Arseny Roginsky: Giving Russia its history back

On 18 December, Arseny Roginsky, historian, dissident and one of the founders of Russia’s Memorial society, passed away. He will be sorely missed. RU

Mikhail Kaluzhsky
20 December 2017


Arseny Roginsky. Source: Memorial Archive.

“For me, the archive (and I mean, of course, only literary and historical archives) is the natural continuation of the library. And unpublished archival documents are in no way different from published documents, you can treat them as accidentally unpublished or as-yet-unpublished. I believe it’s necessary to explain this now because I often meet people far from historical research who are sincerely convinced that archives always contain classified documents, or documents that might defame someone or something. And that’s why they only let chosen people into archives, people endowed with some ‘special trust’, and that that’s how it should be. This idea of what an archive is, is, of course, completely mistaken. Just as mistaken as an attempt to classify documents as more important or less important, more valuable or less valuable. Every document is important, every document is valuable as evidence of our past.”

This quotation is not from a lecture or an excerpt from a public discussion. It is Arseny Roginsky’s final statement (called “The status of a historian in the USSR) before a Soviet court, and he made it on 4 December 1981, after which Roginsky was sentenced to four years in prison. Formally, Roginsky was sentenced for “forging documents”, but in reality, for samizdat, his work on the underground historical journal Memory.

This is perhaps one of the most unusual speeches made at a political trial. Roginsky, a historian, librarian at Leningrad Public Library and graduate of Tartu University, doesn’t talk about his ideological confrontation with the Soviet authorities or human rights defence, but what we call “freedom of information” today. Indeed, the right to information and preservation of history was Roginsky’s ideological axiom. He tried to guarantee this right during an era of bans (and punishment for breaking them), in an era when the right to information could in fact be realised, and today, when the Russian state is once again depriving citizens of accessing their own history, closing off archives and presenting its own pop-version of the past instead of critically reflecting upon it.

The most important thing that Memorial managed to do for Russian society is give it a sense that history — whether of a state, region or individual family — can belong to everyone

It is this work that has become one of the main focuses for International Memorial, which Roginsky helped found in the late 1980s.  

It’s enough to say that Roginsky ran Memorial for many years: perhaps Memorial did (and still does) more for the study of Russian history than other academic organisations. But the most important thing that Memorial managed to do for Russian society is give it a sense that history — whether of a state, region or individual family — can belong to everyone. Memorial has become a model of the approach whereby rights defence, historical research, popular outreach and artistic practices merge together.


Arseny Roginsky. Source: Memorial Archive.

Arseny Roginsky will be remembered with a smile, and almost always with a cigarette in his mouth. A man with a razor-sharp mind, a great sense of irony and self-deprecation. Incredibly erudite, he was a diplomat who understood what made people tick, and could find ideal solutions for complex situations — and never sacrificed his principles. This is why his role in civic organisations and initiatives amounted to more than just his formal status as Chairman of Memorial’s board. As Sergei Lukashevsky, director of Moscow’s Sakharov Center, put it: Roginsky was “a special kind of dispatcher in the complex, often contradictory network of Russian civic initiatives and structures, which he didn’t let disappear into dead-ends, helping them figure out the most difficult problems”. Everyone who knew or worked with him says this.

I was lucky enough to have Arseny Borisovich in my life, and I’ll always be grateful for the lessons he taught me (though it’s unlikely he considered those conversations “lessons”). But his human and intellectual generosity always converted into indispensable experience — whether it was precise professional advice or assistance in everyday matters.

Our last meeting, more than a year ago, was completely normal — we went out for a smoke on the porch of Memorial in central Moscow and spoke about everything at once, although the main topic was Russia’s “foreign agents” legislation.  

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Arseny Roginsky. Source: Memorial Archive.

When I visited Memorial earlier this year, Roginsky had already left Moscow for cancer treatment in Israel. Memorial was hosting a hackathon — dozens of programmers and young people (who didn’t look anything like your usual human rights defenders) were thinking up new ways of making Memorial’s databases more accessible. (“History belongs to everyone, every document is valuable.”) In the absence of genuine political competition in Russia, history and memory have become intellectually fashionable and a sphere for applied politics.

No matter how Russia’s regimes and leaders change, it’s impossible to undo what Arseny Roginsky has done.

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