‘More than likely, a major criminal case is in the works.’ Vera Chelishcheva reports on how the security services routed Perm Memorial

6 June 2023

How the security forces routed Perm Memorial and are sending its associates under the steam roller

by Vera Chelishcheva, special to Novaya Gazeta Evropa

Source: Novaya gazeta Evropa

“I’m looking for an opportunity again. Who’s driving/flying from Moscow to Perm? I need to transport the memorial plaques for the Last Address project (small tablets 11 x 19 cm). If anyone has the opportunity to take them, write me.”

Fifty-year-old Aleksandr Chernyshov, a historian, archivist, associate of Memorial’s Perm office, and director of the local Centre for Historical Memory, is mainly putting these posts on his social media. Before May 2023, he was known only in his region. For a few years in a row he installed these Last Address plaques in Perm. This is one of Memorial’s legendary projects whose purpose is to perpetuate the memory of citizens who were victims of political repressions and state tyranny in the years of the Soviet regime. On the facades of buildings that were victims’ last addresses in their lifetime, personal memorial plaques are being installed with their first name, last name, profession, and date of execution. 

Chernyshov organized The Return of Names in memory of victims of the repressions. On the same day in late October, people from various corners of the world take turns reading out the names of those innocent people who were executed. The historian has worked in archives, collecting evidence of the location of Gulag sites in the region. Quiet, thoughtful, and calm, he was not trying to clash with the regime but simply worked in an organization that corresponded to certain inner notions of his about how historical memory should be preserved. An office scholar (as his colleagues called him), Chernyshov did not leave Memorial when the organization was deemed a foreign agent, or when it was liquidated, when the movement was accused along with other things of allegedly “creating a false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state and whitewashing and rehabilitating Nazi criminals” (Prosecutor Aleksei Zhafyarov’s speech in the Supreme Court), or when they started opening criminal cases and arranging searches at the homes of Memorial’s associates themselves in Perm, including his. In late May 2023, Aleksandr Chernyshov was arrested on a serious charge: “attempting to steal cultural assets as contraband.” What the FSB [Federal Security Service] considered “contraband” was the archive of Perm Memorial, an organization that a year earlier the regime had liquidated for the reason that it “represented no cultural value whatsoever.”

The case against archivist and historian Aleksandr Chernyshov is the latest and, it seems, not last episode in the regime’s retribution against anyone who has had anything to do with international Memorial, which has been routed as of today, a very old organization created at one time by Academician Andrei Sakharov, human rights activist Sergei Kovalev, and historian Arseny Roginsky. An organization that received the Nobel Prize last year in Oslo and in its own country has long been on the receiving end of nonstop searches, criminal cases, and sentences. Thus, in the near future a trial will begin in Moscow against Oleg Orlov, the cochair of the Memorial Centre for Human Rights Defence (a structural subdivision of international Memorial, which has also been liquidated), on the criminal charge of “repeated discreditation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” Orlov faces up to three years’ incarceration.  

A week earlier, Bakhrom Khamroev, an Uzbek defender of migrant rights and member of the Memorial Human Rights Centre known for his work bringing applications to the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] about violations of migrants’ rights, was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony. Khamroev was accused of public “calls for terrorism” and “organizing the activities of a terrorist organization.” Finally, Yury Dmitriev, a member of the Karelian branch of Memorial who at one time discovered mass burials of victims of repressions in the region at Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor and was then accused of allegedly committing sexual violence against his adopted daughter, is serving a 15-year sentence in a strict-regime penal colony.

As of today, the organization’s leading associates have been forced to leave the country for fear of criminal prosecutions.

Novaya Gazeta Europe attempted to look into the latest spiral of repression against Memorial, which has to do with the Perm branch and the arrest of historian Aleksandr Chernyshov, who could now face up to 12 years in prison.

The local authorities took Perm Memorial, in existence since 1989, off the register of legal entities as far back as April 2022. The reason was simple: the Supreme Court had by then already abolished its parent structure, International Memorial. Nearly a year later, Centre E showed an interest in the abolished Perm branch. In mid-March 2023, the police conducted a series of arrests, searches and questionings in respect of former staff and volunteers of Perm Memorial. The police were concerned about the location of the branch archive.  The latter had been sent to Moscow for safe-keeping. For some reason, Centre E staff detected a bad sign in the archive’s transfer but they have not yet explained what constitutes a crime.  

