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In a low-ceilinged basement off the Garden Ring road in Moscow, an exhibition of Soviet-era torture is on display. There are no whips or chains — the Soviets did torture bodies, though more often tortured the soul. But on the walls, behind glass, are hundreds of scraps of paper. Many are on the edge of legibility; most are accompanied by typewritten copies. These are fragments of letters from the 1930s, the era of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror, when the Soviet leader purged those he considered traitors and 20m people were sent to gulags.
One such letter, written on cigarette paper and stuffed into a cigarette packet, is from a Vasily Malagush, and reads: “Hello, dear Mama and Papa — I’m outside Omsk [in Siberia], they’re taking us I don’t know where, I’m writing this while travelling and will throw the letter out of the wagon. The liar Mironets said I had been recruited into some sort of nationalist organisation. I said it was a lie and a slander . . . but I got 10 years. Yet I think there will be a revision of this . . . I think they’ll look again . . . I’m not a liar.”
The exhibition, at the Moscow offices of human rights group Memorial, is called Pravo Perepiski, or right of correspondence. It is an ironic reference to a common sentence handed down during these years of terror: “Ten years without the right of correspondence” — a double irony since that was a euphemism for execution, a state lie designed to quell revolt. Yet even those who did have the right of correspondence were rarely able to find paper, and no pens or pencils were issued; some letters on display were written with charcoal, or in blood. Some, like Vasily Malagush’s, were written before reaching the camps, in freezing cattle cars — then flung from trains in the hope they would be found and posted, as they often were.
Arseny Roginsky, Memorial’s chairman, takes me round the room, pointing out the cold brutality of the system of which these letters provide a glimpse. He himself served a prison term in the early 1980s, for writing too frankly about the Stalinist past. And he was among those dissidents who, in the glasnost era of the late 1980s, set up Memorial to preserve and restore the memories of those who disappeared to Stalin’s camps and prisons. One of its earliest achievements was the creation, in 1990, of a monument on Lubyanka Square, the site of the former KGB headquarters, in the form of a large stone transported from a labour camp on the Solovetsky Islands. Over the past quarter of a century, Memorial has built a database containing the names of more than 2.6m victims, helping Russians hoping to discover the fate of relatives who died or vanished. It has interpreted its mandate widely — it documents, and protests about, the flouting of human rights in Chechnya, during and after the two wars there, and now, in Ukraine.
In the process it became Russia’s best-known human rights organisation, with an international profile, donations from the west and offices in other countries as well as throughout Russia. Yet, in October last year, the country’s justice ministry, which pursues dissidence with something approaching Soviet zeal, called on the supreme court to “liquidate” Memorial, expressing concerns over how the group is “registered”, and that it was not complying with its own charter. In doing so it made reference to a 2012 law that made it mandatory for groups such as Memorial — non-governmental organisations that are involved in political activity and receive funding from abroad — to register as “foreign agents”. The phrase carries its own Soviet-era connotations of treachery.
At the time of my visit in December, Roginsky was preparing to face a court hearing that could have decided the organisation’s future (the court then postponed judgment.) I had expected the 68-year-old historian to be nervy, distracted: instead, he was relaxed and affable. Smiling, he says: “I got in touch with the director of the Linguistic Institute of the [Russian] Academy of Sciences, and I asked him, ‘What does the phrase foreign agent really mean in this context?’ And he said, ‘It means a spy, for a foreign power.’ ” He chuckles.
I found his composure difficult to understand. Apart from the law on foreign-funded NGOs, there had been a raid by police and tax inspectors on Memorial’s offices in 2013, which Roginsky described at the time as “a complete check on everything concerned with our sources of funding”. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has also spoken publicly of foreign-funded centres as promoting “direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs”, a practice he described as “unacceptable”.
Memorial is not alone in attracting extra scrutiny. Elena Panfilova heads Russia’s branch of Transparency International, an anti-corruption agency. She doesn’t deny foreign funding — she says it’s minor — but is prepared to contest TI’s activities being labelled “political”. She has challenged this, arguing: “Is opposing corruption political? I said, ‘If it is, then corruption is in the politics of this country. And if that’s so, isn’t opposing it good?’ ”
The Moscow School of Civic Education (with which I am associated, as chairman of its foreign advisory council) has also been fined and forced to register as a foreign agent. Last December, as it was holding what was perhaps its last conference, a series of articles about the school was published in newspapers and online. One example, from news agency Ura.ru, covering the Urals, headlined a lead story on December 14 with a quote from the justice ministry, to the effect that: “In fact [the school] is a sect, undermining the foundations of the country from within.”
