Amidst the Kremlin’s attempts to clamp down on the activities of both Russian and foreign NGOs, there are growing concerns that President Putin could be reaching back too far into the Soviet totalitarian past.

A lone protester demonstrates against the reading of a new law requiring foreign funded non-governmental organisations working in Russia to disclose details of their activities, outside the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, in Moscow July 6, 2012. Placard reads "Tightening laws about NGOs is the paranoia of authorities." Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov 

For a very different take, read: "Why the Kremlin is pursuing a well-known human rights group"

The Kremlin’s campaign against organizations deemed to be “undesirable” to the state continues to gain momentum. On Nov. 30, the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation updated the list of undesirable organizations, the so-called “stop list.”

The “stop list” now includes the Soros Foundation, which used to operate in 30 countries worldwide. The Soros Foundation worked in Russia between 1995 and 2003 and provided support for civil, educational and cultural initiatives. According to the Russian authorities, the organization undermined the foundations of the Russian constitutional system.

Not only foreign NGOs are at risk

In November, the Russian Ministry of Justice issued the same allegations against Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights advocacy group, upon a routine inspection of its activities. The organization was accused of “undermining the constitutional order and calling for the overthrow of the current government." These accusations were based on Memorial’s website content, which included statements on Russian military involvement in Ukraine and the wrongful sentencing of the Kremlin's political opponents in the Bolotnaya Square case.

Although the Russian Ministry of Justice revoked its accusations that Memorial undermines Russia's constitutional order, the authorities still insist on changing the charter of the NGO and adjusting it to Russia's Civil Code, because, according to them, the charter violates Russian legislation. In particular, the Justice Ministry forbids Memorial from spreading confidential information and acting to deliberately harm any organization. This could indicate that the Kremlin is choosing more subtle tactics and its campaign against NGOs is still going on.

It remains to be seen what will come of such strong assessments assigned by the Ministry of Justice experts: Memorial might be eliminated and/or its leadership might have to stand trial. A year ago, the organization was on the verge of closing. To prevent that from happening, human rights activists had to adopt the humiliating “foreign agent” status, which, according to the Russian law of 2012, is mandatory for NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in politics.

Obviously, the Russian authorities are increasing their pressure on NGOs that interfere with the establishment of full political and ideological control over the Russian society. This tendency has been particularly prominent since the beginning of Vladimir Putin's third presidential term in 2012. However, the persecution of Memorial stands out due to its public profile and special role in the Russian social and political system.

Memorial is not a typical human rights center (HRC) that brings human rights violations into public view. The organization originated in the late 1980s to early 1990s as part of the movement for the rehabilitation of Soviet political prisoners, and its main mission has always been fostering the remembrance of tragic pages of Soviet history in order to prevent the recurrence of the totalitarian past.

It is worth pointing out that the U.S.S.R. was condemned for its part in mass repressions against its own citizens, which played a key role in the de-legitimization of the Soviet leadership and the fall of the Soviet empire. In the 1980s, problems with the economy and the rise of nationalism at the periphery of the U.S.S.R. definitely contributed to the weakening of Moscow, but when the Communist party lost its mandate for ruling the country, it mainly had to do with the denunciation of the Red Terror under Stalin.

New Russian leaders that came to power after 1991 initially did not feel threatened by the continuous study and publication of ugly facts from the Soviet past. Memorial staff managed to compile an impressive database on the victims of Stalin's repressions with hundreds of thousands of names and helped establish the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, an annual commemorative event that occurs on Oct. 30 and is attended by top political figures.

It seemed that Russia turned this dark page of its history and left all horrors of totalitarianism behind. Even though it was still perceived as a great country that has continuously existed since the 9th century, it was deemed that its new rulers had nothing in common with Stalin, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or the crimes exposed by Memorial.

Back to the U.S.S.R.?

However, from the beginning of his rule, Russian President Vladimir Putin has thought it wise to restore the memory of the “positives” of the Soviet experience. It is highly likely that he was driven by his own nostalgia and hoped to capitalize on the public longing for the lost "golden age,” but this course of action set a major political trap for Putin. At some point (possibly, after his April 2005 statement that the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century), Putin lost the ability to separate himself from the Soviet past.

The U.S.S.R. was no longer a forgotten relic of history. It made a comeback and became a part of Putin's political baggage. In his desire to build on the positives of the Soviet past, the President brought in all the negatives because the good and the bad are inseparable in this case. From this point on, Memorial quickly started turning into the Kremlin's worst enemy and bitter political opponent.

Putin refrained from resolute and unconditional condemnation of the crimes of the Soviet regime, which, among other things, meant that Russia lost some of its sovereignty and became an inferior state, not unlike Japan, which received its constitution from victorious Americans.

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The unredeemed sin of totalitarianism weighed heavily on the Kremlin and grew to be a powerful political constraint. Whenever the authorities made a decision to tighten the Russian legislation and increase political control, it was inevitably viewed through the prism of historic events, associated with Putin's KGB background and compared to the Great Purges of the Stalin era.

Without such skeletons in the closet, the Kremlin surely would have been in a better position and would not have run into enormous difficulties in its search for the ideological justification of the chosen political course. Then the gamble on the international arena might have been unnecessary.

Demons of history

Still, the most unpleasant consequence of Putin's rash policies is the ghost of the same leadership de-legitimization tool that destroyed the U.S.S.R.

The pressure on Memorial and the revival of Stalinism, which is becoming more obvious in Russia by the day, signify that the authorities no longer believe in exhorting the demons of history that were set loose.

It appears that the government strategy relies on the propaganda machine and its ability to purge negative images of the U.S.S.R. from the public mind and put on a positive spin, unless organizations like Memorial and their foreign sponsors can put a stop to that.

In the meantime, Russia is objectively struggling, and the scope of its problems is nearing the level that sufficed to bring down the Soviet Union. Economic recession and lack of new sources of growth, conflicts with the U.S. and Europe, the terrorist threat and uncertain goals in Syria can all undermine the legitimacy of the elite's rule and its grip on the country.

Under these circumstances, accusations of moral involvement in Stalin's repressions (even if they are based only on the actions against Memorial) can become an extremely powerful tool in the hands of anti-Kremlin forces. That may be the real reason why the Kremlin has attempted to shut down Memorial.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.