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“The Russian Government Wants to Destroy our Reputation”

An interview with the human rights activist Robert Latypov

University & Society

In today’s Russia, remembrance of political dissidents in the Soviet Union is in danger of being forgotten or even being expediently defamed. State documents are not available for research and independent archives are being branded “foreign agents”. The human rights activist Robert Latypov, who is the head of the regional group of the NGO Memorial, had to flee from repression in Russia at the end of 2019. In an interview with up2date., he explains what the remembrance of political terror under Stalin’s government has to do with violation of human rights today.

Why does Putin’s Russian government have a problem with remembrance of Soviet Union dissidents?

In order to understand that you have to know that the regime critics and critical thinkers of the Soviet Union are very similar to the politically persecuted of today in the eyes of the Russian government. Only very few of the dissidents were anti-communists, they rather demanded system reforms and fought for the state-anchored rights of the USSR constitution to be implemented.

If we take a look at this part of history there are many similarities to today. The government is scared that thinking about dissidents will make today’s people fight for the rights promised to them by the Russian constitution.

The Memorial society – one of the most well-known NGOs in Russia – is particularly observed: On the one hand, we deal with the historical coming to terms with past injustices – mainly the mass repressions of the population under Stalin – and on the other hand, we document current violations of human rights.

What does the Russian general public think about the politically persecuted today?

An important difference to times of the Soviet Union is that those who wish to do so, can gather information on the politically persecuted in Russia. However, most people have no interest in doing so. They’re busy with their own problems. Many people follow state propaganda, are in agreement with its interpretation, and are of the opinion that it is right to go after political activists as terrorists.

Yet the topic of human rights and violation of rights is gaining significance and there are also activists who are dealing with it.

You were in exile at the University of Bremen between October 2019 and March 2020. What happened and why did you have to flee from Russia?

The civil-social work of Memorial, such as election monitoring, is a very uncomfortable topic for the authorities. Our work continually disrupted them – we had become used to that. In August 2019, everything took on a whole new dimension in Perm. Suddenly, it was all about damaging the reputation of our organization in public. The government implemented a special tactic: They invent a crime that is not reported by the police or the state prosecution but is rather “uncovered” by journalists. This leads to prejudgment by the media.

It started with us carrying out the summer exhibition “Rivers of Remembrance” to remote graves of Gulag victims in order to repair and care for them – which we have been doing each year for the past 20 years. Five volunteers from Lithuania took part in the last exhibition in August 2019 and we wanted clean up a graveyard with Russian and Lithuanian corpses from the former camp. All of a sudden, the police, the secret service, the forestry office, and other officials appeared and demanded that we leave the graveyard. We were initially questioned as witnesses of “unlawful forest work”. The fact that it was about remembering Lithuanian Gulag victims must have crossed a line: The relationship between Russia and the Baltic states is characterized by conflict and distrust.

First, our office space was searched and our technological devices were confiscated in October. A short time afterwards, a team from a state television channel stood in my office, confronted me, and stated that they had apparently found criminal material. They wanted to create an accusation of pedophilia. The situation was very serious. Another Memorial staff member, Juri Dmitrijev, has been in jail without a trial for three years now because of such an accusation. That is why I decided to leave Russia for a period of time. During the time that I was gone, the courts dealt with the accusation and stopped the proceedings. If I had stayed, it could have panned out like it did for my colleague. I am extremely happy and grateful that I have friends and supporters here at the Research Centre for Eastern European Studies at the University of Bremen. The FSO is still a safe harbor – that is very important.

What will you do now?

It is important that Memorial’s reputation is restored. We are not even thinking about stopping our work. Our goal is that people have more awareness for social development. Russia is my home country and I believe it is my calling to stop history from repeating itself.

About Memorial and FSO

Memorial is an international human rights organization with its headquarters in Moscow. It is the most well-known Russian NGO. The society stems from a large civil movement at the end of the Soviet era during the perestroika. The aim of the movement was to remember the victims of the communist regime. The main points of focus today comprise the historical coming to terms with political tyranny, the observance of human rights, and the social care of the survivors of the Soviet work camp systems (Gulag). The society has received several international prizes, one of which was the Right Livelihood Award (alternative Nobel Prize) in 2004.

Since its establishment in 1982, the FSO’S independent archive has had the goal of collecting and researching testimonies of critical thinking in Eastern Europe. Today, the archive holds a worldwide unique collection of more than 600 lifetime and posthumous bequests from former regime critics, human rights activists, authors, and artists from the former Soviet Union. Unique compilations of samizdat literature, flyers, and underground stamps from Poland and former Czechoslovakia have been comprised. Smaller collections also originate from the GDR and Hungary.

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