Arseny Roginsky: "Only a sense of taking part in history makes a person a thinking being”

posted 17 Jun 2015, 00:44 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 17 Jun 2015, 01:01 ]
10 June 2015

Source: (info
Arseny Roginsky, chair of the board of the International Memorial Society: “People live only in the present. But I am absolutely convinced that only a sense of taking part in history and the feeling of oneself as a person in history, and of history as something one’s own, as something close to one, makes a person a person. Not a citizen, but a thinking being.”

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This is very difficult. How to feel the history of the world as one’s own or – even – the history of one’s country, not on the level of slogans, but on the level of one’s essential being? How to feel as one’s own the history of the place where you live – the village or city?

And – if one takes a very narrow perspective – how to feel as one’s own the history of one’s family? What happened 30 or 40 years before today’s young people were born – it’s already something unusually long ago for them and as if it hadn’t even happened.

It seems to me that high school lessons far from always help students to feel that history belongs to them – except for classes by individual outstanding individual teachers.

It’s possible to discuss certain moral problems that concerned people in the past, to bring them closer to the moral problems of today or to particular political events, but all the same this will be nothing more than an intellectual exercise that won’t make you a part of the great movement that goes by the name of ‘history’.

This one can only do oneself and through one’s own work. And for me the main sense of the high school essay-writing competition [run by Memorial] is that children themselves begin to search, to seek out, to compare. And their purpose is not to write a dissertation that will raise their social status and satisfy their intellectual curiosity.

The purpose is simple and selfless – to find out and to understand. And in this sense it is very important that the competition does not give any advantage in terms of getting into college. It is simply a matter of engaging with the topic.

Each child must get an understanding on their own terms, for example, of family letters, trying to understand what certain phrases in the letters mean, drawing on stories told by relatives and teachers. Or when the child does more than simply retell – which is relatively simple – but actually brings to life the history of an individual who has lived in the past.

And it needs to be said that many of the essays that are related to the history of the terror, or the war, or even with the life of a particular individual, are not always deep and full of content. Often the school students simply put on paper a formal list: when someone was born, what happened, adding to the story the person’s marriage, the particulars of some unhappy family story – but that is not enough.

But a high school student is not a human resources professional. Their work should not be just a detailed dossier about someone who is no longer alive. What is important here is understanding.

And for understanding, what is needed is not simply a list of the facts of someone’s biography, but to begin to ask oneself questions. And it’s great when the source is asking themselves the same questions in letters and diaries.

It is very important to formulate these questions (and to help in their formulation is the role of the supervisor, the school teacher) and sometimes even to get answers to some of them.

Because if a person learns to ask the right questions about the past, then it’s possible to say that they have taken a step forward, no matter if a small one. They have moved on from being a person who does not think to being someone who thinks, to a person of history, and not someone who utters goodness knows what nonsense between the television set and their highly paid job.

I think this is in the first place and is most important.

And secondly, you know the 20th century threw people around all over the place, it disrupted families, and of all that we have the family is the thing that is hardest of all to destroy.

Stalin tried to liquidate all the horizontal links in society because one of the goals of Stalinist policies (i.e. of Soviet policies) is the atomization of society.

He succeeded to a very great extent. Professional associations were destroyed, civil society organizations, any forms of social consolidation. Only one think survived, and that was the family. Stalin did not succeed in destroying the family, despite a whole series of laws and regulations to that effect.

Today family links remain weakened. But a lot can happen in life. It can happen for example that a grandmother quarrels with her sister, and two branches of the same family develop in separation from each other, gradually grow further apart and don’t know anything about each other.

But in fact, as soon as more than one person adds a link to the family tree, something horizontal comes into being (and this is what our school students, guided by their teachers, have learned to do very well – adding many, many links to their family trees).

And this is not a question of what you have found out - that you had not 120 relatives and not just 12. It’s about the fact that, in preparing an essay for the competition, a young person suddenly discovers that for 10 years now no one has been in touch with their aunt, and they write her a letter and she replies. And then other relatives are discovered, and then more and more.

And the familial links that were lost but that are so needed by us (and we are all in great need of this, even those who are hard-boiled intellectual cynics) are resurrected.

Many of the essays by children are on the topic of family histories. This tells us about the durability of the individual in the world, in history, durability at least in the horizontal space that is called the ‘family’. I think this is very important.

Photo and video: Olesya Salunova 

Source: Vesti obrazovaniya