It wasn’t a trial day like any other. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the building of the Supreme Court of Russia. Diplomats from around 20 countries were present at the negotiation itself. After all, the matter also had significance beyond the borders of the country: It was – and is – about a possible ban on the human rights organization Memorial. The trial against the renowned institution began on Thursday in Moscow.
Memorial is not just any institution in Russia. It was founded in the late 1980s, at the time of the perestroika of the then Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. It was then that the half-healed wounds of the totalitarian history of the Soviet Union opened. For the first time in decades, people in Russia and other Soviet republics were able to speak relatively openly about the countless state crimes in the early stages of the Soviet Union and under dictator Joseph Stalin.
Memorial, founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Andrei Sakharov, among others, offered a forum for all of this. Organization staff campaigned for a memorial to the victims of Stalinism, visited survivors of the former Gulag camp system and wrote down their life stories. About 70 memorial associations were quickly established in Russia. Victim cards, prisoner memories and trial documents are stored in their own libraries and archives. In addition, survivors of the Gulag system, who often live in great poverty in old age because their years in prison are not counted towards their pensions, receive financial support.
Memorial also deals with topics that better fit the ideology and past politics of the current leadership of Russia: It was not until Tuesday that employees of the organization were awarded for their book “Ost”, which deals with the fate of Eastern Europeans deported to Germany during National Socialism.
It is, of course, less likely to be preoccupied with the past that bothers Russia’s elite. It is far more about the present. Because Memorial is regularly financially supported by the foundation of US billionaire George Soros and the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is close to the Greens – and advocates political prisoners such as the imprisoned critic of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Alexej Navalny , a. Kidnapping, torture and deaths in Chechnya and elsewhere are also being investigated.
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So it’s no wonder that the organization has been targeted by the increasingly repressive Russian state in recent years: in 2016, because it accepts donations from abroad, it was classified as a “foreign agent” and thus compelled by law to include all “public statements” to provide this addition. According to the Russian judiciary, Memorial – this is not the first time this charge has been made – violated this law. The NGO was also accused of having justified the activities of members of extremist organizations. Memorial keeps a list of more than 300 political prisoners. The Russian judiciary classifies many of them as extremists or terrorists. The NGO denies this and declares that the people are politically persecuted.
Memorial’s chances of survival do not seem too good: observers in Moscow have assumed in recent days that the liquidation of the organization is a done deal. Only Memorial International, the part of the NGO that specializes in Soviet repression, has a slim chance of not being dissolved. Memorial attorney Ilya Novikov pointed out that the same people from the Moscow Public Prosecutor’s Office who had dealt with the liquidation of Navalny’s anti-corruption fund were at work in the process. In the background, the domestic secret service FSB is supposed to pull the strings.
On Thursday, of course, it was also clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is good for surprises: He dismissed the head of the national penal system, Alexander Kalashnikov. Previously, videos about torture, rape and mistreatment, which were also sent to Memorial, caused a stir.
An incident in mid-October, when the presentation of a film by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland was disrupted by a rolling command, shows that the politics of the past are also hot spots in Russia. The film “Mr. Jones” is about a British journalist who in 1933 witnessed the Holodomor, the starvation of millions of people in Soviet Ukraine – an issue that has been raised in Russia, where Stalin has been polled in recent years became more and more popular, likes to be hidden. The police called when the disturbance occurred, which did not arrive until 15 minutes later, dealt less with the interferers than with the disturbed people, who had to endure hours of procedure.