It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of the inclusion of the Memorial Society, the Russian human rights movement, among the recipients of this year’s Nobel peace prize, which also recognised human rights campaigners in Ukraine and Belarus.
The award to Memorial is a powerful rebuke to Putin’s dictatorship, comparable to the honouring of Carl von Ossietzky, the German peace and human rights campaigner, who was languishing in Dachau concentration camp when he learned of his prize in 1936.
Like Ossietzky, Memorial embodies resistance to the radical evil of modern totalitarianism.
Nobel peace prize goes to Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian human rights activists
Born under ‘perestroika’
What makes Memorial so important is its fusion of painful historical reflection and human rights activism.
It all started in 1987, during the heady days of Gorbachev’s perestroika, as a petition campaign for the construction of a monument to the victims of Stalinism. As the USSR advanced towards liberalisation and collapse, these petitioners united with prominent dissidents and younger activists to create a grassroots movement.
This convergence was symbolised by the election of the legendary dissident Andrei Sakharov as Memorial’s first chairman. Under Sakharov, Memorial’s agenda expanded to include investigation of the entire Soviet past and the defence of human rights.
During the years that followed, it played a crucial role in the drafting and implementation of Russia’s Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, which offered compensation to survivors of Soviet terror.
No less important were Memorial’s efforts to limit the carnage that followed the breakdown of the Soviet empire.
During the 1990s, Memorial’s Human Rights Centre was renowned for its monitoring of flashpoints in the Caucasus and Central Asia. When President Boris Yeltsin invaded the breakaway republic of Chechnya in late 1994, a monitoring team from Memorial was on the ground, issuing a stream of reports from the capital Grozny as it was devastated by Russian bombardment.
For exposing the horrors of Yeltsin’s war, Memorial’s monitors were vilified as traitors by Russian nationalist politicians. One of the most vociferous was Duma deputy and filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin. He claimed Memorial’s report exposing a massacre in the Chechen village of Samashki “could only have been composed in a drunken ecstasy of Russophobia”.
On the front lines
When Vladimir Putin unleashed a new war to subjugate Chechnya in 1999-2003, Memorial was once again on the front lines. Natalya Estemirova, the head of Memorial’s Grozny office, worked closely with journalist Anna Politkovskaya and lawyer Stanislav Markelov to expose the filtration camps, torture, and disappearances of Putin’s “dirty war”. They even secured the conviction of two Russian war criminals, Sergei Lapin and Yurii Budanov.
Each paid a terrible price for this activism. Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, followed by Markelov and Estemirova in 2009.
As it focused a spotlight on Chechnya, Memorial also challenged the Putin regime’s central ideological project: the indoctrination of youth with an authoritarian version of the national past.
From 1999 to 2021, Memorial conducted a nationwide high school essay competition, “The Individual and History: Russia in the 20th century”, which encouraged honest, independent research. The best submissions, published in a series of Memorial volumes, drew on oral history and archival research to illuminate the human suffering behind the Kremlin’s whitewashed version of the totalitarian past.
Memorial also created new rituals of remembrance. Every year, it marked October 30 as the “Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repressions”. In ceremonies around the country, activists would read out names from lists of the multitudes who had been killed in the Soviet regime’s penitentiary system.
Memorial also tried to inscribe the memory of these people on the urban landscape of Russian cities. The “Last Address” campaign has installed hundreds of steel plaques on buildings commemorating residents who vanished during Stalin’s terror.
The Kremlin’s hostility to Memorial became clear during the crackdown that followed pro-democracy protests in 2011-12. A raid on its Moscow headquarters by officials from three government agencies in March 2013 signalled the beginning of a war of attrition that intensified after Russia’s first attack on Ukraine in 2014.
Memorial condemned the invasion of Crimea as
a crime […] not only against Ukraine, but also against Russia, against Russian culture and Russian history.
Three months later, the Kremlin retaliated by designating Memorial a “foreign agent” under a new law that was suffocating Russia’s civil society.
This stigmatisation had two effects. First, it undermined Memorial’s ability to represent citizens in their dealings with officialdom. Second, it enabled the authorities to fine Memorial on every occasion it failed to acknowledge its status as a “foreign agent”.
The label was also a signal to the regime’s proxies. Every public event organised by Memorial now faced disruption by hired hecklers. The most notorious incident took place in 2016, when thugs from the Kremlin-backed “National Liberation Movement” disrupted the annual prize-giving ceremony for essay competition winners. They hurled abuse at arriving high school students and sprayed noxious cleaning fluid into the face of one of the judges, the renowned novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya.
No less sinister was the prosecution of several leading Memorial activists on fabricated criminal charges. Yurii Dmitriev, the distinguished historian and head of the Karelia branch, is now serving a 13-year prison sentence for sexual assault after a series of farcical trials that earned international condemnation.
There’s a clear connection between the outlawing of Memorial and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine two months later. Speaking at the court hearing that ordered Memorial’s liquidation in December 2021, the prosecutor accused Memorial of “making us repent for the Soviet past”.
As long as Memorial was drawing attention to the horrors of that past – the lacerated lives, mass killings, and deportations of entire nations – it was a potent barrier to the kind of genocidal war Russia is waging in Ukraine.
Yet it was easier to ban an organisation than to destroy the ideals it represents. Even in Russia’s increasingly totalitarian environment, the people of Memorial have continued to oppose war and defend human rights.
By honouring Memorial’s struggles and sacrifices, the Nobel Committee reminds us that Putin’s claims to speak in the name of an entire culture are a lie. It reminds us to listen to the voices of the persecuted and to be aware of humane possibilities in Russian society that will outlive the dictator and his despotism.