‘We never counted on love from the state’ Meduza talks to Memorial’s Yan Rachinsky immediately after Russia’s Supreme Court shuttered this prominent rights organization
In a ruling on Tuesday, December 28, Russia’s Supreme Court shut down the country’s oldest and most authoritative human rights organization — the “Memorial” International Historical Educational Charitable and Human Rights Society. The ruling granted a petition filed by the Attorney General’s Office, which maintains that International Memorial repeatedly violated Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation (without presenting convincing evidence to support this claim). Moscow prosecutors filed a similar lawsuit against Memorial’s human rights branch — the next hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, December 29. To find out what today’s ruling means for the future of International Memorial, Meduza spoke to the chairman of the organization’s board, Yan Rachinsky.
Did you have hope that International Memorial wouldn’t be dissolved?
There’s always hope, a matter of chances. [Up until today] it was hard to assess them, since it wasn’t entirely clear how power was distributed in the government. Today’s ruling clarifies this matter somewhat. [It shows] that the security forces [siloviki] are handling domestic politics, and not politicians.
What struck you most most during the trial? Was there anything you didn’t expect to hear?
[The prosecutor’s closing] speech didn’t have anything to do with the content of the lawsuit, these were off-topic comments.
Now, only the operative part of the verdict has been announced. We’ll find out its content later. As yet it’s not clear what the judge was guided by in passing the sentence. The groundlessness of the prosecutors’ claim was brilliantly demonstrated by our lawyers.
You intend to challenge today’s ruling. If you don’t succeed, does this mean there will be no more “Memorial” in Russia?
Memorial will exist in Russia. Memorial isn’t limited to the two organizations [International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center] that the Attorney General’s Office has come out against.
We will continue our activity without any fundamental changes. We have 60 organizations in Russia alone, they are all independent legal entities and they will continue their work calmly, even if today’s ruling, which runs counter to the law, is upheld in the court of appeal.
In addition to Memorial, there are a great number of people who work on this topic [studying Soviet-era repressions] and, in any case, history won’t go unnoticed.
Will these “Memorial” organizations take on additional work?
Certainly. We will redistribute our forces.
What will happen to Memorial’s archives and museum?
All of this will remain. This is the collection of another “Memorial” [branch], it was only in the secure custody of International Memorial. It will need to be reorganized a little depending on the decision of the court of appeal.
Today, many are affected by repressions — from human rights activists and journalists, to stand-up comedians. But Memorial has probably lived in this atmosphere longer than everyone else. Why was Memorial one of the first to face repressions from the Russian authorities?
It’s hard to say. I don’t know. All of this looks rather absurd, especially considering the fact that the year of [Andrei] Sakharov’s [centennial] is coming to an end. And this ruling is a remarkable final flourish.
You have been with Memorial since 1988. You’ve dedicated your life to this. How do you feel right now?
I will continue to do the same, I see no reason to change anything. This was unpleasant at first, because it was unexpected. But since we never really counted on love from that side [from the state], this is nothing special.
Today’s ruling is also important for other organizations involved in the preservation of historical memory and human rights activities. How do you think it will affect them?
Generally speaking this can be perceived as a signal. And the future consequences could be profoundly unfortunate and destructive — first for civil society, and then for the entire country.
There’s a sense that this can’t be prevented...
We must do what we can. But there’s no ready-made solution.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart