Russia’s Largest Rights Group Survived the Kremlin’s Dismantling. It Is Now Rediscovering Itself

After being shut down by Moscow’s supreme court, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning initiative Memorial is still operating at home, but not without introspection

Russia’s Largest Rights Group Survived the Kremlin’s Dismantling. It Is Now Rediscovering Itself
Russian police officers detain a woman in 2022 for protesting the invasion of Ukraine. (Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)

In the final days of 2021, on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Supreme Court ordered Memorial, Russia’s oldest and largest human rights group, to be “liquidated.” On the day Memorial was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, Russian authorities seized the organization’s Moscow offices.

Yet, more than two years later, Memorial has not closed down. Its staff, led mostly by aging, bookish historians, have not just forestalled its demise but steered the organization to the razor’s edge of Russian political dissent.

Memorial has neither a headquarters nor legal status in Russia. Its bank accounts are frozen and its programming has been pushed to the Moscow sidewalks. At a time when nearly all independent Russian media are operating in exile and Kremlin critics have been jailed, silenced or left the country, Memorial, in many ways, is roaring: publishing books, monitoring the ongoing trials of Ukrainian prisoners of war, offering free consulting to the relatives of people who disappeared during Soviet times on how to search archives, advocating for the growing list of political prisoners in Russia, and expanding its offices outside the country.

None of this is happening in the shadows. Tickets for its “Topography of Terror” tours of Butyrka, one of Russia’s more notorious prisons during the Soviet era, located in the center of Moscow, sell out almost immediately. The excursion ends with participants sitting down to write letters to the new generation of Russians imprisoned on politically motivated charges and awaiting trial inside the 250-year-old facility. Its annual “Returning the Names,” when people line up to read aloud the people killed by the Soviet regime, will take place this year in cities across the world. Set up by the group in 2007, before the invasion of Ukraine the event took place in front of the former KGB headquarters in Moscow, lasting 12 emotional hours.

“Our work cannot stop even for a single day,” the historian and Memorial founding member Irina Scherbakova told New Lines in a phone interview.

While the organization has worked under Kremlin intimidation for years, the intensifying of the dictatorial state in the wake of the war in Ukraine has created an entirely new reality for an organization pursuing a mission to investigate Soviet-era crimes and expose present-day political abuses.

Memorial now counts 609 people as political prisoners inside Russia — a number that has tripled in the past five years. Its site publishes regular updates on them and their cases, featuring interviews with their family members and organizing letter-writing campaigns. In one of the most horrific cases highlighted by Memorial, the Russian poet and activist Artyom Kamardin was raped with a dumbbell by law enforcement officers in September 2022 during a raid on his home after he posted a video online reciting an anti-war poem.

Scherbakova says the number of repressed people behind bars in Russia is higher than during the late stages of the Soviet Union. “Today’s situation is much scarier and crueler,” she said.

Since its founding in 1987 in the twilight of the Soviet Union, when the country began to both crumble and open up, leading people to begin to ask for truth, the group has grown into a sprawling, decentralized network of organizations and individuals resilient against the Kremlin’s dismantling. Its nonhierarchical structure is the key to its survival strategy.

There are about 200 Memorial members and volunteers working globally, just under half of whom are in Russia. With each Russian branch registered independently, it would take 25 separate court cases to entirely shut down the network inside the country. There are satellite offices in the Czech Republic, Ukraine, France, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Italy, France, Poland, Israel, Belgium and Sweden. Memorial’s affiliate offices abroad have long been largely made up of local historians studying the Soviet period, but now many branches are absorbing staff that fled Russia. Earlier this year, two shuttered Russia-based Memorial organizations re-registered outside the country in Switzerland and France.

“We always knew that this was a grassroots story,” explained Scherbakova. “If there had been a hierarchy, Russia would have destroyed us a long time ago.”

Memorial lost its final appeal in the supreme court in March 2022, as Russian troops marched to Kyiv. The war has left members asking themselves the same question that is echoing across Russian civil society: How did things go so wrong?

At Memorial, an initiative dedicated to preventing the return of totalitarianism to Russia, the invasion of Ukraine has led to a difficult, at times contentious, internal reexamination of its own legacy.

“We’re trying to understand what wasn’t right in our work over the past 35 years: how we didn’t build up cooperation with Russian society, how we failed to see different, more complex forms of discrimination and oppression,” said Alexandra Polivanova, a programming director who leads the Butyrka prison tour. “We had blind spots in our work to the point where, in a sense, we all allowed this terrible war to happen.”

There was a mixed global reaction last year when the Nobel committee announced that the 2022 Peace Prize would be shared among the Russia-based Memorial, the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties and Ales Bialiatski, a human rights advocate from Belarus. The director of the Ukrainian organization, Oleksandra Matviichuk, praised Memorial’s work but refused to be interviewed alongside Jan Raczynski, who accepted the award for Memorial in Oslo, because their two countries were at war. Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany called the shared recognition “truly devastating” in the context of the ongoing war.

“Without question, a medium-sized organization, with limited resources, and even with our network, could not change anything,” said Boris Belenkin, the director of Memorial’s library who, at the age of 70, fled Russia last year for Prague after being added to the Kremlin’s foreign agents list in 2022. “Memorial is not relevant here.”

But Polivanova, who is a generation younger than much of Memorial’s leadership, believes that Memorial must reexamine its own legacy in connection to the war. The ongoing discussion among Memorial members on this topic has been “very difficult,” she said.

“We’re trying to understand what wasn’t right in our work over the past 35 years,” she added. “Memorial is still seen as a voice from Moscow. We need to walk away from this.”

