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Keeping memory alive: the vital work of Russia’s Memorial organisation is under threat

Russian prosecutors are threatening the existence of an organisation dedicated to the independent preservation of historical memory and human rights

Editors of oDR
23 November 2021, 12.00am
1990: a monument to those who died in Soviet repressions is opened outside KGB headquarters in Moscow
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Source: International Memorial

Russia’s Memorial organisation faces two direct threats to its existence this week under the country’s ‘foreign agent’ legislation.

The organisation, which has existed for 33 years, is well known for its work in collecting information about Soviet state repressions and repressions in Russia today. But it is also known as the incubator of a whole host of human rights and civil society projects in the country - and as an international research hub.

Now, however, Russian prosecutors have brought two suits against the organisation. The first, by Moscow prosecutors, claims that Memorial has broken Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ legislation for not marking several books with the ‘foreign agent’ label at a book fair; the second, by the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office, argues that Memorial, through its work in defending and collecting information on political prisoners today, has also violated ‘foreign agent’ legislation by conducting “political activity”, and “justifying” terrorism.

“Whatever decision the court makes, it will not change the main point: Memorial is more than a legal entity. It is everyone who remembers the Soviet state terror, who protests against repression today, and who is ready to fight for the life and freedom of every individual,” the organisation stated. “Whatever happens, we will continue our work.”

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openDemocracy asked researchers outside Russia to explain why Memorial is important, and should be saved.

“Memorial has managed to bring memory into everyday life”

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Marek Radziwon | CC BY SA 4.0 / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

Marek Radziwon. Assistant professor, Centre for East European Studies, University of Warsaw

I first encountered Memorial in 2000, when I was researching the fate of Polish communists who died in Moscow during the Great Terror.

At the time, I was working mainly in the state archives, and I came to Memorial to look through the lists of those shot and buried in the Donskoye cemetery in Moscow – families of activists of the Polish Left, communists from the Third Comintern.

Later I spent five years working in its archives on the history of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union. I remember sitting in the reading room when Arseny Roginsky [a founder of Memorial, Soviet dissident and historian] a came in and said: “These papers will always be here. You need to meet people while they’re still alive.” Perhaps this wasn’t the most original thought, but it struck me, and I began to meet everyone from the Soviet dissident movement who I could. Those interviews could last for days, and were later published.

That experience is a reminder: Memorial is not just a legal entity or an office, or even the people who work there. It is a huge, multi-generational community. Indeed, you feel this in the contrast between the atmosphere in Memorial’s archives and that in the state archives. You can always ask for help there.

"Memorial helped shift the perception of Katyn – it is no longer a live, ‘hot’ piece of history that is under dispute"

Regarding Poland, it’s hard to overestimate the role of Memorial in revealing what happened at Katyn, when 22,000 Polish military personnel were killed by the NKVD [the Soviet Interior Ministry] in 1940. Memorial was crucial in finding the documents that showed what happened in the Russian state archives. We now know all the victims’ names, when and how they were killed, including who signed the orders in the Politburo and who pulled the trigger on the ground. In doing this, Memorial helped shift the perception of Katyn – it is no longer a live, ‘hot’ piece of history that is under dispute, including at the international level between Poland and Russia. Katyn is now ‘cold’ history. We can read the documents; there are few questions left about what happened, and that is also thanks to Memorial.

It’s important to note that Memorial is not just an institute that looks at the past, a museum. Through its human rights work, it is also thinking about Russian society today, and through its historical work, it keeps memory alive – whether via its annual Return of the Names [an annual public reading of names of people who were shot during the Great Terror in 1937-1938], or related projects such as Topography of Terror [an online map of Moscow locations associated with Stalinist repressions], the Last Address [an initiative that places plaques on apartment buildings to commemorate residents who were killed under Stalin] and its history competitions for school children. By doing this, Memorial has managed to bring memory into everyday life.

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Return of the Names, 2017 | (c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

“The story of Stalinism is a Eurasian story”

Niccolò Pianciola. Associate professor of history, Nazarbayev University

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Niccolò Pianciola | Image: Nazarbayev University

The threat to the Memorial association is a threat to the independent preservation of historical memory outside state institutions, and this is something that is very different from familiar threats to NGOs. This will have consequences for research outside Russia, simply because the story of Stalinism is a Eurasian story – there were victims from all over the world, from Europe and Asia.

In Kazakhstan, a local Memorial chapter was set up in the late 1980s, and it was called Adilet, which means ‘justice’ in Kazakh.

This organisation collected information about the repressions, lists of people who had been repressed – imprisoned, exiled or shot – in the country under Stalin. And it was markedly multi-ethnic in composition: there were Russians and Kazakhs working together to study the legacy of Stalinist repression. It is no longer active today, but over the years, the work of its members has been important for researchers, including those working on the Soviet legacy in Kazakhstan.

