(2004, Russia)

...for showing, in traumatic times, the importance of understanding the historical roots of human rights abuse, to secure respect for them in the future.


Memorial is the short name of the international volunteer public organisation "MEMORIAL Historical, Educational, Human Rights and Charitable Society". It was founded at the end of the 1980s as a result of a major movement in October 1988, which took the form of Initiative Groups appearing in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities.

Contact Details

Human Rights and Humanitarian Society
Elena Zhemkova, Executive Director
Irina Sherbakova, Head of Educational Youth Programme 127051 Moscow
Maly Karetny per. 12



The union of regional Memorial societies was the first non-politicial NGO not organised by the state in Russia's recent history. Its first leader was Andrei Sakharov. Today Memorial unites 89 organisations: in many regions of Russia, in Ukraine, in Poland, Latvia, Germany, Kazakhstan and Italy. Its 18-member Board of Directors is elected every 4 years at a conference of all Memorial member organisations.

As embodied in its Charter, Memorial's "primary missions" are:

  • To promote mature civil society and democracy based on the rule of law and thus to prevent a return to totalitarianism;
  • To assist formation of public consciousness based on the values of democracy and law, to get rid of totalitarian patterns, and to establish firmly human rights in practical politics and in public life;
  • To promote the revelation of the truth about the historical past and perpetuate the memory of the victims of political repression exercised by totalitarian regimes.

Memorial's work falls into three main areas:

1. Creating a historical memory about the crimes committed by the Soviet regime through research and publications

Memorial has built an enormous network of archives specialized in the field of historical research into totalitarian repression that are open to the public. This work is co-ordinated by the Moscow-based 'Scientific-Informational and Enlightenment Center, Memorial', which has 75,000 documents and 23,000 books, and paintings and graphic works by GULAG prisoners. Many of the Memorial regional branches also have archives and museums. Near the city of Perm in the North West Urals Memorial has built the only existing museum of a Soviet concentration camp on the site of the last camp for political prisoners. 

Memorial's archive includes 400,000 letters from 'Ostarbeiter' (people taken as slave labour to Germany during the Second World War), and has published CDs with brief details of political prisoners - 2 CDs entitled Victims of Political Terror, were published in 2004 and also released at the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair. They contain records and short histories of about 1.3 million people of 120 ethnic origins born in all areas of the USSR, who were killed by the Soviet regime. Memorial estimates that this accounts for only about 10% of the total number. 

In Russia Memorial organises an annual essay competition about "the life experience of man and family against the background of the 20th century history". About 3,000 entries are received every year.

On the basis of its archives Memorial has also published the so-called Stalin Lists, with the names of 44,000 people executed on the personal order of Stalin. Memorial also campaigns for the victims of political repression to receive compensation from the state.

2. Social work for the victims of the Soviet regime and their relatives

Examples of Memorial's work in this area include the organisation of meetings, care for the elderly, and medical help for victims; provision of care for people who have been raised in KGB children's homes, because their fathers had been shot as alleged traitors and their mothers detained; and helping victims to enforce their rights under the act on the rehabilitation of the politically prosecuted.

This act is presently under review, and the "moral responsibility of the Russian state" for the Soviet crimes, which Memorial had helped to include in the law when it was enacted in 1993, will probably be deleted. They are now trying to prevent this. There is also currently a proposal that the special benefits granted to the politically prosecuted (like free use of public transport etc.) should be replaced by direct payments. Memorial has calculated that these would be worth less than the benefits and is campaigning to maintain the benefits.

3. Human rights work in present-day Russia

Memorial monitors the situation in so-called 'hot spots' of actual or potential conflict and human rights abuse - Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Turkmenia, Moldavia, Crimea (Ukraine) and, in Russia, North Ossetia, Krasnodar region, and Ingushetia. Since 1994 Memorial's main focus for this work has been Chechnya. 

Memorial also generally monitors 'contemporary political repression' in the former territories of USSR, analyses and seeks judicial assistance for displaced people in Russia and works for equal rights for national minorities in several regions in Russia. Specific examples of Memorial's work in this area include giving legal assistance and lobbying support on behalf of refugees from Chechnya and from 'older' conflict regions like Armenia and Azerbaijan or Afghanistan (from the time after the Russian invasion); and publishing reports of, and campaigning against human rights violations in Russia, especially in Chechnya. They have five offices in and around Chechnya, with four offices in Grosny, and publish a monthly web documentation about the disappeared and about 'cleansings' that have taken place.

