There is a sense of urgency in Memorial’s Moscow offices. Classes of school children visit the museum before it is too late. Camera crews ring the doorbell every half hour to film what could be the end of an era in Russia.
We have an appointment with its managing director, Alexander Cherkassov, who, surprisingly, exudes calm despite the circumstances.
Our team has often used Memorial Lights for interviews and current affairs reporting, whether on the persecution in Chechnya, the crackdown on the Crimean Tatars, or the detention of opponents of the government of Vladimir Putin.
Memorial is one of those essential pillars for the defense of human rights in the country. It is not only an emblem of civil society but above all a symbol of its collective memory since Memorial has devoted itself for more than 30 years to the in-depth study of the atrocities of the regime of Joseph Stalin.
” Memorial was organized as an association first and foremost to build a documentation center, archives, where it was necessary to gather all possible information on the history of Soviet terror. “
Memorial was founded in 1987 by a group of Soviet dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. There was even a time, in the 1990s, when she worked hand in hand with the state.
His extensive research will have given a face, a name and a story to millions of persecuted and missing during Joseph Stalin’s regime of terror. Memorial has, among other things, the largest collection in the world of objects from the Gulag.
They include uniforms and handicrafts, as well as photos and tiny clandestine letters found in buttonholes of prisoners’ uniforms.
” The number of victims of Stalinist repression amounts to 20 million. Our database contains 3.5 million names, so the work is not finished. “
With offices in France, Italy, the Czech Republic and Germany and thanks to a network of archivists and historians, Memorial has provided answers to millions of families.
I can’t believe the Russian government wants to wipe out Memorial, says Alexander Korobochkin. Without Memorial’s help, he would never have really known what happened to his grandfather, a pilot accused of espionage and executed in 1938.
We reached Mr. Korobochkin in Montreal, where he immigrated in the 1990s and from where he still communicates with Memorial, this time to find out more about his second grandfather, sentenced to 10 years of forced labor.
: these premises, our archives, our colleagues. Everything “,” text “:” Everything is threatened: these premises, our archives, our colleagues. All “}} ‘>Everything is threatened: these premises, our archives, our colleagues. All, says Alexander Cherkassov.
And why, exactly, and why now?
The prosecutor’s office accuses Memorial of violating its obligations under the controversial Foreign Agents Act, a label Memorial has had to contend with since 2014.
This law has become the government’s tool of choice to limit the reach and work of independent organizations and media in Russia. Among other things, it obliges these organizations to designate themselves as foreign agents in any information document intended for the public.
” You know, the political landscape changed with Putin. It is undesirable to name political prisoners, and that is what we are doing. It is undesirable today to draw up a list of Stalin’s victims. It is undesirable to keep the register of his executioners and of the officials of the Great Terror. They are state secrets, and the heroes of the Great Soviet Terror are today the heroes of our authorities. “
Of course there is a link between the persecution of Memorial and the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin in Russia., says analyst and political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov.
” On the one hand, we see individuals and families who cherish the memory of a grandfather and a great-grandfather. On the other side, we see the state which, for many years, has been trying to explain to the population that it must return to Soviet order. Now, who is THE symbol of this order? Stalin. “
And this rehabilitation is not subtle. A poll conducted by the Levada Institute last August revealed that one in two young Russians think Stalin deserves an official monument. In mid-November, when we learned that a new bust of the dictator had just been unveiled in the small town of Nelidovo, 350 kilometers from Moscow, we were curious to take the pulse of the population.
We discovered a bronze bust exhibited in the middle of the forest, courtesy of a paramilitary school funded by the Ministry of Defense.
It is important for us that young people know who exactly won the Great Patriotic War, says Alexander Gordeev.
Stalin probably had his reasons for executing people, he says, it’s a complicated subject.
Alexandre Gordeev teaches in the evening to young people preparing for the army. Sitting at the table in front of their computer, they learn the technique of military vehicles. The walls are decorated with photos of generals from the Great Patriotic War, as the conflict between Russia and Nazi Germany in WWII is called there.
Here, Stalin inspires glory and respect.
For some he’s a tyrant, but for us he’s a hero, says Danila, 17.
And he deserves a statue so that we never forget what he did for us Russians, explains another student.
One hundred kilometers further on, in the village of Korochevo, another tribute to Stalin attracts attention. A pretty wooden house, painted blue, where the dictator spent a single night near the front in 1943, now houses the very first museum dedicated to the dictator.
Inside, the war hero is celebrated, but not a word about the Gulag, not a single mention of the Great Terror and the millions of citizens executed during his 30-year reign over the Soviet empire.
We forgave him, says Ludmilla, who lives in the district of the small museum. However, her grandparents also suffered martyrdom in a forced labor camp.
But in the end, it’s thanks to him and the Red Army that we’re here.
Such a speech would have been unthinkable in the 1990s or at the time of perestroika, says Irina Cherbakova, a historian and one of the founding members of Memorial.
This rehabilitation began with the arrival of Putin and with his undemocratic regime. As historians, we all feel a sense of helplessness.
” We have dedicated our lives to unearthing the truth, but people no longer want to hear it. And it’s dangerous, very dangerous, because it means that history can repeat itself. “
And the current government’s desire to liquidate Memorial is, according to her, part of this desire to falsify history in order to better control what follows.
And what will happen to everything you have built if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the government?
I do not know, answers Irina, visibly upset but far from admitting defeat.
If we touch Memorial and if we close this NGO, we will attack the very foundations of the Russian Federation, says political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov.
That is, democracy, human rights, the Russian constitution and collective memory.
In the director’s office, the phone rings all the time, but Alexander Cherkassov takes the time it takes to finish each sentence, weighing each of his words.
You know, our mission, in fact, is to prevent the return of a totalitarian regime. This mission is not yet accomplished, and that is why the work must continue.
” If Memorial closes, it will mean a throwback to Soviet times. “