The raid on a leading historical research centre in St Petersburg is an attack on freedom of expression, writes historian Orlando Figes
Yesterday, on 3 December at 1 pm, a group of masked men from the Investigative Committee of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office forced their way with police truncheons into the St Petersburg offices of Memorial, a research and information centre, which for 20 years has pioneered the research of Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Union.
After a search, the men confiscated hard drives and CDs containing the entire archive of Memorial St Petersburg – databases of victims of repression in Leningrad, memoirs, recordings and transcripts of interviews, photographs and other documents about the history of the Gulag and the Soviet Terror from 1917 to the 1960s. This includes the entire collection of data for the Virtual Gulag Museum. The loss of this data would be catastrophic, not just for the organisation itself, but also for generations of researchers into this subject matter, Russian and foreign.
A spokesman for the investigative committee of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office said the search was part of an investigation of a criminal case involving the publication of an article inciting racial hatred in a local newspaper (Novy Peterburg) in June 2007. There is no evidence of any connection between Memorial and Novy Peterburg, or with the author of the article.
Further information, including a copy of the search warrant, which the man commanding the action seems to have issued to himself, and a link to the newspaper article in question can be found here.
The raid was clearly intended to intimidate Memorial, which has long been the target of political attacks by the Russian government.
Irina Flige, the head of St Petersburg Memorial, who was in Moscow at the time of the raid, has issued a complaint to the Prosecutor’s office about procedural irregularities during the raid. Memorial was denied access to lawyers, and no inventory of the confiscated information was compiled by the masked men who carried out the raid.
The research and information centre Memorial is an important centre of historical research, and a voice for tens of thousands of victims of repression in St Petersburg.
It is not connected to the human rights work of Memorial in Moscow, which has angered the Kremlin with its reports on Chechnya, though this attack may be a warning to the human rights organisation of Memorial.
The raid on Memorial in St Petersburg is a serious challenge to freedom of expression in Russia. It is part of a campaign to re-write Soviet history and rehabilitate the Stalinist regime.
Orlando Figes is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London