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Business News/ Politics / Russia tightens persecution of a crucial human-rights group

The raids began at seven o’clock on the morning of March 21st. Armed police brigades of a dozen men each descended on twelve Moscow addresses and turned them upside-down. Where they found documents, they sealed them. Where they found computers, they confiscated them. Where they found spirits, they drank them. The targets of the raids were not typical criminals, but eight soft-spoken intellectuals, several of them elderly, who work for Memorial, a human-rights group now banned in Russia.

The eight were detained for questioning on charges of supposed “rehabilitation of Nazism", which can carry up to five years in jail. The case being cooked up against them is trivial: Memorial databases documenting victims of Soviet political terror accidentally included three actual Nazi collaborators among more than four million other names. The databases have long embarrassed Russia’s secret services, which consider themselves the heirs of the KGB. But the investigating officers were also interested in matters unrelated to history, says Alexandra Polivanova, one of the eight Memorial employees: “They asked about Alexei Navalny and Ukraine, for whatever reason."

The case is clearly not about Nazism; even using the word in relation to Memorial, which was founded to combat totalitarianism and extremism, is ludicrous. Nor does it appear to be aimed at any particular individual. Ms Polivanova thinks it is intended to send a message to stop investigating or publicising human rights, war crimes or historical truth, since any such work undermines the basis of Vladimir Putin’s imperial war. Memorial has received many such messages over the years, but ignored all of them. In 2015 it was labelled a “foreign agent"; in December 2021 it was officially disbanded by the government. In October 2022 it was ejected from its headquarters. On the same day it was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with Ukrainian activists and an advocate for human rights from Belarus.

Dmitry Muratov, who received the previous year’s Nobel prize as editor of Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, suggests authorities have underestimated the toughness of Memorial’s mild-mannered scholars, who are determined to stay in Russia. “They are still unable to comprehend how Memorial was forged, in the atmosphere of Soviet dissident prison camps," he says. Mr Muratov says he has encouraged members of Memorial to leave Russia, but with little success. “They are audacious, intellectual aristocrats who demonstrate they aren’t afraid of people who, in their opinion, are plunging our country into catastrophe."

Ms Polivanova of Memorial said the group had been expecting such raids ever since authorities leaked news of the criminal case in early March. But she and her colleagues reaffirmed their decision to stay. They need to help fix the “disaster" of Russian society, she says. “Even if the war ends, and Ukraine regains its territories, Russians won’t disappear into space." She sees 2023 as a “low point": life is now as difficult for people like her as it was for Soviet dissidents from the 1960s-80s.

The day after the raids, many Memorial staff members made their way to Moscow’s Gulag Museum. There they attended the launch of a new book about Andrei Sakharov, a famous dissident sent into internal exile in 1980 by Leonid Brezhnev, then the Soviet leader. The book, based on secret KGB files, documents the system’s exhaustive and futile efforts to shut him up. Just publishing it in the current political environment is an achievement. The atmosphere at the opening was forlorn, but some drew inspiration from Mr Sakharov’s eventual victory over the Soviet machine. The David-and-Goliath story “gives us hope", said Irina Scherbakova, one of the authors.

For others that time is gone. “The market for hope is closed, we’ve simply stopped trading these shares," says Mr Muratov, who has been navigating the treacherous waters of Russian power for three decades. At least six of his colleagues have been killed over the years. Dangerous currents are now heading Memorial’s way. “The authorities have decided to destroy Memorial, and to shut these people up," he says. “They won’t stop."

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Updated: 08 Jun 2023, 05:35 PM IST
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