21 November 2022
by Aleksandr Cherkasov
This year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to human rights activists: the chair of the Belarusian movement Viasna, Ales Bialiatski; the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties; and the Russian International Memorial.
For more than 30 years, Memorial has been researching and publishing data on political repression in the USSR. In 2022, the Russian Supreme Court liquidated the organisation for violating the ‘foreign agents’ law.
In a special feature for Bumaga, journalist Gleb Golod spoke with Aleksandr Cherkasov, former chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre. He is now on the board of a new organisation, Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre.
In our interview we discuss the public criticism of the Nobel Committee’s decision, the Yury Dmitriev case, Cherkasov’s departure from Russia, and the future of researching repression.
About the Nobel Prize and the criticism it has drawn
How did you and your colleagues react to the Nobel Prize?
Of course, it came as a surprise to everyone.
The first thing I heard was that the Nobel Prize was given to Ales Bialiatski. Well, thank God. Ales is in prison, this is important.
And then it was given to the Centre for Civil Liberties. Good! Just the day before I saw Sasha Matveychuk and Sasha Romantsova in Warsaw and said: ‘You may have received the “Alternative Nobel Peace Prize”, but there’s no need to stop there – get the Nobel too while you’re at it!’
And then the third recipient was announced.
For many years we’ve been hearing that Memorial was nominated for the Nobel Prize. And each time I answered questions about it, I would repeat: ‘It would be crazy to seriously count on receiving the award. But just ending up on the list of hundreds of undoubtedly worthy nominees in itself means a lot. There’s nobody on it who doesn’t deserve to be there. To discuss the nominees is to have a conversation about their work, it is to rethink the global humanitarian agenda’ and so on.
And this year, since we were finally liquidated, no one was thinking about the Nobel Prize. It was the furthest thing from our minds.
In addition, discrepancies immediately arise: exactly which Memorial organisation received it? This is difficult. When they had yet again tried to close us down in 2016, Putin stated, pointedly, that there were three different Memorials. If only he knew, the poor man, how many there really are.
So, of course, this Nobel Prize is not for the Memorial Human Rights Centre, whose chair of the board I had the honour of being for ten years – since May 2012 – but for the entire ‘Memorial community’. In other words, International Memorial, a confederation of Memorial organisations from different countries, which grew out of the all-union Memorial that was created in the late 1980s.
In fact, this award is much broader in scope. It is not only for the living; but for those who did not live to see it. For Natasha Estemirova, who was kidnapped and killed in 2009. For Arseny Borisovich Roginsky, a dissident, political prisoner and one of Memorial’s founders, who died in 2017. And another political prisoner, the long-time chair of the Russian Memorial, Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, who died last year. And Sergei Kovalev’s friend Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, one of Memorial’s first three co-chairs.
This award is for the entire movement and the entire community. There are also Memorial organisations outside of Russia, and that includes in Ukraine too.
There was much criticism of the Nobel Committee, which awarded the Peace Prize to people from three warring countries. Others said it was not the countries that got the prize, but specific individuals. What do you yourself think?
The question itself is flawed: there are no ‘serfs’ here. These people and organizations are not representatives of countries, that is, of states. Ales Bialiatski is not Lukashenko’s man. Just as Memorial, which is also a ‘foreign agent,’ is not a representative of Putin. Civil society is not divided by borders.
We, the Memorial Human Rights Centre, have been working for many years with both Viasna and the Centre for Civil Liberties. We are members of the same International Federation for Human Rights – FIDH. It would be strange to divide us by place of residence on the basis of whose ‘serf’ you are: ‘And whose will you be?’
Such talk has gone on because, in fact, war divides not only states, but societies as well. This, unfortunately, is an objective reality. The question is how can these three organizations correctly receive the prize. But we are already moving on from the event to everyday life. Everyday life is complicated here. And the event is important: for the second year, the Nobel Peace Prize goes to Eastern Europe.
