Arseny Roginsky: What is Memorial?

posted 9 Feb 2014, 10:35 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 9 Feb 2014, 11:28 ]
3 February 2014

Source: (info)
The following is taken from an extensive interview given by Arseny Roginsky, Chairman of the Board of the International Memorial Society, to the Internet portal

At some point in the very midst of the Perestroika period, in around 1987 or 1988, the concept of historical truth become something of a short-lived national obsession.

The history of the fight for truth, freedom and democracy in our country has always been closely linked to the fight for historical truth. For many decades we had had the official pack of lies about our history dinned into us every day from loudspeakers, school textbooks and who knows where else.

At the same time, however, contradictory memories had been handed down within individual families, surreptitiously and wordlessly.

An opportunity emerged to talk about this subject. Thousands of publications about the past and the truth about the past started to appear.

On the back of this wave of keen public interest, a small group of young people calling themselves the Memorial Group came together in Moscow in 1987. They described their task as “the creation of a memorial site to commemorate the victims of the Soviet terror”. The idea was to create not just a monument, but also an archive, a museum and a library, or in other words a centre which would operate as a source of both acknowledgement and knowledge.

This idea was embraced straight away throughout the Soviet Union: groups started to be set up everywhere, and signatures were collected in support of such a site. This is how the Memorial movement started. 
Аrseny Roginsky. © Yulia Ryzhenko /

The “Memorial Group” in Moscow played a key role at this stage. Its members included individuals such as Yury Samodurov, who subsequently become director of the Sakharov Centre, Lev Ponomarev, who later became an MP and is now a famous human rights activist, Nina Braginskaya, who is now a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, Dmitry Leonov and many others. There are only two members of this small group who still work for Memorial itself today: Oleg Orlov, who is one of our human rights directors, and our executive director, Elena Zhemkova.

The Memorial Public Council, set up in response to public surveys, was crucially important during this period. Its roll call of members was something akin to a top 20 of anti-Stalinists in 1988, with leading roles played by A. D. Sakharov, Yu. N. Afanasyev, who later became Vice-Chancellor of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Ales Adamovich, Yu. F. Karyakin and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

By 1988 the movement had spread throughout the entire country, and there were suggestions that it should be given official status. After overcoming a significant number of bureaucratic hurdles, representatives from 200 towns and cities in the Soviet Union gathered at the inaugural conference in January 1989.

This is how the NGO called Memorial came into being. The next task was to register it as an NGO. This was an extremely difficult task which took a whole year to accomplish.

This delay was due not only to the fact that the authorities were opposed to our registration. For a long time the problem was simply that no one knew how to register us, since no legislation had been adopted on NGOs. In past decades similar organisations had only ever been set up on the basis of decisions by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In December 1989 Andrey Dmitriyevich died, and Gorbachev approached Yelena Georgiyevna Bonner at his funeral and asked what he could do to help.

“Register Memorial,” replied Yelena Georgiyevna.

This was clearly a decisive moment, since an agreement was reached with the Ministry of Justice within a month, and in January 1990 we were registered under the law on voluntary associations, following the same procedure as that used for sporting, philatelic and similar associations. This is why our first official name was the All-Union Voluntary Historical and Educational Association “Memorial”. We changed to an “International Association” in 1992, after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

In a general sense, the time between 1987 and 1989 was something resembling a “heroic era”, whereas our transformation into an NGO in 1989 signalled the start of a long and mundane period of work which continues to this day.

It became obvious almost immediately that it would impossible to limit ourselves to the past, without opposing the various forms of totalitarianism and unlawfulness which exist in the present day.

This is why the association very quickly became a “Historical, Educational and Human Rights Association”, with the word “Charitable” also added at a later date. Since then our composition has constantly evolved.

When Memorial was founded in 1988, it represented a crucially important escape route, and not only for those who were interested in the historical truth or human rights.

We were joined by political activists who quite simply had nowhere else to go at the time, since there were no political parties except for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Memorial had members with all kinds of political persuasions. Its leanings were clearly democratic and pro-liberty, but the political demarcations were kept vague, and it attracted a huge number of members.

