Inside the Kremlin's velvet grip, Russia's civil society struggles to survive

Workers at Memorial, Russia's leading human rights monitor, live under constant, unyielding pressure from the government, which is trying to stymie dissent.

Misha Japaridze/AP/File
A man passes by the office of Memorial rights group in Moscow, in November 2012. The words “Foreign Agent (Loves) USA” are spray-painted on its facade by unidentified people, a reference to a then-new law requiring non-government organization receiving money from abroad to register as "foreign agents." The organization has been under steady pressure since, as the Kremlin looks to stifle civil dissent.

All seems perfectly normal on the busy downtown corner where Memorial, Russia's largest grassroots human rights monitor, maintains its sprawling Moscow headquarters. On most days the building is a hub of activity: people come and go, and even police officers stroll by without so much as a sideways glance.

Yet enter the building and spend a while with the people who tend its vast archives, run seminars, and manage its campaigns, and the feeling of a grinding siege becomes palpable. Among the workers here there is a mounting mood of despair. Some say their nerves are near to snapping, and few believe Memorial can survive much longer.

Welcome to the Vladimir Putin era, where the Soviet-style goal of stamping out politically disobedient civil activity is executed without police boots through the door or night-time transports to the gulag.

Instead, it's being gradually but thoroughly implemented via a law passed three years ago requiring groups like Memorial to wear the label "foreign agent" – which connotes "spy" in Russian – on all their literature if they receive any amount of foreign funding and engage in any activity authorities deem "political."

Like most of the nearly 100 organizations singled out by the law, Memorial has refused to accept the label, which it regards as tantamount to swallowing a poison pill. But after years of legal battles, official warnings, and escalating fines, activists say they have almost no space left to maneuver.

"The fact that Russia's biggest human rights group is on the brink of closure, but there's no visible drama about it, made it feel even more scary to me," says Ariella Katz, a US university student of Russian extraction who recently completed an internship with Memorial in Moscow. "I was working in an atmosphere of intense psychological pressure. People all around me were showing very real signs of stress, and I was feeling it too."

'Right at the center of it'

Ms. Katz worked in the group's Moscow office for about a month, translating press releases into English, and growing increasingly disheartened as its troubles mounted. She says it frustrated her watching the slow demise of Russia's only organization that works to expose past political repressions, as well as current power abuses. It gets almost no media attention, she says, because the means of driving Memorial out of existence is a mundane daily drip-drip of tightening legal constraints, inspections, demands for documents, and suffocating fines.

"I really think it's important to strip away that facade of normalcy and look at the reality. It's not about some law. It's really all about crushing this group, making it impossible for these people to do their work," she says.

Memorial was born amid the explosive social opening of the late 1980s, when Soviet people were questioning everything, especially their history. A group of activists came together to lobby for building a central memorial to the victims of Stalinist terror – a demand that has yet to be fully addressed. And they went on to work for individual justice in thousands of unresolved Soviet cases.

With the collapse of the USSR came brutal little wars around the periphery, including two horrific conflicts in Chechnya, and a fresh wave of injustices to be documented and addressed. Memorial activists all around the country have been targets of official reprisals and a couple, such as Chechen human rights monitor Natalya Estimirova, have paid with their lives.

"We found it was not possible to focus just on historical wrongs without addressing current ones," says Alexander Cherkasov, director of Memorial's human rights center in Moscow. "After the end of the Soviet Union, political repressions mostly stopped for some time, and we learned to deal with these new problems of wars and waves of refugees. Now, it seems we're into a new era of political repressions. It's different of course, and we find ourselves right at the center of it."

Memorial has received funding from a variety of Western institutions, such as the Ford and MacArthur foundations, but even its leaders don't know what "political activity" it was allegedly involved in. The organization takes no partisan stance in elections or other overt political processes.

One likely reason authorities decided to go after Memorial, Mr. Cherkasov says, is its active scrutiny of Russian criminal cases to find evidence of authorities bending the law to prosecute people whose real offense was to challenge power in some political way. Memorial's list of "political prisoners" in Russia now runs to 43 names, but activists say there are probably at least 200.

"In the times of Stalin, the means of crushing real and imagined political enemies was open, massive, and brutal," says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer who works on the campaign. "Of course the situation today cannot be compared with that."

"Now," he says, "it isn't about suppressing all opposition, but it's mostly aimed at selected people who are in the way of the authorities. A lot of this takes place out in distant Russian regions, where it is extremely hard even to obtain information, much less help people."

The velvet vise

That's where the "foreign agent" label helps authorities to slow down Memorial's work, even short of completely extinguishing it. Huge amounts of the organization's resources and efforts have been diverted over the past three years in court battles, constant wrestling with bureaucracy, and defending its reputation before the public.

"I have a full slate of work on my desk, but the Ministry of Justice [which oversees the "foreign agent" law] calls me up and demands that I present a long list of documents," says Cherkasov. "So, I have to drop everything else and collect all these papers for them. sometimes I sleep in my office because I have no time to go home. I still don't get everything done."

Official organizations like the police, the FSB security organization, and courts may also cite the "foreign agent" label as a reason not to give Memorial access even to information that ought to be publicly available. In the growing number of cases that involve "treason" or "political extremism," they clam up entirely, says Mr. Davidov.

"You can't call someone a 'political prisoner' if you haven't examined the case thoroughly. But that just keeps getting harder to do," he says.

"We're shutting down a lot of our operations. Under pressure, our sponsors are deserting us. Even those still helping us are looking over their shoulders at the state policy," says Olga Bochvar, a Memorial worker. "Our track record still gives us a good public reputation; people keep turning to us for help rather than trust state organizations. We're still fighting, but there is the feeling that we are being slowly strangled."

A 'manageable accident'?

Ms. Katz says she has no interest in fanning "cold war narratives," nor as casting Russia as a land of "hopeless evil." Rather, she simply wants to save the institution.

"I just feel that if Memorial disappears, one of the basic ways that Russians can make their country a better place will go with it," she says. "That should matter to everyone."

In the next few weeks Memorial faces two crippling fines totaling about $10,000, money the organization will have difficulty coming up with. It has already reached the point, in its refusal to accept the "foreign agent" tag, where it's out of legal options and the Justice Ministry can order it completely shut down.

"The situation looks grim," says Cherkasov, a former nuclear engineer. "But you know, three years ago, when that law was passed, none of us thought we'd still be around today."

"I'm an optimist, and the way I look at it is we're living through something like what atomic power workers call a 'manageable accident,'" he says. "It's a state of constant, nerve-wracking crisis, for sure. But the main task, every single minute, is to limit the damage. Here we still are, and that's what we're doing."

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