Russia clamping down on Human Rights Center 'Memorial' (1)

(Reuters/Scanpix)
11/13/2014 5:00 PM
Category: International

Russian authorities have taken steps to close the history, education and human rights association "Memorial". The association was declared a "foreign agent" in September. On Thursday, the Russian Supreme Court was set to hear a lawsuit aimed at dissolving "Memorial".

Formally called the “Russian Memorial Society,” the organization is comprised of more than 50 human rights groups in Russia and some neighboring countries. The assocation was founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov in 1989 and has led the efforts to uncover Soviet repressions and human rights abuses in modern-day Russia.

Arseny Roginsky, the head of the association, told ETV's "Välisilm" that Russian authorities dislike the fact that the organisation has been able to act independently for quarter of a century and form opinions that are not influenced by the official stance.

"The authorities actually have a problem with one specific thing. "Memorial" handles many issues: the human rights and our history. In both areas, its opinions differ from the official conceptions. We do not always share the official view, but this is not the main concern for the authorities. It is the fact that an independent organisation, with regional divisions all over Russia and one that forms its opinions irregardless of national politics, has been allowed to run freely for 25 years," said Roginsky.

In addition to researching history, "Memorial" also documents contemporary repressions. Last week, it added Ukrainian pilot Nadežda Savtšenko to its list of political prisoners, irritating the Kremlin further.

Russia’s Justice Ministry has now appealed to the Supreme Court to close the Memorial over technical issues, related to its legal registration. The Russian Supreme Court, which was set to discuss the case on Thursday, postponed the hearing until December 17, allowing "Memorial" to eliminate the violations the ministry has referred to.

Urmas Paet, the former Estonian Foreign Minister and now member of the European Parliament, said that the closure of the organisation would be a blow to all of those who suffered under the Soviet repressions - Russian authorities would basically override the pain and memories of hundreds of thousands.

""Memorial" has spent over 20 years researching and documenting the Soviet repressions, both on a general level, and in terms of individual experiences. The current government does not like it and aims to shut "Memorial" down," Paet said.

Acceptance versus justification

The crusade against "Memorial" comes at a time when Russia has been accused of rewriting history. Last week, President Putin openly defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP).

Roginsky said that part of Putin's argument is correct, signing of the pact was indeed a common practice at the time. "But does this mean that we should justify the crime on this basis? From our point of view, the MRP, and its direct consequences between 1939-1941, were a crime against humanity. We should see it as such, a crime that needs to be remembered and never committed again. That's all it is."

"But saying that this is how it was done is looking for a justification. I feel that we should not try to justify it. There was a time when people ate people. So what? If we want to stop cannibalism happening in the future, we have to say it is a bad thing. The same principle applies to the MRP," he added.

A poll recently conducted by Russian non-governmental research organization Levada Center revealed that more than half of the Russian population thinks that historiography is unnecessary: one must live in the present and look into the future. Roginsky does not find this at all surprising.

"Our past is complicated. It is much easier for Estonia to divide the past into categories of "us" and "them", where "us" is the good guys and "them" are the bad. "We" lived here, "they" came and conquered us. The "us" fighting for our freedom is a simple construction that the mass consciousness will readily accept."

"This won't work in Russia, for the "we" killed "us". We cannot say that someone hurt us. We hurt ourselves. But this is not an easy thing for the public to accept and the mass consciousness is as if paralyzed in front of this knowledge. The mass consciousness that has made a habit of venerating the state, is paralyzed by the thought of "state crimes". It is all very difficult and people often simplify things and say, let us not think of it, it's all in the past now," he said.

But a more enlightened future requires an understanding of the past, said Roginsky, adding, "I am convinced that to be a free country we need to remember what it was like to not be free; to have justice we need to remember what it feels like if there is no justice."


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