In effect, the Kazakh chapter was recovering documentary evidence about repressions, providing families with information about how, when and under what circumstances their relatives were killed by the Soviet state. Though some victims were [politically] rehabilitated after Stalin’s death in 1953, most people weren’t.

"Memorial has been crucial in contrasting official narratives on the history of Stalinism"

It’s difficult to understand this if you come either from a country where there was no dictatorship, or from a country where the dictatorship ended in 1945. For 55 years, Kazakhstan was a country where it was not possible to speak openly of the fact that one third of the population died because of government policies in the early 1930s, or that thousands of people were then shot in the Great Terror. So this kind of work has permitted people to reconnect with the past of their own families. It was, in effect, a political act of creating a new society in which some sort of closure was possible.

Memorial has been crucial in contrasting official narratives on the history of Stalinism. Even in today’s Kazakhstan society, there are still people who consider the famine in the late early 1930s as necessary for the country’s modernisation, especially ahead of the Second World War (though this is not the official position of the Kazakhstan government). But as my research shows, mass death during collectivisation has nothing to do with modernisation, it has to do with the fact that Kazakhstan was used as a reserve for livestock and meat for big cities in Soviet Russia.

So far, it is unclear how this will end, but if Memorial is liquidated, it is possible it will have an impact on the politics towards the past elsewhere, too.

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Samizdat literature | CC BY SA 4.0 / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

“One day you’re studying a samizdat text from the 1970s, the next you’re having tea with the person who wrote it”

Josie von Zitzewitz. Lecturer in Russian, New College, University of Oxford

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Josie von Zitzewitz | Source: Personal archive

In the late 1960s and 1970s, an entire unofficial literary sphere began to flourish in Moscow and St Petersburg.

It was made up of younger intellectuals who realised that the Soviet Union’s official literary journals were not for them – their work would either not be published or censored. And so they started setting up their own journals and writers’ circles.

These self-made journals and seminars in people’s apartments made up a whole cultural underground, which, of course, was forbidden, because any such activities should run through state-approved or state-sponsored channels. Today, if you buy a book from this period, it’s usually a book which will have first circulated in samizdat.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s when Memorial sprang up, people who had often simply amassed these manuscripts at home gave them to the organisation. And because these texts had no print runs, were often submitted anonymously and so on, there is often little information about their circumstances – they need a context. The people who work at Memorial were themselves witnesses to this period, and can always help you understand. One day you’re studying a samizdat text from the 1970s, the next you’re having tea with the person who wrote it, all thanks to Memorial.

Indeed, the Memorial branches in St Petersburg and Moscow have collected an enormous amount of written, but also oral, testimonies from eyewitnesses. Anybody who is interested in history, sociological questions or literary history needs to understand the context in which it was produced. If you want to know why people were silent under Stalinism, you need to hear their testimonies. So the fact that Memorial has recorded the experiences of people who were not great dissidents or activists is invaluable. When scholars look from a bird’s eye perspective, they may often say when reading a document for the first time: “Oh, that's interesting material.” But Memorial’s work reminds us that these documents we have from the past are also artefacts of people’s lives.

As somebody born in Germany, another country with a monstrous and murderous past, I am actually astonished that the Russian state leaves the work of making sense of history to a handful of people working on a shoestring budget – and then tries to put spanners in the works.

“Closure will become a stigma”

Anke Giesen. Member of the Board of International Memorial, Memorial Germany

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Anke Gisen | Source: Personal archive

The German Memorial organisation was founded in 1992, by people who wanted to support the St Petersburg - at that time Leningrad – Memorial. We supported work with people who survived the Gulag, repression and went through the Leningrad blockade. We forged personal ties with this generation, provided these people with all possible financial aid.

The German organisation is part of International Memorial, and we are included in important decisions on the organisations’ development. That said, all the organisations – including the ones in Czechia, Belgium, France and Italy – work independently of one another.

Soon after that initial work, our organisation decided to deal with Soviet repressions in East Germany. During the Soviet occupation, people could be detained on false charges; there were committees that passed sentences without any legal framework. Almost nothing was known about these people in the GDR, the topic was taboo. In West Germany no one was interested in this.

In particular, German Memorial was the first to start working on the KGB prison in Potsdam, where people were detained by the occupation authorities. We ensured that this prison became a memorial: you can learn about the fate of German citizens who fell into the hands of the security services, and were then sent to Moscow and shot. Now we are working to promote the memory of repressions against Russian Germans [ethnic Germans living on what is now Russian Federation territory]. We want more information about them in Germany itself.

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The Memorial organisation's newspaper ahead of its founding conference in 1989 | Source: International Memorial

"Closure will not directly affect our work in Germany, because we are independent of the decision of the Russian prosecutor’s office"

If the General Prosecutor’s Office succeeds in closing International Memorial, all other organisations, in principle, will be able to continue working - only the powerful centre will cease to exist, and there will be no overall coordination. This will be, of course, a very powerful blow – but a new parent organisation could be founded outside of Russia. We have different thoughts about how something can be reorganised legally so that if International Memorial is closed, its property – archive collections, library - could be protected from confiscation, and so that on the basis of another legal entity it would be possible work on.

For Russian organisations, in my opinion, closure will become a stigma, and will do them the most harm. They receive a lot of materials, guidance from the parent organisation. International Memorial provides assistance to its other members. And I am afraid that it will be difficult for small organisations representing Memorial, for example somewhere in the North of Russia, without this support from the centre: the people working in them are no longer young, and these organisations may simply disappear.

A closure will not directly affect our work in Germany, because we are independent of the decision of the Russian prosecutor’s office. But, of course, this affects our mood, and we really want to support our Russian colleagues. While we are waiting for the trial, we are trying to provide all possible assistance: we’re running a petition and pickets in front of the Russian Embassy. We hope that this international attention will protect our Russian colleagues.

“Memorial is not just a place for keeping documents. It is also a public platform, it is a home”

Emilia Koustova. Head of the Slavic Department, University of Strasbourg, Member of Memorial in France

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Emilia Koustova | Source: University of Strasbourg

Memorial is one of the most important actors when it comes to research, publications, museum and exhibition activities. Many of those who created it in 1989 participated in the Soviet dissident movement, collecting archival documents and evidence back then. They played a key role in making many documents available during the so-called “archival revolution”, when Soviet archives began to open in the early 1990s.

We, professional historians, continue to use what [Memorial members] Arseny Roginsky, Nikita Petrov and Nikita Okhotin did – and I am sure we will rely on this for a long time in the future. I have named only three historians, in fact there are many more of them, and probably there is no page of Stalinist history that Memorial and its employees have not helped to a large extent to write. Alas, in modern Russia, for at least the last 20 years, the reverse process has been going on - archives are becoming more and more closed, and many collections have been withdrawn from public use.

In this context, we had the idea to open a French branch, which was officially registered in May 2020. By that time, Memorial had already been proclaimed a “foreign agent” in Russia, and pressure on the Moscow, St Petersburg and other regional Memorial organisations took various forms. It has become clear to many in France that Memorial’s position in Russia is precarious and fragile, and attacks on it continue. A similar community (the Association of Friends of Memorial) existed in France since 2009, but in recent years it has not been active, and among historians the idea arose to create a new association.

As it turns out, there is no direct relationship between the willingness to talk about Stalinist repressions and the degree of democracy in a country

Naturally, Memorial’s work is very important for people who live outside of Russia. Firstly, the Stalinist repressions are not only about Russia, it is also about the entire post-Soviet space. Secondly, this applies to all those who, for example, were affected in Europe or outside Europe. As a historian, I study deportations from Eastern Europe, including from the Baltic states, western Ukraine, as well as in Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria - people who have been affected by various waves of repression and deportation. Their descendants also live in these countries, and they also live in Western Europe and France.

When we registered the French Memorial and began to spread information about it, emails immediately began to pour in: “I know that my grandfather was repressed, expelled... Could you help me find some information about him?” We forwarded these requests to International Memorial, they have people who are able to help.

For educated people in France, interest in Soviet history has not disappeared, and is seen as something completely legitimate. And Soviet history in all its tragic manifestations is recognised as a part of European history, and one that needs to be known.

With the closure of Memorial, we will be deprived of a very important place, one of the very few free and very productive sites for science, culture and education. Memorial is not just a place for keeping documents and people who do very important work - it is also a public platform, it is a home.

In general, in Europe, there should be more support for Memorial among political elites. It is another what these elites are ready to do and what they are capable of influencing. It very much depends on the specific situation in each country: in France, the right and extreme right demonstrate a great tolerance for violations of human rights in Russia, and some of them openly sympathise with Vladimir Putin, and rely on financing from Russia.

It is a very specific situation in eastern and central Europe, where, on the one hand, the topic of Stalinist repressions is central to national historical memory, to public consciousness and to the political landscape - it is a central topic in the Baltic states, and there you can probably count on much more explicit support. But on the other hand, as we know, all this can be combined in some cases with trends that are not at all in the direction of the development and protection of the rights of public organisations, the development of civil society – for example, in Poland. As it turns out, there is no direct relationship between the willingness to talk about Stalinist repressions and the degree of democracy in a country.

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