Then came the events of 1989 and 1990 – the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the elections to the Supreme Soviet of Russia. A lively political life began to take shape, and many key activists simply left us to work for a real political party and/or as an MP.

Where are we now, after 25 years? There are around 80 organisations which make up the International Memorial Society. Just over 60 of these organisations are based in Russia, a few are based in Ukraine and a number of other countries have one organisation apiece.

It is important to understand that we are by principle a horizontal organisation. The Ministry of Justice finds it impossible to come to terms with this fact.

They believe that the managing body of an organisation like ours must keep a check on all of its members, i.e. all the regional organisations which form part of our association, and that it must grant or refuse approval for their activities and organise and direct them. It believes that the different divisions of our organisation should only be set up on the basis of decisions and instructions issued by the managing body, and not on the initiative of activists on the ground.

Our approach is very different: most of the different “Memorial” organisations – many of which also date back 25 years – were set up independently, not in response to any commands from us.

We draw up and propose joint guidelines for action, but each individual Memorial organisation can act as it deems fit within the framework of the articles of association.
Аrseny Roginsky. © Yuliya Ryzhenko /

This is a key distinguishing feature of Memorial, and our organisations are wholly self-sufficient in a financial sense as well, since they receive no central funding. What we have is effectively a confederation.

Going back a quarter of a century, many people thought that a different future lay in store for Memorial. Some suggested that we should become a research institute, and others that we should become a political party, but we were categorically opposed to both of these suggestions.

It is important to understand the ideological connections between the historical work, investigative work and human rights work which make up the bulk of our activities; we look at history through the eyes of the law, and we look at the law from a historical perspective.

It would be entirely wrong to assume that Memorial is only engaged in staging one-off events for show. Our day-to-day work consists of routine and sometimes quite boring tasks: the compilation of information from various sources, the collation of this information, endless investigations, correspondence with the authorities, reports and so on.
25 years have now passed. Have we won or lost?

It is plain as day that we have not won, since an awareness of the past which is the focus of our studies – crimes committed against individuals in the name of the state – has not yet become widespread.

People remember the victims and honour their memory, but as a general rule they are not willing to delve more deeply into the identity of the victims and the perpetrator.

If these people were victims of the state, it would mean that our state was criminal. How can we reconcile this view with our time-honoured sacralisation of the state? This is a difficult, nay almost impossible task. It bears repeating that this concept has not yet become widespread.

In order for this to happen, the very least we need is an official piece of legislation with explicit legal recognition of the crimes of the past for what they were. 
The Final Speech of V.K. Bukovsky, samizdat. Memorial's archive. © Yulia Ryzhenko /

Much still remains to be done. We have not yet won the battle.

Have we succeeded in our main task, that of changing people’s awareness? No, of course not.

Has our work made mass violations of human rights or the existence of political prisoners in our country a thing of the past? Of course not.

Have we ensured that the victims of crimes committed during the Communist regime can lead dignified lives, or that they receive adequate compensation, for example? The answer to this is also no.

Our organisation has worked hard for 25 years, and we still have not achieved these goals. How should we assess our work so far?

The public is now aware that mass repressions took place, and some people have started to wonder why these repressions were possible.

In certain cases our efforts have also led to archives being opened up and the information they contain becoming common knowledge.

One of our main achievements is the law on rehabilitation. This is the only piece of legislation in which the past is subjected to an evaluation of sorts. The very existence of this law has had a major impact on public awareness.

We have not won all our battles, but things would be worse without us.

Yet everyone has something to complain about. “Whose side are you on? Are you on their side or someone else’s side?”

It invariably turns out that we are not on anyone’s side. 

The picture we are trying to create and our historical and human rights endeavours often turn out to be more complex that the concepts imposed on the public, regardless of who is responsible.

The past 15 years have seen a resurgence and inculcation of a black-and-white view of history and a black-and-white approach in general.

I am talking about the fact that victory in the Great Patriotic War is used as justification for all crimes – collectivisation, the “Great Terror” and others. I am talking about the revival of the old stereotypes: “We are good, the West is bad”, “the fifth column within and the enemies without” and similar rubbish.

We can call a spade a spade and say that this is rubbish, but a lot of the time we are forced to admit that things are more complicated.

What about the Maidan? What can we say? We are of course wholeheartedly in favour of the civil activists, and we are delighted at the public’s willingness to defend its rights and interests, but we do not find Molotov cocktails at all inspiring.

The fact is that almost everything about history is complicated, and the very idea of a single history textbook and a single view of history is therefore a harmful nonsense.

What matters is the kind of awareness we are fostering. You may recall that our President, at a teaching conference in 2003, said that, “We must educate our young people using examples from our glorious history”, and one could have been forgiven for believing that “our glorious history” had consisted of nothing but victories.

Nothing but victories before the revolution, nothing but victories after the revolution, the Dnieper dam, magnificent structures and so on.

A war cannot be reduced to a single victory, however, and this holds doubly true for the Day of Victory.

Once again a black-and-white approach has taken root: “This is our motherland in which everything has always been wonderful, and we should love her”.

How can we incorporate the political terror into this image, how can we incorporate the mass violations of human rights throughout the history of our country? These are not chance occurrences; they are a modus operandi for the rulers of the nation.

We are calling for a more differentiated awareness and a more differentiated and demanding national identity.

This would tie in with a long tradition in our country, since not a single great work of Russian literature – if it genuinely was great – has ever been founded on the idea of a single great and glorious past.

It was both great and shameful, with no less shame than greatness.

Although we cannot claim to have won any victories, a whole series of very successful, much-needed and popular projects have been organised by Memorial.

For example, we have received a total of 35,000 entries over the past 10 years for our All-Russia History Competition for senior school students.

Many of them have been extremely far-reaching and genuinely investigative in nature. They are evidence of the calibre of our past and present students, of the way that our memory is changing and of the nature of our teachers.

Outstanding teachers are found particularly frequently in small towns and villages.

For example, we have received 30 or 40 first-rate entries from the village of Novy Kurlak in the Voronezhsky region in the 10 years that the competition has been running, simply because the village has an outstanding teacher.

The extent to which memory, independence and “individual self-identity” in a more general sense can be preserved by these local teachers, museum workers and librarians is quite astonishing, and our schools competition and other projects have shown us that there are very many such individuals in Russia.

Another of our key projects involves the creation of a single database containing information about the victims of the repression. It will include information from the Book of Memory published (or sometimes yet to be published) by the various regions of the former USSR (by no means all of them, unfortunately) in response to the efforts of various NGOs and state structures.

The database now lists over 2.5 million people.

This is less than one quarter of the overall number of victims, so much work still remains to be done.

Our human rights activists are also engaged in other remarkable projects, such as monitoring the situation in the Northern Caucasus and producing regular reports.

These documents are among the most important sources of information for people both in Russia and around the world about what is happening in the area, not just in terms of political transformations but also in respect of people and their rights.

These projects have already been running for around 20 years, and the demand for them continues unabated.

The ongoing need for a network of legal experts providing advice to migrants throughout Russia should also be obvious.

Our lawyers take cases to the European Court of Human Rights, and have already won over 100 of these cases.

All of these are important projects and they make up the bulk of our day-to-day work, even though they are labour-intensive and lacking in public appeal.

Another of our achievements is the collections we have amassed.

What is in our archives? Documents and letters given to us by the families of former prisoners or members of the dissident movement.

They include diaries and hundreds of unpublished memoirs about the Great Terror. They also include documents about the opposition movement and samizdat publications.

They include thousands of different photographs, all of which document details of individual lives.

Memorial uses the individual as a frame of reference, and the focus of its interest is the individual and documents about individuals.

Our resources are sometimes put to more direct use, for example in producing publications, carrying out investigative work and making films.

Our unique museum collection is also structured around the subject of human fates.

It includes works created by artists in the camps or in exile, as well as various objects from daily camp life.

Various exhibitions have held both in Russia and abroad on the basis of this collection. An exhibition entitled “Traces of the GULAG”, organised jointly by ourselves and the Buchenwald Memorial Museum, has been running in Germany for around a year. This is a very important exhibition, as it is the first exhibition about the GULAG to be held in Germany for many years. It has already visited Berlin and Weimar and will also travel to several other cities.

