16 October 2022
An interview with Aleksandr Cherkasov, head of the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights award
This year the choice of Nobel Committee members is intended to draw attention to the important role of civil society in promoting peace. This is how the UN Secretary General commented on the choice of the Nobel Committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Memorial in Russia, the human rights activist Ales Beliatski in Belarus, and the Centre for Civil Liberties in Ukraine. In an interview with the UN News Service, Aleksandr Cherkasov, head of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, agreed with this assessment: the prize is awarded to Eastern European civil society, which is now, in his words, ‘under attack.’
UN News Service: Did you expect Memorial to win the Nobel Peace Prize this year?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: You see, year after year we’ve been in a situation where we’ve been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. There are always not even dozens, but hundreds of very worthy people, organizations and initiatives nominated. To get on this list is an honour in itself. The nomination itself is very important, because every time there is a discussion of all the nominees, their work, their programmes, and so on. It is essentially a discussion of the global humanitarian agenda. If you are nominated, it’s already a big deal.
After Memorial was closed down this year, it was a complete surprise to be nominated. On 7 October I first learned that Ales Bialiatski had been awarded the prize. It’s very good. Ales has been in prison for a long time and this is not the first time he has been nominated. It’s very good when a political prisoner receives an award. It definitively helps them. It’s not a certificate of protection, but it’s support and it’s a very important gesture of solidarity. Then I learned that the Centre for Civil Liberties had been awarded. And I was even more pleased. Then I found out that Memorial was one of these three laureates.
And this is where it got complicated. Not only because people started calling and sending messges, but also because, of course, the awarding of this prize during the war is controversial and there are questions to be answered. Of course, during a war, the most important question is the war itself, the victims of the war and so on. The second question is about those dictatorships that are making the war possible. The third issue is that of civil society in the countries where there is a dictatorship, in the countries that are waging war. In all the talk about the Nobel Peace Prize, the main thing for us is not to forget this hierarchy of values.
Of course, the main thing that is happening now is related to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, to the protection of the people who are under attack and suffering, their fate. On the other hand, you see, it is not quite right to consider the matter as the award being given to representatives of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Civil society does not represent those countries or their leaders.
UN News Service: People of my generation, for example, remember Memorial very well. When it was founded, everyone was talking about it, primarily because of its work to find the documents of those who had been repressed. The new generation probably hasn’t heard all that much about Memorial, and doesn’t know that much about it. Especially if we have in mind Russian-speaking readers and listeners around the world. So, can we talk briefly about the activities of the organization that is actually being awarded now?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: Well, I can tell you about the activities of the community that the organization is a part of. That, of course, is the preservation of the memories of victims of terror. They’ve done everything from publishing a book of remembrance, which is more like a collection of information from every book of remembrance available on a disc or online. There are more than three million people covered – approximately one-quarter of whom can be considered victims of political repression from the viewpoint of the law “On the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression” of 1991. This is a collection of information about memorial sites. It’s a collection of information about camps, burial sites of those executed and camp cemeteries, and museums that exist across the country. It’s a variety of works, of initiatives, but efforts to bring it all together as one are quite important, because this isn’t just a remembrance of, say, the victims in Sverdlovsk. This was terror across the entire country and terror across the nation, which brought together people living in all the post-Soviet countries.
Now, on October 29, there will be another reading of names, this time a virtual one. People have actually gotten used to the virtual format during the pandemic. People in different countries will read the names of the dead, the executed, and it will be brought together in some sort of online broadcast. This will be a worldwide event, because the reading of the names has gone beyond Russia, beyond Moscow. It will take place in many European cities as well.
