“Of course it is very difficult,” Elena Zhemkova told AFP in an interview, emphasizing that there had never been a question about whether or not to continue working.
“We will continue with our work.”
Memorial, which this year shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties and detained Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski, is the largest rights organization in Russia.
Zhemkova said the Oct. 7 announcement in honor of the controversial organization she co-founded in 1989 with Andrei Sakharov – himself the winner of the 1975 Peace Prize – came as a complete surprise.
The 61-year-old described being in a taxi on her way to an exhibition when a colleague called and said something had happened and told her to “watch the news”.
Dreaded ‘atomic bomb’
“I couldn’t imagine we were talking about such a big prize,” she said, adding that she was afraid that “something very bad had happened”.
“I really thought it was an atomic bomb.”
Realizing that Memorial had instead won the world’s most prestigious peace award, she said she was “very happy”, especially to share it with human rights watchdogs from the two other countries that were at the center of the Moscow war in Ukraine. .
This “emphasizes that civil society people from different countries can and should fight against evil together,” she said.
The Russian authorities, meanwhile, seemed less than happy with Memorial’s victory.
The organization, which has spent decades preserving the memory of those who died in the gulags of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, while also gathering information about the ongoing political repression in Russia, has faced a growing proliferation in recent years. to manhandle.
Last December, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered Memorial to be dissolved, and just hours after the Nobel Committee’s announcement on October 7, a court in Moscow ordered the headquarters’ seizure.
“We received the news about the Nobel Prize and unfortunately our house was taken from us that day,” Zhemkova said.
“So this is the response of the Russian government.”
But despite the challenges, she insisted that “we must and can continue our work”.
Last week, Memorial in Moscow was banned from holding its annual tribute to Stalin’s victims, known as the “Returning the Names” ceremony.
But Zhemkova pointed out that the marathon reading of the names of the dead under Stalin’s regime had still taken place in 22 countries and 77 cities.
“They can’t stop our work,” she said.
Also in Russia, she said Memorial continued to open exhibitions, organize excursions and “defend people’s rights in court”.
The Nobel Prize, she said, was helpful “because it is a very important sign of support”.
Zhemkova, who was in Geneva to hold the annual Kofi Annan Peace Address, acknowledged that she and other Memorial members fear for their safety in Russia.
“There is a massive persecution of people and institutions who oppose the official position,” she said.
“Of course we’re afraid… We’re ordinary people.”
“We’re not heroes,” she insisted, “but we’re trying to take small steps of courage.”
In addition to the security risks they face, Zhemkova said she and many of her colleagues are the targets of “illegitimate and complicated criminal cases.”
The Memorial chief is currently staying away from Russia, but complained she shouldn’t.
“I respect all rules. I have not broken any laws, I am doing lawful work,” she said.
But, she added: “I am against the war, and at this point (that is) enough to open a criminal investigation against you.”
Asked about her opinion on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions, Zhemkova insisted, “I’m not thinking about Putin. I’m not interested in him at all.”
“I think about how many generations of Russians will have to pay for what he has done.”