MOSCOW (Reuters) – It may have been one of the highest accolades that the international community can bestow, but to the human rights defenders of Russia’s Memorial, the Nobel Peace Prize was above all a reminder of continued struggle and sacrifice.
“I want this award to help somehow,” said Yan Rachinsky, head of the Memorial Human Rights Centre. “But in any case – it indicates priorities.”
He was not holding a celebratory news conference but instead trying to make himself heard on a noisy Moscow street after a court hearing in Memorial’s latest one-sided battle with Russian authorities, who want to seize its vast and unique archive of records of historical and contemporary state repression.
He noted that one of Memorial’s founders, the late dissident and nuclear physicist Andrey Sakharov, had received the Peace Prize while campaigning against Soviet repression, activities for which he was later banished into internal exile.
“It didn’t help Sakharov,” he said.
The Memorial Human Rights Centre, with a contemporary brief, and its sister Memorial International, dedicated to documenting political repression in the communist Soviet Union and helping rehabilitate its victims, are both banned in Russia and officially dissolved under a decades-long campaign to silence political dissent.
“We are continuing our work defending human rights. It hasn’t stopped, it goes on,” Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial International, told the handful of assembled reporters, most of them foreign.
Asked if the award would somehow help to reduce the pressure from officialdom, he replied: “I fear not.”
Orlov listed a series of imprisoned opposition figures, starting with leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, as well as the anti-war movement Vesna (Spring) that has been illegally organising unsanctioned protests against Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.
“I think they’re more worthy of this award than we are,” he said, also remembering the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated in 2006 after reporting on the horrors of President Vladimir Putin’s second war against Chechen rebels.
“We regard this award as a tribute to the entire Russian human rights community,” Orlov said, suggesting that Moscow’s treatment of human rights was far from a purely domestic concern.
“When one country crushes human rights,” he said, “that country becomes a threat to the world.”
(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Jonathan Oatis)