Trying to blur memories of the Gulag, Russia targets a rights group

At her home in Magadan, Russia, a former gulag prisoner holds a picture of her work brigade at a forced labor camp in Kolyma on Nov 29, 2019. Russian President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on rewriting the memory of one of the most painful times in Russia’s turbulent history. Emile Ducke/The New York Times
In the days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the upheaval and uncertainty that gripped Russia were accompanied by a liberating climate of openness, in which free expression, historical examination and political dissent could flourish.

But in the two decades since Vladimir Putin took power, the government has steadily rolled back those rights.

Now Putin has set his sights on rewriting the memory of one of the most painful times in Russia’s turbulent history: the era of the gulag, when millions of Russians toiled and died, mostly in the first half of the 20th century. Russian prosecutors are moving to liquidate the archive and human rights center of Memorial International, the country’s most prominent human rights organization, which is dedicated to the remembrance of those who were persecuted by the Soviet Union’s often-brutal regime.

Activists and dissidents consider the threat to Memorial a watershed moment for independent thinkers in Russia .

Two court hearings this week may decide Memorial’s fate. On Tuesday, Moscow’s City Court will consider allegations that Memorial’s Human Rights center “justifies terrorist activities” because it included members of imprisoned religious groups on its list of political prisoners. Later in the week, the Supreme Court will take up charges that Memorial International, which houses the group’s archive, violated a draconian “foreign agent” law.

Memorial’s Human Rights Center monitors civil liberties and provides legal assistance to those who run afoul of the system. The organisation has supported more than 1,500 cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

The Human Rights Center announced Nov. 11 that it faced possible liquidation, three months after releasing its tally of 419 political prisoners.

The vast majority of those on the list were jailed because of their religion, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are banned in Russia and have a status equivalent to terrorists.

As a result, prosecutors accused Memorial’s Human Rights Center of sanctioning “terrorist activities,” giving rise to Tuesday’s hearing.

The second hearing focuses on alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation. The law forces them to use the label “foreign agent’’ in all public communication, which the prosecutors say the organisation failed to do.

In the past 14 months the relevant auditing bodies did not find any instances of Memorial International failing to comply with the law, while authorities found only two minor violations by the human rights center, according to members of Putin’s Human Rights Council, an advisory body with little influence.

©2021 The New York Times Company