Notebook: Memorial, Memorials, Memory, History (Part I)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Last week, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the “liquidation” of Memorial, a group identified even by Russian President Vladimir Putin just a few weeks before as “one of the most reputable organizations” advocating for human rights in Russia. Memorial began in the dawn of Russian liberalization, in 1987, as a petition by a group of young people to erect a monument to “victims of Stalinist repressions,” many of whom had not at the time been officially recognized, and many of whose families could not even speak of their experiences, which included remote deaths never acknowledged, bodies never found, graves never identified. It quickly evolved into a “historical and educational society,” holding meetings amidst the burgeoning de-censorship of the moment to debate historical issues, appointing beloved physicist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov as chairman, and eventually creating an archive, research center, and public library documenting the formerly cloaked history of Soviet repressions. Memorial’s database of victims of political terror now includes over 3.1 million entries, a figure that researchers believe still represents only a fraction of the total.
Memorial founder, historian Arseny Roginsky, wrote when he and his colleagues created one of the prototypes of the organization, a journal called Memory founded way back in 1976 as a “counterarchive, a repository of unofficial, first-person accounts of the history of Stalinism” (as Benjamin Nathans described it): “The most important thing for us is to extract historical facts from their condition of nonexistence, to rescue them from forgetting and to bring them into scholarly and public circulation.” Roginsky himself had been born in a forced labor camp and had spent four years in prison for forging documents to enter secret archives to research the disappeared. Tamara Eydelman wrote, in a chapter of Irina Prokhorova’s book 1990: Russians Remember a Turning Point, of the turmoil around the sudden revelation of long-hidden facts in the world of history teachers: “By 1990, the old Soviet history textbooks simply seemed ridiculous. In search of alternative history sources, teachers rushed to the literary journals, newspapers, television broadcasts.” “Everyone remembered 1988,” she wrote, “when the perplexed authorities cancelled history exams throughout the USSR because no one knew what to teach or what questions to set.” One teacher told her of the period, “I used texts in my lessons that I had just been able to read myself for the first time.” It was a moment when a formerly furtive group like Memorial became literarily the source of history.
The charge against Memorial is based on Russia’s infamous 2012 measure requiring organizations that receive funds from outside Russia to declare themselves “foreign agents” and submit to elaborate disclosure requirements, engineered to elicit failure. (The day before Memorial was ordered closed, a Russian court added two years to the thirteen-year sentence of Yuri Dmitriev, chairman of the Karelian region’s branch of Memorial, who uncovered mass graves of political prisoners executed under Stalin near the Finnish border and was convicted on what supporters call fabricated charges of pedophilia.) The foreign agents law does not only constrain political dissent: arts and culture organizations, magazines and publishers, groups advocating on environmental issues, are all threatened with the law’s loose definition of “political activity” from operating outside the orbit of state scrutiny by seeking funds from abroad. (Remember many Russians live and keep their money outside of Russia, especially those more skeptical of the state.) Yet the very existence of non-governmental organizations in Russia is tied up with Memorial: At Andrei Sakharov’s funeral in December 1989, then Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, following custom, asked Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, what he could do for her, and she asked him to allow Memorial to register as an independent citizens’ organization—no such thing then existed in the USSR—which he did.
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Memorial’s alleged disclosure violations, though, are the point of a long sword. Russian officials have been open about equating “foreign influence” with anti-patriotic purpose (Putin: “What we need to do though is protect ourselves from potential external interference in our domestic affairs. We need to protect ourselves from anyone using any kind of tool in Russia to pursue their goals that have nothing to do with our interests … we must prevent the use of any tool that would ultimately get in the way of our development or lead to the destruction of our country and our society”; Memorial prosecutor Aleksei Zhafyarov: “Memorial only ‘speculated on the topic of political repressions’ but … in reality it tried to portray the Soviet Union as ‘a terrorist state’”; an officer in Yuri Dmitriev’s region of Karelia: the commemoration of Stalin’s victims “created an ‘unfounded sense of guilt’ and been used by ‘foreign powers for propaganda against Russia.’” It’s a bad sign when government officials decide that patriotism demands the suppression of truths that make people uncomfortable.
In Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed in July a bill making it illegal for “any state agency,” enumerating in particular schools, to “require” the concepts that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” Of course the extent to which an individual feels discomfort or anguish on account of actions undertaken, on their behalf or otherwise, by others is a delicate matter of conscience, but for laws to bestir themselves to protect us from agents of historical anguish invokes worrisome precedents. This same year, books about race and sexual identification have been challenged in US schools and school libraries to such a degree, and with such apparently organized intent, that the American Library Association sounded the alarm. “It’s a volume of challenges I’ve never seen in my time at the ALA—the last twenty years. We’ve never had a time when we’ve gotten four or five reports a day for days on end, sometimes as many as eight in a day,” said ALA director Deborah Caldwell-Stone. (Prior to the protests against the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, lists of most-banned books in schools and school libraries were dominated by those with LGBTQ themes. Notably this is also an area of intense scrutiny in authoritarian post-Soviet countries. A bookshop in Hungary was fined in July for selling a combined edition of Lawrence Schimel’s picture books for children, Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime!, which feature children with same-sex parents going about their day. The same book, in a translation by poet Dmitry Kuzmin, was published in Russia a month later in defiance of the country’s “gay propaganda law” by the LGBTQ advocacy group, Sphere, which has said the law “doesn’t protect anyone from anything” and is about “limiting information” for gay people and their families. One notes that the Russian judicial system also turned to the stigma of sexual accusations to persecute Memorial’s Yuri Dmitriev. Channeling guilt and morality along officially sanctioned lines, particularly in relation to children, seems to be a frequent recourse of censors …)
(Read Part Two of this post here.)
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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