Russia’s Supreme Court has ordered the country’s oldest human rights watchdog to shut down for refusing to toe the Kremlin line that it was a “foreign agent.”
The ruling against Memorial International—which fought for human rights in contemporary Russia while also investigating Soviet repressions—came despite more than 138,000 people signing a petition to save the group, with Mikhail Gorbachev and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov among those demanding that authorities back off.
The Prosecutor General’s Office only doubled down, however, demanding Memorial be liquidated for supposedly failing to properly display the controversial “foreign agents” label on its website and published materials. The label has long been viewed as a tool for political repression against groups critical of the Kremlin.
Yan Rachinsky, the head of the organization, vowed after Tuesday’s ruling to appeal the decision and go to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.
While it has long been clear that the organization was in the Kremlin’s crosshairs, the order to shut the group down sparked outrage at the court. At least 200 supporters of Memorial had braved brutal December temperatures to throw their support behind the group. Several demonstrators were reportedly detained after the ruling, and chants of “shame!” erupted in the courtroom as the decision was read out.
The Prosecutor General’s Office had complained that Memorial “creates the false image of the U.S.S.R. as a terrorist state, and whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals.”
Supporters have argued that the group provoked the wrath of Russian authorities by doing the exact opposite, however. The group has long been seen as crucial in fending off the whitewashing of Josef Stalin and the Stalin-era secret police, a trend that has crept up in Russia in recent years, and led to concerns of a full revision of history under Vladimir Putin.
The group sought to preserve the memory of victims of Stalin-era horrors and cautioned against leaving them out of history—a practice that apparently struck a nerve with authorities.
According to The Moscow Times, a state prosecutor who argued against Memorial in court did nothing to hide his disdain for the group’s scrutiny of Soviet-era abuses, asking, “Why do we, the offspring of victors, have to repent and be embarrassed, instead of being proud of our glorious past?”
The group has also documented abuses in Chechnya, as well as Russia’s growing list of political prisoners in recent years, including Alexei Navalny and other members of the opposition.
Many view the group’s closure as the final nail in the coffin of Russian civil society.
The veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, in a blog post immediately after Tuesday’s ruling, said the decision means “that in the incoming [year of] 2022, repression will be unleashed to the max.”
“Happy New Year, future victims of repression!” he titled the blog post.
In an open letter penned in mid-November, dozens of prominent Russian figures had warned the group’s demise would mark one of the most detrimental events of the 21st century.
“The disappearance of Memorial in Russia will become a symbol of a deep moral fall and the definitive symbolic estrangement of the Russian man from the civilization of the 21st century,” the letter read.
“The wounds that have not healed over the 30 post-Soviet years are bleeding again.”