Caravanserai
Human Rights

With shuttering of Memorial rights group, Kremlin aims to control the past

By Caravanserai and AFP

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Moscow police officers December 28 detain a Memorial International supporter outside Russia's Supreme Court, after a prosecutor's request to dissolve the country's most prominent rights group for allegedly violating the controversial law on 'foreign agents'. [Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP]

MOSCOW -- The shutting down of prominent rights group Memorial, critics and historians say, is the clearest sign yet of the Kremlin's desire to control not only Russia's present but its past as well.

The Supreme Court last week ordered Memorial International -- a symbol of Russia's reckoning with Stalinism -- to close its doors over alleged violations of a controversial "foreign agents" law.

The move came at the end of a year that saw an unprecedented crackdown on Russia's opposition, with the jailing of top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, arrests of his supporters and the shutdown of independent media.

Memorial is more than a rights group. Since its founding in 1989, it has tirelessly chronicled Stalin-era purges, often putting it at odds with President Vladimir Putin's efforts to glorify the Soviet era.

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An employee inspects archive documents at the office of rights group Memorial in Moscow on November 15. The Russian Supreme Court shut down the rights group in late December. A symbol of Russia's democratisation in the 1990s, Memorial campaigned for historical truth and created a huge archive of Soviet-era crimes. The group also stood for human rights in the country, especially in the volatile North Caucasus region. [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

With Memorial out of the way, historians fear the narrative will now firmly be in the hands of those -- like Russia's powerful security services -- who prefer a less nuanced version of the country's past.

"They are trying to create one single narrative, their own," historian Nikita Sokolov said.

"Memorial is the carrier of this other version of the people's memory."

The group has built a huge archive of those who suffered under dictator Joseph Stalin, with almost every Russian counting victims of 1930s repression in his or her family tree.

But during the high-profile trial, prosecutors accused Memorial of denigrating the memory of the Soviet Union.

"Why must we, the descendants of victors, be ashamed and repentant instead of being proud of a glorious past?" prosecutor Alexei Zhafyarov said in his concluding argument.

'Victims but no perpetrators'

Young Russians -- an entire generation that has grown up under Putin's two-decade rule -- have increasingly been fed a version of the past in which Stalin-era crimes are but a minor detail.

"It is a 'light' version of Soviet history, in which the state is not guilty," said political analyst Alexei Makarkin.

At the centre of the Kremlin's version of history, Stalin is portrayed as a victor in World War II -- which Russians call the "Great Patriotic War" -- rather than a dictator who had millions of his own citizens shot or sent to labour camps.

Memorial contradicted this doctrine and particularly angered authorities with its mission to expose the identities of Stalinist perpetrators.

Its director, Yan Rachinsky, told AFP that while the government does not deny the repressions, "It is a question of interpretation."

The state is trying to show that there were "individual bad people who did this, it's as if there were victims but no perpetrators", he said.

"We clearly showed that this was state policy and that the Soviet Union was a terrorist state."

The end of 2021 saw several other moves against any kind of criticism of the official version of history.

One of Memorial's Gulag historians, Yury Dmitriyev, had his prison sentence increased to 15 years the same week of the Supreme Court ruling.

Supporters of Dmitriyev -- who spent years uncovering mass graves in northern Russia -- say the child sex charges against him are unfounded and punishment for his work.

A teenager was also sentenced to four years in prison last month after he posted a picture online of himself urinating on a public sign featuring a portrait of a World War II veteran.

With Stalin increasingly glorified in Russian history books and on state television, a poll by the independent Levada Centre last summer found more than half of Russians have a positive view of the dictator.

By refusing to admit the horrors of Stalin's rule, Russian authorities risk reviving some of what he stood for, said Rachinsky.

"As crimes are not called by their names, then this corpse [of Stalin] is coming to life, whether they like it or not."

Return of Stalinism

The revival of dishonest history is especially concerning for Central Asian countries, which suffered greatly during Stalin's rule.

In Kazakhstan, for example, the famine and purges of the 1930s cost 1.5 million Kazakh lives, according to the government.

From 1921 through 1954, Soviet secret police shot about 25,000 Kazakhs as "enemies of the people".

Gulag labour camps in Kazakhstan held more than 5 million Soviets.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet regime deported to Kazakhstan about 1.2 million citizens of different ethnicities whom it distrusted for various reasons.

The Russian regime is continuing to "tighten the screws", Bishkek political analyst Askat Dukenbayev said in August after Putin created an interagency commission on historical education.

"They've now also gotten hold of history to promote interpretations of past events that benefit the regime," Dukenbayev told Caravanserai. "It's commonly known that 'whoever controls the past controls the future; whoever controls the present controls the past.'"

"But in terms of the activities of Putin's historians, we could add, 'Whoever controls the past controls the present.'"

"We see this, for example, on the pages of the pro-Kremlin media in Kyrgyzstan, which year in and year out glorify the Soviet past, with obvious or not obvious hints about the hardships of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan's independence," he said.

"Unfortunately, the negative influence of the Russian trend on our information space is intensifying because there is no independent, professional historical school of thought in Kyrgyzstan," Dukenbayev added.

"That's probably why some of our prominent historians continue to blindly articulate the antiquated narratives of their Russian colleagues."

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