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The Fate of Memorial and Moscow’s Strategy of Conflict

Maxim Trudolyubov
Image 11.22.21
Child reading out names of victims of political repressions at a Return of the Names event in Moscow, October 29, 2016.


Russian prosecutors have moved to shut down Memorial, Russia’s oldest and most prominent civil society organization. For over thirty years the group has been involved in investigating Soviet political repression and commemorating its victims, defending basic freedoms in today’s Russia, and providing legal support to modern-day political prisoners.

The reason the Russian state is after Memorial is not just decades-old disagreements over the Soviet historical past and Russia’s political present but the organization’s value as a bargaining chip or a pressure point in the Kremlin’s strategy of conflict with the West.

Moscow’s Kafkaesque Legality

Should the authorities succeed in shutting the group down, Memorial’s fate will be a devastating milestone in Russian civil society’s years-long struggle to keep afloat and alive. “The Russian authorities force us to draw ever new parallels between the present day and the era of state terror, the appalling memory of which Memorial has been keeping. The country is on the verge of another historic disaster,” read a recent open letter signed by dozens of Russian civil society leaders.

The reasons the authorities adduce to warrant the closure are technical. Memorial stands accused of “systemic” violations of Russia’s “foreign agents” legislation. Specifically, this refers to Memorial’s failure, back in 2019, to mark a number of pages on one of its websites with the foreign agent disclaimer, a requirement under Russian law. The group was fined for those breaches and have paid the fines. A few missing disclaimers cannot be considered grave noncompliance that might lead to an organization’s closure, Memorial’s lawyers say.

Rather than a centralized organization, Memorial is an ecosystem of groups that are active throughout Russia and the world. The two entities that are now being sued as a way to force them to liquidate are the Memorial Human Rights Center, which has decades of experience defending basic human rights in Russia, particularly in Chechnya, and the International Memorial Society, responsible for historical and educational work. The two organizations’ cases will be heard on November 23 and 25, respectively.

In a Kafkaesque twist, the prosecutor general’s office alleges that International Memorial has been in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, among other international norms. But only sovereign nations, not civil society groups or individuals, have the capacity to comply or not to comply with the European Convention, legal experts have pointed out.

The lawsuit may be far-fetched legally, but it could be seen as a classic example of the Russian state’s—and personally President Putin’s—penchant for turning the accusations being thrown at them back on the accusers. Memorial has filed with the European Court of Justice a number of complaints claiming that the Russian law on foreign agents itself violates the European Convention on Human Rights. The cases are still pending, but by the time the European Court hears them the plaintiff may no longer exist.

The Kremlin’s Strategy of Conflict

Political games around Memorial do not end there. The organization is a useful bargaining chip in the Kremlin’s constant game of asymmetrical responses to various kinds of Western sanctions or other types of pressure, real or imagined.

Russian political strategists may consider Memorial useful in their game not because of its role in Russian society’s reckoning with the past but because it is Russia’s best-known civil society group in Europe, primarily in Germany. Historically, Memorial’s founders had strong ties with Germany, and for decades, German politicians would make a point of meeting with Memorial’s board members while visiting Moscow.

Predictably, the threat of Memorial’s liquidation caused a public outcry in Germany. Immediately after the news broke, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas issued a statement calling the very possibility of the organization’s shutdown “shocking.” German public figures and Russia specialists have published open letters in support of their Russian colleagues from Memorial.

It is rare that European, particularly German, politicians and journalists pay so much attention to the fate of a Russian nongovernmental group. The flow of statements and press publications in Germany and throughout the world in support of Memorial has not stopped since November 11, when prosecutors first declared their intention to close Memorial down. From the Kremlin’s vantage point, this means an important positional success.

The more visible a figure or an organization is, the greater its value in the Kremlin’s strategy of conflict. Very often, this game is not about straightforward bargaining, such as in an exchange of spies. For the Russian state’s current leaders, it is important to inform their opponents that Russia will respond to sanctions and other types of pressure from the West. The Kremlin’s response, as a rule, cannot be symmetrical as Moscow’s economic sanctions against the West often hurt Russia itself because the country is an importer of vast numbers of industrial, high-tech, medical, and food products from the West. Russia can manipulate its role as an important oil and gas exporter, but this game has its limits if Moscow wants to keep its clients in today’s competitive markets.  

Russia may lack economic or political clout to exert influence over its partners and opponents, but the country’s leaders make up for that by leveraging all kinds of pressure points that may cause at least some pain in the West. In the Kremlin’s strategy of conflict, anybody (and anything) goes that can raise enough noise and help engage the adversary in a loud public skirmish.

Organizations and people designated as “foreign agents” are similar in status to hostages. Last spring, Russia’s prosecutors started the process of designating the entire network of organizations founded by the Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny “extremist” shortly after the United States imposed a wide array of sanctions against Russia for interfering in the U.S. presidential election, cyberhacking, and bullying Ukraine. With this gesture, the Russian leadership shifted part of the responsibility for the fate of Navalny’s supporters to Western countries. The Kremlin’s message essentially reads as follows: You exert pressure on us, we exert pressure on your “agents” inside Russia.

The numbers of those “agents” and thus potential victims of the Russian state keeps growing. This creates a moral complication for dealing with Russia, which is of course the intended effect of the entire exercise.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more