MOSCOW -- In what has been described as a watershed moment for President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on dissent, Russia's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the closure of Memorial International, the country's oldest human rights organization and the main chronicler of mass crimes committed under the Soviet Union.
Memorial was founded in 1987 by leading Soviet dissidents, including the Nobel prize-winning scientist Andrey Sakharov. As one of Russia's first human rights organizations, it established an archive of records on the mass executions and imprisonments in Soviet gulag camps under Joseph Stalin.
The organization's efforts to record Soviet oppression and commemorate its victims were seen as a key symbol of Russia's move toward democracy, and the country's first democratically elected president, Boris Yeltsin, was a member. In present-day Russia, the group had also become a key defender of those facing political persecution.
At a hearing in Moscow on Tuesday, Supreme Court Judge Alla Nazarova upheld a request from prosecutors to close down Memorial for allegedly violating Russia's so-called "foreign agents" law, which has been used to target media and human rights organizations critical of authorities.
Tuesday's ruling was condemned in Russia and internationally as politically motivated and part of a broader campaign targeting human rights groups under Putin. But the move against Memorial is seen as having unique significance, representing a turning point in the Putin government's efforts to rehabilitate the USSR and to silence discussion of the darkest chapters of its history.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow condemned the ruling, with Ambassador John Sullivan calling it "a blatant and tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history."
The decision to close Memorial comes amid an unprecedented crackdown dissent under Putin over the past two years that has seen many prominent opposition activists jailed or forced abroad. Independent media has also been squeezed.
"It's an outrageous assault on the jugular of Russia's civil society," wrote Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, of Memorial's closure. "Even when authorities have banned key opposition movement, jailed opposition figures, pushed independent media to the margins… today's ruling is heralding a new era of repression."
Russian prosecutors accused Memorial officials of violating the law by failing to mark some publications with text identifying themselves as "foreign agents."
In his closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutor Aleksey Zhafyarov told the court Memorial was creating "a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state" and was seeking to rehabilitate "Nazi criminals."
Memorial said in a statement that the alleged violations of the foreign agent law were only a "formal" pretext for closing the organization.
"But today in court was at last named not the formal grounds, but the true reason for the liquidation of Memorial International: the General Prosecutor claims that we are incorrectly interpreting Soviet history," it said.
"The Supreme Court's decision confirmed once again that the history of political terror, organised and directed by state power, remains for Russia not an academic question of interest only for specialists, but an urgent problem of the present," Memorial wrote.
A lawyer for Memorial, Maria Eismont, said it would appeal the ruling, even taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. The group pledged to find legal ways to continue its work.
"Memorial is not just an organisation. Memorial is the need of Russia's citizens for the truth about its tragic past, about millions of people's fates. And no one can 'liquidate' that need," it said.
Putin does not deny that crimes were committed by the Soviet Union, but authorities recently have tried to downplay them and instead embraced a positive view of the USSR as a source of national pride. Over the past five years, authorities have imposed greater control over Russia's Soviet history, seeking to glorify it and, in particular, its victory in World War II.
During court hearings against Memorial, a prosecutor told the court, "Why should we, descendants of the victors, be ashamed and repentant instead of taking pride in our glorious past? Probably, someone is paying Memorial for this."
In court Tuesday, Memorial's acting director Elena Zhemkova noted that until recently Russia's government had valued the group's work, including it in expert commissions.
"Memorial had been doing the same work for 32 years," Denber from Human Rights Watch wrote. "They haven't changed. What's changed, obviously, is the Russian gov[ernment]."
The outcry was joined by rights groups around the world. The Auschwitz Museum that commemorates Nazi atrocities at the concentration camp tweeted a quote in Russian from its Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński: "A power that is afraid of memory, will never be able to achieve democratic maturity."
Memorial has faced growing pressure in recent years, with its offices sometimes attacked and some of its volunteers targeted in criminal cases. In 2020, Yury Dmitriyev, a member of Memorial and historian who helped uncover Stalin-era mass graves, was jailed for 13 years on charges of sexual abuse that were widely criticized as politically motivated. On Monday, just a day before the Memorial ruling, a court in Dmitriev's home region of Karelia added two more years to his sentence.
Vasily Starostin, a volunteer researcher with Memorial, told ABC on Tuesday that the order to close Memorial was "a huge blow".
"Because Memorial represented from the start a move to a more democratic and liberal society," he said. "I think symbolically speaking this whole story, it's a huge set back for our society and the way it works."