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Russia steps up persecution of key human rights group

Tonhe started attacking Seven o’clock in the morning on March 21. Armed police brigades of a dozen individuals each raided 12 addresses in Moscow and turned them upside down. Where they found the document they sealed it. Where they found the computer, they confiscated it. Wherever they found spirits, they drank it. The targets of the raids were not typical criminals but eight soft-spoken intellectuals, several of them elderly, who worked for Memorial, a human rights organization now banned in Russia.

The eight were detained for questioning on so-called “Nazism revival” charges, which carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The trumped-up case against them was trivial: A memorial database documenting victims of Soviet political terror accidentally included three real Nazi collaborators and more than four million other names.The databases have long been an embarrassment for Russia’s secret services, which believe they are KGB. But investigators are also interested in non-historical matters, said Alexandra Polivanova, one of eight memorial employees: The situation with Alexei Navalny and Ukraine.”

The case clearly has nothing to do with Nazism; even using the term to honor a memorial erected to combat totalitarianism and extremism is absurd. It also doesn’t appear to target any specific individual. According to Ms Polivanova, it was intended to send a message to stop investigating or promoting human rights, war crimes or historical truth, as any such work would undermine the foundations of Vladimir Putin’s imperial war. Memorial has received many of these messages over the years and ignored all of them. Listed as a “foreign agent” in 2015; officially disbanded by the government in December 2021. In October 2022, it was expelled from its headquarters. On the same day it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was shared with Ukrainian activists and human rights advocates in Belarus.

Dmitry Muratov won last year’s Nobel Prize as editor new newspaperAn independent newspaper said authorities had underestimated the resilience of the memorial’s suave academics, who were determined to remain in Russia. “They still can’t understand how the memorial was built in the atmosphere of a Soviet dissident concentration camp,” he said. Mr Muratov said he had encouraged members of the memorial to leave Russia, but with little success. “They are bold, knowledgeable aristocrats who have shown no fear of those who, in their view, are bringing our country into disaster.”

Memorial’s Ms Polivanova said the group had been anticipating such an attack since authorities leaked news of the criminal case in early March. But she and her colleagues reiterated their decision to stay. She said they needed to help solve the “catastrophe” in Russian society. “Even if war ends and Ukraine regains territory, Russians won’t disappear into space.” She sees 2023 as a ‘low point’: Life for people like her now and Soviet dissent from 1960s-80s as difficult as the others.

The day after the raid, many memorial workers traveled to the Gulag Museum in Moscow. There, they attended the launch of a new book about Andrei Sakharov, the prominent dissident who was killed by then-Soviet leader Leonid Borussia in 1980. Leonid Brezhnev was exiled to the country.The book, based on the secret KGB Documentation, documenting the system’s exhaustive and futile efforts to silence him. To publish it in the current political climate is an achievement. The opening was bleak, but some took inspiration from Mr Sakharov’s eventual victory over the Soviet machine. The story of the weak over the strong “gives us hope,” said Irina Scherbakova, one of the authors.

For others, time has passed. “The market for hope is closed, we just stopped trading these stocks,” said Mr Muratov, who has sailed the dangerous waters of Russian power for 30 years. At least six of his colleagues have been killed over the years. Dangerous currents are headed in the direction of the memorial. “The authorities decided to destroy the memorial and silence these people,” he said. “They won’t stop.”

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