MOSCOW — The Russian Justice Ministry has moved to dissolve one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations, in a step that would silence a longtime Kremlin critic at a time of deepening conflict between Russia and the West.
The suit filed against the Russian Memorial Society aims to shutter a venerable group that was founded in the waning years of the Soviet Union to document abuses committed against critics of the reigning Communist leadership. The group has pressed to open once-secret archives about political prisons and dissidents and to arrange for reparations and services for victims of political persecution.
The move against Memorial, which has worked to commemorate the worst excesses of Soviet persecution, comes as echoes of Soviet life have reentered Russian society. State-run television frequently boasts of the power of Russia’s nuclear weaponry. Some of Putin’s political opponents have been confined to house arrest, and others have fled the country. And Putin’s most powerful security advisers have said that the country needs to draw inward economically to build its strength and lessen its dependence on the West — steps that recall the Soviet bloc’s centralized, state-planned economy.
Other Russian civil society organizations have been targeted and harassed since Putin retook the presidency in spring 2012 and swiftly took steps to crack down on opposition, and some have been forced to shut down. Memorial also criticizes what it sees as contemporary human rights abuses, and in recent months it has condemned Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine, where a bloody battle has ensued after pro-Russian rebels seized territory in the east.
The Justice Ministry lawsuit targets Memorial over technical issues related to its legal registration. The legal action was filed Sept. 24 but was first publicized late last week. Russia’s Supreme Court will hear the case Nov. 13. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Critics of the new action say that targeting the group would erode Russia’s already fragile understanding of its Communist legacy.
“Russia has never recognized the crime of the Soviet regime, the crimes of the Stalin regime and the millions that died — there was no repentance,” said Lev Ponomarev, one of the founders of the organization. “The Memorial Society works so that a new authoritarian society will not appear. So the significance is huge.”
Leaders of Memorial say that they will fight the move to shut the group down, even if it means continuing to operate without any legal registration.
“We started to work in Soviet times, during Perestroika, without any registration,” said Yann Rachinsky, a member of Memorial’s board. “So one way or another, all of our organizations will continue their work.”
He said that the Justice Ministry had been pursuing Memorial for two years. Even if the group is not shut down but simply has to reconfigure its registrations, he said, the paperwork alone could be enough to challenge Memorial’s ability to pursue its ordinary day-to-day work.
Memorial has not actually received a full copy of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also drew criticism from the head of a Kremlin-
appointed human rights advisory body.
“I was shocked” to hear of the legal complaint, said Mikhail Fedotov, the chairman of the Presidential Council on Human Rights.
“Memorial is a very well-known and respected organization, and the negative consequences of such a case could be much larger and much more significant than the formal observance of the law,” he said. He said that he was attempting to broker a compromise that would delay the court case to give Memorial a chance to take steps to comply with the legal complaint.
A sister organization to the Russian Memorial Society that works to document and combat human rights abuses in the post- Soviet world was targeted this summer under Russia’s “foreign agent” law, which forces groups that take foreign funding and engage in political activities to register with the government and submit reports on their work.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.