MOSCOW – In 1990, the year before his death, Zipporah Rosenblatt Kahana first spoke publicly about his imprisonment in Russian labor camps 50 years earlier. She did heavy labor and worked as a seamstress, but the conditions were so severe that she lost her left eye. Her husband was executed as an enemy of the state. Her “crime” was to be married to him.
His account came as testimony at Memorial International, then a newly formed human rights organization chronicling political repression in the Soviet Union.
“For a long time after her release, she felt that it was kind of a dark side of her past that no one needed to know about,” said her great-grandson Nikolai Dykhne. Memorial’s work to collect information about the labor camps, or gulag system, gave him “the courage to finally tell his story fully,” he said.
Memorial has become the country’s most important human rights organization and the emblem of a nascent democratic movement in post-Soviet Russia. But today, its records of traumatic events and victims of persecution make the Kremlin uncomfortable. The country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling on Tuesday to shut down Memorial International, the parent organization, and on Wednesday it also ordered the closure of the Memorial Human Rights Center.
Memorial denounced the two verdicts as political and pledged to appeal and find legal avenues to continue its work with its 60 affiliated organizations across the country.
The measures taken against Memorial, critics say, are emblematic of how President Vladimir V. Putin attempted to whitewash Russia’s Soviet history and reframe the modern image of those decades – in a manner similar to pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping to downplay traumatic parts of his country’s communist history, such as famine and political purges.
This week’s court rulings sparked outrage from activists and dissidents, as well as condemnation from the United States and the European Union.
But the most poignant reactions came from Russians, like Mr. Dykhne, whose families have been touched by Memorial’s work.
Co-founded by Andrei D. Sakharov, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and recorded by former President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, another winner of this prize, Memorial was born out of a popular movement to erect a monument to commemorate the victims of Joseph Stalin’s machine of terror. It quickly spread beyond its original cause.
In 1989, candles in hand, Memorial members and their supporters surrounded the KGB headquarters in central Moscow, a demonstration that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. It seemed like a sign that times were changing.
This week’s verdicts proved that the changes are not irrevocable, said Svetlana Gannushkina, member of the board of Memorial and one of Russia’s most renowned human rights defenders, who was part of this chain of protesters.
Ms Gannushkina remembered the security guards who hid in the giant fortress-like building in Lyubyanka Square. “They didn’t feel comfortable at the time,” she recalls. “But today they feel very comfortable, they are in power.”
Under Memorial’s auspices, Ms. Gannushkina set up a program to help migrants, refugees and internally displaced people. Today, she works with a team of 55 lawyers across Russia who help up to 5,000 people each year. Some remained stateless for up to 20 years, until Memorial lawyers helped them, she said.
“We’re not doing anything other than making sure the state respects its laws,” said Ms. Gannushkina, who was nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to the migration program, Memorial representatives worked in all the major conflict zones of the former Soviet Union and Russia. It was the last independent human rights organization to leave Chechnya. It is one of the few organizations actively working in Central Asia.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Memorial helped install monuments to victims of Stalinist crimes. The Moscow Monument, a rock brought from one of the first Soviet prison camps, stands in front of the KGB headquarters. Every year at the end of October, thousands of people line up at a microphone to read the names of victims of political persecution.
Today, Memorial includes more than 50 organizations in Russia, six in Ukraine as well as chapters in Germany, France, Italy and other countries, engaged in historical research and human rights work.
Recently, younger generations of Russians have taken an interest in Memorial’s work. 40-year-old Ksenia Kazantseva said Memorial helped her discover what her great-grandfather looked like.
The great-grandfather, Mikhail N. Malama, was a former collaborator of Tsar Nicholas II, she said. He was arrested in 1937 and charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
What happened to her next was a family mystery for decades. In 2019, however, Ms Kazantseva discovered her name in Memorial’s database – which contains over three million files. Memorial representatives helped her submit a request with the Archives, which eventually sent her a package. It contained the photo of Mr. Malama. For the first time, Ms. Kazantseva was able to see his face.
“It was a very special feeling to see a person for the first time and to realize that they look like your relative,” said Ms. Kazantseva, a freelance songwriter.
“The memorial preserves the memory of what happened in our country, if you erase it then everything can be rewritten,” Ms. Kazantseva said.
While the government recognizes the trauma of the Stalinist era, it is also trying to stimulate patriotism among Russians. The centerpiece of it celebrates Russia’s contributions to WWII and the defeat of the Nazis, which laid the foundation for the Soviet Union as a world power.
Some Russians find Stalin’s iron-fisted rule appealing in a world full of chaos and uncertainty. A 2019 survey conducted by the independent Levada center, 70 percent of respondents believed Stalin played an “all” or “mostly positive” role in Russian history, the highest since Levada began asking the question in 2003.
Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, which is why, in the eyes of the Kremlin, his image should not be completely tarnished, said Aleksandr Baunov, editor-in-chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center website.
Mr. Baunov drew a comparison between the closing of Memorial and the actions of the Chinese Communist Party as he rewrites his history under Mr. Xi.
“It’s a real shift towards a Chinese attitude towards history,” he said, describing the approach as “Yes, there have been individual mistakes, there have been casualties, including victims. unjustified sacrifices, but it was all for the greatness of the country, “he said. Baunov said.
Xi used the Soviet Union as a warning to China, saying it had collapsed because its leaders had failed to quell “historical nihilism,” referring to critical accounts of political persecution or attempts to chronicle government mistakes that have led citizens to lose faith in communism.
Mr Dykhne, who at 24 does not remember any Russian leader other than Mr Putin, said the Gulag system was never discussed at his school in Moscow. He said what he learned about the Soviet dissident movement and his family history came from his elders.
In November, after prosecutors announced their investigation into Memorial, he donated his great-grandmother’s complete personal records to the organization and hopes they can find a way to preserve them.
Mr Dykhne, who works as a sculptor, said his experience weighs on him as he assesses events in Russia today. He said his family background made it difficult for him to trust Russian authorities.
“A lot of people are now losing hope for some sort of normal future in this country,” he said.
But he also said the brutality of the Soviet state had made him painfully aware of the consequences of dissent. He mentioned the brutal crackdown on protesters in January this year after dissident Aleksei A. Navalny returned from Germany, where he was recovering from what doctors called Russian-made nerve agent poisoning, and said then was sent to a penal colony. The protests that followed were large-scale and spread across the country, but they were violently suppressed, with thousands of arrests.
“If, a year ago, someone could have believed in all kinds of street protests, the authorities have already shown us what it leads to,” he said. “I don’t see any solution.
“They are trying to erase our memory,” he said. “There is a feeling that they are somehow trying to paint what happened then, so we can’t compare it with what is happening now.”
Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.