On the reasons for the liquidation of Memorial
Do you think confiscating Memorial’s office and property is revenge for the Nobel Prize or just a coincidence?
Both of these were long procedures: the Nobel prize takes almost a year, and the attack on us took even longer.
Both decisions – to award the prize and to confiscate our office – also coincided with the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s death. They also coincided with one other event (Vladimir Putin’s birthday – Bumaga), but we did not celebrate that.
When the news reached the judge – that something had gone wrong – it embarrassed her and the secretary of the court, but not for long. In the end, our ‘most independent’ court decided, quite independently, to confiscate both our premises and our money.
This is very difficult for my colleagues who were in Moscow at the time. For our lawyers who were taking part in the trial. And for those who were standing outside the court. Our building is not only a library and an archive, but also a community centre. Now it is being taken away. According to the law, when a civil society organization is liquidated, its property must be transferred to other organizations that work towards the same goals. That is what we did. But this is exactly what the authorities didn’t want to allow. That’s why the building was taken away from us.
They say that the liquidation of Memorial was part of the preparations for the war. But as far as I understand, when Putin and those around him decided that these legal proceedings should begin, their motives were completely different: in their view, we were not just breaking the law on ‘foreign agents,’ but continued to cause ‘harm’ by publishing lists of political prisoners, presenting them to the international community. And Putin’s response to those who suggested that something should be done about it was: ‘You decide!’
But, on the other hand, International Memorial was included in the list of ‘foreign agents’ because, back in 2014, we called Russia’s actions in Ukraine aggression, as defined by the UN. This statement of ours was cited as one of the reasons for inclusion in the ‘agents’ list.
And it was obvious that with the start of the war, people connected with Memorial would protest. In general, if Russia’s independent civil society had not been crushed into the asphalt by February 2022, the protests against the war would have been much bigger.
But when the liquidation process was launched, it is hardly likely that the exact date of the start of the war was known.
Yes, there was that coincidence – but coincidences are accidental.
Looking back, can you say who carried out the attack on Memorial and how? How were the legal proceedings organised?
On what grounds did the courts and the prosecutor’s office close Memorial last year? On the basis of past court decisions based on formal complaints drawn up by Roskomnadzor, which was responding to documents from the FSB’s Ingushetia division.
The latter began investigating us in July 2019 – after Iunus-Bek Evkurov stepped down from the position of head of the republic. Evkurov was a reasonable person who for some reason cooperated with human rights defenders and protected us. He had been a GRU officer, but human rights defenders as part of a system of feedback with society did not disturb him. But once they removed him there was nobody to restrain the security services, and there wasn’t much need of any kind of additional ‘evil intent’ to get rid of us.
We ended up with 28 charges against us, then, in 2019-2020, 28 court proceedings and 28 judgments, totalling something over five million roubles in fines. The courts became an excellent show, people collected the money to pay the fines, but the convictions remained.
And at the end of 2020 there was also an attempt to conduct a full-scale prosecutor’s inspection of the Human Rights Centre, but it was unsuccessful. All that was left of it was the ‘expertise’ by those experts in all sciences, Krukova and Tarasov, that our work contained ‘evidence of justifying extremism and terrorism.’
And when in the summer of 2021, after the ‘You decide!’ came from the very highest quarters, somewhere down below, in the presidential administration, a ‘plan of action’ for our liquidation was drawn up and everything went in line with our well-tried traditions. Such ‘action plans’ were put together and implemented in the 1930s and in the 1970s.
The Russian law enforcement and security bureaucracy has not changed much: it works very slowly if there is no strict oversight from above. For example, how long does a prosecutor’s inspection last, which, by law, can take up to 30 days? It takes all of 30 days! No longer than that, or you will be reprimanded. That is why our liquidation process went extremely slowly from the summer to the second half of November last year. And at that point the end of the year loomed in sight and it was necessary to report on the work done.
