MOSCOW (Reuters) – As state archives opened up after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Alexander Korobochkin was overcome with emotion when he finally unearthed the file on his grandfather who was arrested and shot in 1938 during Josef Stalin’s Great Terror.
Korobochkin, 67, is now seeking access to the case file of his other grandfather, who was sent to a Gulag camp, but fears this could prove much harder due to the possible closure of top human rights group Memorial.
Founded in the late 1980s during the Soviet twilight, Memorial has spent decades documenting Stalin’s repressions and helping people like Korobochkin to navigate opaque bureaucracy to dig up information on Stalin’s victims.
But the group’s main offices now face the threat of being shut down at the behest of state prosecutors who accuse it of flouting Russia’s “foreign agent” laws.
Memorial, which is still exposing human rights abuses and speaking out for political prisoners under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, says the move is politically motivated.
A court is due to begin hearing the motion to close it on Thursday, a prospect that has stunned people like Korobochkin.
“They have provided me with a colossal amount of help… There are times when you just don’t know how to proceed,” said Korobochkin, who now lives in Canada.
REMEMBERING THE PAST
Millions of Soviet citizens were executed by secret police or sent to Gulag labour camps during Stalin’s rule from the 1920s until his death in 1953. The height of the repression, known as the Great Terror, occurred between 1936 and 1938.
“If Memorial is closed and no one remembers this (repression), how will the next generation be able to live without this memory?” Korobochkin said on a video call.
He first turned to Memorial for help in his research about his grandfather Isai Tumarovsky, a pilot who was shot in 1938 after being accused of espionage. He was exonerated after Stalin’s death.
“These were people who were absolutely innocent, who could have brought great (benefit) to the state,” said Korobochkin, who emigrated to Canada in the 1990s and is now a swimming teacher at a school in Montreal. “But they were destroyed.”
The move to close Memorial comes amid a sweeping clampdown on Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s network and on Russian media and civil society groups, some of which have been labelled “foreign agents” or banned outright.
Authorities deny a crackdown and say its laws on foreign agents are needed to protect Russia against foreign meddling.
Alena Kozlova, head of Memorial’s archive, told Reuters it was possible the legal action against the group was retribution for its uncompromising efforts to expose Stalin’s crimes and Soviet repressions.
That work has jarred with the Kremlin’s emphasis on the Soviet victory in World War Two under Stalin, which makes the dictator popular among some Russians to this day.
“Maybe it’s because Memorial has paid attention to different pages of history,” Kozlova said. “We think that in any history, all events should stand side by side… and must all be visible.”
Philip Minlos, a 45-year-old IT specialist in Moscow, said Memorial had helped him learn more about his grandfather, Bruno Minlos, a German who was imprisoned early in World War Two and later died in jail.
“Incredible stories like mine, in which Memorial has helped find out information about a grandfather or great-grandfather, might now become impossible,” he said.
Korobochkin has recently sought Memorial’s help in accessing the case file of his other grandfather, Boris Kaufman, a military officer who was arrested in 1950 and sent to a camp in Soviet Kazakhstan for 10 years.
His application has hit a snag as he must prove to the state that he is Kaufman’s grandson.
Kaufman, who died in 1988, never talked about his time in the Gulag and the family never asked him about it, fearing any questions could bring back upsetting memories, Korobochkin said.
(Additional reporting by Alyona Ostrovskaya; Editing by Gareth Jones)