They conducted their searches without presenting any court rulings or even any documents containing references to criminal charges being instituted. Lawyers were not given access to the Memorial members. 

Several volunteers were tricked into leaving their homes. For example, when one of them, all unsuspecting, agreed to go outside, he was shoved into a car and taken away for questioning. They took charge of his phone and forced him to text questions to Robert Latypov, former head of the local Memorial branch, who had emigrated to Germany a year earlier. The questions all related to that same archive. The volunteer was then held for 48 hours in a pretrial detention cell. A court subsequently fined him 3,000 roubles for allegedly “resisting police officers”. Some 20 law-enforcement staff removed everything they could from the volunteer’s flat: books, including books of condolence, documents, several mobile exhibitions Memorial had held in recent years. And, as is traditional, all technology and electronic devices. But they didn’t find the archive.

This was also when the first search involving historian Chernyshov was conducted: at his flat and at the Centre of Historial Memory, of which he was the head. They found nothing either but they too removed all technology, devices and computer hard drives.

All Perm Memorial staff and volunteers, including Chernyshov, were declared witnesses in a criminal case of “attempting to smuggle cultural property”.  The case was transferred for investigation from Centre E to the local directorate of the FSB. 

Then on 5 May, Chernyshov was arrested on board a Moscow-Istanbul flight, a few minutes before take-off. Police officers came right into the passenger section for him. But here’s the rub: Chernyshov had no archive on him. He was not released, however. He was accused of allegedly uttering obscenities in a public place and held for 10 hours without food or drink and, of course, without a lawyer or the right to make a phone call. Initially, he was held at the police station at Sheremetevo Airport. They were waiting for the FSB staffers from Perm to arrive, at whose instigation Chernyshov turned out to have been arrested. In the evening, a court in Khimki detained Chernyshov for 15 days and sent him to the special detention centre in Istra, Moscow Oblast. 

The charge of hooliganism, on the basis of which the court issued its ruling, stated that at 13:40 on that fateful day, Chernyshov allegedly uttered obscenities in the departure area of Sheremetevo Airport. Even though it was physically impossible for him to be there at that time. Boarding for the Istanbul flight began at 08:55 and at 08:30 the FSB Border Service took Chernyshov off the plane. Chernyshov said in court that from 08:45 to 14:30 he was at the Border Service premises — continually and under guard. The Khimki court judge declined to ask for security camera footage. A few days later, the Moscow Oblast Court (which endorsed the historian’s arrest) would ascertain that, by an interesting coincidence, the cameras at the airport were “switched off” that day (this was at Sheremetevo!), as were those in the Border Service room where the historian was held. A massive impression was made upon the judge by the absolutely identical written statements of two witnesses from the departure area (in which Chernyshov hadn’t been) who said that he “resorted to untargeted obscenities”, “was in a state of agitation”, “was waving his arms”, “behaving aggressively” and “failed to respond to comments”. The witnesses could not contain themselves and complained to the police. 

At the special detention centre, Chernyshov was not allowed to make a single phone call to his friends or to have a single visit. While he served his 15 days, searches of his colleagues’ premises continued in Perm. 

Moreover, as they searched the premises, the law-enforcement agents filmed what was happening on their phones and the footage appeared in the federal media, including NTV, that same day. 

At the end of the 15 days, Chernyshov was detained as he left the special detention centre in Istra and was soon placed remanded in custody. As he served this administrative jail term, the FSB brought a criminal case against him and against former head of Perm Memorial Robert Latypov under Article 226.1, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code (“Attempted smuggling of cultural property on a large scale”, which is classified as a serious crime). 

Aleksandr Chernyshov was taken under guard to Perm. There he was questioned for the first time and a court session followed, which confined him to pre-trial detention in the belief that he was “a flight risk” since he had already made one attempt to leave… Although on 5 May, when he was planning to fly to Istanbul, no criminal case as yet existed.

The historian and Perm Memorial archivist faces from three to 12 years’ incarceration. His lawyer has signed a non-disclosure agreement regarding the details of the investigation. All the defence lawyer was able to tell journalists was that Chernyshov has “fully acknowledged his guilt” and is “cooperating with the investigation”.

