Yan Rachinsky, November 25, 2021.Photo: David Frenkel / Mediazona
Today, Russia's Investigative Committee (IC) conducted searches in the office and homes of several employees of Memorial, the Russian human rights group that won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. One of the country's oldest and most respected nongovernmental organizations, which was founded in the late 1980s to document rights abuses committed by the Soviet Union, is accused of “rehabilitation of Nazism” because of three names in the database of Soviet victims of political repression (which contains information on more than 4 million people). According to the investigators, Memorial historians included the names of three WWII collaborators in the list, in order to “acquit the crimes” of Nazism. Mediazona sums up the accusations and repression of modern Russian authorities against Memorial.
The maximum penalty for “rehabilitation of Nazism” (with the use of mass media) is five years in prison. Searches were conducted in ten locations: the Memorial offices in Moscow and in the homes of senior employees Oleg Orlov, Yan Rachinsky, Nikita Petrov, Alexandra Polivanova (and her mother Marina), Galina Iordanskaya, Alena Kozlova, and Irina Ostrovskaya, as well as historian Alexander Guryanov. Some of them were later were taken for interrogation.
According to the search warrants, the criminal case was initiated by the Investigative Committee on March 3, 2023. The charge is rehabilitation of Nazism (article 354.1.2.v of the Criminal Code). After the interrogation of Memorial council member Oleg Orlov, he was charged with “discrediting” the Russian army (under article 280.3 of the Criminal Code) because of his social media posts against the war in Ukraine.
The charges are based on three names found in Memorial's “Victims of political terror” database which includes information on more than 4 million people. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the adoption of the law on the rehabilitation of the repressed, books in memory of the victims of political repression began to be published all over Russia. These martyrologies were had in small print runs and were not available for sale, so in 1998 Memorial decided to create a single information resource based on published and unpublished memory books—the “Victims of Political Terror in the USSR” database.
The first version, released in 2001, contained 130 thousand names, but now their number is approaching four million. According to Memorial's estimates, this figure does not exceed a fourth of the total number of victims of political terror, even if we consider only those who formally fell under the rehabilitation law.
“Users of the ‘Victims of Political Terror in the USSR’ database should keep in mind: this information is not the result of a critical comparison and documentary verification of data contained in published sources,” Memorial warns on its website. “We set ourselves a more modest goal: to create a general summary of these publications, supplementing it with a number of collected but not yet published data. We allowed ourselves to correct only the most obvious mistakes.”
The Investigative Committee believes that Memorial violates its own rules, according to which it was created. According to investigators, in 1999 the Ministry of Justice registered the international Memorial as an organization that should inform “about the process of perpetuating the memory of victims of political repression, history of human rights, development of civil society.” At the same time, in its charter, Memorial declared its mission to be “restoring historical truth and perpetuating the memory of the victims of political repressions and totalitarian regimes.”
“Unidentified” employees of Memorial neglected these provisions and began to pursue completely different goals, the investigation argues: “public denial of the facts” established by the Nuremberg Tribunal, “approval of the crimes” it condemned, “dissemination of knowingly false information on the activities of the USSR” during WWII. To achieve these goals, the “unidentified” people used the Internet and published a list of victims of political terror in the USSR, including three people: Petr Dolzhenkov, Petr Dvoinykh, and Rudolf Naymiller.
All three of them were convicted for treason, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the adoption of the law “On the rehabilitation of victims of political repression” were recognized as justifiably convicted and not subject to rehabilitation. One of them, according to the decree, served in Waffen-SS and “participated in punitive operations for the mass destruction of citizens.”
Public accusations that Memorial is exonerating the Nazis began as early as 2021, and Vladimir Putin was one of the organisation's accusers. In August 2021, state TV channel Russia-24 aired a story about a post by Israeli historian Aron Shneer. He discovered Pavel Kovalevsky—one of the organisers of the Lodz ghetto, according to Schneer— in Memorial's list of repression victims. The TV presenter said that Memorial employees reacted to the post “very harshly,” after which Schneer found two more Nazi accomplices on the list—Petr Petrovskis and Ivan Lisovsky.
In December 2021, while the Supreme Court was already considering a lawsuit to liquidate Memorial, president Vladimir Putin met with members of the Human Rights Council. He retold the Russia-24 story and said that Petrovskis “escorted Jewish prisoners to places of execution,” Lisovsky “was directly involved in the murder of 11 thousand Jews,” and Kovalevsky “destroyed 800 people.” Putin promised that for this he would “pay the utmost attention” to the activities of Memorial.
Aron Shneer spoke out against the destruction of Memorial, which he called “an important and necessary organization.” In December 2021, he said he would be upset if his quote was used to destroy the human rights group.
Yan Rachinsky, chairman of the board of International Memorial, then admitted the error in the database and explained it: “This data was taken from the Vorkuta camp files, which did not have enough information to distinguish those whose accusations had been completely unfounded from those who had a partially justified accusation... The fundamental problem due to which such errors occur in different databases on the Soviet era is the inaccessibility of the special services archives.” Rachinsky noted that instead of unfounded accusations, TV journalists could point out the mistakes and ask him to correct them.
After the current criminal case was initiated in March of 2023, Vadim Mironenko, the director of the Veterans of Russia movement, admitted that he reported Memorial to the IC. According to Mironenko, together with his associates, he allegedly found 20 people convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Memorial's database. The Russia-24 story and the IC search warrant mention different names from the Memorial database.
The Supreme Court liquidated Memorial on December 28, 2021, formally for violating the law on “foreign agents.” Even at that trial the prosecutor kept talking about the rehabilitation of the Nazis. This wasn't relate to the the charges against Memorial, but the state prosecutor Aleksey Zhafyarov accused the organization of “speculating on the topic of repression,” creating a “false image of the USSR as a terrorist state,” “whitewashing” and “rehabilitating Nazi criminals” during the debate.
“Why are we, the descendants of the victors, forced to watch the rehabilitation of traitors and Nazi accomplices? Perhaps, because someone pays for it. And this is the real reason for the furious rejection with which Memorial denies the status of a foreign agent,” he said. After the liquidation of the human rights group, its employees continued their work and decided not to register a new legal entity.
On the day Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, human rights activists were kicked out of their Moscow building on Karetny Ryad. After the liquidation of the International Memorial, the organisation transferred its offices to another legal entity—the Research and Educational Center Memorial, which has existed since 1990. Human rights activists explained that it was necessary to preserve the space in order to “help people find personally and socially significant information about the fate of the victims of state terror.”
However, a few months later, the prosecutor's office demanded a “huge list of documents” to verify the new office owner. Soon, the Prosecutor General's Office declared the transfer deal invalid, and the Tverskoy Court of Moscow agreed with it. Although the case concerned property, the Prosecutor General’s Office in its lawsuit also assessed the activities of the organisation, which replaced “generally useful and noble stated goals” with “continuous, deliberate destructive activity.”
Over the past year, Memorial has repeatedly been subjected to various acts of intimidation. For example, in March, an office door was doused with an odorous liquid, probably made from gasoline and urine. Later, the pro-war and pro-government Z symbol along with stickers “collaborator” were put on the door of Oleg Orlov. In early March, the police detained a car carrying belongings from the Ural branch of Memorial because of a report that said they were stolen.
The authorities have been consistently destroying esteemed Russian human rights organisations, some of which were created back in the Soviet times. In January, the Moscow Helsinki Group, created back in 1976, was liquidated. A few days later, the Sakharov Center, founded by the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrey Sakharov, lost its premises.
Editor: Yegor Skovoroda
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