Balancing act in Russia: Memorial - a little complicated and very successful

# 5 Divided Democracy
Balancing act in Russia: Memorial—a little complicated and very successful

Memorial is a well-known, large, somewhat complicated, and very successful organization. Established in 1988 - still during the Soviet era - out of a civil-rights movement, Memorial is today a network, a confederation of more than eighty member organizations, most of them in Russia, but also in Ukraine, Germany, Belarus, and Italy.

Memorial is grounded on three cornerstones: the critical examination of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian past and the crimes of the state against its own population; the fight against human rights violations today; and the social welfare of victims of political repression. Not all Memorial member organizations do all of these things; many have specialized. Most Memorial members are regional organizations, such as Perm Memorial, Komi Memorial, or Ryazan Memorial. There are also issue-oriented member organizations. The most important are the Memorial Human Rights Center, the Memorial Scientific-Historical Research and Enlightenment Center (NIPC), and the Perm-36 Museum, as well as a nationwide network of legal assistance centers for refugees and forced migrants.

All of this—the entire structure, in part consciously created and in part spontaneously developed over more than twenty-five years, as well as the entire work of the member organizations—has made Memorial the best-known Russian NGO. The Heinrich Böll Foundation and Memorial have worked together for twenty-five years. This cooperation began back in 1990 with a project to assist former so-called Ostarbeiter or “Eastern Workers,” men and women who were transported by the Wehrmacht from the occupied Soviet Union to Germany during the Second World War to be used as forced laborers. There were a total of eight million Eastern Workers, although only two million survivors returned to the Soviet Union after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Those returning, however, faced a difficult life in their homeland. The men were regarded as traitors (simply because they had survived!) and most were sent to Soviet labor camps. The women were subject to discrimination their entire lives; they were not allowed to live in major cities or to attend institutions of higher education. This gave rise to the Victims of Two Dictatorships project, a joint endeavor that has connected Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation up to the present day.

Many other collaborative projects followed, including a joint scholarship program for young historians and sociologists, a history competition for school children entitled “People in History—Russia in the Twentieth Century,” and the Polish Project supporting Polish victims of Soviet state repression. Over time, the cooperation between Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation has grown into a veritable, one might even say, political friendship. Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation have co-organized a Green Russia Forum, which meets on a regular basis in Moscow and Berlin, and they have put on the European History Forum in Berlin every autumn for several years.

There is, however, another special aspect of Memorial: its internal democracy. Unlike almost any other Russian NGO, Memorial not only demands democratic rules for society, but is itself organized democratically. Memorial does, of course, have people in leadership positions, whose words carry somewhat more weight in a discussion than those of others and who are paid a little more attention. But every two years there are democratic elections, and twenty-seven people are voted onto the executive board, often after long and controversial discussions.

Memorial’s extended structure—anchored in many places not in branch offices, but in independent member organizations that formed in the respective regions—and especially its indisputable competency in all questions regarding the totalitarian and repressive sides of Soviet history have made it into an institution. These are more than empty words. Even today, in these (once again) difficult times for NGOs in Russia, this reputation provides at least some protection for Memorial.

For several years now, official state history has been celebrated very actively in Russia, based particularly on the glorification of the Soviet victory in the Second World War under Stalin’s leadership. This has contributed to a certain Stalin renaissance, although this wasn’t exactly the Kremlin’s intention. The politics of history in this regard is eclectic, as the millions of victims of political persecution (especially, but not exclusively, under Stalin) have also not been forgotten. For several years now, there have been plans for a central state memorial site in Moscow. And Memorial will participate in the planning.

The reason for this is the populist character of the Putin government. Putin draws his legitimacy, on the one hand, from being economically successful and—at least in the way he presents himself, but also in the eyes of many people—from having raised the international reputation of the country again (the fact that this reputation is based to a large degree on the fear of Russia has also been a source of some satisfaction). On the other hand, however, Putin cannot afford to ignore (or he believes he cannot ignore) the fact that virtually everyone in Russia has memories of persecuted family members and relatives. And it is here that Memorial comes into play: for without Memorial’s approval, no memorial site would be regarded as truly authentic, as being “correct.”

Again, this does protect Memorial to some extent and makes these partners somewhat more stable than many other NGOs, which have recently been declared “foreign agents” (as have several Memorial member organizations and another Böll Foundation partner, the Center for Gender Research in Samara). It is no easy task to work for a differentiated view of history, to fight for human rights, and to take a stand against one’s own, very powerful government. It is a balancing act.

This article is part of our dossier "For Democracy - From the commitment of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the world" and was created as part of the publication of the same name.