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Dark times ahead

Goncharenko Roman
Roman Goncharenko
December 28, 2021

The dissolution of Memorial, Russia's most renowned human rights organization, is a turning point. President Vladimir Putin is preparing his country for darker times, DW's Roman Goncharenko writes.

Cartoon: two slides of a male figure walking past a flame snuffed out in the second slide
Vladimir Putin is attempting to snuff out Memorial's flame

Anyone who had hoped that there might still be room for Memorial, the most renowned human rights organization in the country, in Vladimir Putin's Russia, was disappointed on Tuesday. Memorial International is being dissolved at the request of the Prosecutor General's Office and with the blessing of the Supreme Court, acting in the president's interest to say the least. The Memorial Human Rights Center is likely to be next.

It is more than just another closure of a nongovernmental organization inconvenient to the Kremlin. It is a turning point, a caesura. After this, Russia will be a different place.

Roman Goncharenko
DW's Roman Goncharenko

Memorial, which commemorates KGB crimes, long been a thorn in the side of Putin, a former officer of the notorious Soviet secret service. The organization keeps alive memories of Stalin's terror, of the crimes against Russians. Putin and his innermost circle, for the most part former KGB officers, want people to forget these dark times in recent history. 

Victims of Soviet-era repression fight for justice

Erasing Soviet crimes

The prosecution exposed Putin's intent when it accused Memorial of the "false image of the USSR as a terrorist state." The accusation that the NGO violated the "foreign agent law" is only a pretext.

A cynic might say that Putin didn't even need to shut down Memorial, that it was a model on its way out anyway. The organization, co-founded by Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, had its finest hour in the late 1980s. At the time, Memorial activists had the Solovetsky Stone monument erected on Moscow's Lubyanka Square, right in front of KGB headquarters, to commemorate the victims of political repression. It was a symbol of a turn of events Putin has been trying to reverse for years. Apparently, the president aims to complete this process soon. Memorial's importance in Russian society has been waning, the board has many elderly human rights activists. So why shut it down now?

Perhaps Memorial's voice was not as weak as the Kremlin would have liked, it was irritated by new projects like OWD Info, an information portal on the number of people arrested during protests in Russia that has also been blocked.

Man holding a poster faces two police officers
A Memorial International supporter during the hearing at Russia's Supreme Court Image: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The the court's shameful decision is above all a harbinger of even darker times. Yes, things can get worse. Putin's Russia is heading for a hot phase in the new Cold War with the West. Under such circumstances, a human rights organization that is highly regarded in the West could only be disruptive. The opposition and people who don't share the leadership's opinions must fear more repression, even terror. The Russian president apparently wants to have a free rein, rather than have Memorial constantly remind him of the ever-new political prisoners.

So has Putin won? Of course not.

Be it the historical reappraisal of Stalin's terror or a chronicle of human rights violations in Putin's Russia, Memorial will continue its work underground and from exile abroad. At some point, it will return to Russia — how quickly depends on the people alone. Memorial will outlast Putin's rule.

One day, it will examine, that, too.

This article has been translated from German.