History Politics

Interview: Russia wants to ban one of its most important Human Rights Organizations

INTERVIEW: Dr. Anke Giesen is a board member of Memorial International. She talked about the current state of the lawsuit against Memorial International in Russia and the work of Memorial in Germany.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Dr. Anke Giesen is a board member of Memorial Germany and Memorial International. In an interview with Emerald Press and moritz.magazin, the student newspaper at the University of Greifswald, she talked about the current state of the lawsuit against Memorial International in Russia and the work of Memorial in Germany.

You can read more on the background of Memorial, its work and the problem it’s facing today, here.

The interview was recorded on the 3rd February 2022 and on some part shortened for a better reading experience.

You can listen to the German version of the interview here.

Emerald Press: The court ruling from December 2021, which would liquidate Memorial International in Russia, was just the first verdict. You appealed against it. How is the current state of that process, are there any updates?

Anke Giesen: Maybe it’s important to clarify who should be liquidated. That’s Memorial International, the international umbrella organization, to which nearly all Memorial-associations in Russia belong, and every Memorial-group outside of Russia. We appealed the verdict of last December and are anticipating a final ruling at the end of February 2022. We don’t think that there is a big chance the appeal will be granted.

And should Memorial International be liquidated, would that also restrict or forbid the work of all the other Memorial-organizations in Russia?

No. They could still work normally. But we know Russian politics and how it’s working. When they send a signal from the center in Moscow, from the highest court, then provincial governors will say: “Let’s take a cue from them, and now we’re going against our small Memorial-group here in Altai or Krasnoyarsk.” There are already news from Krasnoyarsk, that they have problems with local authorities. That’s why we assume that the verdict from Moscow will start a kind of domino-effect, that will, piece-by-piece, liquidate all regional Memorial-groups. That’s our big concern.

Under the current circumstances, can the different Memorial-groups in Russia work normally?

Yes, the regional associations are working quite normal. As I mentioned, just Krasnoyarsk said that they have problems with the authorities. They don’t issue some papers, that they normally should get fairly quickly. Memorial International in Moscow is also still working normally. Until the hammer drops, they will work regularly. And there are already plans for afterwards. Under Memorial International, there is another umbrella organization called Memorial Russia, that would still remain active. It’s another legal entity. Right now, they are working on redirecting all the work that is done by Memorial International on to Memorial Russia. But then again, there is this concern, that very soon there’s going to be a lawsuit against Memorial Russia. But that redirecting would make a couple more month of work possible, and as long as that is the case, my colleagues will do it.

So the precedent is causing fear to grow, that this was just the first step of a movement against Memorial in general.

Exactly. We think that this decision was made on the highest level. Memorial International was the first civil-society-organization in the Soviet Union, that Gorbachev [the last head of state of the SU, editor’s note] himself registered. Memorials work is widely respected in Russia. Without Memorial there wouldn’t be a lot of knowledge about the repressions under Stalin, the Gulag, the arbitrary mass shootings and organized hunger. Going against Memorial International means that the entire work isn’t welcomed anymore, by the highest level of Russian politics. And yet, you can’t shut down our network all at once. That’s why it’s a network of different, independent legal entities, and you have to eliminate it piece-by-piece. We on the board also expect that to happen. But we are now trying to stall for time. If you can work on for one or one and a half years – That’s a win.

It has always been said that it is obvious that the trial against Memorial was politically motivated. Can you elaborate, where you see that motivation?

There are basically two main causes.

