Russia shuts down its oldest human rights group in Kremlin’s battle against Soviet past

A Russian court on Tuesday ordered the closure of the country’s oldest human rights organisation in an apparent attempt by the Kremlin to whitewash Soviet-era atrocities.

The court ruling comes at the end of a year marked by a ferocious crackdown on dissenting voices unseen since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.

Russia’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday to abolish Memorial, a human rights group co-founded in 1989 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, ostensibly for breaking a controversial law on foreign agents.

Authorities have for months insisted they were going after Memorial, which over the past three decades undertook a colossal effort to honour the memory of millions wrongfully executed and imprisoned under Josef Stalin in the 1930s, simply because it had repeatedly failed to use a disclaimer in its printed materials and website about receiving foreign funding.

A prosecutor in court on Tuesday, however, admitted that Memorial was targeted for shedding light on parts of Russian history that the current government wants to conceal.

“Memorial clearly abuses the issue of the political repressions of the 20th century, creates an erroneous image of the USSR as a terrorist state, whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals who have blood of Soviet citizens on their hands,” Prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said in court.

“Why do we, descendants of victors, have to watch them try to exonerate the traitors of our country and Nazi collaborators? Maybe because someone is paying for this.”

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has condemned Soviet authorities for imprisoning, killing and sending into exile millions of Soviet citizens and taken part in events commemorating the victims, including the opening of a major monument in Moscow in 2017.

He has also frequently referred to Josef Stalin, whose regime is believed to have killed 1.2 million in the Great Purge of 1937-1938 alone, as a leader who built a strong economy and brought victory in the Second World War.

Memorial has documented 3.5 million people executed or wrongfully imprisoned in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Genrikh Reznik, the lawyer who represented Memorial, told the court the future of Russia as a democracy hinges on its reckoning with its tragic past.

“Russia cannot become a country of law and take its place in the global community without commemorating the victims of political repressions,” he said.

“Memorial is at the forefront of this process.”

Several people were detained for picketing outside the court on Tuesday as Memorial supporters chanted “For shame!” after the verdict.

Alexander Cherkasov, a member of Memorial’s board, said the prosecutor’s remarks in court confirmed their suspicions that an attack on the rights group marks the Kremlin’s growing tendency to whitewash the atrocities of the Soviet regime.

“They’re clearly acting on the political will of those who don’t want the knowledge about the terrible past of our country to be revealed,” Mr Cherkasov said on Dozhd TV channel.

Along with its research branch, Memorial runs a major human rights advocacy that documents rights abuse in Russia and provides legal support for the victims.

Earlier this year the Kremlin moved to crush Russia’s most influential opposition movement by jailing Alexei Navalny and forcing some of his most prominent allies out of the country.

In Spring it also branded his organisation as extremist.

Several people have been sentenced to jail time for attacking police at rallies in support of Mr Navalny, and most of Russia’s independent newsrooms have been branded “foreign agents”, a label fraught with hefty fines and even jail time.

In Siberia, two former heads of Mr Navalny’s regional headquarters were detained on Tuesday after morning raids on their homes.

Ksenia Fadeyeva and Zakhar Sarapulov, two of only a few high-profile Navalny allies who have not fled Russia, could face charges of extremism for membership of his group. 

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