16 June 2022
Sergei Satanovsky talks to Irina Shcherbakova for Deutsche Welle
Irina Shcherbakova, head of the Memorial education council and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights prize, spoke in an interview for DW about the prestigious German prize, the war in Ukraine, the West’s policy toward Russia, and the tragedy of Russian society.
On Thursday, 16 June, in Berlin, they are awarding the prestigious Karl Wilhelm Fricke Prize to International Memorial. Since 2017, this prize has been awarded by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship for contributions to the struggle for democratic rights and freedoms and against dictatorship. The jury noted Memorial’s outstanding work in preserving the memory of the victims of the Soviet regime’s political repressions and crimes, as well as for their fight for the observance of human rights.
European states should lose their fear of Russia, Irina Shcherbakov, chair of Memorial’s council, said in an interview for DW on the eve of the prize ceremony.
DW: Allow me to begin with a question that’s traditional in these instances. What does the awarding of this prize mean for you and for Memorial?
Irina Shcherbakova: It’s a great honor. Naturally, we are incredibly grateful to the Foundation for singling out our work. The goals of this prize line up with the objectives Memorial has set itself: to preserve the memory of the Communist regime’s victims and secure justice for them. And to make every effort to see that their memory is preserved. These are our main objectives, which have not lost their relevance today, rather the opposite, in fact.
— How would you describe the context in which Memorial is receiving this prize?
— Memorial has been shut down in Russia (in December 2021, the courts eliminated the Memorial Human Rights Centre and International Memorial — Ed.). This was a very powerful blow to civil society. It was inflicted on the threshold of war, when we still weren’t sure it would start but the field of civil society was already being defended intensively. The legal proceeding was absurd and utterly false, outside any legal sense. This was a warning that the situation was going to get much worse.
In this context, Memorial received tremendous support from civil society from the most various countries and organizations. But this is happening during very tragic days. Memorial has come out with a statement against the war. People from our human rights structures are continuing to go out on the streets and protest.
We believe that this war has a direct relationship to the history and past the Putin regime is disseminating. This is the soil in which they were able to bring about aggression, to frighten and dupe our society. This is why it is so important to understand what we have been warning of all along: aggression, geopolitics, and attempts to restore the “old order” come out of our Soviet past.
— Are European states and organizations doing enough right now to support civil society in Russia?
— Let’s start from the fact that you and I are speaking on a very significant day for us (14 June — Ed.). For many years, our protest against the “foreign agents” law sat at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR ). This is a law that allows for the possibility of repressions against activists and entire organizations. And now, finally, today, the ECtHR ruled this law illegal and in violation of our rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, this (the review of the complaint — Ed.) took a great many years. And although Russia is no longer a member of the Council of Europe, it is important that this decision was taken. Let us hope that it will be implemented in further international trials that will be devoted to war crimes in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
And civil society in Western countries—especially in the countries of Eastern Europe—has very actively expressed its support for Memorial and is now supporting Ukraine. And now in Western Europe, officials, state structures, and politicians often behave not at all like nongovernmental organizations and civil society. Bureaucratically, they are delaying all kinds of things. They are not taking the decisions that must be taken now in support of Ukraine and can’t fix the bureaucratic problems of people who are fleeing Russia and being persecuted by the regime, for example.
There is a fear of Russia. One gets the sense that Europe has a hope of reconciling at any price. There is a fear of driving Putin into a corner, a fear that he will draw the NATO countries into war. From a historian’s standpoint, this is a highly flawed position. There are many examples in history when this kind of fear and the attempt to avoid responsibility yielded the exact opposite result. Therefore, we are laying our hopes specifically on the solidarity of civil society. And in this sense, the Karl Fricke prize is a direct expression of that support.
— How did the closing of Memorial affect your work with historical memory and archives? Has the work stopped?
— No, the work continues. There are people working in Moscow and outside the country. There are possibilities for working remotely. To a large degree, our archive has been digitalized, thank God. We hope we’ll be able to ensure access to it in digital form for all kinds of people, including those who will no longer be able to come and work in our archives. I think that the work organizing exhibits and in the archives will continue, although this is far from easy. In general, though, Memorial is an international organization. We have organizations in Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, France, and Ukraine. These organizations are continuing their work.
— In connection with the persecution of Memorial, many truly fear for the organization’s archive. How large is this archive and do you fear for its preservation?
— The archive is quite large. It has thousands of documents and information about tens of thousands of people. Sometimes this is entire suitcases of prison camp correspondence, and sometimes it’s just two certificates left from someone’s entire life. There is also a unique collection of prison camp art by professional artists and amateurs. These are absolutely priceless things that have been collected bit by bit. They were collected bit by bit because decades passed and a great deal was lost, destroyed. But we hope we’ll be able to preserve it. When we can return to full-fledged work, though—that nobody knows.
— How do you now view Memorial’s future in Russia?
— Memorial is an enormous part of our memory. Thank God, a great deal has already been published, collected, and accomplished, and it cannot be destroyed. And no matter how they try to cut people off from these publications, people still find ways to circumvent.
But if we’re talking about Russia, my prognosis is pessimistic. What’s going on right now in Russia and with Russian society is a tremendous tragedy. Absolutely horrifying. It’s going to be very, very, very hard to extract ourselves from it. And if a moment comes when people in Russia decide anyway in the majority that they have to fight for such banal things as democracy and freedom, the price they’re going to have to pay will be very high. I have no doubt of that. I don’t know whether I’ll live to see it.
Translated by Marian Schwartz