Aleksandr Cherkasov on Memorial and the Coronavirus: Responsibility of a different kind

17 March 2020

Aleksandr Cherkasov is chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre and laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group prize

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: Ekho Moskvy)

Memorial is closed and in quarantine, like many other public centres. Below (with some small cuts) is a letter, written on the morning of 16 March, preceding this decision:

Dear Friends and Colleagues!

Perhaps this letter is later than it should have been, everyone is following developments, has come to their own conclusions and I am pushing at an open door. But I would like our decision to be responsible. I have in mind the decision to continue the work of the Moscow office of Memorial in general and of ‘work at work in working time’…. […]

Responsible not only in the sense of our social role, the role of the Human Rights Centre. Although it is precisely this social role that determines our ‘vision’ and practice. When threats come from the authorities, then one of the conditions of success is firmness and an uncompromising attitude – within reasonable limits, with security measures as effective as possible, and making use of legal methods. Such an approach has formed over many decades – not only as an ‘inheritance’ but also as personal experience and style, from which it is not easy to depart.

In the case of natural threats, the situation changes somewhat: nature is indifferent to our moral notions, you can’t take nature to court…

So forgive me in advance for the banalities that follow.


As of 16 March, the Russian authorities, in their usual manner, removing responsibility from themselves, have introduced a very limited range of measures to combat the spread of the Coronavirus epidemic: so from Monday students will no longer have to attend schools in Moscow. It is significant that the authorities have placed the decision as to whether a specific child should go to school and concern about their studies and results on the parents. At the same time, large public events have been cancelled, but that may not be ‘the whole story.’ And preparation for the ‘voting’ on the constitutional changes continues…

As a result of our general experience of communications with the authorities and our understanding of their way of thinking, what seems a quite logical and reasonable point arises. ‘There is no real danger. The authorities are exaggerating the situation in order to put an end to, and make impossible, protests against the anti-constitutional putsch. Those who continue the activities of the public coalition can be declared not only outcasts and freaks, but real “enemies of the people”, and will face the consequent administrative decisions.’ 

In this light, simply ceasing to work ‘in the usual way’ would be a reaction of panic and capitulation — that is, not simply a mistake, but also ‘loss of face’ in the eyes of society and our colleagues. After all pickets are continuing (involving as many people as possible, that is queues of those taking part in single-person pickets, who hand the placards from one to the other), along with arrests (Lev Ponomarev was arrested and beaten) and efforts of resistance against them. To ‘remove’ ourselves from the work of this coalition would be a betrayal.


However, I wouldn’t rush to accept this point of view. It could take us in a different direction. That’s how, in two steps, they convinced our late friend Venya Iof in the Mordovian camps of the existence of perpetual motion: 

‘1. The Bolsheviks say, with their usual bravado, that perpetual motion does not exist. 2. It’s well known that the Bolsheviks always lie.’ The logic is solid, but flawed.

Some colleagues are aware that, not wanting to rely solely on the media and the internet, I sought the advice of specialists in order to build up some kind of picture. This is what happened:

1. The decisions of all governments to introduce quarantine measures were taken late. It was the same for us. In Russia, quarantine measures have not been introduced in relation to small countries (Belgium, Serbia, Georgia etc), where with a small number of cases the relative proportion is still high, or where it hasn’t been possible to establish the numbers – health services are not at all up to scratch. Russia did not impose quarantine on Austria, where in the Tyrol it was “no worse” than Southern Italy. I could give more examples but I won’t [at the moment, as of 17 March, borders have been closed – author’s note].

2. In Russia, in particular in Moscow, the current situation is no longer one of successful containment. The latest example: one detected case, a sick girl, went to school in Maryina Roshcha for several days before isolation … [on March 16th, four infected schools were identified in Moscow and Moscow region – author’s note]. A school through its children (who transmit the disease, as a rule, easily or asymptomatically) and parents (who become infected by their children), is likely to spread the infection to the surrounding neighbourhood via shops, transport etc.

3. We are in the same situation as all other countries. Quarantine measures will be introduced to combat an exponential increase in the number of cases, and with an obvious lack of medical preparedness. While there are not sufficient numbers of testing kits, the authorities refused to purchase Chinese ones and did not start certifying them. In these conditions, responsible behaviour is not only in opposition to the regime. There is a second angle: responsibility of a different kind towards our colleagues and their families, and to society as a whole.

4. Memorial as a meeting place (not just for public events but also the normal work of the team) is now the potential coming together of healthy with infected people. And there are even greater chances of infection or transmission on public transport, on the way to and from Memorial.

5. At the moment, the consequences of the epidemic are minimised by “severing” contacts, which allows medicine, if not to stop it, then to “stretch” itself to cope with it. Clear examples of dynamic modelling of the situation have appeared, based on differing behaviour strategies by authorities and citizens that are very obvious. Our medicine is coping poorly: beds are “optimised”. They are preparing staff and special areas in hospitals, but this is clearly not enough [according to doctors, whom I trust completely, what is possible is being done  … but in a setup that they themselves had carefully created previously – author’s note]. But for the patients it will be better when there is oxygen and ventilators, rather than when there are not enough. 

Experience as well as modelling results suggest that only the slowing of the epidemic over time with the help of quarantine will considerably reduce the mortality rate. 

6. Our collective comprises not just relatively young colleagues, but also people in the “high risk” age category. […] Young people also have older relatives, etc. The Coronavirus is responsible for a very high percentage of deaths precisely amongst these age groups.

Italy’s experience, in which posthumous “Coronavirus” samples are taken not just from those who were found to have the virus when alive, but from ALL the deceased is enlightening. It turns out that in Italy, many who had died from seemingly “normal” complications and “conventional” diagnoses actually had the virus. On the other hand, it seems that precisely because of the lack of widespread testing, there was no timely isolation or treatment… 


In private communications young people express concern over the “selflessness” of their older colleagues. That they are concerned strikes me as responsible behaviour: people aren’t prepared to be brave at the expense of others. 

I should point out that some of our associates and other like-minded individuals note that “when sanitary and quarantine measures are announced by the government, it means that something is amiss, that they’re stringing us along”. How does one respond to this? Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. 

The Yeltsin Centre and Sakharov Centre are closed due to quarantine and this is “responsible behaviour.” If we were to talk about our “public reputation”, then it should, inter alia, be evaluated on the grounds of the behavioural strategy adopted by Memorial. What measures have we adopted to protect our co-workers and not just them? How did we help society to counter the common threat, when state structures were vulnerable? 

It would seem that making the correct, responsible choice at this time should be facilitated by the fact that some of our colleagues are biologists and have work experience in this field.

Regards to all 

P.S. It goes without saying that we aren’t talking about a full cessation of any of our activity. […] Some of our colleagues may choose to walk to Memorial, so as to avoid using public transport, which is good.  In an emergency people could come in […] But in my humble opinion, we should take the decision to ban working at the office during normal hours, for the next two weeks. At that time, we will reassess. […]

Translated by Nathalie Corbett, Simon Cosgrove and Nathalie Wilson 

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