First there is the historical educational work from Memorial. Vladimir Putin sees himself as the highest historian of Russia right now. During the summer he wrote a text – for historians not comprehensible – about how Ukraine isn’t a sovereign country and is actually part of the great, glorious Russian Nation. His goal is obviously to write the history of Russia as one single successful project from Ivan III of Russia till today. An organization like Memorial, that shines a light on the Stalinist era, the terror under Lenin, the repressions under Brezhnev, is, of course, a thorn in his side. All that and the Gulag, the collectivization of agriculture, the Red Terror and the coercive psychiatrizes cast a shadow on the marvelous history of the Soviet Union and Russia. And to make it clear: For Putin, there is no difference between Russia and the Soviet Union. It’s just one single line from the Grand Principality of Moscow to today’s Russian Federation. And that’s why he wants our work no longer to be civically driven. A civil society organization like Memorial can not be controlled. All governmental organizations that work on historic research, like universities or historical research institutes, can be kept on one line. That’s just not the case with a civil society organization that receives money from outside of Russia – which is also a really important point here.

You can see the second motivation in that Putin also attacks Memorial‘s Human Rights Forum. It also should get liquidated. From this, you can see that Putin doesn’t want that people that are, in his opinion, terrorists or extremists in any form get support or legal help if they get arrested. That is the work that the Human Rights Forum is doing.

Basically, the two main motivations are to prevent a staining of the Putin-written Russian history and help for the political opposition.

A lot of media in Europe reported about the verdict from 2021. How was the reaction in Russia?

It’s always hard to say: “The reaction in Russia was so-and-so…” You can say: The educated people in bigger cities were shocked. They know and respect Memorial. In provinces far away from Moscow, people have to fight to survive, because they don’t have enough food, the salaries are too low, and they don’t have good hospitals. These people probably didn’t worry a lot about the verdict. It’s the educated circles that are also maybe critical of the government in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, that talk about it and take note.

In the reports about the ruling, I often read about Memorial, the “moral backbone” of Russian society. Would you agree with that description?

At least for the people that think critical about the Russian state. But I would even say it is true for bigger circles. We have to see: Incredibly many people lost relatives during Soviet-times. They starved to death, froze to death in the Gulag, were forcibly relocated and died there or because they got arrested and got shot afterwards. That shapes a family history. Memorial as an organization started in the 1980s, at Soviet-times, to unravel these stories and gave those people, that mourned losses, a voice. And after decades of the tabooization of this topic, that was a tremendous release for many. A lot of former Gulag-inmates that survived didn’t even tell their kids about it. The kids shouldn’t talk about it in school, so they didn’t put themselves and the families in danger. Memorial broke the endless silence about this great suffering and started a work of “never again”. That means: How do we shape societies, so that this never happens again. A situation in which get arrested and shot in masses, in which people betray their neighbors to safe themselves. That’s why Memorial has a high reputation.

The liquidation of Memorial International would mean the end of the work Memorial is doing. Is there already a plan, what to do after you got the most time out of this system of different legal entities?

Right now, we try to digitalize our archives as much as possible and put all of it on foreign servers. The isolation of the Russian internet is another big threat. That would mean that, when you are in Russia, you can visit western websites really difficult. And in the other way around as well. There is that big risk that everything the Memorial-organizations collected, like regional items, files, letters from the Gulag could get confiscated by the government. That’s why we try to take photos of it all, or scan it and then put it on the internet, where it’s still available for historic research. And we are looking into giving the historic items to museums of regional history. There are still a lot of these museums that take good care of it.

We don’t want, that the people of Russia and the global historic research lose these treasures.

And then there’s obviously the idea of just founding new organizations, that are named completely different, but do the same work. Because the work in itself wouldn’t be forbidden. These verdicts aren’t really about the work, they are about Memorial not marking itself as a foreign agent on its website, some Facebook-posts and ancients flyers. Right now, the state wan’ts to prohibit Memorial‘s work in completely different ways, like it did with Nawalny. That’s why the idea of founding new organizations, and then waiting for what happens, exist. It’s like the story of the tortoise and the hare…

…like shell players. You have to create a little confusion…

…yes, you look for new ways to work, and the state is looking for new ways to prevent that from happening. Should it come to personal persecutions or threats, then we obviously have to think about how to get the people out of Russia in the fastest way possible.

