Memorial shutdown seen as point of no return for Putin’s Russia

The year in Russia is ending with a series of events that have alarmed many observers about the intentions of President Vladimir Putin and his government.

First, the state media monitoring agency Roskomnadzor blocked the OVD-Info website, which notably served as a clearinghouse between detained protesters and defense lawyers.

Then a court in the northern city of Petrozavodsk sentenced prominent historian Yury Dmitriyev to 15 years in prison on indecency charges that his supporters say were fabricated in retaliation for his research on the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin and the Soviet government.

Then the Russian Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, a human rights and historical research NGO that has played a prominent role in civil society since the days of the glasnost or opening remarks by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Police officers outside the Moscow City Court on December 29 as it said the Human Rights Memorial Center should be liquidated.

On the same day, police in Irkutsk, Tomsk, Arkhangelsk, Barnaul and Saratov arrested and interrogated former local coordinators of imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

It is, in fact, simply going back to totalitarianism and bulldozing all living things.

A day later, on December 29, the Moscow City Court ordered the closure of the Moscow Memorial Human Rights Center, Memorial International’s flagship project in Russia.

Writing specifically about Memorial International’s closure, longtime liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky argued that it marked “the passage from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian regime”. The decision, he added, shows that Putin’s government “has proclaimed itself the successor to the Stalinist and Soviet regime”.

Journalist Kristina Astafurova wrote: “We enter 2022 without a Memorial, with hundreds of political prisoners, with torture in our prisons, with dozens of people forced to emigrate in the last year alone (and how many more will leave?)”.

The Russian government’s intense, year-long crackdown on dissent, independent journalism and public activism comes amid speculation about the future as Putin’s current presidential term nears its end in 2024. The year Last, the government pushed through a massive series of constitutional amendments, the most significant of which allows Putin to run for two more six-year terms and possibly stay in office until 2036.

Last September, the ruling United Russia party secured a constitutional majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in a contentious election that saw genuine opposition almost entirely ousted.

Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia in January after weeks of medical treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning in August 2020 that he blames on Russian security agents acting at Putin’s behest. Two weeks later, he was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for a parole violation which he denies.

When a state tries to prohibit working on memory [of state terror] and glorifies the organizer of this terror, it is clearly seen in which direction it is heading.

Navalny’s regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation were branded “extremist” and shut down, and his supporters faced intensified persecution, prompting many to flee Russia.

“It’s a fitting end to a year that began with Navalny’s imprisonment,” wrote journalist Dmitry Kolezev, who noted that Gorbachev helped open Memorial, President Boris Yeltsin had been a member, and now Putin has closed it. “Now it ends with this – the destruction of Memorial…. When a state tries to ban working on memory [of state terror] and glorifies the organizer of this terror, it is clearly seen in which direction it is heading.

Journalist and activist Zoya Svetova written the same wayin reaction to the decision to close Memorial International, that Putin’s government has “decided to detach and stop imitating democracy”.

Russia’s technology of the future has become Russia’s technology of death.

“It is, in effect, simply going back to totalitarianism and bulldozing all living things,” she wrote.

The Russian state’s assault on dissent has also caused collateral damage by co-opting institutions that should deliver justice and protect democracy in repression, observers said. Author and journalist Aleksandr Minkin argued that it was not only true that the “Supreme Court liquidated Memorial”, but also that “Putin liquidated the Supreme Court”.

Similarly, the human rights site posted on Twitter that “the ‘judge’ read Putin’s verdict on closing the Memorial Human Rights Center”.

As for the government’s order to block the OVD-Info website, some observers reserved their harshest criticism for Russian internet giant Yandex for carrying out the state order to block the site.

Yandex ‘was once a brilliant Russian company’ and ‘a source of national pride’, blogger and activist Roman Popkov wrotearguing that it has been “turned into an instrument of censorship”.

“Russia’s technology of the future has become Russia’s technology of death,” he added.

Opposition activist Denis Bilunov called Memorial International’s liquidation a “strong signal”.

“It’s like nailing the lid of a coffin” he wrote on facebook. “I have a feeling that Putin’s steam engine cannot be hijacked or stopped.”

With report from Russian service of RFE/RL and current time