Russian history is rich in shameful dates, many of them marking show trials and mass executions—or liquidations, as they were then called. December 28th, 2021, should be added to the calendar. On that day Russia’s supreme court “liquidated” Memorial, the country’s most vital post-Soviet civic institution, dedicated to the memory of Stalinist repression and the defence of human rights.
Memorial emerged as a group independent of the state in the late 1980s, at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). One of its founders was Arseny Roginsky, a historian who spent four years in a Soviet prison for publishing a samizdat almanac entitled Pamyat (“Memory”). Another was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear scientist who created the first Soviet hydrogen bomb and later campaigned tirelessly for human rights.
The group was formally registered in 1990, a few months after Sakharov’s death. The initial goal was historical, to document the crimes under Stalin. Every year Memorial ran a mass reading of the names of some of his millions of victims, read out by thousands of participants. As post-Soviet Russia began to abuse its citizens, first in Chechnya and then throughout the country, Memorial became the country’s best human-rights organisation.
Russia’s supreme court is Kremlin-controlled, so its decision was expected. In recent years Memorial has increasingly come under attack, its offices vandalised and its staff harassed. But this did not make the court’s ruling less significant. Memorial paved the way for post-Soviet Russia, its embrace of human dignity drawing a line that separated the new state from the systemic terror of the old one. The group’s liquidation has erased that line, making it easier for Mr Putin to whitewash not only the crimes of the past but also those of the present. A day earlier, on December 27th, a Russian court extended the jail term of Yuri Dmitriev, a historian affiliated to Memorial who had uncovered mass graves in Stalin’s gulags, from 13 to 15 years. Prosecutors fabricated charges that he had sexually abused his adopted daughter.
Formally, Memorial was liquidated as a “foreign agent”, an old Soviet term for traitors. The trial resurrected language once used by Stalinist prosecutors. “Memorial creates a false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state…Why should we, the descendants of the victors, watch attempts to rehabilitate traitors to the motherland and Nazi collaborators? Perhaps because someone is paying them for it,” proclaimed Aleksei Zhafyarov, a state prosecutor. “It makes us repent of the Soviet past, instead of remembering its glorious history.”