Russian court bans Memorial
A court in Moscow has ordered the liquidation of a prominent NGO dedicated to preserving the memory of those who died under communist rule, after prosecutors said the group was seeking to rewrite the history of the Soviet Union.
In a ruling issued on Tuesday, a judge decreed that Memorial, already registered as a ‘foreign agent’ over its links to overseas funding, would no longer be able to operate in Russia after authorities said that it had repeatedly broken the law.
During the hearing, a representative of the Prosecutor General said that Memorial “was created as an organization to perpetuate historical memory, but now it is almost completely focused on distorting historical memory, primarily about the Great Patriotic War,” as WWII is known in Russia. According to the official, the group “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state” and “attempts to whitewash and rehabilitate Nazi war criminals who have the blood of Soviet citizens on their hands… probably because someone is paying for this.”
Russia’s Ministry of Justice and its media regulator Roskomnadzor have both backed the claims from prosecutors, with a spokeswoman for the communications watchdog saying that “brazen and repeated violations of the law” had been “convincingly proven beyond question” ahead of the court ruling.
Memorial, which describes its mission as educating the public about repression during the Soviet period, was designated as a foreign agent in 2016 after authorities said that it had accepted funds from abroad to engage in domestic political activity. However, the group was handed a series of fines after judges said it had failed to follow requirements to display the label prominently. Citing “repeated and gross breaches” of the rules, prosecutors filed a request with the Russian Supreme Court for the organization to be dissolved in November.
The group has branded the move a political decision and insisted that it would fight the charges. The Council of Europe has also hit out at the legal case, with Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić saying that “the liquidation of International Memorial would deal a further devastating blow to civil society, which is an essential pillar of any democracy.”
In a statement following the decision, the Director of the Polish-based Auschwitz Memorial Museum, Piotr Cywiński cautioned that "a power that is afraid of memory will never be able to achieve democratic maturity."
In October, Memorial’s staff were reportedly locked inside their Moscow offices for several hours by police, after a screening of a film about Ukraine’s Soviet-era famine was disrupted by masked protesters. The assailants reportedly shouted that those in attendance were fascists and demanded that the showing of ‘Mr. Jones’ by Polish Director Agnieszka Holland be halted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously said that the country’s ‘foreign agent’ status helps ensure that the public know that NGOs and news outlets receive funds from outside the country to influence domestic politics. The law “exists simply to protect Russia from external meddling in its politics,” he said, adding that groups could register and keep working.
However, the rules have come under fire from some groups, who claim they have imposed an excessive burden on their operations. In August, an open letter signed by ten separate outlets asked the Kremlin to investigate the use of the ‘foreign agent’ legislation as part of “the persecution of independent journalism in the country.”
Earlier this month, Putin hit out at restrictions facing individuals designated as ‘foreign agents’ after he was asked about a case in which one journalist was required to append the label to photographs she’d taken of herself decorating a Christmas tree with her child and posted on social media. “Of course, the examples you brought are comical, a completely excessive response,” the Russian president said, calling for a review of the measures.