THE OLD trunk weighed more than 81 pounds. It was crammed with handwritten letters sent between 1946 and 1954 that were held together with string and rubber bands. The letters revealed the love story of Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, a couple separated by Lev’s imprisonment in the Soviet gulag after World War II. What made the letters extraordinary is that they were uncensored, smuggled back and forth from the Pechora prison camp in the far north. The letters became the basis for Orlando Figes’s moving book, “Just Send Me Word,” published in 2012.
What makes this relevant today is that the Mishchenko trove of letters was found by Figes at Memorial, a Russian organization formed in the dying days of the Soviet Union to ensure that the story of Stalinist repression would not be forgotten. Memorial has also, separately, been at the forefront of human rights work, determined not to let the brutality of the past be repeated. Now Memorial is facing demands by President Vladimir Putin’s government that the organization be closed. This would represent a loss beyond description.
In its archives, Memorial has preserved stories of the suffering inflicted upon millions of people by the Soviet police state. The Mishchenkos survived and were reunited; many others met a worse fate. The only way a society can begin to heal from such wounds is to preserve the lessons of history for future generations.
But Mr. Putin, a scion of the Soviet KGB that inflicted so much of the suffering, has no use for Memorial. On Friday, news services reported that the Russian Justice Ministry had filed a petition with the Supreme Court to force Memorial to close. A hearing is set for Nov. 13.
The move appears to be based on a legal technicality concerning Memorial’s structure, which includes a Moscow office and a decentralized network of regional groups that engage in human rights, charitable, historical and educational work. Memorial, registered with the Justice Ministry in 1992, has existed this way for many years, but only now has the government decided there is something wrong. As if to twist the knife, Mr. Putin’s loyalists unleashed a smear campaign against Memorial on the NTV television channel, accusing the group of supporting extremists and terrorists.
Earlier, the Kremlin’s pressure on Memorial included attempts to force it to accept the status of a “foreign agent” under a new Russian law that has been used to harass groups that receive funding from abroad. Memorial has resisted the insulting label, which is redolent of Soviet-style accusations of disloyalty and treachery.
No one should underestimate the power of the Russian state to crush a person or organization. Mr. Putin has done it repeatedly to silence his critics. But the squelching of Memorial would be an especially grievous blow to the Russian people and their ability to understand, and shape, their history.