Aleksandr Cherkasov: ‘Life in Search of Meaning: Enlightening Hearts.’ Speech at the Global Peace Photo Award ceremony on 14 November 2022 at the Austrian Parliament
Photo: Nikita Mouraviev

2 December 2022

by Aleksandr Cherkasov

Speech delivered at the Global Peace Photo Award ceremony on 14 November 2022 at the Austrian Parliament

Good evening. And thank you for the honour of participating in this award ceremony for such a prestigious prize.

Not being an artist – an artist of light – I nonetheless understand, it seems, what kind of labour and what kind of talent it takes to fulfil the demand of Dr. Faustus to capture the fleeting moment of time: ‘Stay a while! You are so beautiful!

But it can be the other way round: a moment can be so monstrous it is all the more necessary to capture it. To make sure people remember. So that it would not be repeated: ‘Never again…’


This honour – to participate in the award ceremony – is in fact not given to me personally, but to Memorial, which was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. We, Memorial, share this prize with Ales Bialiatski, head of the leading Belarusian human rights organization Viasna who is in prison, and the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties. The Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s prize to human rights defenders in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, who are under severe pressure, to underline their solidarity, has raised questions. Is it really possible to put them on the same footing? After all, we must not forget that we are talking about an aggressor country, a country that supported the aggression, and a country that is victim of aggression. But civil society organizations are not serfs. Ales Bialiatski does not belong to Lukashenka, and Memorial does not work for Putin. Civil society is precisely a non-governmental organization – and for non-governmental organizations borders are not so important. It is another matter that in Russia there is a crackdown, in Belarus mass repressions, and in Ukraine bombs and drones.

From the very beginning, in 2014, Memorial condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine and called them aggression, as defined by the United Nations. For this, in particular, the Russia authorities included International Memorial in the so-called ‘register of foreign agents.’

Our joint missions in the conflict zone in the Donbas with our Ukrainian colleagues continued to work for as long as possible. When the prosecutor’s office was looking for a way to justify the liquidation of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, it referred to the fact that our report on the so-called ‘referendum’ on independence held in the Donetsk region in May 2014 was one of the grounds for imposing sanctions against Russia.


In fact, for many years Memorial – and remember the Memorial initiative group was founded 35 years ago, in the autumn of 1987 – has tried to do something similar to what the laureates of today’s ceremony do: to document the past, the totalitarian past of Russia and Europe in the twentieth century, the century of totalitarian empires, in order to prevent such things from happening again. To be truly able to say, ‘Never again.’

What kinds of memory are needed for this? What needs to be preserved in order to prevent a repetition? The memory of the victims, of course. And another memory – that of the experience of living with dignity in unimaginable circumstances. The memory of the Resistance. And also, obviously, to remember is to fight. To fight the impunity of criminals.

Furthernore, when dealing with the Soviet past one cannot not ignore its continuation in the post-Soviet present. All the years since the Soviet collapse, Memorial Human Rights Centre has worked on contemporary human rights violations and on the post-Soviet wars (and by the way, Memorial organizations are numerous, here I mention just two, but don’t try to figure everything out if your sanity is dear to you – the Russian prosecutor’s office is still trying to figure it out!). We documented violations, we helped victims, we demanded justice…

The irony is that it was in 2022 when the Russian authorities liquidated us (the decision to shut down Memorial International entered into force on 28 February and the decision to shut down the Human Rights Centre on 5 April) that the failure of our mission had become apparent! It was clear then that the past had returned: Russia unleashed an aggressive war and domestic repression. And my country had become ‘the sick man of the continent.’ This can hardly be called a victory. It was no victory for us, no victory for civil society, no victory for the cause of human rights and no victory for the cause of peace. And that’s precisely when Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!

Yes, those in the Memorial community continue to help displaced Ukrainian citizens in Russia, issuing reports and drawing up lists of political prisoners. In various cities and countries – not just in Russia! – exhibitions are being put on, ‘Last Address’ signs are being put up on buildings from which victims of Terror were taken away forever, to their deaths (this campaign is analogous to the Stolpersteine in German cities). The ‘Return of the Names’ – the reading out of names of those executed every year on 29 October in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square near the former KGB headquarters that began 15 years ago – was banned this year. But nevertheless, ‘Return of the Names’ took place in 77 cities and 22 countries and was broadcast online.

But what was the point of it?


Speaking here today, I can’t help but think of certain coincidences in space and time – even if accidental.

Last Friday, 11 November of this year, 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated Kherson, the only regional centre in the country that Russian troops had been able to take since the start of the aggression on 24 February.

A year ago, on 11 November 2021, in the tenth year of the campaign against ‘foreign agents,’ we at Memorial learned that the Russian state wanted, finally, to liquidate us.

And on 11 November 1918, 104 years ago, the Great War, which brought incalculable losses to the peoples of Europe, ended. The end of the war was marked by the collapse of empires – the German, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian.

In the coincidences of these dates, it’s also possible to look for a certain meaning.

But if we return to the question of empires, we see that sometimes they do ‘come back.’

One, the German Empire, returned twenty years later as the Third Reich.

Another, the Russian Empire, returned four years later, as the Soviet Union.

And again one hundred and four years later. But the frontiers of this empire no longer stand here, on the Danube. This empire has now been stopped on the Dnepr.

Actually, the Danube is the ‘river of empires’ – the Austro-Hungarian, and before that, the Holy Roman Empire of the German peoples. Even earlier, the Roman Empire. At that time here, along the Rhine and Danube, were the ‘Limes,’ which the Romans considered the border between barbarism and civilization. Notions and assessments have changed a little since then: both Rome and empires in general are no longer perceived as unconditionally good.

But the name of the emperor who died in this place, in Vindobona, present-day Vienna, eighteen centuries ago, Marcus Aurelius, has been preserved. He was not by nature a warlike man, but he was forced by circumstances to fight.

He was a Stoic philosopher who brought something new to the Stoics’ teachings: reason. In addition to body and soul, the human being is endowed with reason. And reason, as the overriding principle, leads humanity to liberation from fear, to self-realization, to the fullness of a life endowed with meaning, a life worth living. To everything that is so sorely lacking today.

Centuries after the fall of the ‘Limes,’ another frontier was established in Vienna. It was here that were laid the beginnings of modern psychology, looking beyond borders into the darker side of human nature.

And it was in this city that people were born and worked in the darkest days of the Nazi dictatorship, who, through their own experience, determined the path of human survival in such times. I shall name just two people who wrote texts of the utmost importance both for my generation of Soviet people and for those who are only now entering on life in Russia. They are Bruno Bettelheim, with his concentration camp experience, who wrote The Informed Heart, and Viktor Frankl, also a concentration camp survivor and one who lost almost all his family there, who is the author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

These are people whose experiences surpassed anything a Stoic emperor could have imagined. The experience of living human life with dignity in unimaginable circumstances.

A life in search of meaning. The enlightenment of hearts. And that, I think, is what is needed.

And that is exactly what you do. Capturing the moment with the magic of photography, a visual chronicle, you are looking for meaning – and you pass it on to humanity. With a flash of light, you illuminate human souls.

I’d like to think that together we have a common cause.

Thank you!

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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