Correction – Russia is not “dismantling civil society”

A Russian court has ordered the Memorial International organisation to close. This Russian organisation, which receives funding from abroad, has campaigned for a number of years to preserve the memory of the terrible deeds of repression that were committed during the Stalin era. More recently they seem to have become more of a general ‘Human Rights’ organisation promoting ‘democratic values’ – filing cases with the European Court of Human Rights and defending ‘political prisoners’.

In 2016 the organisation was added to the list of Foreign Agents. This is a Russian law which requires civil society organisations which receive funding from abroad to fulfil certain obligations. They have to file detailed accounts with the authorities and they have to display on each publication (including each web article) a message saying that they are a Foreign Agent. Memorial has been banned on the grounds that they have flouted this law by not displaying the statements as required by law. It seems they do not deny this. [1] The prosecutor argued in court that this was not an accident but was done specifically because they wanted to hide this.

I have had a look at their website – which is still available at the time of writing. There appears to be a fairly trimmed down list of funders which mentions a number of foundations, some Russian, and a few based abroad; for example – a German organisation which appears to be concerned with remembering the victims of Nazi atrocities. The Embassy of Canada in Russia is also mentioned. Not mentioned is the Soros Foundation (already banned in Russia) which has funded Memorial or US private Foundation the Ford Foundation. [2] Possibly the list is of current funders and these organisations no longer fund them – but it also seems possible that this list is rather carefully curated. (No US funders mentioned; there is quite a lot of anti American feeling in Russia and it would not make them more popular to admit to being funded by American foundations).

One reason why Memorial may have drawn attention to itself, apart from an apparent deliberate disregard of the law which required it to display messages about its Foreign Agent status, is that it has shown films on provocative topics; for example in October it showed a Polish film about the famine in Southern Russia and Ukraine in the early 1930s. Ukrainian nationalists often claim the famine was deliberate genocide against Ukraine. Most mainstream historians dispute this – though they accept that the famine was the result of excessive procurement of grain from peasants. [3] Showing a film on this topic at this point when relations with Ukraine are fraught is extremely controversial.

At any event the closure of Memorial International has followed Russian law. The organisation is indeed heavily funded from abroad and did indeed fail to follow the requirements imposed on them by the Foreign Agent status. The Guardian though is telling its readers something else. For Andrew Roth this is “part of Putin’s crackdown on independent thought”. The Guardian writes:

The court ruled Memorial must be closed under Russia’s controversial “foreign agent” legislation, which has targeted dozens of NGOs and media outlets seen as critical of the government.

This is wrong to the extent it must be a wilful misrepresentation of the facts. The organisations on the Foreign Agent list are there because they do indeed receive funding from abroad. (I haven’t done a systematic check of this but all the ones I have looked at do indeed receive foreign funding or are connected with foreign organisations). But the Guardian is hiding this aspect and spinning the story as if they are being closed down because they are “independent”. The whole point is they are not independent.

It is worth adding that on the Memorial International website they list as a partner US State Department funded propaganda outlet Radio Liberty. This is a propaganda station (founded by the CIA) which relentlessly tries to foment revolution in Russia by exploiting divisions and grievances (for example Tatar independence). It publishes material in Russian (and Tatar) and its website is available in Russia. If Radio Liberty is a partner then Memorial loses any credibility as an independent and native Russian project.

This is also untrue:

Memorial International’s closure marks an inflection point in Russia’s modern history, as efforts to publicise crimes under Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin have become taboo 30 years after the secret government archives were opened after the end of the Soviet Union

Recently I went to the Siberian city of Tomsk and in a state funded museum saw an incredibly well put together and very detailed display of the repression under Stalin complete with a large map of all the gulags and a moving photographic display of the victims of summary executions. It is not true that the current Russian state is making it taboo to publicise the repression under Stalin.

This appears to be another misleading statement by Mr Roth:

The judge, Alla Nazarova, ordered the organisation closed for “repeated” and “gross” violations of Russia’s foreign agent laws, a designation Memorial has called politically motivated but nonetheless claimed to have followed.

