The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin wants to shut down Russia’s Memorial, but he can’t erase the past

A supporter of the International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society — known as Memorial — holds a poster that reads “We are Memorial” outside the Russian Supreme Court during a hearing in Moscow on Dec. 28. (Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

At first, the idea was to build a monument to the victims of Joseph Stalin’s repressions. As the Soviet Union in 1988 was undergoing the earth-shattering changes of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, the idea grewto include a museum, an archive and library. A mass movement quickly took shape in support of the Memorial Society. But Soviet authorities resisted, refusing the request by dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov to register the effort. They said the new organization was not necessary, but Sakharov persisted and the group was officially launched in 1989. It blossomed into a prestigious center for research and commemoration of Stalin’s crimes, and for the defense of human rights.

On Tuesday, it was liquidated by the Russian Supreme Court and the regime of President Vladimir Putin. The court ordered the closure of Memorial International, the group’s archival branch, on the specious grounds that it had not done enough to display the label of “foreign agent” imposed on it five years ago in an earlier wave of harassment. On Wednesday, a Moscow city court is expected to decide whether to close Memorial’s Human Rights Center, which has discomfited the Kremlin by defending victims of rights abuses.

In the attack on Memorial, Mr. Putin aims to obliterate one of the most important and tangible accomplishments of the democratic flowering of the late 1980s and 1990s. Memorial was a shining example of civil society, an independent association formed to give voice to — and accountability for — the millions who were deported, imprisoned or executed in Stalin’s forced labor camps. It was an article of faith to Sakharov and others that a healthy democratic society could only be built with a penetrating examination and understanding of the past. Memorial did not disappoint; its databases contain more than 3 million names (a fraction of the total repressed) and invaluable records about their merciless punishment.

But this reminder of the past pains Mr. Putin, who wants to airbrush away such dark memories and replace them with gauzy recounting of Soviet triumphs as he goes about eradicating what’s left of Russian democracy and replacing it with dictatorship. A prosecutor asked during Tuesday’s hearing, speaking of Memorial: “ … why instead of taking pride for our country, victorious in the war and which liberated the whole world, do they suggest that we repent for our, as it turned out, pitch dark past?”

The dark past is returning. Mr. Putin’s security forces in 2020 attempted to assassinate the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who survived, and who is now approaching the first anniversary of his unjust imprisonment. Journalists, lawyers, activists and all of civil society in Russia are being crushed. Most recently, government censors blocked the website of OVD-Info, an organization that keeps track of unlawful persecutions on political grounds, and provides lawyers for the victims. Such are the Kremlin’s formidable powers of coercion. But what Mr. Putin underestimates is the resilience of ideas. He can try to knock down the walls of Memorial, but he cannot extinguish the memory of Soviet crimes, nor of today’s unfortunate return to despotism.

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