MOSCOW — The yellowing notebooks, manuscripts and letters of the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov have been packed up into boxes and cases, stacked in a pile in his old apartment, their future uncertain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wartime purge of liberals and human rights activists has forced the Sakharov Center, a museum and cultural space in Moscow, to close as the Kremlin rips up the legacy of rights defenders like Sakharov, who died in 1989, and destroys organizations dedicated to justice and freedom.
The center held its final public event last month and now has until the end of April to dismantle its museum exhibition focused on the repressions of the Soviet gulag, and to remove the dissident’s archives and his bust.
A snowy path sloping to the center on Zemlyanoy Val Street in Moscow’s Tagansky district speaks to the mood of intolerance and nationalism sweeping Russia. The signpost for the center is invisible, covered with ugly gray scrawl.
On its door, the museum, once a destination of school excursions, was forced to post an 18+ warning sign, like a sex shop. As Russian authorities tighten their grip, these petty demands are often a warning that a more crushing moment is near.
Putin’s inner circle of ex-KGB officers and security officials has buttressed the fight in Ukraine through a war on history and memory, with laws controlling how people can speak about the past, in particular World War II.
Liberal historians are suspect — regarded as outsiders alongside activists, human rights lawyers and antiwar protesters. Criticism of the military is now a crime. Art exhibits are supposed to reflect patriotic, nationalist values.
Sakharov, a physicist turned dissident, condemned the “hypocrisy, corruption, crime, influence-peddling and inertia” of the Soviet Union. The ideals he campaigned for, “peace, progress and human rights,” seem to have no place in modern Russia.
Organizations that worked for decades to expose Soviet and Russian crimes against citizens are being persecuted, or forced out of existence, including the Sakharov Center; the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was Russia’s oldest human rights group; and the rights organization Sakharov co-founded, Memorial, which shared last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
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Vyacheslav Bakhmin, chairman of the Sakharov Center board and co-chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was closed by authorities in January, has no idea where the center will house its museum collection and the archives.
The center was informed in January that it was being evicted by its landlord, the city of Moscow, after a December law barred state bodies from assisting entities designated as “foreign agents.”
Bakhmin, 75, who spent four years as Soviet political prisoner in the early 1980s, says fear in Russia is now greater than it was then. “Fear is growing, and people are really afraid of saying something dangerous, so as to at least to keep their family, their life, their freedom,” he said. “We see it in everyday life. Any free opinion about the situation in the country is punished if you say some incorrect words. Thousands of people have been punished just for liking posts on social media.”
Laws are enforced arbitrarily, deepening uncertainty and fear. One person may be fined or jailed for 15 days for describing abuses by Russia’s military in Ukraine. Others face much worse.
Journalist Maria Ponomarenko was sentenced on Feb. 15 to six years in prison for posting about Russia’s March 2022 bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theater in Ukraine. Student Olesya Krivtsova, 19, charged with “justifying terrorism” over antiwar posts on social media, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Kremlin critics face harsher penalties. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition activist and Washington Post opinions contributor, could serve 24 years, if convicted of “high treason,” for condemning the war. Ousted Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal, who defeated a Kremlin candidate in a 2018 election, received a 22-year sentence in February for attempted murder and ordering killings, charges he rejects as politically motivated.
More than 19,500 people have been arrested for taking part in protests in Russia since the invasion, according to rights group OVD-Info, and more than 6,000 people have been charged with discrediting the media, according to independent outlet Mediazona.
“Our museum is the only one that describes the history of the U.S.S.R. as the history of a totalitarian state,” said Sergei Lukashevsky, the director of the Sakharov Center, who left Russia after the Ukraine invasion, fearing arrest, and is now based in Berlin.
Lukashevsky said Putin’s regime was obsessed with its own militarized version of history and victories in past wars, central to its ideology of Russian power. “The main idea of the regime is that a strong state is more important than a person or their dignity,” he said.
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The KGB saw Sakharov as one of the nation’s most dangerous internal enemies. In 1980, he was exiled to the city of Gorky for nearly seven years for criticizing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
As the Soviet Union opened up in the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev, Sakharov was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies in the first partially free elections in 1989. Thousands of letters from desperate citizens poured in to him from across Russia, complaining of Soviet abuse of its citizens, and are now part of the center’s archives.
One, signed I. Parfyonov in September 1989, said, “There is nobody else I can share my pain with,” and railed at the “hangmen and executioners” of the KGB. Another, by Viktor Gubanov, complained that the KGB forced him to spy on a citizen named Gridasov, who was falsely imprisoned in a psychiatric institution “to punish him for his beliefs, which he openly expressed.”
The Putin regime’s crackdown is overturning decades of work by Russian civil society to expose past and present abuses. As the Kremlin glorifies past military victories, it is also minimizing the horrors of the Soviet gulag system and mass executions.
“You’re deprived of your own history,” Bakhmin said. “History is rewritten.” He added: “We have the past as justification for the president, so the past should be solid and untouchable, to justify what you’re doing now,” he added. “And any other approach to history is forbidden.”
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When it comes to Russia’s history, it is not only organizations like the Sakharov Center facing problems.
The regime’s tightening control has made it harder for Russians seeking access to files of forebears falsely executed by the Soviet regime, said Marina Agaltsova, a human rights lawyer with Memorial, which was abolished by Russian authorities last year.
The FSB, successor to the KGB, controls most of the archives and seems to fear Russians “digging dirt,” even into cases more than 80 years old, Agaltsova said. “Russia sees itself as the successor to the U.S.S.R., so it does not want the crimes of the Soviet Union to be seen,” she said. “Russia sees itself as a great power, and heroes don’t commit mistakes.”
The Sakharov Center hosted 500 events a year focused on human rights, democracy and freedom. Bakhmin said the center would continue its work “in these very limited circumstances,” but could not function as before.
Sakharov’s death of a heart attack in 1989 meant he never saw Russia free, but he inspired its modern rights movement. Lukashevsky said he places his hope in millions of young Russians accustomed to relative freedom who will outlive Russia’s aging rulers. “They will want to change their country,” he said, “and turn it to openness and freedom.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.