MOSCOW (Reuters) – The head of the Russian human rights group Memorial said on Wednesday that he and his colleagues would find a way to carry on their work despite two court rulings that ordered them to shut down.
“You don’t defeat the memory of people’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers that easily,” he said in an interview.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered Memorial International, Russia’s oldest human rights group, to disband for failing to operate rigorously under the designation “foreign agent”.
On Wednesday, another court ordered Memorial’s Human Rights Centre, which provides legal help to victims of rights abuses and compiles a list of political prisoners, to close. The ruling capped a year of crackdowns on dissent unseen since the Soviet era.
Jan Raczynski, chairman of Memorial’s board, told Reuters in an interview at its Moscow headquarters that a way would be found to continue documenting Soviet-era crimes such as Joseph Stalin’s “Great Terror” as well as modern-day abuses.
“This (Soviet-era crimes) is a matter that affects millions of our fellow citizens and … is a problem of the entire former Soviet Union and of all the ex-Soviet bloc, he said. “So one way or another, people will do this work.”
He said his own grandfather had been caught up in the Terror of 1936-38, in which the dictator had more than 700,000 perceived rivals or enemies executed and many more imprisoned or tortured. He did not say how his grandfather had been affected.
Critics say the legal assault on Memorial is an attempt to whitewash the darkest chapters of the Soviet Union, which do not chime with the Kremlin’s narrative of a resurgent Russia with nothing to be ashamed of.
‘WORK THAT SOCIETY NEEDS’
A state prosecutor told Tuesday’s court hearing that Memorial had promoted an image of the Soviet Union as a “terrorist state” and blackened the memory of its achievement in resisting Nazi aggression in World War Two. He said “someone” was paying Memorial for such treachery.
Raczynski said it was “obvious” that the Soviet Union had been a terrorist state, describing its past as one of “mass human rights violations”. He said modern Russia was repeating the mistake of trying to solve social problems with violence and by limiting freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
In particular, he said the number of people in jail on what he called fabricated political charges was nearly as high as during the last years of the Soviet Union, before Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.
“The direction of travel really is of great concern,” he said, surrounded by shelves with hundreds of “memory books” detailing the names and biographies of people repressed by Soviet authorities.
Raczynski said he had first become involved with Memorial in 1988, the year after it was founded in the twilight of the Soviet Union, and like many others was attracted by the idea of doing work with a moral value.
He said Memorial had the right to continue its activities until the outcome of its legal appeals was known, but that it did did not have a detailed plan of how to respond if authorities went after the dozens of other legal entities it operates.
“There are people who are taking this (the court decisions) hard … because they give their lives to something they consider important which, in many other countries, they would be thanked for and even given medals for. Here, we see the opposite.
“But nobody plans to give up. Some may have to look for different work if things go really badly, because they have to feed their families. (But) we intend to carry on all this work. It’s not just our work. It’s work that society needs.”
(Reporting by Anton Zverev; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey)