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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. The US and Russia seem to be able to work together when they need to, like on North Korea for example. But they're painfully at odds over human rights. Today the Obama Administration slapped financial sanctions and travel bans on 18 individuals, including senior Russian officials suspected of human rights violations. At the same time, the Russian government continues to crack down hard on non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, another move that's drawn sharp American criticism.
Natalia Antonova is acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She says the government has been conducting a series of raids against several NGOs.
Natalia Antonova: All this is connected, of course, to the perception that they are receiving foreign funds and maybe doing work to undermine the government.
Werman: So who has ordered these raids, and when you say raids, you're talking about the state police going into the offices of these NGOs?
Antonova: It's actually not the police in many cases. It's different branches of, I think, the Justice Ministry. Also I think, the FSB.
Werman: What's the FSB?
Antonova: FSB is the successor to the KGB, of course, the security services.
Werman: So has Vladimir Putin commented on this?
Antonova: Yes, he has. He was actually in Germany recently of course, and I think the comment that he made is that they are receiving huge amounts of money from abroad.
Werman: But some NGOs are Russian NGOs, aren't they?
Antonova: Well, yes, most of these NGOs, they're not registered as foreign agents. You know, Russia has a foreign agents law, which is actually, I think, similar to the foreign agents law in the United States. But a lot of these NGOs being raided and checked are not registered as foreign agents.
Werman: Now, I want to ask you about one NGO in particular, Memorial. They don't seem to have a heavy-handed human rights agenda. What do they actually do?
Antonova: Well, they want to focus on the victims of the past. When the Soviet Union fell, it was very hard to deal with this really, really painful Soviet past, and it wasn't really dealt with on many levels of society, not just talking about government. So Memorial does a lot of research into what happened, the purges and other events. Between the years of 1937 and 1938 a great deal of people in the Soviet Union were rounded up. Some of them were sent to the gulag, others were tortured and shot.
Werman: And Memorial is basically preserving the records of that period.
Antonova: Preserving the records and also researching. I mean, because so much information has only been made available recently, or has yet to be made available, so they have experts who will sift through all the documents.
Werman: They uncovered some new evidence about Stalin's role in 1930s purges.
Antonova: Yes, it's not brand new evidence, but they finally backed it up with a lot of documentation, lots of scans. They have released, I believe it's 357 execution lists that were personally signed by Stalin. And of course that's a big deal, because lots of people both in Russia and abroad believe that Stalin did not have this intensely personal role to play in the purges in 1937-38, that it was many different agents. But the fact is Stalin did have a personal role in this.
Werman: So these documents suggest that Stalin was personally ordering executions?
Antonova: It's not just Stalin. It's him and several key people that were working with him on this business of getting rid of undesirables.
Werman: SO, I mean, Memorial is an NGO that's helping Russians come to terms with their past. How can the government see that as a bad thing, and why would they raid them?
Antonova: Well, I think both Putin and Medvedev have spoken out against what happened under Stalin. I really don't think that anyone there thinks that what Memorial is doing is necessarily a bad thing, but I think there was just a plan to check most non-governmental organizations. And of course Memorial, while at the Kremlin I don't think anyone is really apologizing for the purges, you do have a lot people, especially older people, who are extremely reactionary when it comes to Stalin's memory. I mean, I have relatives, like elderly relatives of mine, who if you tell them, hey, Stalin was kind of a bad guy, they will react extremely defensively. You know, people can break down in tears, they get extremely angry. You have the Communist party in Russia, which is very popular. State Duma opposition party, they recently had this thing next to Stalin's grave on his anniversary and there were fiery speeches made about all the great work that this great man did. And these ideas, they have a lot of support in Russia among certain members of society. So of course to them, Memorial is controversial. And I really don't think that most people who are in power today think it's controversial for Memorial to do this, but they're an NGO, so automatically they get stuck with the same treatment as everyone else does.
Werman: Natalia Antonova, acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. Thanks for talking to us.
Antonova: Thank you.