Gulag files seized during police raid on rights group

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Russia’s Constitutional Court, which recently transferred from Moscow at Vladimir Putin’s command, is lit more brightly than any other building on St Petersburg’s beautiful English Embankment at night.

At the offices of the leading human rights group Memorial, however, a daylight raid by masked men speaks of a darker Soviet tradition of state power. Police confiscated computer hard drives containing 20 years’ work documenting victims of Stalin’s Terror and political persecution in the Soviet Union.

Education programmes, human rights work and research on the still secret graves of an estimated 2.7 million Leningraders were all taken from the research and information centre. So too was material for one of Memorial’s most important and potentially most powerful projects - a “Virtual Museum of the Gulag”.

The Prosecutor’s Office in St Petersburg claimed that it was investigating links between Memorial and an article in Novy Peterburg, an obscure anti-semitic newspaper that was shut down a year ago. Staff at Memorial say that they have never had anything to do with this newspaper and are under no illusion that the allegation is simply a pretext to wreck their work.

Russia has no national Gulag Museum. Indeed, there has been no legal assessment of Soviet repression and none of the efforts to understand the past that countries like Germany and South Africa have pursued. The Virtual Gulag was to provide an important alternative to a growing cult of Stalinism, in which the dictator’s methods are gradually being justified again.

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