On October 4, 2015, the Russian Ministry of Justice declared the NGO “International Society ‘Memorial’” (Memorial), which housed the Wallenberg round table on September 22, to be a “foreign agent.” In fact, the goal of the Memorial is to memorialize the victims of Soviet political repression.
The law about “foreign agents” was introduced in 2012. It maintains that Russian NGOs that are involved in political activity and receive foreign financial support should be listed as “foreign agents.” In May 2016, the Russian Duma (the lower house of the Russian Parliament) adopted a law that gives a very wide meaning of the term “political activity.”
The Ministry of Justice stated that the NGO “Memorial” was put on the list of “foreign agents” due to “the fact that it fits in the character of an NGO that carries out functions of a foreign agent, which was established during an unscheduled inspection of the [Memorial’s] documents by the Ministry of Justice.” Actually, the Ministry had requested documentation for the last four years from Memorial in September, on the whole 31,250 pages.
Additionally, the Ministry declared: “The fact of receiving financing from foreign sources by the organization [Memorial] has been established. Including from organizations, the activities of which are recognized as undesirable in the future on the territory of the Russian Federation, (OSI Assistance Foundation, The National Endowment for Democracy).” The international Open Society Institute (OSI) Assistance Foundation was established in 1993 by the Hungarian-American business magnate George Soros. It provides financial support to the civil society groups around the world, and in 2014, it reported annual expenditures of $827 million. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is an American private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. Each year it makes more than 1,200 grants to support the projects in more than 90 countries.
The dislike by Russian authorities of the NED is understandable. On October 6, 2016, an event, “The Implications of Political Violence in Putin’s Russia,” took place at the NED headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was devoted to the memory of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered ten years ago, and the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, murdered in February 2015, as well as all other victims of political violence in Russia.
The screening of a short film about Nemtsov’s assassination, “It Does Not Mean You Have to Kill Him,” made by Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst who has been forced recently to escape from Russia to Israel, and Leonid Martynyuk, a filmmaker, journalist, and Russian opposition author, as well as a close colleague of Nemtsov, was followed by a panel discussion of the implications of political violence for the future of Russia and the Putin regime. Carl Gershman, NED President, who presides over the Endowment’s grants programs, was on the panel.
Irina Shcherbakova, head of the educational programs of the “Memorial”, explained the real reasons of the Ministry: “We [Memorial] were accused of the criticism of the ‘foreign agents’ law that the international ‘Memorial’ raised many times, the criticism of the declaration of the Sakharov Center to be a ‘foreign agent’, a statement that the Russian authorities were responsible for Nemtsov’s murder, and our statement about the events in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.”
On October 7, 2016, the Free Historical Society, an association of Russian historians, whose goals are, in particular, “a professional assessment of socially significant events and public statements of politicians and opinion leaders regarding the perceptions of the past” and “countering attempts to limit freedom of scientific research and academic freedom”, made a statement in support of the Memorial:
The decision of the [Russian] Ministry of Justice to include the International Historical, Educational, Charitable and Human Rights Society “Memorial” in the register of “organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent” causes confusion and protest.
Historical and educational activities of “Memorial”, dedicated to the study of Soviet terror, restoration and preservation of the memory of the victims, has been widely recognized both in Russia and around the world. “Memorial” was one of the first public institutions created during the “perestroika”, and since then has done much to fill the gaps in the history of our country, preservation of historical memory, the protection of society from anti-scientific myths, its spiritual and moral development.
For a long time “Memorial” remained the most influential organization struggling for goals that are important to every historian–the opening of the archives, freedom of historical research and the development of historical consciousness of society. It is no exaggeration to say that “Memorial” has made an enormous contribution to the formation of the historical memory of several generations of Russian citizens. This organization has done a great job of collecting personal testimonies about the tragic pages of Russian history and is actively engaged in the historical education of schoolchildren, contributing to the awakening of interest in the past of the country through the interest in the past of his own family. Destruction of the “Memorial” or applying to it the stigma of a “foreign agent” is damaging to the historical identity of Russians mechanisms.
The Free Historical Society shares the conviction of the “Memorial” that only the lessons learned from the past can lay the foundation for building a prosperous future. . . . We are convinced that the law itself and other regulations on “foreign agents” in its present form lead to absurd consequences, harm the Russian society and the Russian science and should be repealed or radically revised.
Memorial is determined to challenge the Ministry of Justice’s decision in court. However, in the current Russian political environment the Memorial may lose its case. If this happens, the Society would not be able to continue its work fully. Arseny Roginsky, Chairman of the Memorial Board, explains: “If we lose in the courts, this will lead to a narrowing of our work. We are working with people outside the circle of only human rights defenders or historians. We hold public events, lectures, exhibitions… Many lines of our work, for example, collecting information about the victims of repressions, of course, will continue. But we will have problems with the public events and work with media.”
Despite all the problems, at the moment Memorial is preparing one of its traditional public actions called “The Return of Names.” For the last 10 years, on each October 29, a day before the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions in Russia, from 10 am to 10 pm, on the Lubyanka Square, across the building of the NKVD/MGB/KGB/FSB headquarters, volunteers read aloud the names of people executed in Moscow during the period of Soviet terror. As Irina Osipova, who works at the archive of the International “Memorial,” states, in 10 years less than a half of names on that long list has been read so far.