State-run television frequently boasts of the
power of Russia’s nuclear weaponry. Some of Putin’s political
opponents have been confined to house arrest, and others have fled
the country. And Putin’s most powerful security advisers have said
that the country needs to draw inward economically to build its
strength and lessen its dependence on the West — steps that recall
the Soviet bloc’s centralized, state-planned economy.
Other Russian civil society organizations have
been targeted and harassed since Putin retook the presidency in
spring 2012 and swiftly took steps to crack down on opposition, and
some have been forced to shut down. Memorial also criticizes what it
sees as contemporary human rights abuses, and in recent months it
has condemned Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine, where a
bloody battle has ensued after pro-Russian rebels seized territory
in the east.
The Justice Ministry lawsuit targets Memorial over
technical issues related to its legal registration. The legal action
was filed on Sept. 24 but was first publicized late last week.
Russia’s Supreme Court will hear the case on Nov. 13. A spokesman
for the Justice Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Critics of the new action say that targeting the
group would erode Russia’s already fragile understanding of its
“Russia has never recognized the crime of the
Soviet regime, the crimes of the Stalin regime and the millions that
died — there was no repentance,” said Lev Ponomarev, one of the
founders of the organization. “The Memorial Society works so that a
new authoritarian society will not appear. So the significance is
Leaders of Memorial say that they will fight the
move to shut them down, even if it means continuing to operate
without any legal registration.
“We started to work in Soviet times, during
Perestroika, without any registration,” said Yann Rachinsky, a
member of Memorial’s board. “So one way or another, all of our
organizations will continue their work.”
He said that the Justice Ministry had been
pursuing Memorial for two years. Even if they are not shut down but
simply have to reconfigure their registrations, he said, the
paperwork alone could be enough to challenge their ability to pursue
their ordinary day-to-day work. Memorial has not actually received a
full copy of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also drew criticism from the head of a
Kremlin-appointed human rights advisory body.
“I was shocked” to hear of the legal complaint,
said Mikhail Fedotov, the chairman of the Presidential Council on
“Memorial is a very well-known and respected
organization, and the negative consequences of such a case could be
much larger and much more significant than the formal observance of
the law,” he said. He said that he was attempting to broker a
compromise that would delay the court case to give Memorial a chance
to take steps to comply with the legal complaint.
A sister organization to the Russian Memorial
Society that works to document and combat human rights abuses in the
post-Soviet world was targeted this summer under Russia’s so-called
“foreign agent” law, which forces groups that take foreign funding
and engage in political activities to register with the government
and submit reports on their work.
Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau
chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an