Roginsky - Medvedev: "This Programme is not only about history"

Speech by Arseny Roginsky, chair of the board of the Memorial Society for Historical Education and the Protection of Human Rights, at the meeting of the Presidential Council on 1 February 2011 and the response by President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev.

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Arseny Roginsky: I have a feeling that the very fact that I am presenting this Programme to the country’s leader is a historic event. It is particularly important because we have not invented this Programme; it has not been thought up by some small group of people or a working group, and so on. That would be nonsense. You must understand that this Programme has grown out of life itself and the proposals that Russian society addressed to Khrushchev. And those who were the most naïve addressed themselves in turn to Brezhnev, and then, naturally, to Gorbachev and so on. Some things were achieved, small fragments. But in fact nothing was ever done systematically or on a large scale.

This Programme is not only about history, but it has a history of its own as well. That’s the first thing. Secondly, what is our point of departure – my own and that of my friends? It is very simple. It is that it is impossible to build a law-based society without remembering the time when people had no rights. Not only knowledge that it was a time without rights, but understanding of the fact that people had no rights. Likewise, it is impossible to create a free citizen without the memory of the time when there was no freedom and without understanding why this condition existed. You know, our Programme does not just aim at increasing knowledge; its aim is also to achieve understanding.

Our Programme is large and multifaceted, it tries to do everything, but at the same time this is a utopia. Do you understand? It still consists of some small fragments that you need to pick and choose. And, of course, this is not a Programme that we offer, it is sketches. It is no accident that what we are presenting is called “Proposals towards a Programme”.

There are eight sections. I will briefly comment on some of the points. First: commemorating the victims. Second: social support for the victims who are still alive. Third: access to archival information about the terror. Fourth: political and legal evaluation of the crimes committed by the communist regime. Then, completion of the legal process of rehabilitating the victims, changing place names, education and other things. I shall say more about some of these points now.

First, I will talk about commemorating the victims. We have already spoken about memorials. By the way, we have more than a few memorials, but they are to be found on the outskirts of cities. This is a typical situation. We are today in Ekaterinburg. There is a place not far from the city where 18 thousand people were shot dead and buried. This place is just outside the city, but in the city you won’t find anything about it. I would like to remind you: what is the importance of a memorial to the victims? A memorial put up by public subscription is very important. But I am convinced that a memorial put up in the centre of the city (for example in Moscow) should be put there by the State, and in the name of the State, so that such a memorial shows the State’s attitude towards this issue. This is so far as Moscow and a central memorial is concerned.

And, of course, there should be a plan for some regional memorials, for those places where such monuments do not yet exist. Admittedly, regional governments are more or less active in this area. Generally speaking, they are the last people I wish to reproach. However, we do need a lot more memorials, as Sergei Aleksandrovich [Fedotov] has said.

There are two memorial museum centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I know that you, to some degree, have approved both of them. The one that is not far from St. Petersburg is in the Kovalevsky Forest. This is the place where Gumilev was shot, where the executions took place in the early years of Soviet Russia. And there is a place in Moscow on the bank of the Moscow-Volga canal (128 thousand prisoners built this canal). Even Vodokanal, that operates the canal, is ready to give something. Generally speaking, there are bureaucratic obstacles everywhere. And I want to stress that these are centers for work on the memory of the nation, not simply museums. They really are centers. I will not go into any further details right now.

There is something else that should not be forgotten. Generally speaking, what does remembering the victims signify? Who are these victims? They are people with names. Today, through the work of the regions and their support we have established less than half of all the victims’ names.

We need to create a single database for the victims of political terror, similar to the one that exists for the victims of the Great Patriotic War (this database is fantastic). It is not that complicated. There is information in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, at the FSB, in the State Archive. Of course we would need to set up an editorial board, create the right methodological approach, and so on. But it would not be so complicated or so costly because many things have already been done.

I wish to say one more thing about the burial sites. I need to mention it here because millions of our citizens don’t know where their relatives are buried. We see this all the time. It is necessary not only to give orders to departmental and state archives to conduct additional searches, but we need to think about commemorating the victims. We have a lot of suggestions about how to do this. I would like to just add this to my first point.

I will now quickly address my second point. It deals with the issue of social support for the victims of repression. There are many issues here, but there is one central point. The law on monetization transferred our elderly from the federal budget to the regional level. The result has been absurd. Two people were in the same labor camp together and served sentences of the same length, but they live in different regions. One of them now receives 300 roubles per month, and the other receives 1000 roubles, because regions have different conditions. Most important, it was not the regions that instigated the terror, but, it has to be said, the central government. Therefore, it is imperative that responsibility for compensation be returned to the central government.

There are a few other important suggestions. For example, victims of repression also suffer from disabilities. They are obliged to choose their status. How are they going to receive their monthly payments, as victims of repression or as people with disabilities? Of course, the pension for the disabled is higher. As a result, people will reject their status as victims of repression. Basically, this situation defies common decency.

I need to add one more thing. Something that is not so difficult to do. When Law No. 122 was passed, the section on moral compensation was taken out of the law on the rehabilitation of victims. The preamble to the law on rehabilitation stated: “Recognizing the moral and material harm caused to victims….” The part about “material” harm remained, but the reference to “moral” harm disappeared. For these old people who remain, this is insulting. It is as if the State does not recognize moral harm.

The third thing I would like to mention (though you certainly understand this issue better than I do) is the political-and-legal evaluation of the terror. You know, there is no political-and-legal evaluation of the crimes. There is no such evaluation. There are moral evaluations, whether by Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov or someone else. Or purely political evaluations, such as parliament can give.

But this is not enough. Mass consciousness needs to have something to base itself on, and consciousness can only base itself (I have in mind teachers, tour guides, and so on) on a legal evaluation. The issue of a political-and-legal evaluation is complex and difficult. This is a serious issue and Mikhail Aleksandrovich [Fedotov] has set it down as a separate topic, it needs a separate discussion.

Dmitry Medvedev: Arseny Borisovich [Roginsky], excuse me, please. I try not to intervene during speeches. Just so that I understand your position correctly, I want to understand what is this political-and-legal evaluation and who should give it? Because, as you rightly said, this is a difficult question. Who makes this evaluation? Is it the courts, the President, the Government?

Arseny Roginsky: There are different options. I understand that we cannot bring the dead to trial, this would be ridiculous, or institute criminal proceedings against them. But yet what we have laid down here…Mikhail Aleksandrovich [Fedotov] can answer this question more easily than I can. Forgive me, but I must just readdress this question to a lawyer. I am sorry, so here I shall pass this question to the lawyer while, if I may, I’ll take up one more important point about which both my colleagues have spoken. This is about access to the archives.

You know, this mania about secrets is just madness, simply madness. And it is very easy to put an end to. In fact, during the 1990s a lot was declassified because the archives had the right to declassify their own materials. They conducted a great deal of analysis and declassified materials. In general, no problems arose as a result of this. Now that right has been taken away from them. They prepare materials, they transfer them to the inter-agency commission for the protection of secrecy, and this inter-agency commission is completely suffocating under these piles of documents. That is, the idea is simple: let the archives declassify those documents which are more than 30 years old, and in controversial cases where they have any doubts, naturally, on the basis of additional expert analysis, the period of classification should be extended. In other words, the commission should deal only with the extension of secrecy. That is one thing.

And the second question is also legal in nature and one that cannot be easily resolved. We know that the archives contain several million investigation files concerning our fellow citizens. This is a major source for the history of the terror. We do not have access to them. Apart from relatives or the victims themselves, no one has access to them. The trouble is that there are no relatives. Let’s say you wanted to read the file on the investigation into the great poet Mandelstam. Where will you get the prerequisite power of attorney from the children of Mandelstam, when there are none? And most cases are like this, the overwhelming majority.

They say: “Privacy, we are protecting the right to privacy." But privacy is defined in the legislation terribly badly. Because of this, access to millions of cases has been closed. And, among other things, even now historians in Arkhangelsk are being prosecuted for developing a Memorial Book about the victims of the terror. They say that these historians violated personal privacy because someone or other was a relation of someone who was a victim of repression. So, you know, it is necessary to find a better definition and get rid of this ridiculous 75-year limitation.

I won’t dwell on the issue of place names. In that area you can’t make any changes without the law. But it must be said that we simply cannot have a situation where our place names should be some kind of untouchable reservation, and one made up of the names of pretty bad people. But here there should be a law. You see, you can’t let the streets bear the names of people who are guilty of such serious crimes against the rights of citizens.

