11 July 2023

Weaponizing Russia’s Memory Law

On Russia’s Mnemonic Dissidents

On June 26, 2023, the Regional Branch of the Investigative Committee of Russia initiated a criminal investigation against Mikhail Belousov, a historian based in Saint Petersburg, for ‘rehabilitating Nazism’. According to the investigation, Mr Belousov stated during a meeting with students that “there is some evidence that some topics related to WW2 are being distorted, however, it is forbidden to discuss the matter as it is punishable by the law.” This statement was enough to charge the historian with violating Article 354.1 of the Criminal Code, which forbids rehabilitation of Nazism. A few weeks prior, Mr Belousov was dismissed from his teaching position at the Saint Petersburg University for criticizing Russia’s war against Ukraine. The criminal investigation followed a dispute between Mr. Belousov and the university administration.

The above example shows how Russia is using its “memory law” to put pressure on potential critics of the Russian attack on Ukraine. In this way, the laws are used to create a mood of paranoia and fear among the population, and a feeling as if the country were in a besieged fortress.

The Anti-War Dissent Legislation in Russia

In March 2022, Russia’s parliament adopted amendments to the country’s criminal and administrative offences codes to crack down on anti-war protests. These new amendments introduced liability for discrediting the Russian armed forces (Article 280.3 of the Criminal Code), spreading ‘fakes’ about the army (Article 207.3), calling for sanctions against  Russia (20.3.4 of the Administrative Offences Code and 284.2 of the Criminal Code), and public actions aimed at discrediting the army (20.3.3 of the Administrative Offences Code).

In April 2022, the parliament enacted a historical memory-related provision that banned comparisons between the actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during WW2. The provision also punished the denial of the ‘decisive role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the humanitarian mission of the USSR during the liberation of European countries’ (13.48 of the Administrative Offences Code). This new historical memory law was not unique to Russian legislation. In 2014, following the first Russian intrusion into Ukraine, the notorious Article 354.1 was introduced to the criminal code to punish ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’. However, in the Russian context, this article was for the most part used not against neo-Nazi historical speech (as one could expect drawing from the example of bans on Holocaust denial throughout Europe), but rather to shield interpretations of WW2 that deny Soviet involvement in the outbreak of war in 1939. As such, the 2014 amendment was seen as a tool of Vladimir Putin’s memory politics to glorify Russian-Soviet WW2 experiences.

Since spring 2022, the crackdown on anti-war dissenters has been severe. According to human rights monitoring outlet OVD-Info, as of July 2023, 620 people have been indicted on one or more of the aforementioned punitive articles in 78 regions of Russia, including Crimea and Sevastopol, which were illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. The majority of cases concern discrediting or spreading ‘fakes’ about the Russian army (178 and 94 cases respectively). 81 persons have been sentenced to imprisonment so far. The context of the cases and the severity of punishment are sometimes truly Orwellian.

Some people are being prosecuted under several articles of the Criminal Code simultaneously. Often, anti-war dissenters are prosecuted on unrelated grounds. In such cases, the context of the case usually provides evidence of anti-war activism. For example, there is a case involving a Belgorod resident who was charged with vandalism, and numerous cases of individuals being persecuted for using violence against representatives of authorities during anti-war rallies in spring. Additionally, some data about the context of cases may be missing, complicating data collection for human rights monitoring purposes.

While most criminal prosecution of anti-war dissent relates to the execution of laws enacted in spring 2022, the potential of Russia’s memory laws should not be overlooked. Since the beginning of 2023, there have been 23 criminal cases involving charges under Article 354.1. In May and June 2023 alone, 12 new criminal cases became known. The activation of this article points to a trend that the Russian regime may increasingly use it to purge anti-war dissent when it is laden with historical speech.

The Practice of Applying Article 354.1 in 2023

There are at least three current criminal cases involving Article 354.1, which is being used to prosecute anti-war dissent at the same time.  The authorities’ use of the rehabilitation of Nazism article suggests a deliberate prosecutorial strategy. The memory law is being used to add multiple charges against individuals, leading to more severe punishment or to prosecute for an anti-war (or probably also a pro-Ukraine) stance.

In late May 2023, a case was initiated under paragraph 2 of Article 354.1 against a local resident of the Orenburg region for allegedly spreading false information about the USSR’s activities during the Second World War. According to the SOVA Centre briefing, the accused had reposted information on social media claiming that the Soviet Union was co-responsible with Nazi Germany for the outbreak of WWII due to their joint partition of Poland in 1939. Another resident of Kransoyarsk was charged with spreading false information about the Russian army and exonerating Nazism. It is claimed the accused had posted on social media that ‘Stalin was as much of an aggressor as Hitler ’ and that the Russian armed forces were killing civilians and destroying cities in Ukraine (by having referred to the bombing of the theatre in the besieged Mariupol in April 2022).

In 2022, Oleg Orlov, one of the leaders of the Nobel Prize-winning “Memorial” organization, was fined for holding a poster at the Read Square in Moscow that read ‘USSR 1945 – the country that defeated fascism, Russia 2022 – the country of fascism that won’. Mr. Orlov was fined for discrediting the armed forces by drawing this historical parallel. Criminal charges followed soon. In March 2023, Mr. Orlov was charged with discrediting the Russian army for giving a critical comment about Russia’s war in Ukraine to a French newspaper. The “Memorial” organization itself, known for its anti-war stance, assistance to political prisoners, and documentation of human rights abuses in Russia, has come under pressure from the authorities. In 2021, it was dismembered as a legal entity by a Russian court. Since spring 2023, a criminal case has been ongoing against the organization. According to the Russian authorities, “Memorial” published the names of three individuals in its Register of Victims of Political Terror in USSR who may have collaborated with the Nazis during WWII. This was enough to initiate an investigation into rehabilitation of Nazism under Article 354.1.

Stirring a ‘Besieged Fortress’ Mentality in Russian society

The rehabilitation of Nazism article is a yet another tool of the Russian authorities to create fear and anxiety in society. While it is being used to crack down on anti-war dissenters, it also provides a (false) pretext of a legitimate societal cause for its application. However, current prosecutorial practices show that Russia’s memory laws, including Article 354.1, are not motivated by genuine societal concerns such as the rise of hate speech crimes. Instead, the legal provision has been used to punish anti-war dissent in Russia. While the cases involving Article 354.1 present a fraction of a larger number of cases to prosecute anti-war dissent, they provide an important insight in the operation of the criminal justice system and memory politics in Russia.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Nekoliak, Andrii; Klochkova, Elizaveta: Weaponizing Russia’s Memory Law: On Russia’s Mnemonic Dissidents, VerfBlog, 2023/7/11, https://verfassungsblog.de/weaponizing-russias-memory-law/, DOI: 10.17176/20230711-231203-0.

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