Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC

In late October, while traveling in Russia with a small delegation of peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence (, a young Russian lawyer and his brother took me to Dacha Na Pokrovke, a Moscow restaurant where we enjoyed some of the best food I’ve ever eaten: delicious Russian dumplings, tender kabobs, and the most exquisite, tender, and juicy beef tongue, cut in small, thin slices that I can still taste two months later. I had eaten tongue once before, in New York, and hated it, vowing subconsciously never to eat it again. But this was a revelation. Because of food sensitivities, I passed on some of the evening’s other culinary delicacies, including vodka made from horseradish root that had a strong and sharp aroma and probably would have left me stupefied. The conversation, at one point, turned to rights of free speech when one of the young Russian men at the table said “If I were to criticize the government I might have to whisper, because someone might be listening. What about in the United States,” he asked, “If I am walking on the street, can I say what I want? Can I openly criticize the government?” “Yes, sure,” I said, “You can say what you think. You can’t incite people to violence, but you can criticize governmental policies.”

Here in the U.S., we tend to believe our right to peaceable assembly and redress is founded surely on a First Amendment bedrock, and on the surface that night in the restaurant the differences between Russian and U.S. protections of free speech seemed both stark and gaping. But the reality is something more muted and narrow. The violent treatment of protesters at Standing Rock, ND by police was a clear violation of their first amendment rights, and it creates an atmosphere that forcefully discourages peaceful dissent.

It is also true that the public space available for free speech in the U.S. has been shrinking, both in size and in relevance, for years. Peace and environmental activists across the country can tell stories about organized, approved demonstrations where they are shunted off to a designated “protest area” typically far from the event and people they seek to address. Any attempt to significantly expand this area results in a swift police response. This is free speech in a cage.

One of my companions in Russia, longtime peace activist Brian Terrell, who was arrested at the Pentagon in September for demonstrating outside the ‘designated protest zone,’ had this to say during sentencing in Missouri four years ago:

The court was mistaken a month ago when it said that our group was“allowed” to assemble on the highway right of way by the Air Force and that this space provided for us met free speech requirements of reasonable time and place. This place in question is not only outside the base’s jurisdiction, it is outside the sight and hearing of anyone on the base. The court’s decision is part of a widening disintegration of civil liberties, where speech is tolerated only in designated and remote “free speech zones” where it cannot be heard by the government, and criminalized in any place where that speech might actually have a chance to be understood. Intended or not, the court’s message is a chilling one- that a citizens’ constitutional right to assemble to petition the government extends only to places outside government facilities and where the government does not have to hear it.”

An indication of the unfriendly political climate related to peaceful protest is evidenced by State lawmakers’ recent attempts to limit first amendment rights. In response to pipeline protesters marching on roadways and blocking traffic, North Dakota legislator, Keith Kempenich, introduced legislation that would protect drivers who “negligently” kill or injure a pedestrian who is blocking traffic on a public road. The first section of the bill reads, “… a driver of a motor vehicle who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway may not be held liable for any damages.” (). HB 1203 also would restrict where pedestrians can walk in relation to public roadways, and states “any pedestrian upon a roadway shall yield the right of way to all vehicles upon the roadway.” While the North Dakota bill failed on February 13 by a 50-41 vote, lawmakers in other states are proposing similar legislation.

And in Russia? Well, it’s tempting to characterize Russia as a place where the government is watching and you’d better be on good behavior or else. Perhaps this aligns solidly with popular Western myths about the country. However, Russians seem to have a somewhat more complex relationship with their history of authoritarianism. That night in the restaurant, I was told a joke. “A foreigner comes to Russia and says, ‘I want to meet with Stalin. Can you tell me where I can find him?’ ‘Sure,’ the person he addressed answers, ‘that’s easy. Just tell a joke about him, and he will find you.’”

Russian people are not simply at the mercy of their government, and a public space for dissent, though contracting, exists. On our second full day in Moscow, we visited the Memorial Human Rights Centre (HRC), a non-profit organization that emerged during the Perestroika years, when, as Boris Belenkin, Memorial HRC’s Librarian, tells us, there were “massive human rights violations.” For example, in 1989 in what is now known as the “April 9 Tragedy,” the Soviet Army killed twenty people and injured hundreds while dispersing and arresting anti-Russian demonstrators in Tbilisi, now the capital of the Republic of Georgia. In response, human rights activists organized protests, demanding release of all political prisoners, and formed a legal defense team. The Memorial Human Rights Centre was born out of its work.

As then, human rights advocacy remains at the center of its far-reaching, multifaceted work. Memorial HRC operates on the principle that “objective and complete information about human rights violations in troubled areas directly influences events surrounding a conflict.” Truth-telling, instead of increasing violence, helps reduce it by taking the often powerful weapon of false pretexts out of the hands of those who would use it to provoke violence. In a conflict zone, a vacuum of information is just as (or more) likely to be filled by lies as by truth. It might be counterintuitive, but if truth-telling draws “public and political attention to human rights violations,” it can spark a determination to redress the wrongs and prevent further abuses rather than igniting a desire for revenge, especially if civil society human rights organizations on both sides of the conflict are engaged with each other and supported.

