Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday. (Alexei Druginin via Ria Novosti / Kremlin Pool/European Pressphoto Agency)

THE RUSSIAN Ministry of Justice has taken another step toward suffocating Memorial, one of the world’s most respected human rights and civil society organizations. The Kremlin hopes to cripple a group that has courageously defended the memory of Stalin’s victims, while carrying out independent research into modern human rights abuses.

Memorial was founded in 1987 to preserve the history and memory of those who were brutally repressed by Joseph Stalin. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Memorial created a human rights center to investigate abuses and, by exposing them, ensure that the tragedies of the past would not be repeated. The Putin regime put Memorial on a list of organizations deemed to be “foreign agents” under a law that targets groups receiving financial support from abroad. The term “foreign agent” is redolent of Soviet-style accusations of treachery and disloyalty, and Memorial as well as others have rejected the label.

The latest pressure against Memorial came in a one-year audit received Nov. 9 by the human rights center in Moscow from the justice ministry. It concluded that the human rights center is “undermining the constitutional order of the Russian Federation” and “calling for the overthrow of the current government,” as well as seeking “a change of political regime in the country.”

These are grave charges, and absurd. According to the justice ministry, Memorial created “negative public opinion” about government actions in Ukraine, where Memorial has declared that Russia carried out “aggression” against another country and asserted that active-duty Russian soldiers were fighting, Kremlin denials notwithstanding. The government also charges that Memorial expressed “disagreement” with a court’s verdict against antigovernment protesters stemming from a May 2012 demonstration in Moscow. Yes, this much is true: Memorial has openly disagreed with the Kremlin and the powers that be. It is not quite clear what the justice ministry audit will mean, but it could be used in further action against Memorial.

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and his cronies fancy themselves the embodiment of the state, and anyone who creates “negative public opinion” must be “undermining the constitutional order.” In this, they are badly confused. They are not the state; they are supposed to serve the state. It would do them some good to read the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation. They would find that it guarantees Russian citizens freedom of conscience, religion, ideas and speech, and the right to freely look for, receive, transmit, produce and distribute information by any legal method. The constitution guarantees freedom of mass communication, outlaws censorship and guarantees freedom of public association.

Memorial does not threaten the constitutional order in Russia — in fact, it is the embodiment of civil society, that crucial connection between the rulers and the ruled that is so essential to a healthy nation. The real danger today comes from Mr. Putin, an autocrat intoxicated by power who cannot bear to hear criticism from any quarter.