Within Russia, pressure on staff continues to escalate. The director of Memorial’s branch in the Siberian city of Perm was arrested in May when he tried to board a flight to Germany and was charged with “hooliganism”; he has been in pretrial detention ever since. Offices in Yekaterinburg and other cities face routine harassment and arbitrary fines from local authorities, pushing some to the verge of closing. A prominent Memorial historian, Yuri Dmitriev, is currently serving a 15-year sentence at a prison, in what Memorial says is a politically motivated case. Both men are currently being held in facilities that were once part of the Soviet Gulag system.

In Moscow, nine Memorial members including Polivanova have become the targets of an ongoing criminal investigation. In May, authorities charged Memorial board member Oleg Orlov with “discrediting” the Russian military, a new crime in Russia that can carry a prison sentence of up to five years. In court in September, Orlov was asked to defend his denouncement of the war in Ukraine and his career documenting human rights abuses for Memorial in Chechnya and the wider Caucasus region, as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine. On Oct. 11, the court found Orlov guilty and fined him. The government prosecutor requested that Orlov undergo a mental health evaluation, citing his “heightened sense of justice, lack of self-preservation instincts, and posturing before citizens.”

Memorial believes the criminal cases against Moscow staff are motivated by their ongoing advocacy for political prisoners.

Memorial has been in the Kremlin’s crosshairs for some time. Shortly after Vladimir Putin won his third term as president in 2012, Russia introduced the foreign agents law, the government’s most powerful legal tool against dissent. If a person or organization is branded a foreign agent — meaning they receive money from abroad — they must identify themselves as such in public and register with Russian authorities. Failing to do so could result in huge fines and up to five years of prison. A year after the law was passed, Memorial was one of the first organizations to be branded with the label. A year after that, in 2014, the group became an additional thorn in the Kremlin’s side when it condemned Russia’s invasion and occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and other territories in eastern Ukraine.

Russian authorities have also used the foreign agents law to target individuals. In mid-October, Russian police detained Alsu Kurmasheva, a Prague-based journalist at Radio Free Europe with dual Russian-American citizenship, for failing to register as a foreign agent when she traveled to Russia for a family emergency. If convicted, Kurmasheva faces up to five years in prison.

Authoritarian leaders around the world have since adopted similar legislation to quash dissent at home.

“Today, being a spy, a counterrevolutionary, a Trotskyist, all of that has been folded into the term ‘foreign agent,’” said Belenkin, the library director.

In 2021, the government brought Memorial before the supreme court, alleging that it had violated the law by failing to label a handful of social media posts with boilerplate text disclosing that Memorial is classed as a foreign agent. But by the closing argument, prosecutors dropped any pretense of holding Memorial accountable for a few unlabeled social media posts. Instead, the general prosecutor, Alexei Zhafyarov, took to the floor to dramatically rail against the group.

“Why, instead of being proud of our country, are we being told we must repent for our past?” Zhafyarov asked the courtroom. He then mocked the group for “claiming to be the conscience of the nation.”

Grigory Vaypan, part of Memorial’s defense team, said that ultimately this was an opportunity to expose the government’s legal pretenses and state for the historical record what the closure of Memorial was really about. “Zhafyarov rose, and instead of telling us about those posts on Twitter and Instagram, he said, ‘We should close Memorial because Memorial is pursuing a narrative that is not in the interest of the state,’” Vaypan said. “They needed to close Memorial because Memorial messed with the government’s narrative that ‘we, the Russian state, the state that won the Second World War, are unaccountable to the world.’”

“Rereading the closing argument now makes much more sense to me than it did back then,” Vaypan said. “What the prosecutor said was a prologue to the war.”

Since the invasion, Polivanova has reworked her tour lineup, with one of the new Moscow excursions dedicated to the Ukrainian human rights activist Petro Grigorenko.

Born in a small village in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, in what was then the Russian Empire, Grigorenko rose through the ranks of the Soviet army to become a World War II hero and a major general. At the height of his career in 1968, Grigorenko broke with the Soviet army by speaking out against the invasion of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. Punishment came swiftly: He was arrested in Moscow, diagnosed as criminally insane and underwent punitive psychiatric treatment, a practice that has reemerged under Putin. Somehow, Grigorenko managed to continue speaking out for the cause of Crimean Tatars, dared to criticize the Soviet narrative of WWII, and founded the Moscow and Ukrainian Helsinki Groups before being exiled.

“In the past, we didn’t consider this story to be so important,” Polivanova said. “This historical perspective was not stressed at Memorial.”

Over the past year and a half, Polivanova has had to triple the number of weekly walking tours and still isn’t able to keep up with demand. Registration fills up almost immediately after dates are announced.

The tours are among the rare public forums available to Russians to discuss the war. In September, she added readings of Ukrainian poetry written by authors killed during Stalin’s purges to a tour of a mass grave site in Russia’s northeast. On many excursions, participants start to take over, she said, drawing direct comparisons between the cruelty of Soviet repression and news of Russian atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol and other front lines in Ukraine.

The tours have also attracted a different kind of participant. So-called patriotic activists crashed the organized outings for weeks at a time last fall, threatening those in attendance and publicly denouncing members of Memorial as “traitors.” Despite this, no one has been arrested or detained for attending.

Since then, Memorial started to require that participants provide links to their social media accounts when registering for a tour.

Today, Polivanova said, the tours continue to sell out, with Memorial adding more excursions to keep up with demand. “It’s important for people. It’s important to have some kind of collective reflection.”

This story was co-produced with Coda Story.

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