Today, Memorial advocates for human rights in former Soviet-countries.

Yes, this work is mostly done by the Human Rights Forum, which is also under legal attack in Russia. This work is very much about getting legal assistance for people, that worked in politics, the opposition or in general: For people that Russia declares in some way or form as an “extremist” or “terrorist”. It’s about getting them an attorney when they get arrested, imprisoned or go on trial.

And Memorial is also working in other European countries like Germany?

At least the eastern part of Germany has a history of Soviet-repression. There were random arrests from people, that were accused of being spies or doing anti-Soviet-propaganda. Especially in the time from 1945 till 1953. These people were arrested on the bases of Soviet laws. They were sentenced to up to 25 years of detention in the Gulag, or brought to Moscow and got shot there. We are committed to the memory of these people. For example: On the memorial day of political prisoners in Russia, the 29th/30th October, we publicly read the names of the victims in Berlin and other cities in Germany.

There is also an initiative called “Die letzte Adresse” [the last address]. It’s basically the Soviet-version of “Stolpersteine”. [Stolpersteine are golden stones in sidewalks, in Germany and other European countries. They are engraved with the names and often the date of birth and death of victims of the holocaust., editor’s note] We place plaques on the last addresses, where the people lived that got innocently deported to and killed in the Soviet Union, that commemorate them. But right now we realize that this isn’t that easy. GDR propaganda portrayed these victims as Nazi-criminals. Some descendants, to this day, think that it would shed a bad light on them if they have such a plaque on their house. We also have some problems with politically left-leaning people, because they don’t want these plaques. But that’s the point where we have to do our educational work. Not every victim of the Soviets has automatically an involvement in the Nazi regime. There were 16-years-old boys that got abducted in 1948. It’s just not possible that they were involved in the Nazi regime.

We also do projects together with Memorial-organizations from Russia, Ukraine or Czech Republic. The goal there is to create instructional material about Soviet-repressions. We have a summer school in Georgia, where students from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Germany discuss disputed events during World War II. They exchange opinions, perspectives and write historical texts about it.

Now we also started bringing awareness to Russia Germans, that live in Germany. They often come here with horrific family histories. They often got deported from the black-sea-region, from the Volga-region, to Kazakhstan or other Central-Asian countries. They have been discriminated against for years. And now they live in Germany, with these experiences, and nobody knows about it. And that’s why we have to bring awareness to it. We also did a research-project about how Russia-German families cope with these traumas.

Last question: How does Memorial finance itself?

In Russia, Memorial lives from donations or from project funds from foundations. Since Putin’s history-politics in the last couple of years, sadly, Russian foundations nearly stopped financing Memorial at all. And that means, that Memorial-organizations have to make a decision. Either you cook on a tiny flame, or you receive money from foreign foundations. For example from the German political foundations or in the past also from National Endowment for Democracy. That was an American foundation, nowadays undesired, and you can’t receive any money from them anymore.

So you are in a dilemma. Either your founding is minimal, or you have to identify yourself as a foreign agent, because you receive money from outside of Russia. That on the other hand would stigmatize you in the eyes of people that don’t see all of this through. And right now there are some Memorial-organization that go this minimal-founding route and aren’t that easily attackable and others decided to accept the foreign money and can do bigger projects.

Thank you for your time.

One reply on “Interview: Russia wants to ban one of its most important Human Rights Organizations”

[…] Memorial appealed against Decembers verdict. Therefore, it isn’t final. But there is not much hope of the verdict being overturned. That means if it stands like it is right now, Memorial International would be liquidated. Memorial International is the big umbrella organization, under which national and local Memorial-organizations are assembled. The liquidation of the umbrella organization wouldn’t mean the dissolution of all subsidiaries. Memorial could still keep on working at the lower levels. But: The verdict would be a sign, to all the other Memorial-teams, that they aren’t safe. You can read more on that topic in the interview with Anke Giesen, board member of Memorial Internat…. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *