Its researchers unearthed atrocities and memorialized the victims of the Stalin era. They documented abductions and killings in the war-battered republic of Chechnya. Its members held the increasingly authoritarian government of President Vladimir V. Putin to account.
On Friday, the Russian organization Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to shine a spotlight on Soviet and Russian state repression, efforts that have taken on added resonance at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine has helped spur one of the Kremlin’s toughest clampdowns on freedom of expression in decades. The prize was shared with rights advocates in neighboring Ukraine and Belarus.
Memorial, has played a pivotal role in forcing Russia to come to terms with its totalitarian past — and, in the process, illuminated the crimes of the present. The organization’s reaction to winning the Peace Prize was posted to Instagram: “For now, we have no words.”
The Peace Prize is the second in a row for a Russian entity — an unusual streak that underlines the high stakes and long odds in the struggle over Russia’s future. Last year, one of the two Peace Prize laureates was Dmitri A. Muratov, the editor of the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta — six of whose journalists have been murdered. The newspaper ceased operating in Russia this year, under a new law that essentially criminalizes independent reporting on the war in Ukraine.
This year’s Peace Prize served as an implicit rebuke to President Vladimir V. Putin, whose iron fist has grown stronger since his invasion of Ukraine in February. In addition to jailing public figures for speaking about Russian atrocities, the Kremlin has sought to eliminate criticism of the Stalin era, including with a 2021 law making it illegal to compare Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union.
Late last year, the Kremlin outlawed Memorial and shut it down. The group’s Human Rights Center — an offshoot that focused on present-day crimes — “justifies terrorist activities,” Moscow prosecutors said. While some of Memorial’s staff members have left the country, others remain in Russia. On Friday, staff members of Memorial reported that — as expected — the judge ruled against them in a hearing over the government’s attempt to seize their office space in the center of the Russian capital.
One of the founders of Memorial was Andrei D. Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, who became the Soviet Union’s most outspoken proponent of civil liberties, receiving the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
The group, riding on a popular movement to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s terror, came together in the late 1980s, during the fall of the Soviet Union. It documented the Soviet gulag system and the K.G.B.’s torture chambers, publishing history books, educating schoolchildren, hosting exhibits and even offering historical walking tours of central Moscow to reveal the horrors of the Soviet past.
The organization “is based on the notion that confronting past crimes is essential in preventing new ones,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in its statement naming Memorial as one of the prize’s winners.
Memorial’s activists have paid a heavy price for their work. Natalya Estemirova, a researcher for the rights group Memorial, spent a decade documenting kidnappings and killings in Chechnya. In 2009, at the age of 50, she was abducted outside her home and found dead of gunshot wounds to the head and the chest.
Others have paid with their freedom. Yuri Dmitriev, the chairman of Memorial’s branch in the northern republic of Karelia, discovered a killing field more than 20 years ago where thousands had perished at the hands of Stalin’s secret police. In 2020, Mr. Dmitriev was found guilty of sex abuse charges that were widely seen as retaliation for his work; he is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.
The award for Memorial on Friday coincided with the 70th birthday of Mr. Putin, and the 16th anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who chronicled the crimes of his rule.
Memorial’s efforts to excavate the injustices of the past have continued. On a recent Saturday a small group of activists organized by Memorial gathered on a Moscow boulevard to install a small silver plaque commemorating Mikhail B. Gipshman, a committed Communist and factory worker who was killed in Stalin’s purges of 1937 for the “crime” of having been born in Poland.