On December 29 we were liquidated. And then – bam! – a ruling from Strasbourg arrives on urgent measures: ‘Suspend the liquidation.’ This added an element of suspense to the drama that followed.
While between November and December of last year it had been the courts and the prosecutor’s office that were working on our case, in January of this year the FSB took over. I have to say, they are not always quick to act either.
I left Russia on 2 June and I thought it was a little late: on 24 February a member of our organization was arrested and on 4 March they searched our offices. As the chair of the organization’s board I was the only person mentioned personally in the lawsuit to close down the Human Rights Centre. My colleagues and lawyers strongly advised me to leave Russia. And I myself didn’t really want to be interrogated in a criminal case. And then on 5 July I’m in Paris, walking with a friend in the Bois de Boulogne – and I get a call from an FSB phone number! They want to question me. Why 5 July? It was the start of the year’s third quarter. Prove to me that’s not so!
So the conclusion we come to is that now, after the liquidation of the Moscow organizations, the Prosecutor General’s Office has sent out instructions to work with Memorial organisations in the regions. This is the next phase in the work of the State bureaucracy.
On the day Memorial was shut down, Valery Fadeev, head of the president’s human rights council, requested that you turn down the Nobel Prize since it had ‘brought itself into disrepute.’ How might you have responded?
First, Valery Fadeev is an advisor to the president. So advise the president! Second, he wasn’t the first. Last year, [State Duma] speaker [Vyacheslav] Volodin attempted to give some advice about the Nobel prize to Dmitry Muratov. Why listen to nonsense from on high?
What does the Nobel prize give us nowadays? It can accurately be said that the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature did not protect Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn from arrest and exile in 1974, while the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize did not prevent Sakharov being arrested and exiled in 1980. Just as the 2021 prize failed to protect Novaya Gazeta from closure in 2022. A Nobel prize is no writ of protection. Although, should something happen to a winner, there will obviously be a greater uproar. And the higher-ups may pause to give this some thought.
On the persecution of human rights activists in Russia
But are they really bothered about there being an uproar, given their actions over the last seven months?
Their actions in recent months have been stretched to breaking point. If the higher-ups burden themselves with extra costs and problems, it isn’t always a mistake or a failure to fully appreciate the consequences. Sometimes they knowingly bring on these consequences. Don’t underestimate the power of the dark side, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said.
As a rule, however, everything would go rather differently. I repeat: Russia is a bureaucratic kind of country where decisions have always been taken with, for want of a better way of putting it, one eye on the ‘case documents,’ on a fat file. That file contains all correspondence about the individual concerned. A thin little file means the individual isn’t a particular worry to anyone. If the ‘case documents’ are overly fat, running to several volumes, the situation is more complicated. It might entail problems. And maybe if they do go after a specific individual or organization, then this time it might not be solely because of a clear written instruction from on high. But it did use to be.
Very recently, in 2018–2019, Oyub Titiev’s release could be secured because it became possible to make his incarceration a greater problem for Kadyrov and the Kremlin than Oyub’s activities were.
Oyub Titiev told the world about enforced disappearances, about summary executions. That was a problem! He was arrested to stem the flow of reports. But as a consequence, journalists and diplomats streamed into the endless court sessions. Each session was the pretext for more publications. In other words, the overall costs increased. Added to that was the international reaction. ‘The case documents,’ the ‘file of reports,’ grew like weeds. And this ‘file’ outweighed the other.
Why then did this reasoning not work in the case of Yury Dmitriev?
I don’t know. I can only guess. Perhaps because Oyub was jailed at the local level rather than by the Kremlin. While they looked at Dmitriev completely differently – because of his activities.
Sandarmokh, of which he was the guardian, isn’t an ordinary place of mass burial of victims. Basically, then, the site was discovered in 1997 during the search for ‘a large convoy of prisoners for Solovki’ who were executed in the autumn of 1937. One thousand one hundred and eleven people, the ‘salt of the earth.’ The Soviet authorities sent to Solovki those they considered their arch-enemies. And it was the best of those best who were sent off to be shot. The crème de la crème.
The Ukrainians regarded the executions at Sandarmokh as part of the genocide of the Ukrainian people on the grounds that genocide is, in part, the destruction of the elite – clergy, cultural figures. One name is that of theatre director Les Kurbas.
Also executed there was the poet, Kuzebay Gerd, a cultural figure among the Udmurt people.
But, if we look at the Russian contingent of the ‘great convoy’ in the end, they were also the elite: clergy, officers, academics. But Russia doesn’t recognize Bolshevik terror in this respect, in this sense.
Whereas for Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania this was not a page that had been turned. For them, Sandarmokh is an important place. ‘Days of Remembrance’ were held there every year and on an international basis. It was at these ‘Days of Remembrance’ in 2015 that Yury Dmitriev talked about war in Ukraine. In doing so, he crossed a red line, as our public figures say. After that, the regional authorities rolled up participation in Memorial events.
What are the particular features of the state’s memory of the terror?
The terror is seen as part of regional history – that’s okay. But if we talk about the global nature of terror, not just in terms of the scale of the event but also in terms of its being state policy, at this point we depart from the permitted agenda.
These sentences from Sergei Dovlatov are famous: “We endlessly curse Comrade Stalin and for good reason. But I still want to ask: who wrote the four million denunciations?” With this, Dovlatov wrote an attractive but dangerous falsehood. It’s dangerous because it doesn’t just shift the focus, it acts as a major diversion.
If we look at cases from the time of the Great Terror, we find a couple of denunciations for every hundred cases. The majority of people were killed not because of denunciations but because repression proceeded by ‘categories’ (the ‘kulak operation,’ Polish or German repression) and, once again, this was state policy.
A further reason used as an implicit justification for why opening the archives is undesirable is ‘Don’t look back. You’ll be turned to a pillar of salt!’ Because in looking back, in turning to the archive material, you don’t know who you’ll find there – victim or executioner. What if someone finds out their great-grandfather was in the NKVD?
At one time, the Russian authorities took great umbrage with Memorial for publishing lists of state security officers from the time of the Great Terror, around 40,000 people. For the million executed and the millions sent to the camps, there were 40,000 NKVD operatives and investigators, not ‘four million denunciations’ of citizen against citizen.
And if we do turn to the past, it’s much more likely that you won’t see your ancestor in an NKVD uniform. Moreover, if you do have a Chekist in your family tree, no one will demand that you be like him. Coming into an inheritance is always a voluntary matter. And there will be more ‘spiritual heirs’ here than heirs by blood.
Returning to the Dmitriev case, we can see that he broke every permitted boundary. And he gave his opinion of the war in Ukraine to boot! Furthermore, ‘unsavoury’ and ‘unfriendly’ foreigners travel to Sandarmokh – and that in itself is a reason for FSB interest. And there you have your criminal case!
Speaking more broadly, each instance of political persecution is individual. In some cases, it’s been possible to help but mostly it hasn’t.
On how to do research into repression remotely
Memorial spent many years reestablishing historical memory. How can this work be continued when the community has been destroyed and many of its members have left Russia?
Many sources have been digitized.
But actually, Memorial isn’t just historical research; it’s also the work of the human rights centre that began in the early 1990s. And 30 years ago is also ‘historical memory.’
In June, I published an article about General Surovikin, who was then ‘only’ the commander of the military group ‘South’. For my ‘life’s work’ this is a person of huge significance – if you consider our recent history as a chain of wars, a chain of crimes, a chain of impunity.
Surovikin’s subordinates killed people on the night of 20-21 August 1991, during the GKChP coup d’etat. He has now grown to the point where he is in charge of the entire ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. And there can be many such characters and such investigations into the events of the last 30-35 years.
