Moscow human rights center packs up as state tightens ‘monopoly on memory’


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Moscow human rights center packs up as state tightens ‘monopoly on memory’

A man walks under a portrait of Nobel laureate and Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow, Russia April 25, 2023. One of Russia's most prominent pro-democracy and human rights centres - The Sakharov Centre - is preparing to close its doors after being served an eviction notice by the Moscow city authorities due to its designation as 'a foreign agent.'

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

With a May 2 deadline looming, one of Russia's leading pro-democracy and human rights centers - the Sakharov Centre, named after Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov - is preparing to close after receiving an eviction notice

MOSCOW, Russia – Posters chronicling the end of the Cold War lie discarded near outdoor rubbish containers, and staff inside sift through papers and stack books as over a quarter of a century of Russian human rights work is packed up.

With a May 2 deadline looming, one of Russia’s leading pro-democracy and human rights centers – the Sakharov Centre – is preparing to close after receiving an eviction notice from the Moscow municipality due to its designation as a “foreign agent.”

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, the center’s chairman, said its task for now was to save its books and artifacts for better times, adding: “We don’t know when those better times will come.”

Named after Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, the center not only provided information about his work but also housed an exhibition on Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s purges and prison camps, and offered a forum for pro-democracy activists.

The authorities had provided the premises rent-free but now say they are merely following the law, which changed in December to ban the state from providing support to “foreign agents”.

The classification, which carries a Cold War stigma, is also designed to burden those affected with bureaucracy and audits.

Two months ago, the nearby Sakharov museum and archive in the Moscow apartment where he once lived was similarly shut.

Russia’s human rights community has already seen the storied Memorial and Moscow Helsinki groups liquidated, and each Friday the Ministry of Justice blacklists another group.

The authorities accuse rights activists of being unpatriotic and close to hostile foreign governments at a time when Russia is waging what it says is an existential struggle with the West over Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin himself has ordered the FSB security service to “identify and stop the illegal activities of those who are trying to divide and weaken our society”.

‘Memory belongs to the state’

Sitting in a denuded exhibition hall once filled with items related to victims of Stalin’s purges, Bakhmin said the authorities were afraid that alternative versions of history would undermine their own narrative.

“There’s now a monopoly on memory – and that monopoly belongs to the state,” he said.

“Everything … that doesn’t chime with that monopoly or position is regarded as hostile and not needed.”

The center has openly opposed what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, saying in March last year that Russian society had allowed itself to be “sucked into the vortex of a monstrous crisis” that had caused “death, destruction and incalculable suffering in a neighboring country”.

“Any truthful word about what is happening, let alone more explicit forms of protest, means automatic transformation into an open target for repression,” its statement read.

Moscow introduced sweeping censorship laws shortly after sending its armed forces into Ukraine in February last year, including jail terms for “discrediting” the army.

In December, the Sakharov Centre was fined 5 million roubles ($61,000) for violating the law on foreign agents.

And in January, the US-based Sakharov Foundation was designated an “undesirable organization” – an even blacker mark than “foreign agent”.

Bakhmin said the Centre would now probably be restricted to online activities while its books and artefacts would be spread around apartments across Moscow.

The Centre has not been formally closed as an organization, but Bakhmin noted that a Ministry of Justice “spot check” was continuing until April 28.

Asked what Sakharov would have made of the situation, Bakhmin said the dissident had always opposed repression.

“He could not and would not have accepted what is happening today,” he said. “The only question is what he would have done about it.” –

$1 = 81.7900 roubles

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