It’s common practice in Russia: they don’t want to let a person go, but they haven’t a shred of evidence on them, so first they come up with some ‘administrative offence’ out of nowhere, and then, after a bit of ‘fiddling’ with the evidence, they bring a criminal charge.

Novaya Gazeta Evropa spoke with Robert Latypov, the former head of Perm Memorial, about what might be behind this admission of guilt and why local security forces are so concerned about the liquidated organization’s archive.

Robert, what is this amazing archive that was so hunted after first by Centre E [the anti-extremism police department – ed.] and then by the FSB? What did it consist of?

There’s nothing sensational in it. We’re talking about documents concerning the ordinary recordkeeping of the organization that until April 2022 bore the name “Perm Memorial” and then was liquidated by the regime. That is, these are the kind of very specific documents that every organization and its directors and administrations have, speaking to its life and activities: certain information, official correspondence with organs of the regime, agreements with contractors, grant applications, reports, minutes of board meetings. These documents did not include papers of truly historical value: archival investigative files on political prisoners, prisoner cards, photographs of prison camps, and so on. There was nothing like that there.

What’s interesting is that the Investigative Committee had already examined this archive to determine whether it had any cultural value or not. An intriguing plot development: when the Russian regime liquidated Perm Memorial last April without a trial or investigation, simply crossing it off the registry of legal entities, they thereby let everyone know publicly that no one was interested in it as a public organization and it had no value for the Russian Federation and its citizens. 

But when the liquidated organization “that had no value whatsoever” sends its documents from one Russian city to another, it suddenly turns out that the archive does have value. A paradox! 

First, liquidate on the pretext that you are nobody and nothing, and a year later seize the documents on your vital activity on the pretext that they have “historical and cultural value.”

Although, I repeat, we’re talking about administrative, fairly bureaucratic documentation that would bore an outsider, but it has meaning more for those people who would like to preserve the history of the Memorial movement in the country and in this individual region. As a matter of fact, we were, of course, working on the archive before our organization was liquidated, trying to assemble it, because it was in a scattered state.

Perm Memorial has existed since 1989. We never had an archivist position specifically. These documents were in our associates’ apartments, and some [were kept] in the office. We got busy collecting them back in 2015. Even then we understood that evil times were coming. By that time they had liquidated our public Memorial museum, Perm-36. The Perm authorities agreed to break relations with its leadership, pushed them off the territory of the Memorial complex, and seized all the civil society organization’s property (archive, library, exhibits, office equipment, and so on). The Justice Ministry had already gained the right to “award” NGOs the foreign agent label.

In general, we clearly needed to preserve our legacy. We started assembling the archive and scanning the most important documents. Nonetheless, the paper archive still remained; there were a great many documents. Memorial associates had begun giving shape to this mass of documents, and later, when we were liquidated as a legal entity, volunteers worked on this. When the archive as a whole was assembled, we wanted to send it to Moscow to our Memorial colleagues for some preliminary professional evaluation. So that they could determine what of this mass was truly valuable for the history of the Memorial movement and what was pulp. So the volunteers in Perm collected the documents and sent them to Moscow. There is nothing criminal about transporting an archive. According to the law, after an organization’s liquidation, its documentation is supposed to go to the state organs, but nowhere does it say that it has to go to a state archive located in that region. You can submit it to one of the state archives in Moscow. Why not? No one prohibits it. That was what we intended to do.

Why did they arrest Aleksandr Chernyshov then?

Of course, I have very serious not even suspicions but real reasons why they arrested him. But for now I don’t want to make it known so as not to harm anyone.

Was he flying to Germany?

No, he was flying to Istanbul. And a very important point: with this departure he was not breaking any law. 

At that moment he was not under investigation, he had not been accused of anything, and he had not signed an undertaking not to leave.

When all this began in Perm in March—the searches, interrogations, and detentions—he, like everyone else, figured in the case simply as a witness. Therefore, in this instance there was no infraction of any kind on his part. By the way, initially the case against Perm Memorial was run by Centre E. Evidently, though, they needed a more serious level. The local FSB took on the case, which raised the status of the threats for our colleagues…

Chernyshov flew early in the morning from Perm to Moscow, went through passport control at Sheremetevo for a flight to Istanbul, and boarded the plane. That is, he was outside the territory of the Russian Federation at that point. Nevertheless, he was removed from the plane and taken to the airport police station to wait for Perm security agents to arrive.

