This week Russia’s Justice Ministry branded International Memorial, the country’s preeminent independent group dedicated to preserving the history of Soviet repression and rehabilitating its victims, a “foreign agent”.
In Russia, “foreign agent” is synonymous with “traitor.” This is a loaded stab at Memorial, which has catalogued more than 2.6 million victims of Soviet repression. It recently created a data base of 40,000 security services personnel who carried out the Great Terror – the worst years of Stalin’s rule. The group also runs many history education projects.
It’s been four years since the Kremlin kicked off its “foreign agent” campaign, imposing that cynical, disgraceful label on independent groups that accept even a penny of foreign funding and engage in “political activities” – a definition that is conveniently kept exceedingly broad. It’s a campaign of attrition, aimed at stigmatizing independent groups, especially human rights groups, smearing them in the press, and shackling their work through bureaucracy, lawsuits, and prohibitive fines. It is also helping to foment vigilante violence against these groups; for example, in April one of Memorial’s history education projects was attacked.
So far Russia’s Justice Ministry has designated 145 groups as “foreign agents”, and more than 20 chose to shut down rather than wear this label. In November 2015, it branded Memorial’s sister organization, Memorial Human Rights Center, a “foreign agent,” accusing it of using overseas funding to harm Russia. Also in 2015, the authorities filed suit to have Memorial dissolved over a bureaucratic technicality, and only after high-level intervention, including by the Council of Europe, did they back off.
It’s possible the Kremlin intends this campaign as yet another way of sticking it to the West. But it’s also viscerally about the country’s identity. In just a few weeks Memorial will hold its annual, public reading of names of all people shot by firing squads in Moscow during the Great Terror.
It’s not the first memory project to be targeted: In 2015 the government also listed Perm 36, a museum memorial to gulag victims, as a “foreign agent,” and fined it 300,000 rubles (approximately US$4,800); it closed in 2016.
In a country where not a soul was held to account for millions of senseless, state-sponsored killings, acts of torture, and other crimes, preserving history and historical memory is paramount. Now the government wants to equate that exercise with perfidy.
Memorial will of course appeal. The paperwork Memorial had to produce for the government inspection that led to the “foreign agent” listing amounted to 31,250 pages. How much more time and resources will they have to spend on an appeal? Even if it’s just one sheet of paper, Memorial should be allowed to use it to document and preserve important history, and not on having to defend itself in absurd, witch-hunt hearings.