Eleven hard disks

Tatiana Kosinova
15 December 2008

st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#ieooui) }One could spend a long time trying to work out why one of the Petersburg branches of the Investigate Committee of the Prosecutor's Office of the Russian Federation suddenly decided to raid Memorial. What sort of message was being sent, and to whom, when on 4 December, the investigative group led by second-class lawyer Mikhail Gennadevich Kalganov made a search of the Memorial office in Petersburg?

The formal reason in Kalganov's statement is unimportant. It happens to have been the search for material evidence of a connection between Memorial and the newspaper Novy Peterburg, which was shut down a year ago. The allegation that Memorial supported the publication of a xenophobic article is a set-up. The more absurd and odious the declared reason for the search, the more marginal Memorial appears, and the more striking this attempt to intimidate and discredit the organisation becomes. And this makes it easier to consign Memorial's activity to some dark and distant corner, on the periphery of public consciousness.

We do not know for sure what the motives of the investigative bodies were. But the result of their work is clear and concrete: 11 hard disks were removed from the Memorial's computers and taken in plastic bags to the prosecutor's office of the Central District. Senior Investigator Kalganov refused to list their contents, and an employee of the PR service used by the Investigative Department of the Prosecutor's Office for St. Petersburg, Sergei Kapitonov confirmed that this was not their practice. This is understandable: compiling a scrupulous description would take several days, and he had only five hours for the search.

Memory of the camps

Four of the 11 disks contained the archive, holdings and working materials of the project Virtual Gulag museum. As we know, "there is no national Gulag museum in today's Russia". "It is not only missing as a material object. It does not even exist in Russian culture as a vital connection between knowledge and understanding, information and events, experience and memory. The memory of the Communist terror has not become an integral, inalienable part of national memory; it remains a fragmentary recollection of local events unconnected by a common intellectual framework. None the less, the authors of the Virtual Gulag Museum believe that "the need to present the experience of the Gulag and the terror in the form of a museum remains a priority today". The project began in 2003, initially in the form of a scholarly exercise in bringing together what already exists in different museums and exhibitions on the Gulag and the repressions. There turned out to be quite a lot of them - the first list consisted of about 300 museums.

In 2004 a pilot disk was published - the first listing of the material and exhibitions of 30 museums. A site was established that represented the collections of 71 museums from six countries: Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Kazakhstan. The authors of the site consider that "all the components of the future Gulag Museum already exist". They consist of "various private collections and initiatives by enthusiasts that are dispersed geographically, disconnected thematically and methodologically". "Various museums (state, regional, community, school etc) which have created sections in their permanent exhibitions devoted to particular aspects of the theme; which organise temporary or regular exhibitions and collect documentary and substantive evidence of the history of the repressions". The goals of the Virtual Gulag Museum are to unite these  "into a common virtual space which can be used for research purposes", while preserving the specificity of each museum.

As of today, the Virtual Gulag Museum is a "collection of isolated images of the material memory of the state terror of the Soviet era, above all the museum memory. The project's ultimate goal is to create a virtual museum, which presents a general picture of the history of the terror, and the physical remains of today's memory of it". Some 30 expeditions were made through the museums of Eastern and Western Siberia, Yakutia and the Northwest of Russia, trips to Nalchik and Rostov, Poland and Germany, and four expeditions to Lithuanian museums... In October, a new CD of the project was released, and a new version of the project site is being developed. Some 100 museum collections and funds are presented on it.

Memorial has partners and enthusiasts of the Virtual Gulag museum in many different countries, and is supported by a number of foundations and institutions. Over five years, dozens of conferences and seminars have been held: in Syktyvkar, Ukhta, Petersburg, Perm, Krzyżowa, Munich, Medvezhegorsk and other cities. 

In the new version of the disk, aspects of the memory of the terror which cannot be housed in museums were presented for the first time. This includes two kinds of material. The first, Traces of the Gulag, documents traces of the past left in the landscape, or created by man. These include photographs of objects from camps, chronicles and photographs from 1917-2008. The second, Necropolis of terror, consists of "hundreds of burial sites of victims of the terror in various stages of preservation and disintegration". The next task was to be the construction of "a actual virtual museum to house the collection - with multimedia presentation of exhibits, detailed museum documentation, reference materials, including thematic and other sections, signs, virtual card indexes, with thematic exhibitions, temporary or permanent exhibitions, and a dynamic system of virtual tours". The entire electronic archive of the project of over 500,000 items - exhibits, documents, photographs, texts - was confiscated by senior investigator M.G. Kalganov.

The second "non-museum" component of the collection concerns Memorial's role as the executor of the project of the International Memorial Society- Necropolis of Terror (Necropolis of the Gulag). "Memorial cemeteries connected with state terror in the USSR do not enjoy any special status in Russia today. The state has made no attempt at finding or recording the burial sites of victims of political repression. It is almost impossible to access documents relating to the organisations charged with carrying out the repression. Yet "murder for political purposes and mass repressions became the norm of political life in the 20th century. The 20th century not only left a legacy of unnamed graves (world wars, bloody dictatorships), it also introduced a new concept - graves (burial sites) as a state secret: secret mass political murders (secret state operations), secret burial sites. The places where sentences were carried out were carefully concealed throughout Soviet history. This was and remains the most heavily protected secret of the Cheka-OGPU-NKVD-KGB-FSB". As Arseny Roginsky said in his speech, "the secrecy surrounding the shooting was so great, and so little evidence has been found on this topic, that today we only know of some 100 burial sites of people shot in 1937-1938 - less than a third of the total, we reckon. For example, despite long efforts by researchers, it has not been possible to find even the graves of the victims of the famous ‘Kashketin shootings' near the Brick Factory by Vorkuta. As for camp cemeteries, we only know a few dozen of the several thousand that once existed."

For many years, this project could not find sponsors, and was implemented by volunteers and employees of Memorial. Over a period of five years, researchers corresponded with departments and archives, and collected information about burial sites from memoirs and newspaper publications. Part of their research is available on the new version of the Virtual Gulag Museum site. Only this year did we finally raise our first sponsorship from the D.S. Likachev International charitable foundation for the preparation and publication of the Gulag Necropolis register.

To date, the Prosecutor's Office has shown no interest in the site of mass shootings and burials in the district of Koirankangas. These graves, which have no official status, are located in the middle of the Rzhevsky artillery range near Petersburg. Access is closed, and the jurisdiction of the territory and the body responsible for supervising has remained unresolved since August 2002... The entire electronic archive of the project was confiscated in the search. This includes documents, materials, descriptions, forms, photographs of over 500 places of mass and individual shootings, camp and prison cemeteries, the cemeteries of internees, special settlers and conscripts in the labour army, as well as the graves of exiles on the territory of modern Russia.   

Memory of post-Stalinist and perestroika periods

Since 2006, Memorial has been the keeper of the Alexeev archive - the perestroika archive that was transferred from the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The first results of the work of describing and deciphering the archive were published on the Memorial site in January - the electronic archive of the samizdat magazine Merkurii. On the basis of the Alexeev archive, employees of Memorial and the Centre of independent sociological research, headed by A.D. Margolis, have on the basis of this archive been compiling the first encyclopedia reference of the Public and Political life of Leningrad 1985-1991, dedicated to the history of perestroika. The chroniclers of this "unique source on the history of a critical era" set out to collect and collate the testimony of those who participated directly in the stormy political life of Leningrad of the time. Many of them are no longer alive, and the number of witnesses is dwindling, which makes this task very relevant. 70 interviews with prominent public figures, representatives of the government and communist party of the time were recorded. A chronicle of events and a digest were compiled. Some 500 encyclopedia entries were written, and an archive of perestroika photographs was gathered - more than 20,000 electronic documents and files, an electronic archive of perestroika samizdat, and the raw material for future reference work. All of this was confiscated by Kalganov. The manuscript of the encyclopedia is at risk, as are the results of seven people's work throughout 2008.

Two of the 11 disks were removed from the computer of the late Veniamin Viktorovich Joffe, the founder of Memorial, even though these files only go up to 2006 (the reason given for the search was an article in the newspaper Novy Peterburg which came out in summer 2007). An electronic archive of articles, materials and data bases compiled by V.V. Joffe from 1969 was confiscated. This consisted of a database and information about more than 5,000 social democrats, 900 anarchists, and a database on political prisoners of the post-Stalinist period (since 1953).

Oral histories

Also taken were the files containing the international biographical readings in memory of V.V. Joffe "The Right to a Name. Biography of the 20th century", which is held every April at the European University in St. Petersburg;  the texts of papers, photographs, transcripts and digital recordings of discussions gathered since 2003 and the layouts of published collections of materials. The entire electronic archive of readings was also confiscated on 4 December.

So too was the whole of the  electronic archive of oral history. This makes up a special part of the Memorial archive, and includes documents and materials of oral history projects covering different periods, and also around 100 biographical resources (digitised photographs and documents gathered in the process of recording interviews). This consists of biographical and thematic interviews (digital and digitised sound files and transcripts) recorded since 1988. It includes interviews with participants of independent public movements (philosophical and religious circles, the Scouts movement), political prisoners of Soviet camps (1920s-1980s), dissidents and human rights activists (biographical and thematic interviews); the children and wives of repressed people, former prisoners of fascists camps and Ostarbeiter (eastern workers).

The main projects of the Memorial centre of oral history in recent years are:

  • 2005-2006: "Documentation of the lives of former slaves and convicts (eastern workers and prisoners of Nazi concentration camps)", work undertaken in conjunction with the Extra-Mural Institute of History and Biography (Hagen, Germany), and the Foundation for Memory, Responsibility and the Future (Berlin, Germany);
  • 2004-2005: The history of everyday life and mentality of families living in the USSR 1917-1956" , in conjunction with Dr Orlando Figes (University of London);
  • 2003-2004: Women's Memory, seminars on the method of recording oral interviews together with OWEN (Berlin, Germany).
  • 1992-2006: Dialogue. Soviet-Polish dissident ties and mutual influences. 1950s-1980s.

Databases, electronic card catalogues, photographs, digitized documents and materials on 50,000 repressed people covering the following subjects, among others:

  • The Red Terror,
  • The Great Terror,
  • Repressions in the Red Army
  • Repressed polytechnic graduates,
  • History of secret R & D institutes (sharashkas)
  • Places of imprisonment in Petrograd-Leningrad
  • Yuzef Chapsky,
  • History of Solovetsky special purpose camps,
  • The Gulag as coloniser of the Russian North,
  • The history of repressions of Petrograd-Leningrad (on the basis of this, Memorial employees have written around 100 articles for the St. Petersburg encyclopedia)

Will all of this be returned? When, and in what form? There is no answer.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData