18 October 2021
By Jens Siegert
The raid on Memorial’s office in Moscow last Thursday evening has provided a new image, illustrating the state of freedom in Putin’s Russia, which will soon become iconic: the doors of the offices of the country’s best-known rights defenders locked with police handcuffs.
Now, a few days later, we, Memorial and many others, are still trying to make sense of this. This is, what I think so far.
1. The raid was planned and carried out by state agencies and was possibly coordinated by the Kremlin.
2. All participants, the TV team from the infamous NTV TV-channel, the group of young men, who stormed Memorial’s conference hall, the police and other security agencies were working together and in line with a coordinated plan.
3. This action was clearly part of a new wave of attacks on Memorial, which had begun already earlier (two days before, NTV and the state news channel Rossiya-24 had aired defamatory “reports” about Memorial), and which will most probably go on.
4. First I want to recap, what happened. The NTV team tried on Thursday evening to get into Memorial’s conference hall, where the film screening took place. Memorial staff didn’t let them in. After a while, a group of 25 to 35 young men arrived. They weren’t let in either.
5. But apparently some of them were already inside, masking themselves as ordinary visitors. They opened a side-door from within and let the others in. These men behaved very aggressively, storming the conference hall and shouting like prison guards,riot police or hostage-takers..
6. They gathered on the stage in front of the screen and continued shouting the same slogans for about 10 minutes, slogans such as “Shame”, “We don’t forget, we don’t forgive”, “This is our history” and others. The audience kept astonishingly quiet. Then the gang went quiet.
7. Some people from the audience tried to involve the intruders in a discussion, asking them, what they wanted from them or Memorial. But to no avail. The responses only came in the form of the slogans that had already been heard. This and their behavior led to the conclusion that they most probably were a hired group rather than a group of nationalists, as has happened earlier. Maybe they were a group of football hooligans which are known to work with the police from time to time.
8. Memorial staff called the police. But before the police from a nearby police station arrived about 15 minutes after the call, most of the intruders had already left. Memorial staff succeeded only in getting hold of three of them, who were handed over to the police.
9. The first police officers to arrive not really seemed not to really know what to do. They let some of the people present go and took the three detained intruders with them to the police station, accompanied by two Memorial staff members. In the police station the three intruders disappeared. It is not known whether an investigation has been opened in relation to these individuals.
10. Shortly after, other security forces arrived. Among them were the National Guard (anti-riot unit), the Centre E (a police unit combating “extremism”), the State Investigative Committee (a sort of FBI) and a special police unit for fighting economic crime.
11. Commanding all these units command was a Lieutenant-Colonel, a rather high rank for such a case. The newly-arrived security officers behaved rather rudely. Instead of investigating the intrusion and trying to find the intruders, they treated Memorial’s staff and the audience who had come to watch the film like suspects (and not like the victims they were).
12. The police now insisted on searching all the rooms in Memorial’s office building, not only those open to the public (where the intruders had been or might have been), but also the locked office rooms. Memorial’s staff refused the police permission to enter these rooms. The Police insisted. Some of Memorial’s staff overheard some of the police officers talking among themselves about confiscating all the computers in the building.
13. Meanwhile Memorial’s lawyers had arrived at the offices, but, against the law, the police did not let them in. However, after a while two lawyers did succeed in getting into the building through a window in the basement. They told the police commander that searching closed office rooms and confiscating all computers would be against the law and would have consequences.
14. About this time, already near midnight, the police commander got a phone call, after which the behavior of the police changed fundamentally. They first let the visitors go and, after a while, Memorial’s staff too. At about two in the morning the police left Memorial’s offices. The raid itself had lasted about half an hour at most. The police had stayed for more than six hours.
15. The following morning two officers from the economic crime unit came to Memorial with a summons for Monday morning (18th Oct) and a long list of documents that Memorial were asked to provide by that time. They handed over a paper with a decision to open an investigation into possible economic crimes against Memorial. The decision was dated several hours before the film screening on the Thursday evening had began. This is another lead to the assumption that the whole thing was a pre-planned plot by the security forces.
16. The involvement of the economic crimes police is something new (it had never happened before to Memorial) and very worrying. The economic crimes unit has special powers and is is much less restrained by procedural protocols. Faked economic crimes are in Russia quite often used as a pretext for political repression. Their most prominent recent victim is the now imprisoned politician Aleksei Navalny.
17. Moreover, the economic crime unit has the power to close Memorial’s offices without a prior court decision. Despite the experience that courts very rarely contradict the demands of the many different security services in Russia, the need for a court’s approval is an added procedural hurdle, which from time to time can slow things down.
18. An investigation into an alleged economic crime constitutes a direct threat for Memorial’s managerial staff. The managing director and the financial director, at least, are criminally liable for any infringements.
19. Another threat for Memorial is the confiscation of computers that control not only the security system of the offices but fire protection system as well. The fire service may now come and demand the closure of the offices at any time.
20. A great deal, if not everything will now depend on the investigation of the economic crimes unit. The outcome of this investigation will depend, there is no doubt, on a political decision to be made in the Kremlin.
21. So far as we know there exist two opinions in the Kremlin (I’m not eager to call them “groups”, because it is not known how coordination inside the Russian power structures works; there is a lot of competition among different units, agencies and other coalitions). On one hand, there are many who believe that Russia should take no account of any possible reactions by western countries to what is going on in Russia and who believe that the Russian public won’t care if the authorities close Memorial down. Others believe that such an indiscriminate crackdown would, at least tactically, not be useful (for whatever reasons). Rumours have it that a document containing a decision to close Memorial has been lying on the desk of Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy head of Putin’s administration responsible for home affairs, for some time already, but Kiriyenko, so the rumour goes, has not yet decided what to do. If these somewhat simplified assumptions are correct, the raid and other recent attacks on Memorial might be an attempt to push the taking of a decision by the Kremlin forward.