Opposition activists have questioned the Kremlin’s recent attempts to limit the activities of Memorial, Russia’s most famous human rights advocacy group. Is this really a cause for concern?

Memorial office in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti/Kirill Kallinnikov

For a very different take, read: "How the Kremlins campaign against NGOs could backfire"

In November of this year, the Russian Ministry of Justice completed its investigation into Memorial, Russia’s most famous human rights advocacy group. Given Memorial’s highly visible public profile and its focus on human rights, charity work and historical research, some opposition activists have raised concerns about the Kremlin’s pursuit of this NGO.

The range of Memorial’s activities is quite wide, from investigations of Stalinist repressions, to protecting the rights of modern “political prisoners.” The objectives of Memorial’s leadership are the “development of civil society in countries with a totalitarian past” and the “promotion of a democratic rule of law in these countries.”

These actions would appear to pose little threat to the Kremlin. Yet, the Russian Ministry of Justice, after its official investigation, concluded that by their actions, members of Memorial were “undermining the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, calling for the overthrow of the current government, and changing of the political regime in the country.”

This position, however, changed on Nov. 22 when the Ministry recommended that the NGO adapt its charter to the new version of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation, specifying the rights and responsibilities of the group’s participants.

Though Memorial was no longer considered to “undermine the constitutional order” of the country, the Ministry of Justice insisted that participants of the NGO should be forbidden from sharing confidential information and acting to deliberately harm the work of the organization.

In addition, Memorial should make such questions as the use of the NGO’s property, admission of new participants and election of the chairman the prerogative of the General Assembly. Memorial representatives said that this might mean the rewriting of the whole charter, so they are ready to insist on change of these conditions.

These developments, on the background of tragic events in France and Syria, has received rather little attention. At the same time, many Russian human rights activists have expressed concerns that, as a result of this investigation, the government could close this NGO or prohibit it from carrying out activities in the field of human rights advocacy.

So why did Memorial run afoul of the Russian authorities? And how likely is a complete or partial ban on its activities?

Why Memorial fell out with the Kremlin

Memorial emerged in 1989 when the Soviet Union was falling apart at the seams. Most politicians and social activists were proposing a “new path” for Russia, criticizing Soviet reality and advocating strong de-Sovietization. During two and a half decades of its activities, the NGO worked tirelessly on the systematic creation of lists of victims of Soviet repressions, and issued a large number of historical documents and reference books. The NGO’s structure includes extensive archives and a library, as well as the Creativity and Life in the Gulag Museum.

At the same time, the leaders of Memorial were not just historians and researchers. In parallel with its historical activities, the organization increasingly started developing activities in human rights advocacy.

In addition, Memorial started to raise “uncomfortable” questions about Soviet history, such as the mass deportations of peoples of the U.S.S.R. and the so-called Katyn Massacre of Polish prisoners of war, to which this NGO devoted a disproportionate amount of attention. Thus, in the mid-2000s, disputes started arising between Memorial and the Russian government, which had begun taking steps towards creating a new state ideology, and a certain rethinking of Russian history of the 20th century.

After all, living through the difficult 1990s, Russians suddenly started to realize that not everything was that bad in the U.S.S.R. There was free and very good medicine, medical care, education and science. There was no extreme nationalism, drugs in schools, or any of the problems of modern society. The elderly could count on financial security in their old age.

At the same time, no one was denying that repressions existed in the Soviet Union. Thus, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not allow a debate to be restarted by Russian nationalists about who was really responsible for the execution of Polish officers in Katyn, and personally attended public commemorative ceremonies on this theme.

However, the main disputes between the Kremlin and Memorial did not arise in the plane of historical issues. Already in the mid-1990s, this NGO started being active in the educational and human rights spheres. Thus, this organization begun to actively oppose the Russian government’s anti-extremism policy, by launching in 2005 a program to counter the fabrication of criminal cases involving Islamic extremism.

Offices of Memorial were often turned into extra-parliamentary opposition clubs, where, for example, documentaries critical of the Russian government were shown and, often, even ones banned in the Russian Federation.

The representatives of Memorial participated in many high-profile cases involving human rights abuses, almost always taking an uncomfortable (for the Kremlin) pro-Western stance. Naturally, this organization also defends the interests of the LGBT community, and in a rather conservative Russia, this is not welcome.

Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, Memorial has been consistently pursuing a “pro-Western” policy, speaking in support of Ukrainian extremists, the Ukrainian prisoner Nadezhda Savchenko, and the base-jumpers that painted a star on a Moscow high-rise in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Naturally, Crimea’s joining of the Russian Federation was recognized by Memorial’s experts as illegal, being called a “cavalier and cynical” move. In general, this NGO conducts extensive informational activities, actively contributing their materials to various Western and Russian opposition media outlets.

It should be noted that it was not the historical activities of Memorial that led to censure by the Russian authorities. Moreover, starting as early as 2007, the organization has been receiving grants from the Russian state budget. At the same time, it was under the patronage of the West as well.

Thus, after a search of Memorial’s St. Petersburg office (which was subsequently recognized by St. Petersburg courts as unlawful), the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying it was deeply concerned about this situation. In the statement they noted that, “Research organizations like Memorial play an important role in setting up a democratic society and ensuring the protection of human rights.”

Memorial has never concealed receiving such support, transparently publishing on its website a list of sponsors, which includes a large number of Western funds. However, it was this partnership with foreign funds that led to Memorial being declared a “foreign agent” in April 2013.

Also read: "What's behind the Kremlin's phobia of foreign NGOs?"

Although the management of the NGO strongly objected to such measures, in September of the same year, Memorial’s recognition as a “foreign agent” was judicially sanctioned as lawful and justified. At the same time, the subsequent demand by the Russian Ministry of Justice, seeking the liquidation of Memorial, was rejected by the courts.

Are Russian NGOs under threat?

There is hardly any threat to the continued operations of this NGO today. It might have to make specific amendments to the organization’s statutes and remove a number of materials from the organization’s website.

We should bear in mind that Memorial is really a kind of “school of history” and a symbol of human rights activities in the post-Soviet space. It is only that some of its activities are somewhat alien and incomprehensible to most Russians.

History remains in the past, conclusions should be drawn from it, and we must move on. We cannot just paint everything black or white. Henry VIII and Ivan the Terrible were bloody tyrants, but many historians consider them as progressive monarchs. Peter the Great would cut off the heads of boyars, but raised Russia on a par with Europe’s great powers.

Attempts to force Russians today to live with a constant feeling of guilt for the repressions that took place in the past, from which, incidentally, all peoples of the U.S.S.R. suffered, will hardly bring positive results. We must know historical facts in order to make conclusions from them, rather than rubbing them in the faces of peoples and nations for the sake of achieving political goals.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.