Memorial against oppression in Russia

Memorial against oppression in Russia


Moscow’s crackdown on Memorial has only intensified since the human rights group won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, but its executive director says the members are pressing on despite the dangers.

“Of course it’s very difficult,” Elena Zhemkova said in an interview with AFP, but stressed that there were never any doubts about whether to continue working or not.

Memorial, which shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties and imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski, is the largest human rights organization in Russia.

Zhemkova said the Oct. 7 announcement in honor of the embattled organization she co-founded in 1989 with Andrei Sakharov — himself a 1975 Peace Prize winner — came as a complete surprise.

The 61-year-old described how she was riding in a taxi on her way to the opening of an exhibition when a colleague called to say something had happened and told her to “check the news”.

– Dreaded ‘Atomic Bomb’ –

“I couldn’t imagine that we were talking about such a big award,” she said, adding that she feared “something very bad happened.”

“I honestly thought it was a nuclear bomb.”

Realizing Memorial had instead won the world’s most prestigious peace prize, she said she was “very happy” to share it, especially with law enforcement from the other two nations at the heart of the Moscow War in Ukraine.

This “emphasises that civil society people from different countries can and should fight evil together,” she said.

The Russian authorities, meanwhile, seemed less than enthusiastic about Memorial’s victory.

The organization, which for decades has worked to preserve the memory of those who died in the gulags of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin while compiling information on Russia’s ongoing political repression, has been increasingly crackdown in recent years been.

Last December, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered Memorial to be disbanded, and just hours after the Nobel Committee’s Oct. 7 announcement, a Moscow court ordered its headquarters to be confiscated.

“We got the news about the Nobel Prize and then, unfortunately, that day our house was taken away from us,” Zhemkova said.

“So this is the Russian government’s response.”

– ‘No Heroes’ –

But despite the challenges, she insisted that “we must and can continue our work.”

Last week, Memorial was prevented from holding its annual tribute to Stalin’s victims in Moscow, known as the Returning the Names ceremony.

But Zhemkova pointed out that the marathon reading of the names of those killed under Stalin’s regime still took place in 22 countries and 77 cities.

“You can’t stop our work,” she said.

Inside Russia, too, she said, Memorial will continue to open exhibitions, organize field trips and “defend people’s rights in court.”

The Nobel Prize is helpful “because it is a very important sign of support”.

Zhemkova, who was in Geneva to deliver Kofi Annan’s annual peace speech, admitted that she and other Memorial members fear for their safety in Russia.

“There is a mass persecution of people and institutions that defy the official view,” she said.

“Of course we’re scared… We’re ordinary people.”

“We’re not heroes,” she emphasized, “but we’re trying to take small, bold steps.”

– “Unlawful” –

In addition to the security risks they face, Zhemkova said she and many of her colleagues are targeted by “unlawful and complicated criminal cases.”

The Memorial boss is currently staying away from Russia, but regretted that she didn’t have to.

“I respect all the rules. I haven’t broken any laws, I’m doing legitimate work,” she said.

But she added: “I am against the war and for now (that) is enough to open a criminal investigation against you.”

When asked what she thought of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions, Zhemkova insisted, “I don’t think about Putin. I’m not interested in him at all.”

“I think about how many generations of Russians have to pay for what he did.”

More to explorer