Riot police make arrests during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on January 31, 2021. Photo: AFP / Natalia Kolesnikova

Vladimir Putin’s inclination to crush any perceived opposition has taken aim at one of Russia’s most courageous and effective human-rights organizations. The state’s Prosecutor General’s Office says that Memorial, an organization that for almost a quarter-century has relentlessly exposed both Soviet and post-USSR rights abuses, must be shut down for “justifying extremism and terrorism.”

One Memorial branch, the International Memorial Society, was accused of being a “foreign agent,” a label that is used with increasing frequency to erase any and all effective opposition to Putin’s long rein. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), heir to the Soviet KGB, can make such a designation and keep it secret. 

In addition, Memorial’s Human Rights Center was charged not only with failing to register as a foreign agent but with issuing statements in support of terrorists and extremists. A hearing for both entities will be held this month.

Human-rights organizations in and out of Russia lambasted the steps.

“We consider this assault by the Prosecutor’s Office to be just one of many actions by the authorities in recent times that are systematically intended to suppress the institutions of civil society, among which Memorial occupies a leading position,” wrote the Sakharov Center, a Moscow cultural organization dedicated to human rights.

Human Rights Watch called the effort to shut down Memorial an “outrageous assault on the jugular of Russia’s civil society.”

The Memorial case continues a recent relentless campaign by the Kremlin to snuff out any nests of opposition to his autocratic rule. The crackdown’s signature event was the August 2020 effort to kill opposition leader Alexei Navalny via nerve-agent poisoning. Navalny survived and, after convalescing in Germany, returned home in January, only to be thrown in jail.

Pro-Navalny demonstrations broke out. His online dissident organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, prepared to run candidates in last summer’s legislative elections to undo dominance of Putin’s United Russia party.

But in April, a Moscow court declared the foundation an extremist organization and shut it down. Another court banned all symbols and financing of it; activists could be liable to 15 years in jail, while simple members could face six years’ imprisonment. The foundation disbanded. 

Putin also strong-armed both Apple and Google to eliminate from their services reference to opposition tactics meant to deny Putin candidates victory. Failure could earn the arrest of the tech giants’ Russian employees.

Putin-backed candidates swept the elections.

Yet the beat went on: Russian regulators threatened to fine Facebook if it permitted undefined “extremist” information on its site.

“Even against this grim backdrop, the attack on Memorial is shocking,” Human Rights Watch wrote. “Throughout Russia’s contemporary history, Memorial has been the backbone of the country’s human-rights community. It has been the epicenter of Russian civil society, the protector of memory about Soviet repression and post-Soviet human-rights abuses.”

Putin has all but ended Russia’s experiment in electoral democracy. It began under the late Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. After Putin took power in the year 2000, he set out to weaken early liberal reforms put in place by his predecessor.

Regional elections ended, independent media were crushed, potential rivals fled into exile, and occasional assassinations reminded dissidents of the cost of opposing his or his cronies’ rule.

What Putin called “managed democracy” turned into a juggernaut of dictatorship. Memorial’s downfall will become his latest trophy.

Long struggle against abuses

From its origins in 1987, Memorial grew to some 60 branches across Russia and others in former Soviet republics. Nobel Peace laurate Andrei Sakharov was a founder. Until Covid-19 swept into Russia last year, Memorial organized a yearly remembrance of victims of Soviet home-grown terror, which was held in front of KGB – now FSB – headquarters in central Moscow.

Memorial exposed numerous war crimes and human-rights abuses during a pair of armed conflicts in Chechnya. In 2009, Memorial researcher Natalia Estemirova, who ventured into Chechnya to document possible war crimes, was kidnapped in the Chechen capital Grozny and murdered in next-door Ingushetia.

One of Memorial’s most recent reports listed some 420 political prisoners currently in Russian jails, including Alexei Navalny.

Memorial’s oversight board slammed the anti-extremism laws that are being employed to shut down the organization. “This is a political decision.… We have repeatedly stated that the law was originally conceived as a tool to crack down on independent organizations, and insisted that it should be abolished,” the board wrote.

The election-monitoring group non-governmental organization Golos – which the Kremlin has  labeled a foreign agent – called on Russians who are not “indifferent to the future of this country … to convene an emergency civic conference to work out collective measures to resist this targeted attack on civil rights and liberties.”

The chances of public pressure to reverse the assault on Memorial seem slim. Last winter and early spring, nationwide protests over Navalny’s arrest led to hundreds of arrests. The last pro-Navalny demonstration took place in April. Organized opposition is either quiescent or leaders are in exile.

The only outstanding question is which rights group will be next of Putin’s apparently infinite chopping block.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.