Profiles in Decency

Pravo na Pamiat [The Right to Memory]

a documentary film directed by Ludmila Gordon

Meeting Gorbachev

a documentary film directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer
Supporters of the Memorial Society taking part in an International Workers’ Day march, Moscow, May 1990
The Memorial Society Archives
Supporters of the Memorial Society taking part in an International Workers’ Day march, Moscow, May 1990

Arseny Roginsky was that rarest of creatures: a Soviet dissident whose influence on his country waxed rather than waned after the collapse of the USSR. From 1998 until his death in 2017 at age seventy-one, Roginsky led the Memorial Society, a Moscow-based nongovernmental organization with a dual mission: to document and increase public awareness of mass repressions during the Soviet era, and to promote human rights and civil society in contemporary Russia. Memorial’s staff has done pathbreaking research on the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of millions of Soviet citizens, a grim task that has taken them to countless archives as well as previously unidentified sites of mass killing across the former USSR.

“Half the country doesn’t know where their great-grandfathers are buried,” Roginsky laments in Ludmila Gordon’s eloquent and absorbing film The Right to Memory. If one takes into account the tens of millions of deaths associated with the two world wars, Russia’s civil war, the various famines and deportations, along with the Great Terror and the Gulag, then Roginsky is probably right. Memorial has focused on deaths intentionally caused by the Soviet state, bringing them to public consciousness through exhibitions, monuments, websites, books, and high school essay contests. Its databases made possible the “Last Address” initiative, in which some two thousand palm-sized plaques have been mounted on the façades of apartment buildings, each indicating the name, occupation, and dates of birth, arrest, and execution of a former resident of that building. Many include the date of official rehabilitation—proof, if anyone needs it, that an innocent life was destroyed.

Memorial’s approach to Russia’s past is unabashedly present-minded, designed to foster what the cultural historian Alexander Etkind called “the return of the repressed” to contemporary public discourse.1 By the same token, its advocacy on behalf of current victims of human rights violations draws on that past, positioning human rights as a means of “preventing a return to totalitarianism,” according to its mission statement. Memorial’s lawyers and activists have worked to document human rights violations in war zones, including the conflict in Chechnya and Russia’s wars against Georgia and Ukraine. They advocate on behalf of refugees, migrant workers, ethnic and religious minorities, and a new generation of political prisoners.

Either aspect of Memorial’s work—on the history of Soviet repressions or on contemporary human rights violations—would guarantee close scrutiny by the Kremlin. Together these missions have ensured a crescendo of efforts to stigmatize or silence the organization and its affiliates in some fifty Russian cities. Those efforts accelerated in 2012 with the passage of a law requiring Russian NGOs to renounce all funding from abroad or else to register themselves as inostrannye agenty, “foreign agents,”…

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