MOSCOW — Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the liquidation of the country’s most prominent human rights organization, the International Memorial Society, in a decision that dismayed rights advocates.
The International Memorial Society, known as Memorial, was set up by dissidents — including renowned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov — during the final years of the Soviet Union. It is focused on researching Soviet abuses in the gulag, a vast web of prison camps where political prisoners toiled and died, many of them executed on the basis of concocted evidence.
It also has an archive of the case files of more than 60,000 Soviet victims of state repression — a sensitive issue as Russia rolls back rights and jails critics for protesting or even for joking about the regime.
Prosecutors accused the International Memorial Society of violating Russia’s law on foreign agents, which is used by authorities to target rights groups, independent journalists and activists. The court accepted the prosecutors’ call to liquidate Memorial for failing to tag all its materials with a foreign agent label, and it ruled that the organization and all of its regional and structural units would be abolished.
The organization countered that it had made strenuous efforts to meet the many requirements of the law. Memorial lawyer Grigory Vaipan said it was the first prosecution in Russia that sought to abolish an organization based solely on breaches of the law on foreign agents.
After the decision, Memorial supporters chanted “Shame!” outside the court. Police earlier arrested several Memorial supporters at the court who held up signs with slogans such as “We are Memorial” and “Hands off Memorial.” They also detained a few Memorial opponents with posters portraying the group as Nazis.
The organization’s human rights wing, Memorial Human Rights Center, faces a similar court hearing Wednesday to address charges of justifying terrorism and extremism, which could also result in its liquidation. The center focuses on contemporary human rights abuses. It released a tally of the 419 political prisoners jailed in Russia several months ago, and it has helped more than 1,500 Russians take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to challenge rights abuses by Russian authorities.
President Vladimir Putin has taken a sharp authoritarian turn since engineering constitutional changes in 2020 to allow him to stay in power potentially until 2036. Authorities have targeted critics, declaring them to be foreign agents, undesirable organizations or extremists.
State agents poisoned the country’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, last year using a banned chemical weapon, according to the U.S. State Department. Authorities jailed him in February, designated his organizations as extremist in June and barred his associates from running for office.
The court decision on Memorial sets an ominous precedent for dozens of other organizations designated as foreign agents by Russian authorities.
It also raises questions about the fate of Memorial’s archives containing the personal files of 60,000 victims of Soviet repression, its searchable database containing 3 million names of victims, and its database with the names of nearly 42,000 people who worked for the Soviet secret police from 1935 to 1939, when repression peaked.
The archives are seen by activists as an irreplaceable record of the crimes of the Soviet state against millions of its citizens. Memorial’s own lawyers have said the group raises uncomfortable questions for a regime increasingly bent on legal repression of critics.
Prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said Tuesday that the International Memorial Society focused on “distorting history,” particularly about the Soviet record during the “Great Patriotic War,” as World War II is called in Russia. He asserted that the group worked at the behest of foreigners to create a false image of the Soviet Union as a “terrorist state.”
“It is obvious that, by cashing in on the subject of political reprisals of the 20th century, Memorial is mendaciously portraying the USSR as a terrorist state and whitewashing and vindicating Nazi criminals having blood of Soviet citizens on their hands,” Zhafyarov said.
Vaipan, Memorial’s lawyer, said the real violator was not Memorial but the Russian state for its law on foreign agents.
Another Memorial advocate, Maria Eismont, said the organization was dedicated to fighting for the openness of information, yet was accused by prosecutors of hiding the truth. She quoted George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” to describe the prosecution’s case, saying: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
“The liquidation of the International Memorial Society will throw the country backward and increase the risk of all-out repression,” she added.
Andrei Plushev, a presenter with the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, said the court’s decision was political and amounted to “a public justification of Stalinist repression.”
Renowned Russian human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who fled Russia in September after authorities charged him with disclosing state secrets when he was representing a journalist charged with treason, said the verdict sends a message that anyone engaged in activism faces possible prosecution. Pavlov is known for defending opposition figures, journalists and rights activists.
“Memorial began the human rights era in our country, and it ends it today,” he said.
Condemnation of the decision poured in from rights advocates around the world. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called the ruling “a blatant and tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history.”
Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, called it “heart-breaking” in a tweet.
Denmark’s foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, said Memorial’s liquidation “is another step in the deplorable degradation of human rights” in Russia. Sam Zarifi, secretary general of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists,called it “another step toward darkness” in the country.
Piotr M.A. Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum and memorial in Poland, tweeted, “A power that is afraid of memory will never be able to achieve democratic maturity.”
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asian division of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that Memorial had worked for more than 30 years “to commemorate victims of Soviet repression, preserve truth about The Great Terror, [and] promote open debate.”
“It’s an outrageous assault on the jugular of Russia’s civil society,” she wrote. “Even when authorities have banned key opposition movement, jailed opposition figures, pushed independent media to the margins . . . today’s ruling is heralding a new era of repression.”
The European Parliament adopted a resolution Dec. 15 condemning what it called Russia’s politically motivated attempt to liquidate the two organizations.
On Monday, a Russian court increased the sentence of Yuri Dmitriyev, Memorial’s local chief in Karelia, in northwestern Russia, from 13 years to 15 years, after he was convicted of child pornography in a case that he says was fabricated for political reasons. Dmitriyev, a historian, played a key role in the investigation of a mass grave in Sandarmokh where at least 6,000 corpses were buried, victims of Stalin-era executions in 1937 and 1938.
Russian authorities also on Monday blocked the website of OVD-Info, a rights group that provides legal support to regime critics who are arrested.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that there was no trend in Russia to prohibit human rights groups.
“Yes, these are individual situations,” he said. “Some are less high-profile from a public viewpoint, some are more high-profile, but we don’t believe it’s some kind of a mass tendency. We don’t see any tendencies here.”
But a senior lawyer for Memorial, Marina Agaltsova, who has spent many years fighting for the release of archival materials in Russian courts, said that past repressions were painful for Russia’s authorities because they reflected on the present repression of critics and activists.
The message sent by liquidating the International Memorial Society is “that basically it’s very dangerous to do anything connected to politics,” she said. “And don’t be courageous, because it will lead to bad results, meaning that your organization can be liquidated or you can be imprisoned.”
Agaltsova added: “Russia sees itself as the child of the USSR. Of course we showed that there was state-organized terror during the Soviet era, but this is somehow very painful for the state authorities.” She said officials told her that the names of prosecutors and secret police from decades ago must continue to be kept secret because they were “serving our motherland.”
“Since they perceive this service that the prosecutors were doing at that time as something good — serving the country — I believe they are also afraid for themselves as well. It’s all interconnected,” Agaltsova said in a phone interview after the decision.
He spent years uncovering the Stalin-era execution of his great-grandfather. Lawsuits seek to bury the evidence.