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Russia's Supreme Court shuts down human rights group that preserved history

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For three decades, the Russian human rights group Memorial has tried to preserve the story of the Soviet Union's darkest years. Today, Russia's Supreme Court ordered the group to shut down for allegedly violating a so-called foreign agents law. As NPR's Charles Maynes reports, the decision is about much more.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: The human rights group Memorial emerged out of a push for new freedoms in the final years of the Soviet Union. Founded by the Nobel laureate and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, Memorial sought to document Stalinist-era repressions and preserve the memory and experiences of the millions of Soviets who vanished in the labor camps called the gulag.

ADELE DIKHTYACH: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: For Adele Dikhtyach, that meant finally learning the fate of family members whose names her parents feared to even mention.

DIKHTYACH: (Through interpreter) For years, my mother and grandmother waited for news about their sons and their sons' wives and their broken fates. And it was only thanks to Memorial that their stories were finally resurrected.

MAYNES: Now 83 years old, Dikhtyach, waited outside Russia's Supreme Court today while inside...

UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: The judge ordered Memorial liquidated for failing to meet reporting requirements under a foreign agents law. The state insists the law enables the public to know which groups receive foreign funding to carry out so-called political activities. Memorial and supporters argue the group is being targeted as part of a wider attempt by President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin to redefine Soviet history itself. In the courtroom, state prosecutors argued Memorial's work created a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state. Do we, the offspring of victors, have to repent and be embarrassed, asked prosecutors, instead of being proud of our glorious past?

In the basement of Memorial's office in Moscow, a vast archive tells a more complicated story.

VASILY STAROSTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Among the dusty letters and documents from gulag victims, memorial volunteer Vasily Starostin says these darker chapters of history don't negate Soviet triumphs, but they do hit a raw nerve among supporters and opponents alike.

STAROSTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "This nerve brings pain to us all," says Starostin. "But Memorial is not the reason the pain exists in the first place." Meanwhile, a separate trial still ongoing targets Memorial's human rights wing for allegedly promoting terrorism through a published list it keeps of current-day political prisoners.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Back at the courthouse, as police try to clear supporters, Memorial researcher Anna Margolis says today's ruling will do little to stop Russians' fundamental desire to know the truth.

ANNA MARGOLIS: They can formally liquidate the organization. But we're not here because there is some kind of law for us to be there. We're there because that's the work we feel that has to be done.

DIKHTYACH: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: For 83-year-old Adele Dikhtyach, that work includes not only preserving the memory of those who died but working to heal wounds of a country still traumatized by its history.

DIKHTYACH: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "To not remember, to not talk about what happened," she says, "means to allow the possibility the worst could happen again."

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.