Russia’s Last Political Freedoms Are on the Way Out

The trial to liquidate Russia’s best-known human rights organization is about much more.

By , a journalist focusing on European and Russian politics.
A woman wearing a face mask with the logo of Russian rights group Memorial stands outside Moscow City Court, where the group is on trial, on Nov. 23.
A woman wearing a face mask with the logo of Russian rights group Memorial stands outside Moscow City Court, where the group is on trial, on Nov. 23.
A woman wearing a face mask with the logo of Russian rights group Memorial stands outside Moscow City Court, where the group is on trial, on Nov. 23. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Memorial, Russia’s most prominent human rights organization, is a symbol of the freedoms gained by dissidents with communism’s fall in 1991 and of the struggle to retain those freedoms in increasingly repressive post-Soviet Russia.

Founded in January 1989, Memorial has built a database of more than 2.6 million victims of Soviet repression, identified perpetrators of Soviet-era political crimes, and defended victims of human rights abuses and political repression. For the past five years, the Russian government has designated the organization a foreign agent—a stigmatizing label requiring Memorial to declare this status before every public comment and undergo financial audits. It has also faced smear campaigns, police raids, and $82,460 in fines for allegedly violating the foreign agent law.

On Nov. 11, Russian prosecutors filed a case against Memorial’s sister organization, Human Rights Center, accusing it of extremist and terrorist activists for publishing a list of political prisoners, which the prosecutor argued is grounds for its dissolution. A second case threatens to ban Memorial for allegedly breaking the foreign agent law by failing to label some of its materials. Memorial said the charges are baseless and politically motivated.

Memorial, Russia’s most prominent human rights organization, is a symbol of the freedoms gained by dissidents with communism’s fall in 1991 and of the struggle to retain those freedoms in increasingly repressive post-Soviet Russia.

Founded in January 1989, Memorial has built a database of more than 2.6 million victims of Soviet repression, identified perpetrators of Soviet-era political crimes, and defended victims of human rights abuses and political repression. For the past five years, the Russian government has designated the organization a foreign agent—a stigmatizing label requiring Memorial to declare this status before every public comment and undergo financial audits. It has also faced smear campaigns, police raids, and $82,460 in fines for allegedly violating the foreign agent law.

On Nov. 11, Russian prosecutors filed a case against Memorial’s sister organization, Human Rights Center, accusing it of extremist and terrorist activists for publishing a list of political prisoners, which the prosecutor argued is grounds for its dissolution. A second case threatens to ban Memorial for allegedly breaking the foreign agent law by failing to label some of its materials. Memorial said the charges are baseless and politically motivated.

“We became very vocal,” said Anna Dobrovolskaya, executive director of Memorial Human Rights Center, which exposes current abuses by Russian authorities. The center has advocated for religious and political prisoners, such as jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group the government considers extremist. The center’s list recognizes 420 people as political prisoners, the highest in modern Russia’s history, Dobrovolskaya said. “We have been constantly creating trouble for the authorities, who try to ignore the fact that torture continues to happen in Russia and that people are brutally detained,” she added. The next hearing for the Memorial trial will be on Dec. 28 and the Human Rights Center trial on Dec. 29.

Activists and dissidents consider the threat to Memorial, which now encompasses a network of 50 groups across Russia and beyond, a turning point for independent thought in Russia. They see it as another sign of the government’s determination to stamp out remaining dissent and whitewash Soviet-era brutalities. “The government is making it clear that it doesn’t want any criticism of its actions, just as it doesn’t want any reminders of past mistakes,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.

Memorial’s dissolution would affect dozens of Russian foundations that rely on its support.

For years, the Kremlin tried to control its critics through surveillance, harassment, and persecution. Now, it is trying to eliminate dissent altogether, said Grigory Okhotin, co-founder of OVD-Info, a Moscow-based media and human rights organization that monitors political repression and provides legal aid. This year, rights groups were shut down while dozens of political activists and journalists were arrested, designated foreign agents, and forced to leave the country.

A new sort of Russian regime has emerged since 2020. “It is more ideological, conservative, and aggressive,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a founder of Moscow-based political analysis firm R.Politik and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The roots of this new system can be traced back to 2016, when Russian President Vladimir Putin began handing more domestic policy power to security services as he became more involved in foreign policy, including in Syria and Ukraine. By 2020, Russia’s security services were responsible for controlling the non-systemic opposition—the real opposition, as opposed to pro-Kremlin parties and organizations that play their assigned roles in Putin’s so-called managed democracy). “[The government’s] policy against critics had been selective, but now it is indiscriminate and routine,” Stanovaya said. “Non-systemic opposition is seen as a national security threat and has lost the right to exist in the eyes of the Kremlin.”

