Memorial Shutdown Seen As Portentous Point Of No Return For Putin's Russia

By Robert Coalson

The year in Russia is winding down with a spate of events that have alarmed many observers about the intentions of President Vladimir Putin and his government.

First, the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor blocked the website of OVD-Info, which among other things has served as a clearinghouse connecting detained protesters with defense attorneys.

Then, a court in the northern city of Petrozavodsk sentenced prominent historian Yury Dmitriyev to 15 years in prison on indecency charges that supporters say were fabricated in retribution for his research into the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin and the Soviet government.

Next, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the shutdown of Memorial International, an umbrella human rights and historical research NGO that has played a prominent civil society role since the days of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness.

The same day, police in Irkutsk, Tomsk, Arkhangelsk, Barnaul, and Saratov detained and questioned former local coordinators for imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

It is, in fact, simply returning to totalitarianism and taking a bulldozer to all living things.”
-- Journalist Zoya Svetova

One day later, on December 29, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Moscow Memorial Human Rights Center, the flagship project of Memorial International in Russia.

Writing specifically about the Memorial International closure, longtime liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky argued that it marked “the transition from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian one.” The decision, he added, shows that Putin’s government “has proclaimed itself the successor of the Stalinist and Soviet regime.”

Journalist Kristina Astafurova wrote: “We enter 2022 without Memorial, with hundreds of political prisoners, with torture in our prisons, with dozens of people forced to emigrate just in the last year (and how many more will leave?).”

The Russian government’s intense, yearlong crackdown on dissent, independent journalism, and public activism comes amid speculation about the future as Putin’s current presidential term approaches its conclusion in 2024. Last year, the government pushed through a massive raft of constitutional amendments, the most important of which allows Putin to seek two more six-year terms and possibly remain in office until 2036.

Last September, the ruling United Russia party was awarded a constitutional majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in controversial elections that saw genuine opposition almost entirely sidelined.

Navalny was detained upon his return to Russia in January after weeks of medical treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020 that he blames on Russian security agents acting at Putin’s behest. Two weeks later, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for a parole violation that he denies.

When a state tries to ban working on the memory [of state terror] and glorifies the organizer of that terror, it is clear in what direction it is moving.”
-- Journalist Dmitry Kolezev

Navalny’s regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation were branded “extremist” and shuttered, and his followers have been facing intensified persecution, pushing many of them to flee Russia.

“It is a fitting end to a year that began with Navalny’s imprisonment,” wrote journalist Dmitry Kolezev, who noted that Gorbachev had helped open Memorial, President Boris Yeltsin had been a member, and now Putin has shut it down. “Now it ends with this -- the destruction of Memorial…. When a state tries to ban working on the memory [of state terror] and glorifies the organizer of that terror, it is clear in what direction it is moving.”

Journalist and activist Zoya Svetova similarly wrote, in reaction to the decision to close Memorial International, that Putin’s government has “decided to untether itself and to stop imitating democracy.”

The technology of Russia’s future has been turned into the technology of Russia’s death.”
-- Activist Roman Popkov

“It is, in fact, simply returning to totalitarianism and taking a bulldozer to all living things,” she wrote.

The Russian state’s assault on dissent has brought about collateral damage as well by co-opting institutions that should be dispensing justice and protecting democracy into the crackdown, observers said. Author and journalist Aleksandr Minkin argued that it was not just true that the “Supreme Court liquidated Memorial,” but also that “Putin liquidated the Supreme Court.”

Likewise, the human rights website posted on Twitter that “the ‘judge’ read out Putin’s verdict on closing the Memorial Human Rights Center.”

In regard to the government’s order to block the OVD-Info website, some observers saved their harshest criticism for Russian Internet giant Yandex for carrying out the state's order to block the site.

Yandex “was once a brilliant Russian company" and "a source of national pride,” blogger and activist Roman Popkov wrote, arguing that it has been “transformed into an instrument of censorship.”