Russian Memorial Foundation Protects History of Decades of Soviet Repression from Eviction | International
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From great-grandparents to great-grandchildren, no Russian generation has lived without episodes of state repression in the last century. In the archives of the International Memorial Foundation, which has just received the Nobel Peace Prize, the stories of countless citizens who were shot during the Yezhovshchina (Great Purge) of the 1930s, the Great Stalinist Terror, and many others who were arrested in the second half of the 20th century for wanting to promote political and social changes. Today, in the 21st century, their memory is being packed in boxes: Vladimir Putin’s regime has liquidated the organization that brought them to light and the foundation wants their documents to be protected from more than likely eviction.
“The situation is now worse than with the last governments of the USSR; a change is necessary and the malignant tumor must be removed”, says its director, Yan Rachinski, in the Memorial reading room, a few days after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with the Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties. In the books on the shelves are the lists of thousands of names of victims. According to his calculations, 1.1 million people were shot during the Great Purge.
“The problem is that Putin’s ideas are very dangerous,” warns Rachinski, noting that the totalitarianism of the 20th century “also spoke of the need to found a more just order (in his eyes)”. “Putin uses those very words, and his willingness to use arms for this idea can lead to a much larger conflict. The situation is very serious,” underlines the human rights activist, who also draws a parallel with the president’s statement that “that Ukraine does not exist, that there is only a Russian people.” “Denying people their roots has more than once led to bloodshed in different places,” he emphasizes.
A comparison with the Soviet regime of the seventies and eighties of the last century is very difficult. Among other things, then there was no internet nor had the opening after the collapse of the USSR been experienced. Rachinski explains that in those years of the Cold War, “prophylactic” measures were taken against specific dissident groups; today acts against protesters and critics “an enormous judicial body with policemen who go house to house and prosecutors who file complaints without any legal basis.”
However, Rachinski sees some similarities in the language. “Then it was forbidden to say that a war was being waged in Afghanistan, it was impossible to criticize it, that was ‘aid to the brothers of the Afghan people by a limited contingent of Soviet soldiers”, points out, just as the Kremlin is now talking about a special military operation to defend the self-proclaimed pro-Russian republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine.
The historic International Memorial building could soon be confiscated and several men remove boxes from the site. “Our fight continues. The archives will remain safe in Russia”, Rachinski affirms emphatically. This foundation formed an association with other NGOs with which it shares a name and values, and the Prosecutor’s Office has requested to invalidate the transfer of its assets to the Memorial Science and Education Center, an organization that remains legal. However, prosecutors maintain that the headquarters should be confiscated because, they maintain, “he maintained criminal activity by rehabilitating Nazi criminals, discrediting the authorities and creating a false image of the USSR.”
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The International Memorial archive is watched over by two angels guardians, Aliona Kozlova and Irina Ostróvskaya. They narrate some cases of Soviet repression that bear some resemblance to current news.
At the beginning of last October, a 10-year-old girl was arrested in a Moscow school. She had posted a poll on her social media – “War or peace?” she asked – and posted a picture of flowers that emulated the colors of the Ukrainian flag. In addition, she had skipped the new mandatory class where they teach that “there is no fear of dying for the motherland.” She was questioned at the police station.
The Memorial file records that in 1942, Alexei Priadilov, about 14 years old, was evacuated from Gorky (present-day Nizny Novgorod) by advancing German troops when he was in ninth grade. The boy and a friend drew a humor magazine amateur “Nothing political, just nonsense.” However, Stalin and other famous people appeared. They were arrested and sentenced to live in a gulag for 25 years. “She stopped writing letters to her mother because she thought she would die, so she could get used to the idea,” recalls one of the archivists. He got sick and at the end of World War II he had to be sent to a medical camp, but he was released.
Demonstrators who protested in September against the mobilization decreed by Putin have been sent to the Ukraine front after being arrested. Something similar happened in 1941 to the adolescent Vladimir Kortovsky. One of his teachers had been arrested and the students interceded with the Komsomol, the Soviet youth – which the Kremlin has “refounded” this year with a similar organization. On June 20, the day before the German invasion, he was arrested for it outside school. He was sentenced to six years in prison, which was later commuted by sending him to a punishment battalion. In the first battle he was wounded and returned an invalid to Moscow, where he was re-arrested in 1948 to serve his full sentence.
Back in the present, Russian authorities passed a law in March that condemns “discrediting the army” with up to 15 years in prison, and in recent years have targeted opposition politicians, activists and journalists with the labels of “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations”. This has facilitated the closure of Memorial, for example, and the imprisonment of dissidents who have not gone into exile.
In addition, today any university project abroad must be approved by the authorities, while many NGOs have been forced to close. Journalists and politicians have been tried for “treason against the state” after failing to hide their critical conferences with the government abroad.
Kozlova recalls that in the time of Stalin, who launched a campaign against all civil organizations that were not under his control, “the repression took people’s lives or part of them. Rehabilitation came decades later, when they had already died, spent years in jail, or lost their families.”
“There has been no other country that is an example of totalitarianism for 70 years. The case of Russia is difficult”, emphasizes the director of Memorial. For Rachinski, the only way out is to return to “the path towards the universal values of the human being”.
With International Memorial, an organization founded by an activist who has already received the same award for his fight against Soviet repression, Andrei Sakharov, has received the Nobel Peace Prize. And last year it was received by another Russian, the critical journalist Dmitri Muratov. “The prize was never received in our country with enthusiasm. We must remember the persecution against [los escritores] Boris Pasternak and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, or Sakharov, or how his delivery to the author Iván Bunin was criticized. It is a tradition, and the tradition is that time passes and nobody remembers their critics, but they will remain forever”, warns the new Nobel Peace Prize winner.
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