The country’s growing voluntary sector is also becoming disoriented. In November, Evgeniya Alekseeva, head of Focus Media, a social work NGO, told a conference of the UK-based BEARR Trust, which funds social projects in Russia, that “it seems that the ‘foreign agents’ law is aimed at human rights NGOs, but it should be acknowledged that we all come under this legislation, as the broad definition of political activity, which is purposely included under the law, means that we are all left in limbo.”
Roginsky’s view on Memorial’s plight reflects the complexity of the situation — and the contradictions in Russian society: there’s sympathy for victims of the gulags, a fact that gives him some confidence that Memorial will be allowed to continue because “our roots are too deep in Russian society. People see what we’re doing as right.” On the other hand, there’s a need, assiduously promoted by the present administration, to see Russia as a great country with a glorious past. Hence there is an alignment of views between Putin and the bulk of the Russian population: both want, for reasons of state and self-worth, to blur the Stalinist period, to pay hasty respect to the victims, to laud the achievements and the victory over the Nazis, and to get on with life.
For Roginsky, this desire to believe in the president serves to mask Putin’s deliberate narrowing of civil society and civil rights. When I ask him what he thinks will happen to Memorial, he says: “I don’t know, in the longer term the justice ministry might throw out the case, might proceed with it. It’s hard to say in today’s Russia.” When I say that it seems nothing is clear in Russia now, he says: “No, it’s clear. It’s clear. This is clear: they are cutting down the rights of the citizens. The direction in which they’re going, for some time, is that of national patriotism. And the other direction is self-isolation, step by step.”
Talking to Roginsky, I felt a sense of disbelief that the state had ranged itself against his institution. In January 1989, while covering eastern Europe for the FT, I had gone to the public meeting where Memorial was officially founded. Its creation had been proposed by a group, some of whom, like Roginsky, had served time or been exiled for dissidence: its most public faces were the Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Its very existence was hailed as a massive blow to Soviet authoritarianism. Yevtushenko had written a poem, “Monuments still not built”, in 1987, as the Soviet Union’s last president Mikhail Gorbachev launched a “reconstruction” programme. The poet proclaimed: “There can be no rebuilding without rebuilding memory”.
At the time it seemed that a revulsion was unleashed against the mass murders of the Stalin era and before. At a film screening about the first Soviet-era camp set up on Lenin’s orders (a former Tsarist-era prison), the president’s wife, Raisa, was among the audience. It was as if the regime was turning Russia’s back on its past to guarantee its future as a democratic, civil society — in which Memorial played a principal role.
The governments of Boris Yeltsin, who became the first president of a new Russia in 1991, struggled between their own erratic liberalism and the rising nostalgia for a more seemingly secure Soviet past, fuelled by widespread impoverishment and disgust at the excesses of the early oligarchs. It was a struggle that Vladimir Putin, who became president in 2000, resolved in favour of nostalgia for, and even a return to, Soviet-era habits.
Last week, the Russian parliament proposed a draft law that would make illegal — and thus, presumably, banned from the country — foreign companies “threatening to the state’s security and defence capability or public order . . . morality, the right and legal interests of other persons.” The author of the bill, Alexander Tarnavsky from the pro-Putin A Just Russia party, said: “The Ukraine crisis and the drop in oil prices — events which some experts see as an orchestrated campaign against Russia — leave us no choice but to respond to this challenge.”
The hardening of Russian attitudes towards foreign influences has, according to Masha Lipman, an analyst of Russian society, much to do with events in Ukraine last year and the western sanctions that followed. She recalls how, following the election that clinched a third term as president for Putin in 2012, there were widespread anti-government demonstrations that reflected “every kind of civic activism”. A subsequent crackdown on activists was, however, followed by Russia’s annexation of the southern Ukrainian province of Crimea. “Crimea was a trump card,” she says. “It made the vast majority of people into patriots and to oppose it, you are made to feel a national traitor.”