There are three different units of about the same size in Memorial for these three different fields. Some staff members are very much specialised in one field, e.g. historians working with the documentary work. However, as much of the work is project based, there is some internal fluctuation of staff, when a project in one field is running out and another one starting in another field.

The rationale that links these three different work areas of Memorial is that the documentation of past violations of human rights is connected with the present human rights situation, because historical knowledge is needed to sensitise people for present and future abuses, and to understand present conflicts better. They have all along kept the three fields together in one organization rather than separating them, because they view the connection of the three aspects as their specific strength. In the public perception, Memorial is mainly known for their present-day human rights work.

Memorial's work can be dangerous. Its office in Petersburg was attacked in 2003 and 2004. In 2004, the Memorial member and expert on minority rights, Prof. Girenko, was shot dead in his flat in Petersburg, probably by a right wing group. He had given testimony in cases against right wing extremists. Natalya Estemirova, board member of Memorial, was murdered on July 15th 2009. She was working on questions of human rights abuses in Chechnya. Russian police detained Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial, after street protests for citizens' rights in Moscow in January 2010. There have also been repeated anonymous threats on the life of Wladimir Schnittke, head of Memorial Petersburg.

In April 2002, Memorial received the Lew-Kopelew-Award for peace and human rights in Cologne, and in June 2003 Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the legal network at Memorial and works with legal advice to refugees and displaced persons, received a human rights prize from the German Amnesty section. In 2004 Memorial's Human Rights Centre received the UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award for helping "dozens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons". In June 2004 Memorial received the National Endowment for Democracy Award in Washington DC.


Acceptance Speech by Elena Zhemkova

December 9th, 2004

Ladies and gentlemen, 

To begin with, on behalf of the International Historical, Educational, Human Rights and Charitable Society Memorial I would like to thank the people who nominated us for this award and those who deemed us worthy of it. We are well aware of the role that this award plays in the world of civil initiatives, and we are proud that our organization has been bestowed with the highest award in this field.

We in Memorial are particularly gratified by the words explaining why we have been honoured. The jury states that "history must be recorded and understood, and human rights respected everywhere, if sustainable solutions to the legacy of the past are to be achieved." This statement reflects the main principles underlying Memorial's work.

Memorial began 15 years ago as an organization devoted to history education. It was a fellowship of people committed to rethinking our country's recent past, the past that has imprinted the word GULAG on humankind's consciousness. In those days we believed, and we continue to believe, that without an honest and consistent analysis of the history of the Soviet state terror, Russia will have neither a present nor a future.

However, at a time when Russia was making a painful break from its totalitarian past, Memorial decided that it could not limit its activities to purely historical studies. We could not remain indifferent to repeated relapses into totalitarian policies. Therefore, we in Memorial began our struggle against the violations of human rights soon after our organization was established.

As a matter of principle, we view these two aspects of our work - the struggle to establish historical truth and the fight for observance of human rights today - as an organic whole. The primary source of this unity is a fundamental adherence to the rule of law.

On the one hand, the language of law offers us a new approach to tragedies of the past, such as the Stalinist terror, allowing us to understand it as part of an integrated policy aimed at the consistent suppression of individual rights and freedoms.

On the other hand, we view the violations of human rights that occur daily, even hourly, in Russia today as consequences of history, consequences of imperial and totalitarian thinking which has not yet been relegated to the past.

These relapses include the attempts to establish state control over the mass media, business, and independent political and nongovernmental institutions. They include the secrecy mania that has already victimized several Russian journalists, environmentalists and scientists. And they certainly include the authorities' tireless construction of political mechanisms for so-called "managed democracy."

However, the focal point of everything that has been happening in present-day Russia is Chechnya. Let me remind you that the first war in Chechnya began ten years ago - at this very time of year.

The historians and human rights activists who work in Memorial have the same approach to work. Both groups collect, verify, systematize and analyze facts, and then present them to the public.

