The Sakharov Center was forced to close in a crackdown on Russian human rights groups
The center held its last public event last month and now has until the end of April to dismantle its museum exhibition focusing on Soviet gulag rehearsals, and to remove the archives of discord and its rust.
A snowy path leading to the center on Zemlyanoy Val Street in Moscow’s Tagansky district speaks to the feeling of intolerance and nationalism sweeping through Russia. The sign for the center is invisible, covered in ugly gray scratches.
On its door, the museum, which was once a destination for school trips, had to post an 18+ warning sign, like a sex shop. As the Russian authorities tighten their grip, these small requests are often a warning that a more critical time is near.
Putin’s inner circle of KGB officers and security officials have supported the fight in Ukraine through a war against history and memory, with laws controlling how people can talk about the past. past, especially the Second World War.
Liberal historians are suspect – seen as outsiders along with activists, human rights lawyers and anti-war activists. Criticism of the military is now a crime. Art exhibitions are supposed to reflect patriotic, nationalistic values.
Sakharov, a physicist turned dissident, criticized the “hypocrisy, corruption, crime, influence peddling and inertia” of the Soviet Union. The ideals he campaigned for, “peace, progress and human rights,” seem to have no place in today’s Russia.
Organizations that worked for decades to expose Soviet and Russian crimes against citizens, including the Sakharov Center, are persecuted or forced out of existence; The Moscow Helsinki Group, which was Russia’s oldest human rights organization; and co-founded the Sakharov rights group, Memorial, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
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Vyacheslav Bakhmin, chairman of the board of the Sakharov Center and co-chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was closed by authorities in January, does not know where the center’s museum collection and archives will be.
The center was told in January that it had been evicted by its landlord, the city of Moscow, after a December law barred state agencies from supporting groups labeled as “foreign agents” “.
Bakhmin, 75, who spent four years as a Soviet political prisoner in the early 1980s, says the fear in Russia is greater now than it was then. “The fear is growing, and people are very afraid to say something dangerous, to at least keep their family, their life, their freedom,” he said. “We see it in our daily lives. punishes any free opinion on the state of the country if you say the wrong words. Thousands of people have been punished just for liking posts on social media.”
Laws are enforced arbitrarily, deepening uncertainty and fear. One person could be fined or jailed for 15 days for reporting abuses by the Russian military in Ukraine. Others face much worse.
Journalist Maria Ponomarenko was sentenced on February 15 to six years in prison for posting about Russia’s March 2022 bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theater in Ukraine. Student Olesya Krivtsova, 19, charged with “justifying terrorism” over antiwar social media posts, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
There are tougher penalties against Kremlin critics. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition activist and Washington Post opinion contributor, could serve 24 years, if convicted of “high treason,” for denouncing the war. Ousted Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal, who defeated the Kremlin’s candidate in the 2018 election, received a 22-year sentence in February for attempted murder and ordering murder, charges he denies as politically motivated.
More than 19,500 people have been arrested for taking part in protests in Russia since the attack, according to rights group OVD-Info, and more than 6,000 people have been charged with defaming the media. , according to the independent outlet Mediazona.
“Our museum is the only one that describes the history of the USSR as the history of a totalitarian state,” said Sergei Lukashevsky, the director of the Sakharov Center, who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, with fear of arrest, and is now based in Berlin.
Lukashevsky said that Putin’s regime was imbued with its own militaristic version of history and victories in past wars, central to his ideology of Russian power. “The main view of the regime is that a strong state is more important than a person or their dignity,” he said.
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The KGB saw Sakharov as one of the country’s most dangerous internal enemies. In 1980, he was exiled to the city of Gorky for almost seven years for criticizing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
As the Soviet Union opened up in the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, Sakharov was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies in the first free elections in 1989. Thousands of letters from desperate citizens who poured into it from all over Russia, complaining about the Soviet abuse of its citizens, and they are now part of the center’s archive.
One of them, signed I. Parfyonov in September 1989, said, “There is no one else with whom I can share my pain,” and referred to the “hangers and executioners” of the KGB . Another, by Viktor Gubanov, complained that the KGB forced him to spy on a citizen named Gridasov, who was falsely imprisoned in a mental institution “to punish him for his beliefs, which he expressed openly.”
The crackdown on Putin’s regime reverses decades of work by Russian civil society to expose past and present abuses. As the Kremlin glorifies the military’s past victories, it also downplays the horrors of the Soviet gulag system and mass executions.
“Your own history is lost,” Bakhmin said. “History is rewritten.” He said: “Our past is the justification for the president, so the past should be firm and unshakable, to justify what you are doing now, ” he said. “And any other approach to history is forbidden.”
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When it comes to Russian history, it’s not just organizations like the Sakharov Center that are facing problems.
The regime’s tight control has made it more difficult for Russians to seek access to files of ancestors falsely executed by the Soviet regime, said Marina Agaltsova, a human rights lawyer with Memorial, which was expelled by the Russian authorities last year.
The FSB, which succeeded the KGB, controls most of the archives and the Russians seem to be afraid of “digging up dirt,” even in cases older than 80 years, said Agaltsova. “Russia sees itself as a proxy of the USSR, so it does not want the crimes of the Soviet Union to be seen,” she said. “Russia sees itself as a great power, and heroes do not errors.”
The Sakharov Center held 500 events a year focusing on human rights, democracy and freedom. Bakhmin said that the center would continue its work “in these very limited circumstances,” but that it would not be able to function as before.
When Sakharov died of a heart attack in 1989, he never saw a free Russia, but he inspired the modern rights movement. Lukashevskiy said he puts his hope in millions of young Russians who are used to the associated freedoms that will outlive Russia’s age-old rulers. “They will want to change the country,” he said, “and turn to openness and freedom.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.
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