Police officers detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. 

Kremlin tries to ‘erase a nation’s history’ with shutdown of leading human rights org, Russian politician says

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician,  joins The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss what’s at stake with the shutdown of Memorial International, which has documented Soviet-era crimes and other human rights abuses for 30 years. 

The World

Police officers detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, Dec. 28, 2021. 


On Tuesday, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled to shut down Memorial International, the country’s most prominent human rights organization for more than 30 years. 

It's the latest move in a relentless crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.

Related: Journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Memorial, as it’s commonly known, began with the mission to archive Soviet-era crimes. Over time, the organization has become a pillar of civil society and staunch advocate for human rights. 

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Memorial is made up of more than 50 smaller groups in Russia and abroad. The court ruled that Memorial violated Russia's foreign agent law, a law that has been applied widely to target human rights groups, independent journalists and activists. Prosecutors said the group repeatedly failed to identify itself as a foreign agent and tried to conceal the designation — accusations rejected by Memorial.

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“The Supreme Court's ruling confirmed once again that the history of political terror organized and directed by the government isn't an academic issue that is interesting only for experts, but an acute problem of today,” Memorial said in a statement.

The group said it would appeal the verdict and pledged to continue its work.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician, joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the significance of this shutdown and what’s at stake for human rights in Russia. 

Marco Werman: What was your reaction when you learned that the Russian Supreme Court ruled to stop Memorial from doing its work? 
Vladimir Kara-Murza: Well, of course, when you say that the Russian Supreme Court "ruled," we have to put that whole phrase in quotation marks because, of course, we know that in the political regime that Vladimir Putin has created in our country, the courts only serve as meaningless puppets of the political masters, and the decision has been made long ago in the Kremlin. I myself was by the Supreme Court building just a couple of weeks ago when the first hearing on this case began. Just yesterday, there were again hundreds of people outside the court building just as tens of thousands of Russians have signed and continued to support an online petition in support of Memorial, joining Nobel Peace Prize laureates, cultural figures, members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and so on. But of course, the people who are sitting in the Kremlin today and who make up this authoritarian regime led by Vladimir Putin do not hear those voices. They are the people who pride themselves on their direct succession line from Soviet Security Services from the Soviet Cheka, NKVD [People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs] and KGB [Committee for State Security]. Vladimir Putin himself, of course, as you know well, was a former Soviet KGB officer. And to these people, the reminder about the true history of that organization, about the true history of our country in the 20th century, comes as a personal affront. 
So, you're saying President Putin was the author of this shutdown of this important human rights group despite a ruling from the Russian Supreme Court. So, it sounds like you're not surprised.
The decision itself, the so-called "court decision" itself is not surprising in the least. And also, I think it's important to say that in the long term, of course, none of these attempts will succeed. You cannot erase a nation's memory. You can shut down structures. You can withdraw licenses. You can close down formal entities. You cannot erase the memory that lives literally in the millions of families across Russia whose loved ones were affected by this. And let's not forget, we're not talking about past, ancient history. There are still living people who remember the gulag in Russia. And so they will not be able to erase a nation's collective memory, however hard they try. The only thing that this decision by the Supreme Court today confirms is that the people who are sitting in the Kremlin today consider themselves to be the direct successors to [Joseph] Stalin, to [Lavrentiy] Beria, to [Yuri] Andropov and to all of those horrific figures from 20th-century history who were responsible for the deaths of millions of our fellow citizens. 
Can you give us a bit of the history of Memorial? How did it start and, in the minds of Russians today, what is its reputation? 
Well, Memorial was begun in the late 1980s by a group of leading intellectuals, including most prominently Andrei Sakharov the great Russian scientist, humanist dissident, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the stated mission of Memorial was to return the nation's collective memory. Memorial has managed to create a national database containing the names of about 4 million people, that is open and freely accessible. Now, as we speak — and this is only a small fraction of an estimated 12 million people who fell victim to Soviet state terror in the 20th century — but what Memorial did was to return the names to the millions of families in Russia who did not know the fates of their loved ones. And every year, at the end of October, just outside the former KGB building in Moscow, thousands of people stand in line from morning to late night to read out one name from the long database created by Memorial. This is an annual remembrance ceremony known as the Return of the Names, and I think if there's anything that the current regime of the Kremlin hates and fears more than even political opposition rallies, it is those remembrance ceremonies that remind both Russian society and the world just what the people who are sitting in the Kremlin are proud of. They are proud of a horrific, criminal, totalitarian past of a regime, the direct successors of which they consider themselves to be.
That's interesting. I'm wondering if you ultimately see this as a fight over memory in Russian history, like, the historians and archivists who want to preserve the past accurately. But does that mean that the Kremlin wants to forget that past? And why would they want to? 
There's no dividing line in Russia today between history and present. Everything is about history. If you look at any totalitarian regime or authoritarian regime, they want to control the past as much as they want to control the present and the future. And this is certainly true of the regime of Vladimir Putin. They're trying to whitewash history. They're trying to say that everything was great in Soviet history, that a regime that murdered millions of its own citizens was actually, you know, a good kind of regime that did a lot of good things. And so, of course, for a regime that wants to pretend something like this, the very existence of a respected, authoritative organization that has spent years working to chronicle and document not just the general issues, but the specific names of the people who perished. This work comes both as a political and a personal affront. And again, there are two sides, two main sides to the work of Memorial. One is the chronicling and documenting of crimes committed during the Soviet regime. But the second side is the documenting and making public the political repressions that are being committed by Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia today. It is a shocking fact that today, according to the latest count by the Memorial Human Rights Center, there are 431 political prisoners in the Russian Federation. Let me repeat that: In the 21st century, in a European country, there are more than 400 people who are sitting in prison not because they've committed any crimes but because they have crossed certain political or religious lines imposed by Vladimir Putin's regime. 
What is your personal connection to Memorial?
Just as millions of my fellow compatriots, just as millions of families, my own family has been affected in a major way by the crimes of the Soviet regime. Two of my great-grandfathers were murdered under Josef Stalin. My grandfather spent years in the gulag in the 1930s. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was actually doing my own research in the Russian State Archive in Moscow, reading the criminal case of my grandfather from 1937 and 1938. He thankfully survived. My great grandfathers didn’t — and this is a story that you will hear from millions upon millions of people in Russia. I mean, it's unthinkable to imagine that, for example, the current government of Germany would try to somehow whitewash or deny the Holocaust. But it is the reality of Vladimir Putin's Russia that the people who are in charge of our country today, or the people who claim to be in charge of our country, consider it possible to just sort of forget and turn the page. And it is thanks to Memorial that this memory is not going away. And whatever the decisions, whatever the formal verdicts issued by Vladimir Putin's regime, this memory is not going to go away. And so in the long term, any attempts in this direction by Vladimir Putin's regime will miserably fail.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.