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 a civil society organisation in Russia. Founded in 1989, Memorial has many branches and unites a vast number of organisations across Russia and Ukraine, Poland and several other countries. Its first leader was the prominent peace and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov.
One of Memorial’s central missions is 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 has built an enormous network of archives specialized in historical research into totalitarian repression that is open to the public. It has been deeply engaged in creating a historical memory of the crimes committed by the Soviet regime.
Memorial has, among many things, published the so-called Stalin Lists, with the names of 44,000 people executed on the personal order of Stalin. Memorial also monitors the current human rights situation in ‘hot spots’ such as Crimea, North Ossetia and Chechnya. Owing to its important work documenting human rights abuses, Memorial has repeatedly been subject to alarming attacks, both to their offices and staff, particularly in the North Caucasus region.
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 the 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 is open to the public. This work is coordinated by the Moscow-based 'Scientific-Informational and Enlightenment Center, Memorial', which has 75,000 documents, thousands of 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 a vast number of stories about some of the about 1.3 million people of 120 ethnic origins born in all areas of the Soviet Union, who were killed by the regime.
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.
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 the 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.
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. In public perception, Memorial is mainly known for its 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.