War against the opposition has become a way of life for the Kremlin’s law enforcement agencies and armies of security officers. “It’s how they prove that they’re needed and that they serve the country well,” Stanovaya added. “If you don’t show Putin your willingness to fight against the enemies, the non-systemic opposition, it means that you yourself may be seen as an irresponsible political force.”

Navalny’s return to Russia from Germany, where he was recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he and his allies blamed on the Kremlin, was seen by Russia’s security services as the ultimate provocation against Putin. In February, the anti-corruption activist was imprisoned on old fraud charges he said were politically motivated. By June, his Anti-Corruption Foundation was effectively banned, with a court ruling it was “extremist.” Almost 50 websites run by Navalny and his associates have been blocked and dozens of regional offices closed. Many of Navalny’s team members and allies are now in exile, fearing arrest if they set foot in Russia.

In recent years, Russian elections have typically been a pretext for repression. Ahead of the 2019 Moscow City elections, some opposition candidates were intimidated, arrested on administrative charges, and refused the chance to register. In the runup to September parliamentary elections, potential opposition candidates faced a more extreme threat: criminal prosecution. Dmitry Gudkov, a Russian lawmaker, was pushed out of the race after he was arrested in June on allegations that he failed to pay a debt on a rented property, which he denied. Authorities also jailed Andrei Pivovarov, head of the Open Russia opposition group, which is financed by Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a once-imprisoned Putin critic. Pivovarov, who had planned to run in the election, was accused of taking part in an “undesirable” organization, a status that requires any designated groups to disband their operations in Russia. He faces up to six years in prison.

The Kremlin also passed a law in June barring those with ties to organizations it labels “extremist” from seeking office. No one from Navalny’s team was permitted to run in September, and several opposition activists were barred from running because they supported Navalny. Putin’s United Russia party won nearly 50 percent of the vote, a slight fall in support from the previous election, even though a poll by the independent Levada Center indicated only 27 percent of Russians were prepared to vote for his party.

The foreign agent law has been used to stigmatize and harass nongovernmental and media organizations over the past decade. But changes made to the law last December mean the regime can now target any individual or informal group receiving funding from abroad if they are considered to be engaged in broadly defined “political activities” in the interests of “a foreign state.” Since then, around 80 individuals, rights organizations, and media outlets have been added to the foreign agent’s list, including one of the most popular independent media outlets, Meduza.

The foreign agent label has pushed dozens of activists and journalists to leave Russia, including Valeria Vetoshkina, a former lawyer for Team 29, a now-defunct Moscow-based human rights group that specialized in defending suspects accused of treason and espionage. The group shut down in May after the authorities blocked its website. Vetoshkina was put on the foreign agent list on Nov. 8, a decision she said is linked to her work as a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. In May, she and another Team 29 lawyer appealed a court decision to restrict the foundation’s activities. “If you asked me a few months ago, I would have said that I will never leave Russia,” she said. “But the pressure became very intense.”

Vetoshkina said she worries her label will deter Russian journalists from interviewing her about her clients’ criminal cases, as the law requires the media to publicly indicate her status. “Sometimes they’re afraid. They don’t want to have problems with the authorities,” she said. “Publicity and raising awareness about these cases is very important because the legal situation is very difficult.”

For years, the Kremlin tried to control its critics through surveillance, harassment, and persecution—now, it is trying to eliminate dissent altogether.

Okhotin said Russia’s latest repressive wave is partly a reaction to Putin’s eroding popularity since 2017 due to falling living standards and a deeply unpopular pension reform in 2018. According to a Statista poll, Putin’s approval rating stood at 85 percent in January 2017 compared to 67 percent in October 2021. Support for his United Russia party reached new lows this year, according to Russian Public Opinion Research Center, a state-owned pollster. Russians worry about rising food prices, poverty, and corruption—and silencing critics will not make those issues go away.

“I’m afraid we’ll have internet shutdowns and the end of civil society, as we have seen in Belarus,” Vetoshkina said. “I want to be wrong, but it is already clear the government wants to shut down human rights organizations.” The difference between Russia and Belarus is the former has not yet used deadly force—at least not openly against the population. Okhotin said the Kremlin would rather push critics to leave the country than arrest and imprison them.

Memorial is a test case for the future of Russia’s free speech. An attack on this organization is an attack on Russian civil society as a whole, Okhotin said. Memorial’s dissolution would, in turn, affect dozens of foundations that rely on its support, including OVD-Info. This year alone, the legal aid organization has defended 2,874 administrative cases and is currently engaged in 44 criminal cases. OVD-Info said Memorial’s closure would endanger its ability to provide legal assistance.

The Memorial trial is a threat to many others. Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said authorities are sending a message to every independent organization, activist, and journalist still working in Russia: “‘We can get anyone that we want to. Nothing is going to protect you, not your international awards, not your number of supporters.’”

Madeline Roache is a British journalist focusing on European and Russian politics. She has written for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, and others. Twitter: @MadelineRoache

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