But there is one important point. A certain school of thought developed at Memorial. The ‘unit of measurement’ in any of our stories is the person and their personal history. Be it a specific refugee, or a person whose relative was kidnapped, or a prisoner of the Stalinist era. The optics are tuned to the individual: to count people as individuals, not numbers.
But is it possible now to fully engage in human rights work?
There are tasks that demand to be solved. There are people who need help.
leave Russia. You can, by the way, help them from anywhere in the world. Technologically, after two years of working remotely during the pandemic, you can do a lot of things from anywhere at all.
But you can go out on to Red Square with a placard only in Moscow.
For the last six months there has been a lot of debate about whether it is possible to stay or whether it is necessary to leave. This is everyone’s personal choice. But judging by the pictures we saw of the last court hearing in Memorial’s case, we see that a great many people have remained. The main thing is not to divide people up between those who are right and those who are wrong, and to forget about the idea of purity!
On forced emigration
We are meeting in Tbilisi. What connects you to this city?
I’m here as a result of a whole series of circumstances, including friendships. Actually, Tbilisi is a magical place. Tbilisi now and Tbilisi 30 years ago, of course, are two different cities. But undeniably, it remains a symbol of hospitality and accommodates within itself many different peoples.
It would be very difficult not to love Georgia from afar and it would be impossible not to love it after seeing it, and I have been coming here more than half my life.
And the worldwide on-screen fame that Georgian filmmakers from Danelia to Iosseliani have given Georgia is spreading everywhere.
Now it’s considered there are traffic jams here. You should have been driving here when there weren’t all these overpasses, highways and tunnels! Of all this, the thing I like best is that there is a tunnel off Chabua Amirejibi Street – Chabua at one time escaped from a prison camp. This tunnel is a good symbol.
I’ve just found out that the trial scene in the film Repentance was filmed in the courtyard of the House of Writers. In another scene Varlam Aravidze speaks from a balcony of the same house. And here in real life: in the neighbouring house lived the prototype for Varlam Aravidze – Lavrenty Beria. The city is full of meanings.
And now Tbilisi is also a city of refuge for the most various kinds of people.
In an interview with the project ‘Goodbye, Empire!’ you said that 20 years ago you were going to change profession. How is your work organised now and are you going to change it?
I was chair of the board of Memorial from 24 May 2012 to 5 April 2022. I may not have been the best captain, but I got the job done. Now I can do what I am good at. I’m on a long business trip.
The work is there to be done, the question is how to organize it. I may seem very cynical, because in Chechnya I had to work on various issues. Bucha and Izium are a continuation of what I saw in Chechnya. Yes, in 30 years it hasn’t been possible to stop this swing back of the pendulum of history. There was just one time that I managed to slightly hinder the career of one particular boss, but all the same he still rose to the very highest places. But even if it is only in a minute percentage of cases that you manage to help someone, that’s cool.
Every time you come into contact with someone’s fate, it feels like from that moment you are responsible for it. If you intervened in the fate of five soldiers who were about to be shot and they weren’t, in a way you become responsible for them. But that was a long time ago, in the last century.
But in this millennium, there are far fewer such opportunities for exerting real influence on a macro scale. For example, in 2008, the human rights activist Varya Pakhomenko and Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, made sure that after the war in Georgia almost all the captive hostages were immediately released.
I have no such achievements to my credit. But witnessing isn’t a pointless thing, either. Thanks to our work, as lawyer Kirill Koroteev has said, ‘they didn’t manage to turn tragedy into statistics.’ It’s not big numbers that are important as a result of our work, but a great many life-stories and human destinies. It is important to preserve this ‘perspective focusing on the individual.’ And after all, someone else will certainly take up this work and continue it in the future.
And one last thing about our work: we don’t need to expect gratitude. As a rule, there will be none. If only because people who have been helped by us in a difficult situation will not want to go back to those events when things were bad for them.
But this new Nobel Prize story changes the picture a bit. Sometimes miracles do happen!