This uniform approach underlies many aspects of our work: protecting the rights of ethnic minorities who suffer discrimination; the rights of refugees; the rights of the former victims of political repression; and educational projects with students and teachers.

It also underlies the work we do in Chechnya and other "hot spots" across the former USSR, as well as our work in historical archives, which also remain "hot spots" for us because access to them is restricted.

The idea of human rights is the foundation of all our activities. It does not claim to be a new universal religion or ideology. It is simply a system of coordinates that can help us all to find our way -- both through the tragic labyrinths of the past and the rapidly changing world of the present, which is becoming increasingly dangerous and anti-human. The phrase "gross and blatant violations of human rights in the past and present," which Memorial often uses when referring to its human rights and historical activities, is not the symbol of faith but a statement of the values to which we appeal in our everyday work.

Of course, I have not forgotten that the award, which we receive today, is often called "the Alternative Nobel Prize." This means that we are being honoured not simply as a Russian organization, and not even as an organization that works only with the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present. And this is correct.

The spirit of our work is the fight for truth and law. Attempts to comprehend the past and to find answers to present-day challenges are indispensable elements of this fight. The tragic past that we are trying to rethink and understand is our common past. Because the catastrophes of the twentieth century - such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Kolyma, the Gulag labour camp in the far north of Russia - belong to the entire world, not only individual peoples or countries. If we - all of us - could have comprehended them, we might have clearer answers to the challenges of the twenty-first century, to New York 9/11 and the attack on the school in Beslan. These challenges, too, concern all of humankind, not the USA and Russia alone. Furthermore, they concern the same values: freedom, dignity and the independence of the individual.

Our work with the past and the present is not limited to any particular historical period. It is ongoing work.

The phrase "unity of the past and present for the sake of the future" will be increasingly important to all those who are and will be involved in this work. The idea of a deep, inherent bond between historical memory and present-day human rights advocacy will become increasingly clear to everyone.

Thank you.


FAQ about Memorial

asked in 2005, answered by Elena Zhemkova

1. How do Russian people regard the history of their country and your part in revealing its darkest sides?

The Russian society is divided. One part regards Stalin as one of the most important statesmen of the 20th century. According to the latest surveys these are 25-30 per cent of the population. The same people think that the collapse of the Soviet Union is a huge catastrophe. This is a position that was publicly taken up by President Putin recently. But there is another part of Russia, those who regard Stalin as a criminal und who appreciate the Soviet Union's collapse. It depends on which group a person belongs to - either he supports us or he dismisses what we do.

2. How have your working conditions changed since you started?

Memorial has existed for more than 17 years. On the one hand, we have become a more professional and effective organisation. The public heeds our opinion. On the other hand, especially democratic and constitutional values and ideals are suppressed in Russia. Memorial is said to propagate western values and to look for only the dark spots of our past. Concerning our work for human rights in Chechnya we are called traitors to our fatherland, and of course this has made our work harder in recent years.

3. What kind of people work for and support Memorial?

Basically, Memorial gets support from well-educated people - teachers, doctors and lawyers. Among them are many people who - or whose relatives - experienced the GULAG themselves. Thanks to our six year long work with pupils there are now many pupils and students among our activists.

4. What effect has the Right Livelihood Award had on your work?

In our present difficult situation, the reception of the Right Livelihood Award was again perceived as a confirmation that Memorial is a voice of the West and that we propagate western and thus foreign values in Russia. At the same time, the prize and the associated international attention are a real protection against the oppression and prosecution by the state.

5.  What do you do if someone is looking for documents or the grave of his/her repressed father (mother/brother/sister/grandfather etc.)? 

We carefully consider each single case, search for documents and graves. Often the search takes several months, sometimes years. We often help and find answers to the people's questions. We now have more than 1,300,000 names of politically prosecuted people in our database. 

6. Why does Memorial criticize so often and so hard the Russian government? Maybe Memorial should restrict itself to dealing with the past and not deal with present human rights abuses?

Memorial's activists are convinced that past and future are inseparable. Our history is not the history of the state, but the history of the people. Often this is a history of human rights abuses. Thus, when we work with history, we learn about human rights. And then there will be less human rights abuses today. We have to feel the responsibility for both history and today.



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