Russia’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights organisation should be closed down — a move that stirred up much public outrage and is the latest step in a months-long crackdown on rights activists, independent media, and opposition supporters.
The Prosecutor General’s Office last month petitioned the Supreme Court to revoke the legal status of Memorial, an international human rights group that rose to prominence for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union and currently encompasses more than 50 smaller groups in Russia and abroad.
A movement rather than a singular organisation, Memorial founded 23 branches throughout the former USSR between 1987 and 1990, eventually growing to its current size and counting more than 60 offices over the course of the past three decades.
Facing pushback that included raids on their offices and confiscation of materials, Memorial fought hard to promote the truth about the historical past of totalitarian regimes through school programmes, publications, and documentary films, and by allowing public access to documentation from the likes of KGB and FSB.
By 2005, it created a database containing information on more than 1.3 million victims of political repression in the Soviet Union.
Memorial was also one of several NGOs that persuaded the Russian state to institutionalise the remembrance of those deemed dissidents of the Soviet regime, leading the state to declare October 30 as Remembrance Day for the Victims of Political Repression.
However, the NGO fell increasingly out of favour with Russian President Vladimir Putin after his controversial re-election to a third term, following constitutional changes, in 2012.
The court on Tuesday ruled in favour of the prosecution, which charged at the hearing that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state, whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals”.
After its Moscow-based Human Rights Centre was first designated a “foreign agent” in 2014, the same status befell Memorial two years later — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations.
In their lawsuit to shut it down, prosecutors alleged that the group repeatedly violated regulations obliging it to mark itself as a foreign agent and tried to conceal the designation.
The aim of the designation is to limit their access to and collaboration with the Russian public, who might fear state repercussions. For media outlets designated as foreign agents, it carries the consequence of a significant decrease in advertising revenue as companies shy away from angering government institutions.
Memorial and its supporters have maintained the accusations are politically motivated, and the organisation’s leaders have vowed to continue their work even if the court shuts it down.
Pressure on the group has sparked public outrage, with many prominent figures speaking out in its support this month.
Journalist and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, former Soviet leader and another Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow Natalia Solzhenitsyna all criticised the decision.
Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, one of Russia’s most prominent contemporary writers, announced that she was returning the Russian State Prize she received in 2004 in protest against the decision.
Several people were reportedly detained on Tuesday for picketing the courthouse.
In recent months, the Russian government has designated a number of independent media outlets, journalists, and human rights groups as “foreign agents”. At least two disbanded to avoid a tougher crackdown.