We have already seen above. According to a quote in a French newspaper [1] Memorial has in fact admitted to not following the injunction.

The overall line in the Guardian is that there is a “purge of Russia’s opposition and independent organisations”. An “analysis” piece in the same issue of the Guardian is headlined “Rights group’s closure is part of rapid dismantling of Russian civil society”. This is also attributed to Mr Roth. In this piece Mr Roth claims that Putin shut down Memorial because he is afraid of an honest examination of the Soviet past. This it has to be said is not “analysis”. There is no supporting evidence for example for the claim that Putin was personally involved in this decision (taken by a court and I think initiated by the Justice Ministry) and because he is afraid of an examination of Russia’s past. A more likely explanation is that Memorial has drawn attention to itself by its recent campaigning on ‘political prisoners’, showing of controversial films, and deliberate violation of its Foreign Agent status requirements. As such the Prosecutors (who implement the Foreign Agent list) decided to act. Of course the Kremlin may have been consulted.

Again the misrepresentation: “Memorial’s leadership has said it is useless trying to understand which of the government’s red lines it crossed to prompt the authorities to shut it down.”. But, by their own admission, they broke the law. Not surprisingly perhaps the Senior Prosecutors in Russia expect when they issue an order (injunction) for it to be followed! The Guardian of course adopts the line by Memorial without question. This is standard fare.

As sometimes occurs there may be a small element of truth in the Guardian line. In the “analysis” piece Roth makes the point that the state is willing to remember the victims of Stalinist repression but prefers not to look at the executors. I have recently heard this point made by an acquaintance – who told me his relatives suffered in the repression but no one was ever held accountable. However; overall – the entire presentation about “dismantling of civil society” is a massive misrepresentation. More accurately what is being dismantled is that part of civil society which is funded from abroad with the aim of spreading certain values in Russia. Even this is only partly true; if organisations who are designated Foreign Agents follow the law they can continue to operate. There is a civil society in Russia – not large it is true, (as one would expect given that Russia only emerged from the Bolshevik regime 30 years ago) – but there is one. For example in the city where I am located there is an active organisation which runs charitable projects and which provided staff to operate the last parliamentary elections. (It looks a bit like the Rotary Club). There are charities which help children with special needs, and so on. What the authorities in Moscow don’t want is what happened in Ukraine. The creation of a massive layer of “civil society” funded by international (often US) organisations with the explicit aim of spreading their values in Russia. Such funding by the US in Ukraine paved the way for the Maidan coup which (ironically enough) overthrew an elected President in favour of European values [4]. This project continues; here the US State Department is offering funding to support “Environmental Activism” in Ukraine.

There does appear to be an active campaign in Russia – run by the Prosecutorial authorities but (no doubt) authorised if not initiated by the Kremlin – to control and in some cases close down civil society groups which are funded from abroad and which promote Western liberal-democratic values (federalism, diffusion of power, independent judiciary etc.). This campaign is certainly deliberate. They saw what happened in Ukraine; how the West uses ‘support for civil society’ to spread its value-system and undermine an authoritarian government as a soft preparation for regime change via a ‘popular revolution’. And they have no intention of that happening in Russia. This campaign is misleadingly presented in the Western press as a “crackdown on independent thought” – this line being part and parcel of the same regime change efforts as the funding itself.



The resulting famine of 1933 has been described by both Western and Russian scholars as ‘man-made’ or ‘artificial’ on the grounds that its primary cause was the excessively high procurement quotas set by the state. Some note the disproportionate effect on Ukrainian peasants and claim that the famine was deliberate and genocidal. But recent analyses of the data on the 1932 harvest have shown that, contrary to the official yield of 69.9 million metric tons (which approximated the grain harvests for preceding and successive years), the real output was well below 50 million tons. If so, the famine was precipitated by an absolute shortage of grain.

Freeze, Gregory L.. Russia (p. 354). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

4. This piece in a German outlet describes US funding as “soft power” and Russian as “manipulation and intimidation” which seems to follow a certain stock template (Western intervention benign Russian malign) – but I include it as a source for the pre-Maidan US funding in Ukraine.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer