Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Russia shut down its oldest human rights group, accusing it of foreign ties

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two courts in Russia ruled against that country's leading human rights organization. Russia's High Court issued a decision to force the liquidation of the group for so-called violations of foreign agents laws. That happened yesterday. And today another court affirmed that decision. NPR's Charles Maynes has been following this story from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about this hearing today. What was it about?

MAYNES: Well, this case was one of two against Memorial, Russia's oldest human rights group, over alleged violations of the foreign agents law, in particular this failure to mark publications declaring the group receives foreign funding, although it certainly has tried. Today's case specifically targeted Memorial's work on behalf of political prisoners in Russia today, in other words, contemporary Russia. In fact, prosecutors argued that in addition to failed to identify itself as a foreign agent, Memorial was promoting extremism through illicit publishes (ph) of political prisoners in Russia, such as the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Now, there was another foreign agent trial against Memorial, which wrapped yesterday at the High Court. That was focused on Memorial's core operations as a historical research society and specifically the group's mission to preserve the memory of the some 20 million Soviets who passed through the labor camps in the Great Terror of the 1930s. And it's really through both of these efforts that Memorial has run afoul of authorities, as President Vladimir Putin has sought to shape a more triumphant narrative of the Soviet past and show modern-day Russia as its proud inheritor.

Grigory Vaipan (ph) is a member of Memorial's legal team.

GRIGORY VAIPAN: Memorial symbolizes the link between the repressions of the Soviet Union and the repressions of the current regime in Russia.

INSKEEP: I wonder if we've just heard why it is that Memorial thinks they would be targeted this way. They're taking a second look at the Stalinist era, which is being glorified in some ways, and also taking a second look at people that Vladimir Putin prefers to have in prison or dead.

MAYNES: Exactly. You know, it's really hard to overstate just Memorial's importance to Russian civil society because it was there from the very beginning. It was formed in these later years of the Soviet Union by the Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov. The group symbolized the new freedoms, really, that emerged in Russia as an effort to engage openly and honestly about the past. And now we have prosecutors arguing Memorial should be shut down because its work blackens the proud history of the USSR and that the group, using foreign money, was trying to make Russians ashamed of their own country and stir up protests.

And I want to bring in another voice here. This is Memorial's Oleg Orlov, who said he was extremely bitter about what was happening, but at least prosecutors had laid bare why.

OLEG ORLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here Orlov is saying that it's obvious they're against Memorial for deep ideological reasons, and therefore the decision was made, he says, to destroy them.

INSKEEP: What happens if they do shut down, as the court has now ordered them to do?

MAYNES: Well, you know, this is part of this larger battle over who gets to tell the story of the Soviet Union, what kind of country Russia wants to become going forward. And Memorial put out a statement to the effect that said, you know, you can liquidate an organization, but you can't kill ideas or stamp out memory itself. Memorial will find ways to continue their work in pursuit of truth. It's been interesting to see a lot of people posing - posting stories of their family members who died in labor camps online.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, you know, he doesn't deny the repressions took place, but he certainly wants to define how that story is told. And, you know, it's a way for him to highlight the triumphs of the USSR, in particular, for example, the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, as a way to evoke these feelings of patriotism. And essentially, he's betting that a majority of Russians want the same.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks for your insights.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.