Memorial is the Russian non-governmental organization that received, together with Belarusian Ales Bialiatski, founder of the organization for democracy Viasna, and the Ukrainian group Center for Civil Liberties, the Nobel Peace Prize 2022. Boris Belenkin is the director of Memorial and has been part of it since the day of its establishment.
The organization is the oldest and most prestigious NGO in Russia and was founded in 1989, among others, by Andrej Sakharov, noble father of Russian dissidence, also Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1975.
Memorial was created to defend human rights and to preserve the memory of the victims of political repression in the USSR. Over the years, he has created a valuable archive documenting the period of Stalin's Great Terror and the gulag system. Commemoration of the past for Memorial has always been linked to the struggle for human rights in the present.
The last two, for the Russian organization, have been terrible years. At the end of 2021, Memorial was closed because it was found guilty of Russia's controversial foreign agent law. The NGO continued its activities only thanks to the appeal presented by its lawyers. Last October, just when news of the Nobel Peace Prize received arrived from Oslo, the Moscow judges ordered the seizure of his offices, canceling the transfer of ownership between the two companies that administer the organization. For the director of Memorial, Boris Belenkin, it was time to leave the country.
Question: Mr. Belenkin, how does it live as an exile?
Boris Belenkin: Now I live in the Czech Republic in good conditions but like anyone who has been forced to leave their homeland, surely the main emotion is insecurity and anxiety about the future. So, as for all those who left like me, we live days of uncertainty, our destiny cannot be clear, it cannot be precisely defined.
Q: How many months have you been out of Russia, why did you leave, did you risk something to stay?
Belenkin: I left at the beginning of October, if I had stayed I think I would have run the risk of being prosecuted both politically and
Q: Were you afraid of being arrested?
Belenkin: Two or three weeks before I left my bank accounts were blocked by the government, even if only
temporarily, then they were unblocked. I thought that this was the first step, a first warning that would lead to
my criminal prosecution. I left the day after a court session in which the government canceled the transfer of ownership of
the building that houses the Memorial offices, between two companies that administer it. With that court decision the government seized our property, a property in the center of Moscow and also a sum of money
belonging to the
organization, a not huge but important amount. And I can only reiterate that there was no
legal justification for this kidnapping.
Q: Are the Memorial archives at risk now?
Belenkin: The documents, our entire collection, have not been seized for now we can only hope that his fate is not
at risk. I can tell you an anecdote: at the news of the Nobel, by a strange coincidence we were in court for the seizure of the property and as soon as we received the news of the Nobel our mood became joyful and festive, despite the monstrous decision
of the judge. We saw that they were looking at us and then between judges and clerks they began to mumble something
passing a smartphone, we were not told anything but we understood that they knew.
Q: Mr. Belenkin, you are one of the faces of Russian dissidence. We haven't heard about protests in Russia for months, what happened to the dissidents?
Belenkin: Surely a large number of people, a part of the intelligentsia in the last year has left, moreover people who have spoken out against the war in the streets or even just on social media
have been heavily fined or arrested. Over time
, criminal trials began to be opened against them. The sentences in terms of years increase continuously, even in recent weeks in recent days, the terms of sentences are getting longer and longer as in
Stalin's time. In short, this is no
longer the time of protests but of condemnations for previous protests.
Q: After more than a year of war and so many losses among Russians, are the people still with Putin?
Belenkin: To my great regret there is still a consensus for Putin and his circle right now, I've been out for
a few months and it's hard to quantify, but I think a good half of the population is still with him.
Q: Mr. Belenkin, Stalin you knew him as a scholar, Putin as a citizen. They are the longest-serving leaders since the Russian Revolution. What is the relationship between the two?
Belenkin: The common traits are that Stalin in his tyranny was inspired by dictators of the past like Tsar Ivan the Terrible while
Putin is based on many things, but above all he is inspired by the repressions, actions and propaganda practiced by Stalin. The Putin regime
then, we must not avoid the term, has significant elements of the fascism of the European dictatorships of Salazar, Franco and to a lesser
extent of Mussolini and Hitler. To simplify, we can define an authoritarian police regime. Its characteristic is gradualness: repressions
gradually intensify, laws against those who protest gradually become harsher, always very
gradually. It is a transformation that has lasted for more than twenty years, unlike what happened in other fascist authoritarian regimes.
Q: In Italy there is a lot of talk about peace negotiations, are there in your opinion concrete hopes of bringing the two parties in conflict to a table for peace?
Belenkin: I think that today we cannot have hopes of peace negotiations, because there are two
sides of the conflict and both sides must be ready but I think neither side is. In all wars, for peace negotiations to be reached,
there must be a sensitive, significant victory of one of the two sides. And even for this war, to bring Putin to real
negotiations it will take a victory of one of the two contenders.
Q: We know that you have spent many years cataloguing the documents that represent the great tragedy that the gulags were in Russia. What would you put in the Memorial archive about present-day Russia?
Belenkin: In a possible future catalog I would definitely put the stories and interviews of those who are in Putin's prisons and labor camps
and also the video testimonies of the Ukrainians who suffered the invasion. We have some of our colleagues in Ukraine, a human rights group, which is already collecting this material made up of
Memorial is already beginning to publish.