On December 10, my father Dmitry Muratov, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, proclaimed when he received his award: “Memorial is not ‘an enemy of the people,’ Memorial is a friend of the people.” Russian-based human rights groups Memorial Human Rights Center and Memorial International have worked for decades to rehabilitate over a million victims of Stalinist repression. On December 28, 18 days after Muratov’s speech, the Russian Supreme Court ruled to shut down the organization.
Memorial was founded in 1987. Its founders included Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet nuclear scientist, 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and prominent dissenter—along with leading intellectuals, scientists, historians, and activists. They revived Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1961 call for a national monument to victims of Stalin’s Terror. Tens of thousands signed petitions; Mikhail Gorbachev endorsed Memorial; and it soon had affiliates around the country. Memorial’s founding goal was to give back pensions, apartments, and jobs to those harmed by Stalin’s regime.
The organization has often been referred to as the most prominent human rights group in modern Russia.
In its earlier days, Memorial created campaigns aimed at supporting victims of the Soviet past. It set up databases for living relatives of the repressed to find their loved ones who had been lost inside the gulag camps. It established Last Address, a grassroots initiative for putting plaques on apartment buildings civilians were arrested in. Memorial also offered legal and financial support to the families affected by the Stalinist regime. And it developed a network of young people whose oral histories of their repressed families offered remarkable and harrowing stories of survival, resistance, and grief.
Yet the organization did more than rehabilitate victims of the past. It provided support and witness to the survivors of contemporary political repression. Today, Memorial has chapters in several regions, including the Caucasus and Chechnya, a Russian republic known for its human rights violations under its current president, Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2009, Chechen Memorial employee Natalia Estemirova was murdered, presumably for her work. Despite this, the group tried to continue its projects in Chechnya, though it pulled out months later because of escalating threats against its remaining employees.
Memorial’s human rights advocacy has included working with immigrants and refugees, assisting civilians in war zones (including in the Caucasus and Ukraine), monitoring the well-being of political prisoners, attempting to prevent torture, and providing legal support to the incarcerated. In fact, Memorial has won 113 cases in the European Court of Human Rights—concerning various human rights violations in Russia and abroad. The organization’s work puts it in good standing with activists and average citizens alike.
So why has the Russian Supreme Court ruled to shut down all of Memorial’s operations in Russia? The prosecutor argued that Memorial was created to immortalize the history of the Soviet Union and that it now “distorts” the past. Other prosecutors claimed that Memorial wants to create an image of the Soviet Union as a “state of terror.” Besides these claims, which the court found compelling, the issue was Memorial’s status as a “foreign agent.”
According to a 2012 law, nongovernmental organizations receiving any financing from abroad can be declared foreign agents. Once deemed such, the organization has to specify the designation on any content as well as submit quarterly financial reports to the Justice Ministry. According to the prosecution, Memorial has several times failed to comply with the law, and it has advocated for other “foreign agent” organizations, often human rights nonprofits or media outlets.
This might, of course, seem a hopeless situation—with the oldest Russian human rights organization shut down—but Memorial has refused to give up just yet. According to the head of Memorial’s board, Alexander Cherkasov, in a few weeks the organization will be able to appeal the Russian Supreme Court’s decision. The European Court of Human Rights slammed the decision as “incomprehensible” and demanded that Russia suspend the organization’s closure until further investigation into the case can be conducted.
“Is there life after death you ask?” Cherkasov said. “Our life doesn’t just continue. It also promises to be quite interesting.”