Note how they arrested him. First they accused him of administrative disorderly conduct, for having sworn obscenely in the airport waiting area. This is just foolish and silly because it is so unlike cultured and quiet Sasha. You just have to know him. Now we, his colleagues, realize that the security forces have cooked up this administrative case and 15 days’ jail to give them time to prepare a decree on opening a criminal case against Chernyshov.

You mean to say, Aleksandr Chernyshov didn’t even have any files on him, and yet he is being accused of ‘attempting’ to smuggle them?

He only had personal belongings with him. To repeat, these were documents we intended to send to Moscow as a package. Chernyshov wasn’t really involved in this process. I had more to do with it, as the former head of Perm Memorial. Our volunteer collected the paper file from the organisation’s office and took it to the terminal of the shipping company in Perm, where he handed it over and got a receipt stating it was all accepted for despatch to Moscow. This means the records of the shipping company can confirm there was no question of the files being sent overseas. It’s just not realistic, what with the borders being closed at the moment. It’s also a very special kind of shipment, and there are eight boxes of documents. I mean, you can’t just take them with you on a plane in your checked baggage. That isn’t going to work: in the end, they’ll find out what it is and won’t allow it to be transported. Because of sanctions, it’s incredibly difficult to transport shipments of all sorts from Russia anyway. And anything to do with documents… For customs officers, the professional instinct to stop shipments like that will kick in straight away.

How did investigators seize the files in the end? Was it in Moscow during the search on Karetny Ryad?

That I don’t know. It was probably back in Perm. I’m sure there was wiretapping and surveillance on us. The police were looking to get something on us so they could accuse us of doing something illegal.

What is Aleksandr Chernyshov like and how long has he been at Memorial?

We’ve known each other since 2005. He joined as a volunteer and became a member of the expedition I headed. There was this project of ours called ‘Along the Rivers of Memory’. Every year, we held youth volunteer exploratory expeditions to Gulag sites in Perm region. We walked through sites of repression and put up memorial plaques there. In the villages that were still occupied, we collected oral histories from elderly residents, instructing the volunteers ahead of time on how to interview them about how they got there and what life there was like as ‘special settlers’, Gulag prisoners, and so on. So Aleksandr went on one of those expeditions with us for the first time in 2005. Before that, he graduated in stage direction from the Perm Institute of Culture. So, he isn’t even a specialist historian as such. But he had a keen interest in history and studying the local area. He even wrote a book about our Beryozovaya River. He visited Memorial now and then, and in 2015 started working with us as a researcher.

His interest almost exclusively lay in working with documents from government archives. He put together a large cache of documents relating to the history of the Gulag in our region. These, amongst others, formed part of our project the ‘Electronic Map of the Gulag in the Kama Region’. It’s shown on our website – take a look! It was my idea. I told my colleagues, “Ok, folks, to what extent can we say that Perm was a region of exile? How many Gulag facilities were there here, would you say? Let’s mark them on an electronic map. It will hardly all fit on paper.” Aleksandr became ever so engrossed in collecting material for the map and he began to dig into the archives.

What makes this project unique is that it contains minimal comment from us. It’s a well-thought-out and very rigorous publication. We adopted a presumption of trust in previously secret documents of the NKVD, meaning that they should be unclassified documents of that institution now in the public domain. If, let’s say, you wish to check whether a given facility we put on the Gulag map really existed, then you can use the archive code to go to the specified archive or to make a written request. They will then confirm that a given ‘special settlement’ or such and such a camp zone did indeed exist there. Each facility has its own archival descriptor stating when it was built, how many people were there, and so on. It all comes from the NKVD documents, which are openly available and declassified, as we’ve always emphasised.

To collect all that data, Aleksandr worked very hard in a wide range of archives – in the Moscow federal archive, in Perm region, and in Sverdlovsk region – and spent many years meticulously collecting information about all the Gulag facilities. On the map of the Kama region, there are now around 1,800 facilities that were part the penitentiary system in the 1930s-1950s. That’s in just one region… When we first started the project, we thought, well, there will be around 500 of them, but nothing like 1,800! What’s more, we’ve only done two-thirds of the work. Of course, not all of these institutions existed at the same time. Some would close, and new ones would be built and open. Still, they’ve all been identified now, with the help of official unclassified documents, and marked on the map.

