As the Kremlin Revises History, a Human Rights Champion Becomes a Casualty

MOSCOW — In 1990, the year before she died, Zipporah Rosenblatt Kahana spoke publicly for the first time about her imprisonment in Russian labor camps 50 years earlier. She did hard labor and worked as a seamstress, but the conditions were so severe that she lost her left eye. Her husband was executed as an enemy of the state. Her “crime” was being married to him.

Her account came in testimony to Memorial International, then a recently established human rights organization chronicling political repression in the Soviet Union.

“For a long time after her release, she felt that this was some kind of dark side of her past that no one needs to know,” said her great-grandson, Nikolai Dykhne. Memorial’s work collecting information about the labor camps, or gulag system, gave her “the courage to finally tell her story completely,” he said.

Memorial grew into the country’s most prominent human rights organization and an emblem of a fledgling democratic movement in post-Soviet Russia. But today, its archive of the traumatic events and victims of persecution makes the Kremlin uncomfortable. The country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling Tuesday to shut down Memorial International, the parent organization, and on Wednesday it also ordered Memorial’s Human Rights Center to close.

Memorial has denounced both verdicts as political and vowed to appeal and find legal avenues to continue its work with its 60 affiliate organizations across the country.

The actions taken against Memorial, critics say, are emblematic of the way President Vladimir V. Putin has tried to whitewash Russia’s Soviet history and reframe the modern image of those decades — in a manner similar to a push by President Xi Jinping of China to minimize the traumatic parts of his country’s communist history, like famine and political purges.

The legal rulings this week provoked outrage among activists and dissents, and condemnation from the United States and the European Union.

But the most poignant reactions came from Russians, like Mr. Dykhne, whose families have been touched by Memorial’s work.

Co-founded by Andrei D. Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and registered by former President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, another winner of that prize, Memorial grew out of a popular movement to erect a monument to commemorate victims of Joseph Stalin’s grinding machine of terror. It quickly expanded beyond its initial cause.

In 1989, with candles in their hands, members of Memorial and their supporters surrounded the K.G.B. headquarters in central Moscow, a demonstration that would have been unthinkable just several years earlier. It seemed like a sign that times were changing.

The verdicts this week proved that the changes are not irrevocable, said Svetlana Gannushkina, a Memorial board member and one of Russia’s most renowned human rights defenders, who stood in that chain of protesters.

Ms. Gannushkina remembered the security operatives who hid in the giant fortresslike building on Lyubyanka Square. “They didn’t feel comfortable at the time,” she recalled. “But today, they feel very comfortable, they are in power.”

Under Memorial’s auspices, Ms. Gannushkina established a program to help migrants, refugees and internally displaced people. Today, she works with a team of 55 lawyers across Russia who help up to 5,000 people every year. Some had remained stateless for up to 20 years, until Memorial’s lawyers helped them, she said.

“We don’t do anything but make sure the state observes its laws,” said Ms. Gannushkina, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Apart from the migration program, Memorial representatives have worked in all major conflict zones of the former Soviet Union and Russia. It was the last independent human rights organization to leave Chechnya. It is one of the few organizations working actively in Central Asia.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Memorial has helped install monuments to victims of Stalinist crimes. The Moscow monument, a boulder brought from one of the first Soviet prison camps, stands in front of the K.G.B. headquarters. Every year at the end of October thousands of people stand in line at a microphone to read the names of victims of political persecution.

Today, Memorial comprises over 50 organizations in Russia, and six in Ukraine as well as chapters in Germany, France, Italy and other countries, engaged in historical research and human rights work.

Recently, younger generations of Russians have become interested in Memorial’s work. For Ksenia Kazantseva, 40, Memorial helped her discover what her great-grandfather looked like.

The great-grandfather, Mikhail N. Malama, was a former aide to Czar Nicholas II, she said. He was arrested in 1937 and charged with a conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

What happened to him next had been a family mystery for decades. In 2019, however, Ms. Kazantseva discovered his name in Memorial’s database — which contains more than three million files. Memorial representatives helped her submit a request with the archives, which eventually sent her a package. It contained Mr. Malama’s picture. For the first time, Ms. Kazantseva could see his face.

“It was a very special feeling to see a person for the first time and realize that he looks like your relative,” said Ms. Kazantseva, a freelance composer.

“Memorial preserves memory of what happened in our country, if you erase it, then it can all get rewritten,” said Ms. Kazantseva.

While the government acknowledges the trauma of the Stalin era, it is also attempting to spur patriotism among Russians. The core element of that is celebrating Russia’s contributions to World War II and the defeat of the Nazis, which laid the foundations of the Soviet Union as a global powerhouse.

Some Russians find Stalin’s iron-fisted rule appealing in a world full of chaos and uncertainty. In a 2019 poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 70 percent of those surveyed believed Stalin played an “entirely” or “mostly positive” role in Russian history, the highest since Levada started asking the question in 2003.

Stalin was the Soviet Union’s leader at the time, which is why, in the eyes of the Kremlin, his image should not be completely tarnished, said Aleksandr Baunov, editor in chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s website.

Mr. Baunov drew a comparison between the shuttering of Memorial and the actions of China’s Communist Party as it rewrites its history under Mr. Xi.

“This is a real shift toward a Chinese attitude to history,” he said, describing the approach as “‘Yes, there were individual mistakes, there were victims, including unjustified sacrifices, but all that was for the greatness of the country,’” Mr. Baunov said.

Mr. Xi has used the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale for China, saying it collapsed because its leaders had been unable to quash “historical nihilism,” referring to critical accounts of political persecution, or attempts to chronicle government mistakes that led citizens to lose faith in communism.

Mr. Dykhne, who at age 24 does not remember any Russian leader besides Mr. Putin, said the Gulag system was never discussed at his school in Moscow. He said what he learned about the Soviet dissident movement and his family’s history came from his elders.

In November, after prosecutors announced their investigation into Memorial, he donated his great-grandmother’s complete personal archive to the organization, and trusts they will somehow find a way to preserve it.

Mr. Dykhne, who works as a sculptor, said her experience weighs on him as he assesses events in Russia today. He said his family history prevented him from trusting Russian authorities.

“A lot of people are losing hope now for some kind of normal future in this country,” he said.

But he also said the brutality of the Soviet state made him painfully aware of the consequences of dissent. He mentioned the brutal crackdown on protesters in January this year after the dissident Aleksei A. Navalny returned from Germany, where he was recovering from what doctors said was poisoning by a Russian-made nerve agent, and was later sent to a penal colony. The ensuing protests were large-scale and spread across the country, but they were violently suppressed, with thousands arrested.

“If a year ago someone may have believed in all sorts of street protests, now the authorities have already shown us what that leads to,’’ he said. “I do not see any solution.”

“They are trying to erase our memory,” he said. “There is a feeling that they are trying to somehow paint over what happened then, so that we cannot compare it with what is happening now.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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