On Tuesday morning, December 28th, the Russian supreme court ruled that the presence of the human rights group Memorial International in the country was illegal, ordering its closure.
The roots of the issue
For the last three decades, Memorial International has sought to shed light on the crimes committed during the rule of Joseph Stalin and other leaders of the Soviet Union, as well as preserving the memory of the millions who fell victim to political persecution. Memorial’s sister organization, the Memorial Human Rights Center, whose fate is also at risk, is a different legal entity that focuses on oppression in modern-day Russia. Both these organizations’ presence in the country is therefore decisively important as it looks into human rights violations in the past and present to prevent them in the future.
Both organizations have since 2013 and 2016 respectively held the status of “foreign agents”, following a Russian law that targets organizations receiving international funding. The law affects non-profit and media organizations, as well as individuals that receive foreign donations, that engage in “political activity”, study and report on crime, corruption, and other issues within the military, space and security industries.
In Russia, the phrase ‘foreign agent’ has strong associations with Cold War-era espionage, and the law has been criticized both domestically and internationally as a violation of human rights and as being originally developed to affect opposition groups.
The ruling sprung from accusations of the group’s repeated infringement of this law by failing to mark their publications with the required “foreign agent” caption. However, many representatives of the group claim the ruling was nothing more than ideological warfare, some even accusing the court of acting unlawfully in its efforts to shut down the opposition.
What international authorities say on the matter
Tatiana Glushkova, who acts as the lawyer for Memorial, told CNN that the group would appeal the decision. “The real reason for Memorial’s closure is that the prosecutor’s office doesn’t like Memorial’s work rehabilitating the victims of Soviet terror”, Glushkova told CNN.
Amnesty International called the decision “a grave insult to victims of the Russian Gulag”. The organization also said “International Memorial is a highly respected human rights organization that has worked tirelessly to document the atrocities and political repression carried out under the rule of Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders (…) By closing down the organization, Russian authorities trample on the memory of millions of victims lost to the Gulag.”
The future of the conflict
One question remaining is how much time Memorial will have to finish their work. What will occur to all their historical research projects? To their gigantic archive, unparalleled in Russia? Even if much of their documentation is digital, the organization also hosts a number of objects that former prisoners have donated. On the other hand, there are still approximately forty branches of the International Memorial in Russia which are independent organizations. They will be able to continue their work, granted with difficulties, until the Russian court decides to target them as well.
The termination of Memorial International could be the starting point of a setback in human rights development in Russia, since its foundation in 1980 it marked the beginning of acknowledgment of the past and exposure of the presence in Russia.
The United States and Germany condemned the court’s verdict on Tuesday. “The closure of Memorial follows a year of rapidly shrinking space for independent civil society, media and pro-democracy activists in Russia”, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said during a phone briefing. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin had a phone call yesterday, their second one this month, which focused on the upcoming diplomatic meetings between Russian and US representatives in Geneva on January 10. These meetings aim to discuss nuclear weapons restrictions and tensions on the border with Ukraine, especially since the increase in tensions between the West and Russia since the latter’s mobilization of forces towards the former constituent of the Soviet Union.