On the other hand, we have investigative activities. I already mentioned the lists of victims, but what’s also important is that reference books, among other materials, were created and published that cover the leadership of the state security apparatus – those who carried out the terror. Or lists of NKVD employees during the Great Terror were published – around 40,000 people. That is, one can in effect decipher signatures on files from that time. This is also very important, because terror isn’t four million denunciations that someone wrote, like Dovlatov said; it wasn’t citizens killing other citizens; it was a state policy carried out not by denunciations, but first and foremost by mass operations. There are two or three denunciations for hundreds of cases. This was done by the state with its people, and it’s crucial to understand that. This was a government policy, like I already said. In this sense, our memory is different from that of the government. The government isn’t against regionalizing the memory of terror, but imagine a monument to the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany in Sverdlovsk Oblast. That would be strange. And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with the memorial for the government’s fight against citizens. It’s a memorial about more than just what happened. It’s about an understanding of a unified history of the pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods as a logical correlation. This isn’t turning the page on terror, as Putin said when he unveiled the Wall of Sorrow on Sakharov Avenue. We weren’t given a mandate to turn the page and say it’s all over and that we should forget about it! It is an attempt to understand how to live without forgetting this tragic history. And this is important outside of Russia, too. All sorts of countries have a similar history, including El Salvador, where there was terror, civil war, and an attempt at reconciliation, South Africa, and Japan. Dealing with the past is very difficult. It is a historical lesson to learn. We’ve held a competition in schools for over 20 years called “Man in the History of Russia, 20th Century.” Every year, thousands of schoolchildren have written research papers – not about trials in general, but about the history of families, of churches, of villages, and so on. When this history is seen through family archives, through oral history, when it’s unraveled to the individual-level, it’s a completely different memory for people, a completely different attitude toward the past and the present and toward one’s participation in this present. This is how the public is actually formed.
So there I’ve listed the main historical strands of our work, apart from the museum, the archive, and the library. Human rights have been no less important: it would have been strange back then, thirty-odd years ago, to busy ourselves with the past and turn a blind eye to the present – to the wars that have broken out on the periphery of the Soviet Union, to their victims, and the flows of refugees.
The Memorial Human Rights Centre has done a great deal more besides. Early on, it endeavoured to help refugees who’d fetched up in Moscow, and this was followed later by the appearance all over Russia of dozens of legal advice bureaus that are still there today and are currently helping Ukrainian refugees in Russia. There’s also the Centre’s work in hotspots, most significantly the Caucasus. In Ukraine, our colleagues used to work in concert with our Ukrainian colleagues. It’s difficult to imagine a Russian passport holder working in the war zone in Ukraine today. Up until 2017 it was possible to work in Donbas.
There’s also the Centre’s work providing assistance to political prisoners, and maintaining a list of political prisoners. This is the work that caused us to fall so sharply out of favour; it became one of the formal grounds for declaring us foreign agents and then closing us down. Our work included the use of international mechanisms and filing cases with the Strasbourg Court. Hundreds of applications were filed, and many cases were won at what was for Russian citizens the court of last instance. This route was closed to us in autumn of this year, although it is now possible to file complaints with UN organs.
UN News Service: You’ve been cooperating with the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UNHCR. Are your relations formalised in any way?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: The UNHCR supported the Human Rights Centre’s migration programme – that consisted of those dozens of legal bureaus across Russia I’ve just been talking about. We have cooperated, and continue to cooperate, with various organisations, and it would be strange to stop doing that. Many strands of our work couldn’t be stopped anyway: there are applicants to Strasbourg that we represent, and refugees. There’s also what’s still going on in the Caucasus … not good at all. We need to do something there. And there are the millions of Ukrainians relocated to Russia. They also need help. We had more than one thousand political prisoners on our lists at the beginning of this year, and nearly five hundred of them are still on the lists. These are people in prison in Russia.
UN News Service: Have you read the UN Secretary-General’s congratulations? He chose to say that the Nobel Committee’s choice had drawn attention to the importance of the activity of civil society.
Aleksandr Cherkasov: The Nobel Committee’s choice and the nomination itself are not primarily about the prize, although that is very important, and not about the winners themselves, but about their work. That work is the work of civil society. Last year it was the media in the form of Dmitry Muratov, Russia, though the Philippines were represented too. The struggle for freedom of the press in troubled regions. And now it’s Eastern European civil society under attack. The war in Ukraine, large-scale repression in Belarus, the struggle with ‘agents’ and the liquidation―purging―of civil society in Russia.
We are grateful to the Secretary-General for pointing out the importance of civil society; the effect of his words is that civil society itself has received the prize. It’s a very important component, although not as visible, for example, as parliamentary democracy or a free press. But it’s also an important feedback loop, so to speak, between the authorities and society.
We are grateful, too, to the Nobel Committee for their solidarity, for highlighting this important aspect of public life.
UN News Service: How are you going to work in current conditions?
Aleksandr Cherkasov: How will we work in these conditions? We have to help refugees and the forcibly mobilised. Memorial’s lawyers are already involved in providing assistance there. It’s unfortunate, but the times themselves are dictating the most important items on our agenda. These important items are displaced persons, and political prisoners jailed for reasons to do with the war. Reasons that include the new laws on ‘fake news’ about the army, laws against those who tell the truth, and the new laws on discrediting the army – which are also laws against those who tell the truth. Unfortunately, we have far more work to do than we have resources to do it.