Russian Court Closes Memorial International, 2021 Michalski Prize Winner

In News by Porter Anderson

In what France’s foreign minister terms ‘a terrible loss,’ Moscow’s high court closes the organization and publisher Memorial International.

At the Russian Supreme Court building in Moscow, the Vladimir and Alexander Tsigal sculpture of Themis, Greek goddess of justice. January 2018. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Anghi

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Michalski Jury: ‘Preserving Oral History From Obliteration’
On November 23, Publishing Perspectives reported that the Russian human-rights-defense organization and publisher Memorial International had been made the winner of the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature.

Today (December 28), Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova at Reuters Moscow report that Russia’s supreme court has ordered Memorial International to disband “for breaking a law requiring it to act as a ‘foreign agent.'”

The Michalski award named Memorial and four contributors—Alena Kozlova, Nikolai Mikhailov, Irina Ostrovskaya, and Irina Scherbakova—for a book called Знак не сотрется: Судьбы остарбайтеров в письмах, воспоминаниях и устных рассказа. It’s translated from Russian by Georgia Thomson as The Sign Will Not Be Erased: Letters, Memoirs and Stories from Ostarbeiter in Nazi Germany. Thomson’s English-language translation was released on November 18 by Granta Books at 496 pages.

The publication of the honored book—OST is for Ostarbeiter—was not a casual foray into publishing for Memorial International. In the organization’s mission statement, the first line says that Memorial International “reveals, publishes, and critically interprets information on crimes and mass human rights violations committed by totalitarian regimes in the past and carrying direct or indirect consequences in the present.”

Among the crowded field of annual book and publishing awards in the world industry, the Michalski Foundation’s Prize, headed by Vera Michalski, frequently is a clear standout as one of the most serious programs honoring socially relevant and critically pertinent work. It carries a purse of 50,000 Swiss francs (US$54,487).

Today’s news of Russia’s dissolution order for Memorial International—part of a process that had begun earlier (before its Michalski win), with the designation of Memorial International in Russia as a ‘foreign agent.’ The culminating ruling from the court has triggered unusually robust international reportage. The organization has had standing chapters not only in Russia but also in Belarus, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and Ukraine. And Moscow’s move to shutter it is not going down quietly in world reportage.

Georgia Thomson’s translation from Granta

Osborn, who is Reuters’ Russian bureau chief, writes that the court order “caps a year of crackdowns on Kremlin critics unseen since the Soviet era.”

At the Associated Press, Dasha Litvinova describes the supreme court’s move is part of “a relentless crackdown on rights activists, independent media, and opposition supporters,” and writes that the court ruling has “sparked international outrage. Memorial is made up of more than 50 smaller groups in Russia and abroad,” Litvinova writes. “It was declared a ‘foreign agent’ in 2016—a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that can discredit the targeted organization.

“Prosecutors said the group repeatedly failed to identify itself as a foreign agent and tried to conceal the designation, accusations rejected by Memorial.”

In Germany, Deutsche Welle writes, “The organization faced charges under the Russia’s controversial NGO [non-governmental organization] laws, which demands groups which are funded from abroad to clearly mark all their material as issued by a ‘foreign agent.'”

In its own statement today, On the Liquidation of Memorial International, the organization says, in part, “We will certainly appeal against the Supreme Court decision using all means available to us. We will also find legal ways of continuing our work.

“Memorial is more than an organization, even more than a just public movement. Memorial is the need felt by Russians to know the truth about our country’s tragic past and the fate of millions of victims. There is no one who is capable of liquidating that need.”

Rachel Denber is the deputy director for Human Rights Watch, the Europe and Central Asia division:

Sullivan: ‘An Attempt To Erase History

Ivan Nechepurenko and Andrew E. Kramer write for The New York Times, “Shutting down Memorial is another step in [Vladimir] Putin’s effort to recast Russia’s legacy as a series of glorious accomplishments and soften the image of the often-brutal Soviet regime.”

In the BBC’s report today from Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford, she writes, “Memorial International worked to recover the memory of the millions of innocent people executed, imprisoned, or persecuted in the Soviet era. Formally it has been ‘liquidated’ for failing to mark a number of social-media posts with its official status as a ‘foreign agent.’ But in court, the prosecutor labeled Memorial a ‘public threat,’ accusing the group of being in the pay of the West to focus attention on Soviet crimes instead of highlighting a ‘glorious past.'”

In her write-up for the Washington Post, Robyn Dixon carries a statement from the United States’ ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, in which Sullivan calls the Russian court’s decision “a blatant and tragic attempt to suppress freedom of expression and erase history.”

Dixon also quotes a statement from France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking of “indignation and concern” at the shutdown of Memorial International, in his words, “a terrible loss for the Russian people. This announcement is deeply worrying,” Le Drian says, “about the future of historical research and the defense of human rights in Russia.”

Amnesty International today reports that Memorial International’s sister organization, Human Rights Center Memorial, is also the subject of a “request” for liquidation. The court, in that case, Amnesty reports, is to make a decision on that one “in the coming days.”

Journalist Stefan Simanowitz is Amnesty’s media manager:

Blinken: ‘Attack on Freedom of Expression’

In Axios’ report today, Jacob Knutson writes, “The closure is a major blow to the country’s shrinking civil society and a continuation of the Kremlin’s campaign to stifle political dissent and crack down on groups advocating for democratic reforms.

The BBC’s Rainsford writes, “Founded in 1989, Memorial became a symbol of a country opening up to the world—and to itself—as Russia began examining the darkest chapters of its past. Its closure is a stark symbol of how the country has turned back in on itself under president Vladimir Putin, rejecting criticism—even of history—as a hostile act.”

It’s interesting to note that in a report from the Russian state-owned news agency TASS on November 12, we read, “US secretary of state Antony Blinken urged Russia to ‘stop misusing its law on ‘foreign agents’,’ commenting on the situation around the Memorial [International] human rights non-governmental organization, recognized in Russia as a foreign agent. Russian authorities’ lawsuits, aiming to close Memorial International and Human Rights Center Memorial, is their latest attack on freedom of expression.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Russian market is here, more from us on Fondation Jan Michalski is here, more on translation is here, and more from us on international publishing and book awards programs is here. More on issues in the freedom to publish is here, and on freedom of expression is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.