The main credit for this goes to Aleksandr. Of course he didn’t work alone, but there would be no map without him. He’s such a quiet, meticulous armchair archivist.

When he came to us, we also offered him the position of regional coordinator of the Last Address project. Today, all the plaques that have been installed in Perm are mostly Chernyshov’s work. To install plaques, you must first work in the archives too. When an application is received to install a memorial plaque, archival information must be collected about each individual to ascertain that they were really a victim of political repression and were rehabilitated. The residents of the houses where the plaques are to be installed must be consulted, and their approval is needed, along with some paperwork, and so on. To date, 56 Last Address plaques have been installed in the city of Perm and Perm region. Our region is third, after Moscow and St. Petersburg, in terms of number of plaques. Now, with Chernyshov under arrest, this work has come to a complete standstill. Chernyshov had about 20 new applications for plaques, and he was still collecting archival data.

Aleksandr Chernyshov’s lawyer reported that he pleaded guilty…

…and that he was “cooperating with the investigation.” Yes, that’s what his lawyer has reported. What that means is anyone’s guess. But the fact that he pleaded guilty is, of course, very bad news, because it indicates that he was severely pressured and that there’s likely a large criminal case being prepared. And not even just a case against individuals — one against a group. It’s not just about Aleksandr and me. The FSB has searched the homes of and interrogated many respected individuals in Perm — public figures, journalists, and lawyers. I don’t want to speculate and be Cassandra of Troy; I’m just assuming that, more than likely, a major criminal case is in the works.

What makes me think that? Yes, it’s obviously a fabrication. Yes, it’s completely absurd. But the security forces have their own particular motivation. It has something to do with needing to prove their value. There are 1.5 million people in the vast Russian Federation’s security and law enforcement agencies, including the National Guard, FSB, police, Centre-E, special forces, and a bulging administrative staff. They’re not on the front line in the special military operation, although they do seem to have sworn an oath of allegiance, they’re armed, they seem highly motivated to “defend their homeland,” and they’re paid well. So they constantly need to prove their value, to justify the fact that they’re on the home front.

And the best way to demonstrate their usefulness and necessity is to cook up another high-profile criminal case, one that shows that they’re fighting the “enemies of the people.”

It’s particularly easy to kick a group that’s already down, like Memorial — a group that’s already been gutted and clearly can’t fight back. Plus, this criminal case under the laborious article on smuggling and searching civil activists serves as an example to further intimidate those who continue to possess independent perspectives and go so far as to publish them somewhere. It serves to silence these people and make sure there are none of them in Russia at all. The goal is to drive the remaining activists and civil society figures out of the country. And in fact, if you take a step back and look from the outside, it actually seems very logical. Of course, it isn’t the same logic you and I share as citizens; it’s the pragmatism and cynicism of the security forces. Therefore, jailing Aleksandr Chernyshov is the best case they have to easily demonstrate their necessity to the country’s leadership.

Was he leaving for good or just temporarily?

It’s difficult to say. His home had already been searched, his equipment had been confiscated, and he had been dragged in for questioning. It was clear that at the very least they weren’t going to let him work in peace. All this even though he was already the head of another NGO, a different legal entity called the Centre for Historical Memory, which is completely unrelated to the Memorial archive.

According to the laws of the Russian Federation, in the event that an organization is self-liquidated, its archive is transferred to state custody by the appointed liquidator. If an organization is liquidated involuntarily, as was the case with Memorial in Perm (we were liquidated without trial or investigation, simply removed from the register of legal entities), then the chair of the organization is responsible for the archive — in this case that’s me.

If the security forces have any issues, they should only challenge me, not Aleksandr Chernyshov, who was already the head of a different organization at the time.

You left the country a year ago. What were the specific events surrounding your departure?

The authorities made it very clear to me that they would not tolerate me, free, in the country. The organization I led for almost 13 years was shut down. As a result, I lost my official job and my team. Furthermore, an administrative case was opened for anti-war speech. The case made it to court and I was fined. The police came to my house and threatened my family with further punishment. Things like that. The whole situation around me really forced me to make a principled decision and act on it. And I don’t regret my decision.

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Melanie Moore, Lindsay Munford and Nina dePalma.

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