One more point about the archives and education. Just as we need an database with Internet access, so we need an Internet portal. Remember, you instructed that the Katyn documents should be published? Five octavo sheets! These five sheets – that’s 4 million hits. Think about it! They completely changed people’s consciousness. Fifty-three percent believed that it was the Germans who had done it. They read, forgive me, these sheets, they watched the movie and 26 percent were left. In two weeks!

The archives contain millions of the most important documents. We need a central Internet portal for the publication of these important documents about the history of the Soviet Union. And the last thing I want to say is that this Programme must be international. There was terror in Russia, but not only in Russia, but also in other countries around. And everyone will be very pleased to work with us through this portal, and in the process of jointly creating books of historical memory.

And it may be that Russia will set up some kind of international institute of historical memory. It would be very important for us to overcome our historical wars with other countries through the process of this joint work.

On this point I shall stop. This Programme contains about 50 separate points. But, I repeat, this is not a Programme. It is the sketch of a Programme. It is only proposals towards a Programme.

Thank you.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you, Arseny Borisovich. <...> Now, with regard to the declassification of documents. Let's think about who could do this most efficiently and most productively. If it is the Federal Archive Agency itself, I actually do not mind. But, in some cases, there arises what could be called an inter-agency opposition, about which you know, about which a decision must often be taken at a higher level than those decisions that the Federal Archive Agency itself takes. Maybe we just need to think about how to create an inter-agency structure on this issue that would be effective, where the Federal Archive Agency would have the main word.
As regards the commemoration of the victims of political repression and other matters connected with this, I find it hard to add anything to what has already been said, but nonetheless I shall say a few things.

Perhaps it is not a bad idea to create a database of victims of terror, similar to the one about the victims of the Great Patriotic War. But here, being a fairly realistic person, I realize that after all this problem is more difficult than the task of creating the appropriate lists for the Great Patriotic War. Because for the Great Patriotic War as a rule there are at least some documents proving the fact of death.

Here everything is more complicated because we have a correct understanding of far from all the legal documents. That is, here we need to make an evaluation: is there an act of terror or not. Nevertheless, a list of this kind, in my opinion, would on the whole certainly be a positive thing, because the debate over the number of victims killed in the name of the Fatherland at that time never ceases.

Someone tries to accuse human rights defenders of significantly overestimating the number of victims. They say that it's all lies. There are some political forces of this kind, I will not name them, you know who they are. They then reproached me when I cited specific numbers, saying: "The President has succumbed to a provocation, and has named unverified numbers, while in fact the number of victims was much smaller. And in fact did it all really occur at all, wasn’t it all just dreamt up, most likely this was not done by our people at all."

Therefore, these figures, appropriately documented, I think, could play a quite obvious educational role.

The country must know its heroes, those about whom you wrote in your letter: who made the decision, how the decision was made. This information exists, of course, but a list, in this sense, perhaps, verified in the prescribed manner, I think would be helpful.

Discrepancies in payments. This is a real problem. I'm not sure it is easy to do, I must tell you, with regard to the return of payments to the central level, the level of the Russian Federation. But it would be possible to give an instruction that this be done.

About the political and legal evaluation of the terror. I go back to what he asked. I would just like to understand what you propose that we do, because, in my opinion, a legal evaluation is given by the courts, not even the President or the Parliament. Parliament gives a political evaluation. The President can also give a political evaluation. You know my evaluation. In principle Parliament has also spoken on this. Therefore here it is necessary to decide what steps to take in the future.

And lastly, this caught my attention, because I have worked on this, I mean Arseny Borisovich [Roginsky]’s speech about the fact that formerly 50 percent of our people thought that it was the Germans who committed the atrocities in Katyn forest, but now positive changes have taken place and 26 percent of our people believe they were committed by the Germans.

It is very sad that 26 percent, a quarter of our country (if that is the case, I am citing your figures) believes, contrary to the documentary evidence – and I personally have, so to speak, gone through this folder, with all its various stamps and so forth – that all this is lies, that all of this has been falsified to tarnish the reputation of the Fatherland.

Unfortunately, this evidence has not been falsified, you and I know that. But why am I talking about this? This means that this educational work must be carried out as actively as possible, and we have to speak out about this, even if they are difficult pages of our history.

Source: Transcript of the Meeting of the Council on Civil Society & Human Rights, 1 February 2011, Ekaterinburg.


Rights in Russia,
18 Feb 2011, 08:14