Russia's move to shut down the country's top human rights group Memorial shows that the Kremlin has taken a "sharp" dictatorial turn, one of its founding members told AFP.
Prosecutors last week filed a demand to dissolve the group over legal violations, sending shock waves across Russia's rights circles.
Memorial is the country's oldest rights group, founded in the twilight of the Soviet Union in 1989 by a group including Nobel peace laureate and famed dissident Andrei Sakharov.
Its task was to uncover and document crimes committed by Soviet authorities. The fact that it could cease to exist as Russia marks 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union underscores the changes in the country since the heady days of perestroika and glastnost.
"The situation is degrading sharply, the dictatorship is becoming more repressive," historian Irina Shcherbakova, one of Memorial's founding members, told AFP.
"And it is so openly repressive – that was somewhat unexpected," the 72-year-old added.
A symbol of Russia's democratisation in the 1990s, Memorial has created a huge archive of Soviet-era crimes. The group also campaigns for human rights in the country, especially in the volatile North Caucasus region.
The announcement that prosecutors wanted to shut took Memorial by surprise, Shcherbakova said.
Prosecutors have accused the group – designated by authorities as a "foreign agent" – of repeatedly violating Russian law.
They say Memorial's Human Rights Centre had justified "terrorism and extremism" by publishing a list of people it says are political prisoners, including members of banned Islamist and Christian groups such as Hizb Ut-Tahrir and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The pressure on Memorial comes amid an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition and independent media, with authorities imprisoning top opposition politician Alexei Navalny earlier this year.
'A signal to the West'
Shcherbakova said that while Memorial had expected "many unpleasant things" amid a media campaign against it, the group was surprised by how quickly the authorities were moving. The aim, she said, is to silence and frighten people.
"They are ready to use any force, and show that people have no defence and no rights," she said.
By shutting down the group, Moscow would send a "signal" to the West.
"It's a show to the West: no matter what you shout about, we will do whatever we want with our civil society," she said.
According to the historian, Memorial has been receiving "constant phone calls" and letters of support from people since the surprise move.
The Russian Supreme Court will consider the dissolution of the group on November 25.
But Shcherbakova fears that the decision over its future "has already been made."
Documenting Soviet and Chechnya crimes
Since its creation, Memorial has tirelessly documented the crimes Soviet authorities committed against their people. It has collected thousands of testimonies for its archives.
The NGO has also fought for human rights in modern Russia, investigating abuses committed by Moscow and pro-Kremlin forces during the Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Memorial has also documented torture and extra-judicial killings in Chechnya, ruled by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
In 2009, its Caucasus representative Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped and killed for her work.
More recently, one of its historians uncovering Stalinist crimes – Yury Dmitriyev – was sentenced to 13 years in prison on controversial child sex charges.
The group insist he is being targeted for his work of exposing the horrors of the Soviet era.
'You can die today, I'll die tomorrow'
Despite growing repression and widespread apathy, Shcherbakova said Memorial must "fight on."
"The truth is on our side," she said.
She also sees hope in the fact that many archives on Soviet repression are available online, and "impossible" to destroy.
"The situation is not like in the 1970s, when people had no information," she said.
But the historian fears public opinion will turn against the group, under the influence of Kremlin-controlled media that glorifies the Soviet past while ignoring its victims.
The "terrible legacy" of the Stalinist dictatorship has led to widespread "individualism and cynicism" in modern Russia, she said.
She cites Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for his novels on the Soviet Gulag, to explain Russian indifference in the face of repression: "You can die today, I'll die tomorrow."
by Romain Colas, AFP