One of our core values, and one which we have espoused right from the very inception of “Memorial”, is the public accessibility of our archive, museum and library. This accessibility lies at the heart of everything we do.

Put simply, the essence of our work is to interact with people. We deal with a constant stream of phone calls, visitors and requests for information.

"Master and Margarita", 1966, with pieces of text that had been removed by the censor stuck in. Memorial's archive. © Yulia Ryzhenko /

They include people looking for information about family members and investigators looking for information about specific individuals or the repressions imposed on a particular social group.

A great many people are looking for graves, since it is very hard to find out where the victims of the terror were buried. The state unfortunately takes very little interest in this matter.

These people visit us constantly, on a daily basis.

This stream of people is one of the ways in which our archive is updated and extended. People arrive with questions and then explain that they have letters at home from whomever it was who spent time in the camp, for example.

Or we suggest where they could look for the information they need, and then they bring us the results of their searches and the answers they have received from the different institutions.

The question we must answer is that of our country’s guilt and our nation’s guilt. If people say, “you are guilty,” we reply that, “we are not guilty. We do not bear guilt for our hypothetical grandfathers shooting your hypothetical grandfathers in Katyn. But we do bear responsibility for it.”

We are talking about something else entirely – not guilt, but civic responsibility.

Civic responsibility is a key concept for Memorial.

Whereas guilt can only change into repentance and nothing further, civic responsibility for the past can be transformed into a range of concrete actions and a proactive approach to life in the here and now, so that the mistakes and crimes of the past are not repeated.

All of this is relevant to the present day.

The very essence of what a human rights centre does is bedevilled by the problem of responsibility for what is currently happening.

All this time I have been trying to explain what has motivated Memorial since its very beginnings, and this is a search for historical truth and an awareness of civic responsibility.

The phrase “civic responsibility” is too high-sounding and pretentious to be entirely fitting, but it does have the merit of being easily translatable into concrete actions.

We have existed for 25 years and we cannot yet say that the country shares our view of the past.

We cannot yet say that human rights violations do not take place in our country, to say nothing of infringements of freedom and democracy.

Part of the responsibility also lies with us, and it is obvious that there are things that we have done wrong and times we have not been proactive enough or focused enough on each individual issue.

It is laughable and naïve to think that one NGO could bring about a transformation in any country, and luckily we have never suffered from such delusions of grandeur.

There is another important and obvious point that should be stressed, namely that we are not on our own.

We are not on our own because there are a great many different associations which are tackling exactly the same issues, each in their own way.

There are various magazines and newspapers and media outlets such as your own, NGOs and individuals, associations of museum workers and teachers throughout Russia, individual investigators and journalists. All of these people are moving more or less in the same direction.

Before I said – somewhat arrogantly – that, “we have not won any battles, but things would be worse without us”. By “we” I meant both you and all the other people I just talked about.

Memorial is only one of these islands of independence and responsible civic action. We are one of many – this is what people need to understand.

Take the law on foreign agents. The point is not that the authorities have adopted yet another idiotic repressive law – the point is that not a single organisation has registered under the law. These organisations have not come to any agreement; they are all acting on their own initiative.

This means that there is an “us”. What is our motivation? We have never agreed on anything, but we have common ideals and we are pursuing more or less the same goals.

We know each other by what we do not say, just as the Russian intelligentsia has always known its members by what they do not say.

Without having come to any agreement, a great many people are moving more or less in the same direction. Large numbers of them annoy each other in the process, which is foolish although perhaps natural, but these annoyances are merely trifling details.

No, the authorities are not overfond of us, and sometimes they call us all manner of names. That is simply the way it is.

Nevertheless, they are obliged to tolerate us, to take note of what we say and, in some cases, to defer to us – this is also a result of our work, and a not insignificant one.

As far as our dealings with the authorities are concerned, the main concern is not whether they like us or not, or whether we like them or not. That is entirely irrelevant.

The question is whether we can get what we need from them – from the authorities as the face of the system.

This is clearly a subject for a separate and lengthy discussion.

Interview transcribed by Yulia Ryzhenko


Translated by Joanne Reynolds