In conflict zones – what it calls ‘hot spots’ – Memorial HRC staff work as investigative journalists, committing both to an on-the-ground presence as well as research and analysis. They develop the kind of in-depth publications that most media outlets can’t afford to produce. They also hold press conferences, write speeches, develop and display exhibits, hold seminars and discussions, and organize demonstrations. Because the express aim of this work is to prevent or de-escalate violence, they produce not only a history of the conflict and a description of the human rights violations, but publicize the names of people responsible for them and offer practical recommendations for improving the situation. And they have a sophisticated approach to getting this information into the media and the hands of other non-profit organizations.

The work, of course, is risky, both physically – for investigators in conflict zones – and politically, especially because the organization calls for accountability as one step in preventing further abuses. When political instability led to conflict in Ukraine, Memorial HRC operated five monitoring stations and worked jointly with other civil society organizations to de-escalate violence. Memorial was also heavily involved in support for political prisoners and for “activists under politically motivated pressure from the authorities.” This included support for prisoners on trial in the Bolotnaya Square court case, people arrested for protesting the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin on the grounds of widespread election fraud. Russian authorities had aggressively pursued activists who organized large-scale demonstrations and the people who participated in them, levying administrative charges for breaking laws related to gathering in public. In addition to creating and disseminating lists of people imprisoned or at risk of imprisonment and describing the circumstances surrounding their cases, Memorial also provided direct legal assistance to thousands of people.

In 2012, Russia passed a law requiring any NGO that receives funding from abroad and engages in political activity to formally register as a “foreign agent,” a term with negative connotations close in meaning to “spy” or “enemy.” Russian human rights organizations saw the law as a weapon to attack and injure them. On November 21, 2012, the day the law came into force, someone spray painted “Foreign Agent (Heart) USA” on the walls of Memorial’s Moscow office, and posted signs near its doors that read “Foreign Agent.”

In an official letter the following spring, the Russian Prosecutor’s Office classified Memorial HRC’s work as “political activity,” and after a subsequent visit to Memorial’s Moscow office, “aimed at conducting a check” (Memorial Human Rights Centre Annual Report, 2013-2014) on Memorial’s activities and during which 9,000 pages of documents were turned over, the Prosecutor’s Office directed Memorial to register as a “foreign agent.” Memorial has refused to do this, but amendments to the law in 2014 allow the Russian Justice Ministry to unilaterally add NGOs to the list of “foreign agents,” which it did to Memorial HRC on July 21, 2014.

In October, during our visit to Memorial, we had the good fortune to speak with its General Director, Elena Zhemkova, a small, middle-aged woman with a warm, engaging smile and bright, intelligent eyes. Her stature belied an obvious strength. Elena spoke with us about the consequences of being officially listed as a “foreign agent.”

“Presently, in Russia, the State has created a bad atmosphere. Toward NGOs and toward foreigners, especially Americans.” Because it is listed as a “foreign agent,” Elena told us, Memorial must comply with a great deal of bureaucratic requirements. They have, for example, to report on every event and activity held, not just the content, but who attended and many other details. Given the number of activities it organizes, from exhibits to seminars to demonstrations, this is a “great deal of extra work” that has forced Memorial to hire a full-time employee dedicated to reporting to the State. In his introduction to the 2013-2014 Annual Report, Alexander Cherkasov, Chairman of the Memorial Board, stated, “Regrettably, a significant part of our efforts had to go into protecting ourselves…” If we are tempted to see this as prototypically Russian, the sort of the thing that couldn’t or wouldn’t happen in a “free” society like the United States, we should resist. The Berkeley, California-based Middle East Children’s Alliance, an NGO supporting human rights in Palestine and Iraq, spent years under investigation by the IRS in what many saw as a political witch-hunt. As a result, it too suffered under the crushing bureaucratic weight of responding to “State” questions and demands for information and documents.

“The worst thing,” Elena explained, is the “blow to our reputation.” Being on the list of “foreign agents creates a negative tone. It suggests you are a spy. This raises questions in people’s minds. Who wants to be associated with a spy?” Over the last twenty-five years, Memorial has dedicated a great deal of staff time to telling accurate stories of people arrested during the Gulag era, rehabilitating the memory of people who were wrongly accused of crimes against the State. Elena paused then commented wryly, “We are trying to uncover the histories of people who were considered spies, and now we are too.”

It says a lot about Elena and her staff that this unjust “blow” to Memorial’s reputation is worse than other consequences of being on the list of “foreign agents.” There have been threats to burn down the building where Memorial has its offices and its archives. “They even created a website,” Elena told us, “to raise funds for this.”

The United States has had a very similar law on the books since 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA, “a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities” (US DOJ website). FARA has been used to investigate human rights organizations – such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador or CISPES – with, predictably, consequences not unlike those Memorial is experiencing.

At Voices for Creative Nonviolence, we see our own small efforts reflected in Memorial HRC’s striving to tell the truth about violence with the belief that it is a necessary step to bringing about reconciliation and preventing more violence. And just as in the U.S. peace activists are fighting in court for their first amendment rights, Memorial has been fighting in court against Russia’s Foreign Agents law since early 2013. The following year, after Memorial was placed on the list of ‘foreign agents’ Alexander Cherkasov had this to say: “We continue to defend ourselves with all the legal means at our disposal and have no intention of describing ourselves as ‘foreign agents.’” During our visit to Russia, we saw no evidence that Memorial’s resolve has weakened.

David Smith-Ferri is a member of Voices for Creative Nonviolence ( and the author, most recently, of  Where Days Are Stones, Afghanistan and Gaza Poems, 2012-2013. He recently returned from a VCNV delegation to Helsinki, where he visited with Iraqi friends who fled their country and are seeking asylum in Finland. He can be reached at