The International Memorial Society, known as Memorial, was set up in 1989 by dissidents — including renowned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov — during the final years of the Soviet Union. The group began documenting Soviet-era crimes such as Joseph Stalin’s “Great Terror,” and Soviet abuses in the gulag, a vast web of prison camps where political prisoners toiled and died, many of them executed on the basis of concocted evidence.

Jan Raczinski began working with Memorial shortly after it was founded. Since 2018 he has served as the organization’s Chairman. 

For more than 15 years Raczinski has served as director of a key project of Memorial, to assemble a single resource from the information scattered between the numerous Books of Remembrance compiled and published in Russia since the early 1990s. By 2016, its fifth edition, an online database entitled “Victims of Political Terror in the USSR”, contained the names of about three million victims of the Soviet regime: those who were deported, imprisoned or executed from 1918 onwards. 

Memorial’s human rights wing, Memorial Human Rights Center, focused on contemporary human rights abuses. It released a tally of the 419 political prisoners jailed in Russia several months ago, and it has helped more than 1,500 Russians take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to challenge rights abuses by Russian authorities.  Raczinsky has said that the number of people in jail on what he called fabricated political charges today is nearly as high as during the last years of the Soviet Union, before Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. 

In mid-November, 2021, the Supreme Court and the Moscow City Court brought charges against Memorial for violations of the 2012 “foreign agents” law, which require nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance, and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity, to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits. Memorial Human Rights Center was charged with “justifying terrorism and extremism.” 

In December, 2021, the Supreme Court ordered both groups abolished and liquidated. 

Raczinski insists that the group will find a way to continue its work. “You don’t defeat the memory of people’s grandfathers and great-grandfathers that easily,” he said.

Memorial was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, with Ukrainian human rights group Center for Civil Liberties, and Belarus political prisoner Ales Bialiatski. Raczynski told the BBC that he was ordered to turn down the prize by the Russian authorities.

Christiane Amanpour interview

Radio Free Europe: In Rare Interview, Gulag Historian Speaks From Jail About His Case And The Fate Of Memorial