12 November 2021
Pictured is the Moscow Helsinki Group award winner and International Memorial board member Oleg Orlov. Interview by Dmitry Volchek
“The decision to destroy Memorial, an organisation concerned with the history of political repression and the defence of human rights, is politically motivated”. This was how International Memorial reacted to the news that the General Prosecutor’s Office had petitioned the Supreme Court to have the organisation, which has been entered in the register of ‘foreign agents’, liquidated.”
“The liquidation of International Memorial, for which the General Prosecutor’s Office is petitioning Russia’s Supreme Court, is nothing short of a coup. The gloves are most definitely off, and if Judge Vyacheslav Lebedev, who was recommended for his post and essentially appointed by people with democratic convictions, follows the lead of the General Prosecutor’s Office, it will mean that we have returned to totalitarian rule. The destruction of the most renowned educational human rights organisation in Russia and around the world, an organisation that has revealed and continues to reveal the truth about Stalinist and Soviet repression, can mean only one thing: Russia and its government no longer wishes to maintain a semblance of democracy, and what have you. There is a recognition there that it is reverting to totalitarianism, with all that this implies.” So writes the journalist and human rights defender, and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, Zoya Svetova.
The International Historical, Educational, Charitable, and Human Rights Society Memorial was listed in the “foreign agents” register in 2016, three years after the Memorial Human Rights Centre was declared a foreign agent. The organisation, it was announced, was engaging in political activities since it held that Russia’s actions against Ukraine should be characterised as aggression, and because it was critical of the foreign agents law itself. The General Prosecutor’s Office has now charged International Memorial with systematic violation of this law. A Supreme Court hearing is set to take place on 25 November. Meanwhile, legal proceedings for the liquidation of the Memorial Human Rights Centre have been instituted with Moscow City Court.
In an interview with Radio Svoboda, International Memorial board member Oleg Orlov said that the organisation was meeting all the requirements of the law.
“They are trying to liquidate International Memorial, which unites many organisations, Russian and non-Russian alike. They’re in Ukraine, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic. In the past year or two, International Memorial has been under constant and growing pressure. Aside from the actions of the Prosecutor’s Office, there have also been raids by storm troopers, and the criminal investigation into such raids has been sabotaged or blocked. Various pieces of propaganda have been put out there about us, mainly content on channels like REN-TV, NTV, Russia 24, and Russia-1 that is mendacious from start to finish. An atmosphere of animosity has been created around us, and it has reached a point where the part of the community that trusts these channels has come to think of us as their enemies.”
One particular raid on your office took place quite recently. A group of people tried to disrupt a screening of the film ‘Mr Jones’, by Agnieszka Holland. Hasn’t there been an investigation?
“We apprehended a couple of people out of a large group of several dozen and handed them over to the police. The police started making enquiries, which are ongoing. We don’t know the outcome. Our lawyers have yet to look into who these people really are. And it comes just as they want to liquidate us. In whose name will the lawyers be acting when they come to demand a full investigation? That very same day – even before we were raided by those storm troopers – someone sent a statement to the police station saying that we were breaking the law by showing an anti-Russian film about the Holodomor [the Great Famine that took place in Soviet Ukraine from 1932-1933] without a screening certificate. Off the back of that statement, the police opened another line of inquiry, this time into us. That’s when they started to dig, demanding various documents from us. What’s more, they drafted in the Directorate for Combating Economic Crimes and Anti-Corruption. Why them, I don’t know. So, two sets of enquiries are underway, and it’s clear that the police are devoting more attention to investigating us.
International memorial brings together organisations working in a range of countries. Could a Russian court liquidate these organisations?
“Yes, we’re an international organisation with a number of members and departments abroad. We have tried to appeal: how can an international organisation be called a foreign agent? The law stipulates this as a designation for Russian organisations – the word “international” does not feature anywhere. In response, we were told that this meant nothing at all and that, as we are registered in Russia, we are bound by Russian laws. What nonsense. What, are our counterparts in other countries also obliged to identify themselves as foreign agents? A foreign agent acting on behalf of whom? They don’t care. The wording of the law allows them to apply it to whomever they like. They have not found any serious offences on our part – all they have done is lumped together the instances where we were fined for not identifying ourselves [as foreign agents], even though these were all instances from 2019 when we first started receiving fines for omitting the label from our social media. Up until then, no enforcement measures were taken for leaving the label off social media. We included it on our website, our printed materials – but what were we to do? Might goes before right. It was not clear to us whether we were also supposed to include it on social media posts. In 2019, the Ministry of Justice started bringing lawsuits for omitting the label, and they immediately found a number of unlabelled social media posts. Fine, we started labelling our posts from then on. Essentially, they are trying to have us liquidated for things that would have gone unpunished before 2019. There is one more instance: they claim that we displayed printed materials at a book fair without labelling them. By this point, we had realised that any publication needed to be labelled. But the books in question were published earlier, before Memorial had been designated a foreign agent! We had a stamp and, realising that they would take any opportunity to punish us, we stamped all our books at the point of sale. Some people came up to us and asked us to show them one of our publications. They leafed through it, put it back on the table and left. They came back a little while later, this time accompanied by the police, identified themselves as public prosecutors and presented us with a claim and a fine. So we say, “Sirs, we were not disseminating anything – just offering it – and if you were to buy anything, then we would have stamped it”. “We don’t know anything. Simply showing someone a book counts as dissemination”. So essentially, the enforcement practices around this law are totally unpredictable. There is no rhyme or reason to them. We appealed unsuccessfully. Fine – from then on, we started stamping any books that were displayed in public. But now they have decided that this is still grounds for liquidating the organisation.
And did you pay the fines?
“Of course! We approached people and asked them: help us to pay the fines. People willingly gave money to us in order to help our continued existence. The fines were all paid in full. We understood that in order not to be issued endless fines again, we would need to use the markings. We changed our position, taking into account the requirements of both the Ministry of Justice and the prosecutor’s office. Nevertheless – let’s liquidate.”
So you fulfill all of the requirements of the Foreign Agents Law?
“They claim that there was intentional and deliberate failure to comply with the law, referring to our statements from 2012. This is absolute nonsense. It is our right to appraise the law as we please, we still see it as anti-rights and repressive, but this does not mean that we deliberately decided not to comply with it. There was a lot of debate inside and outside Memorial about whether this should be done. We once said that we would not comply with this law, when it concerned voluntary inclusion in the ‘foreign agents’ register. They said: everyone must register themselves. We said: no. Then they changed their own law and included us without our consent. So, they included us, we’re not to blame for that. From that moment we decided that we must comply with the law if we believe we should continue to operate in Russia. And so we did. There was no deliberate, intentional violation of the law. The demands expanded infinitely, they fined us, and we began to comply with the law as the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice had once again ordered. But they argued that we intentionally violated it. In my opinion, these statements are unfounded. We believe that we’ll win in court, because there are no legal grounds for the shutting down of International Memorial, either from the point of view of Russian legislation or from the point of view of international law.”
‘Memorial’ was founded in the USSR in January 1989; Andrei Sakharov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was elected as honorary chair.