‘Memorial’ Human Rights Activists in Russia Face Arrest, Arson, Murder

Over the past two weeks, the pressure on Memorial has gone critical and dangerous for its employees in two Russian regions, the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Human Rights Center Memorial/Handout/REUTERS

MOSCOW—The Human Rights Center “Memorial” is an important—indeed, a vital—part of post-Soviet Russian history. It grew out of what was called a Week of Conscience in 1988, when young student activists and senior political dissidents, former Gulag prisoners, put up the names and stories of victims of Soviet repression, former “enemies of the people,” on a wall outside a small theater in Moscow.

That same year the activists looked to Andrei Sakharov, a political dissident who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. In the mid-1980s, as he and his wife Jelena Bonner suffered in internal exile, Sakharov had held a 207-day hunger strike. In 1988, with the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, the young activists named Sakharov the honorary head of their society, which came to be known simply as “Memorial.”

For three decades its mission has been to protect the memory of victims and defend human rights in Russia. For those who work there, the job is full of risks. Over the last 18 years—the era of Vladimir Putin’s rule—Memorial’s human rights defenders have been kidnapped, beaten, imprisoned, shot dead, their offices were raided, and set on fire. But the movement did not die, for its activists believed that Russia deserved to remember its true history, its true victims.

Over the past two weeks, the pressure on Memorial has gone critical and dangerous for its employees in two Russian regions, the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The head of the Chechen office, Oyub Titiyev, was arrested last on Tuesday, Jan. 9, on what Memorial’s lawyers say is a falsified case of drug possession. Meanwhile, his family members received threats from local police. On Wednesday of last week, at 3:25 a.m., security cameras captured two men in masks setting ablaze Memorial’s office in Nazran, Ingushetia. On Friday, Chechen police arrived to raid the office in Grozny.

Earlier, speaking at a meeting with police officers, Chechnya’s authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov attacked Memorial, referring to its activists as “enemies of people” who told the world about Russian issues to discredit the state. “There is no place for such people in Chechnya,” Kadyrov said. Kadyrov referred to the head of Memorial’s center in Grozny as a “drug addict.” The Chechen leader was angry that dozens of international organizations had expressed their support for Oyub Titiyev and Memorial.

That was a dangerous statement by a leader with absolute authority in the republic. “Kadyrov declared an ultimatum, basically telling us that he bans our activity in Chechnya,” The chairman of Memorial, Alexander Cherkasov, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview at the head office in Moscow.

As he spoke, on the wall nearby was the portrait of a beautiful woman Natalya Estemirova. She was a heroic human rights defender who knew the risks entailed in her work only too well. As the head of Memorial Human Rights Center in Chechnya, Estemirova fought against corruption and injustice, and she would not leave the republic even after Kadyrov personally threatened her life. Eight years have passed since her murder, and we still do not know who ordered it.

SINCE THE FIRST WEEK OF CONSCIENCE in 1988, thousands of activists and dozens of organizations have joined the Memorial movement all across the regions of Russia and in some neighboring countries. Memorial’s centers have archived information about more than 3 million victims of Soviet repression, opened libraries and monuments, helped law enforcement agencies to free captives during hostage crises and provided at least 5,000 families of abducted and disappeared citizens with legal support.

“Memorial is the pride of Russia, which the state should be protecting and defending—the state would only benefit from cooperating with Memorial,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, a longtime member of International Memorial’s council.

As a member of the Kremlin’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, Gannushkina also has discussed human rights issues with President Putin six times.

“I heard Putin speak about Memorial with respect on several occasions,” Gannushkina told The Daily Beast. “But at the moment I doubt that the president has enough power to control Ramzan Kadyrov. The Kremlin’s policy in Chechnya has failed. It is rumored Kadyrov once said that he has built Grozny and he will destroy Grozny, so Kadyrov, who is furious with Memorial, the last of his critics, is a huge challenge for Putin.”

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On Friday, Putin’s rival in the 2018 presidential elections, Ksenia Sobchak, wrote an open letter to Kadyrov. “How come you do not understand that people fighting for human rights are the best, most important members of human kind! And you, I am sure, will need their protection some day.”

Last September, President Putin unveiled a big Monument to Victims of Political Repressions on Sakharov Prospect in downtown Moscow, originally initiated by Memorial. "This horrific past must not be stricken from the national memory—let alone justified in any way—by any so-called higher good of the people,” Putin said at the opening ceremony.

There is a strong opinion among the Kremlin’s experts that human rights defenders do not need help: “Look, the United Nations, the European Council, the U.S. State Department—everybody released statements in support of Memorial, they do not need any help from authorities,” a member of the Public Chamber, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast. “I respect Memorial’s work on rehabilitation of victims and archives, but when it comes to human rights, I believe they should not be working on the memories of dead but instead, protect the rights of Russian people in Ukraine and in Baltic countries, where they are massively abused.”

THE WORLD’S BIGGEST COUNTRY, Russia, has many painful memories in its long history. People need a place to feel protected. During the second war in Chechnya in 1999-2009, the  Memorial Human Rights Center in Nazran was a place where people came for shelter and help. That small, always-crowded office was a home for us reporters where we could see human rights defenders interviewing people in trouble, documenting cases of violence, of destroyed property, abducted or killed relatives. Memorial’s lawyers helped the victims to find their loved ones, to file complaints with police and prosecutors.

Today that office is black, burned, full of ashes, deserted. “The head of Ingushetia republic, [Yunus-bek] Yevkurov, has promised to investigate the incident; but the attack on the Grozny office is persistent, ongoing,” Cherkasov told The Daily Beast. “It all depends on whether Putin decides to pick up the phone, call Kadyrov and put an end to this massive attack.”

“This is an attack on Russia’s leading rights group—on the very possibility of advancing human rights in Chechnya, and even more widely, an attack on the very possibility of doing human rights work in contemporary Russia,” said Tanya Lokshina, Moscow program director of Human Rights Watch. “The attack is not limited to Chechnya. These gruesome events are ongoing. Memorial’s office in Ingushetia is destroyed and the organization is viciously smeared by federal broadcasters.”