The Crimea effect isn’t an illusion. Lev Gudkov, director of Levada Centre, an independent polling agency, showed me a graph tracing the sharp decline in the president’s popularity before March 2014, when the occupation began. At this point the Putin line shot up, to attain the 80+ level where, according to an Associated Press-NORC poll released in mid December, it still resides. In another poll, conducted this month, 55 per cent said they wanted him to stay on as president after 2018, the end of his current term.
Against this more hostile landscape, the future of Memorial, and other NGOs, remains uncertain. I visited the exhibition at its offices twice — the first time no one else was there; the second, one woman. When I mention this to Lipman, she looks sad. She tells me about a recent meeting with a group of fellow liberals, all younger than her. When she told them of a new Memorial initiative called “last address”, in which plaques are put up outside the homes from which people were taken and never seen again, she was met with puzzlement. “They weren’t really interested; they were polite but hadn’t heard of it.”
Talking about the threat faced by Memorial and other NGOs, she chooses her words carefully. “We have to step back from exaggeration,” she says. “We cannot call Russia a fascist state until it is a fascist state, and it isn’t.” The “last address” campaign, she adds, went ahead without interference. “No police came.”
And, for the moment, Memorial has been reprieved. On Wednesday, the state news service Tass reported that the supreme court rejected the justice ministry’s request that Memorial be dissolved: “violations” had been rectified and a new charter adopted, which appears to conform to the law, in confining its activities and funding to Russia. The ministry, however, added a possibly significant rider: Memorial’s new charter had not been sent for registration, and a “substantive consideration of the case” was still needed.
The case is shelved: the principles remain in stark opposition. Memorial has adapted its charter, says Roginsky, not its beliefs. “This isn’t Stalinism. [The administration] has said, ‘What happened was bad, it shouldn’t have happened, it’s over, and that’s it.’ We say, ‘Repressions happened, they were widespread, many approved of them, the state approved of them, we must face them, understand them, above all understand what it does to the society we have inherited.’ ”
John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor
Photographs: David Trilling; Petr Antonov; HRO.org
The fortunes of Memorial have reflected the changing political climate in Moscow. Below is a timeline of key events affecting civil rights in the USSR and then in Russia.
1985 Reforming Mikhail Gorbachev becomes Soviet leader
1986 Explosion at Chernobyl nuclear plant
— Dissident Andrei Sakharov freed after years in exile
1989 Non-Communist candidates allowed limited elections
— fall of Berlin Wall; communist regimes in eastern Europe collapse
1991 Boris Yeltsin popularly elected president of the Russian (Soviet) republic
— Abortive coup seeks to oust Gorbachev
— Break-up of the Soviet Union; Yeltsin now president of a sovereign Russia
1993 Yeltsin sends tanks to storm Russian parliament
— multi-party elections to Duma but referendum hands more power to Yeltsin
1994 Russian invasion of Chechnya
1996 Yeltsin elected to second term as president
1999 Terrorist attacks provoke second invasion of Chechnya
— Yeltsin names Vladimir Putin, then head of the FSB (successor to the KGB),
as his chosen successor
2000 Putin elected president
— 118 sailors die in sinking of submarine Kursk
2001 Creation of “governing party” United Russia
2002 Leading television networks brought under state control
— 120 die when Russian forces storm a theatre besieged by Chechen terrorists
2003 Arrest of Yukos oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky
2004 Putin re-elected to presidency
— Putin ends elections of provincial governors, shifts to presidential appointees
— Ukraine’s Orange revolution
2006 Murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of Putin
— murder of Russian former agent Alexander Litvinenko
2008 Dmitry Medvedev elected president but Putin retains real power as PM
— Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia
2010 Pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovich elected president of Ukraine
2011 Amid reports of poll violations, United Russia wins Duma elections
2012 Despite massive street protests, Putin wins third term as president
2013 Anti-Yanukovich street protests in Ukraine
2014 Yanukovich flees to Russia
— Russia exploits anti-Kiev sentiment in eastern Ukraine to annex Crimea
Timeline compiled by Paul Gould