Russia’s oldest and most respected human-rights organization, Memorial, was founded in the 1980s by Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents. For more than 25 years, it has documented the horrors of the USSR’s long Stalinist nightmare, and boldly challenged the Kremlin’s post-Soviet abuses in Chechnya, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Memorial has won awards and accolades for its brave defense of justice and individual dignity; last year it was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the European Parliament.
But if Vladimir Putin gets his way, Memorial may be about to disappear.
Russia’s justice ministry recently applied to the country’s supreme court seeking to “liquidate” the venerable human-rights group. The Putin regime accuses Memorial of everything from aiding terrorism in the Caucasus to fomenting discord on behalf of foreign powers to various technical violations in its organizational setup. The Russian Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing on the Kremlin’s “liquidation” demand for Nov. 13. Before the month is out, Memorial may conceivably be no more than that — a memory.
Like all shrewd despots, Putin knows that power isn’t only amassed on the military and diplomatic battlefields, as with the annexation of Crimea or the bullying of Georgia. Skillfully and relentlessly, he has also exploited Russia’s legal system to destroy opponents once deemed untouchable, confiscating their wealth and dispatching them to prison . If he can roll over former oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, there probably isn’t much he can’t do to Memorial and its leaders.
In Putin’s Russia, history, too, is a battleground. The one-time high-ranking KGB officer has often signaled his nostalgia for the old Soviet Union; its collapse, he said, was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” He has praised Josef Stalin, one of the modern era’s bloodiest villains, and discouraged criticism of the ugly Soviet past. Last week, Putin even defended the 1939 non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler, in which the two tyrants agreed to carve up Poland and the Baltics, clearing the way for the invasion of Poland — and the onset of World War II — a few days later.
An organization like Memorial, with its unassailable commitment to truth and the rights of conscience, is an ongoing affront to Putin’s dominion. It is cloaked with a moral authority he cannot hope to match and is therefore determined to stifle. If what’s past is prologue, Putin will not rest until Memorial has been silenced, either through intimidation or a judicial kneecapping. “Who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Putin has every intention of controlling Russia’s future.