is clear that the nations of the world need to come together to protect human rights. This means providing resources to these human rights organisations, whose members are willing to continue their work even after the organisations have been shut down. Worldwide condemnation of Russia and support for groups like Memorial, including offering safe havens for exiles, is the only way to uphold the absolute rights of the people of Russia.
Stuart Jeffery, aka LibertyDownUnder, is the founder of the Australian Liberty Network. He is also the host of the Gumtree of Liberty and Gumtree of Liberty Live podcasts, and is editor of the Liberty Review. Stuart is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts, majoring in international relations, at the University of Southern Queensland.