Arseny Roginsky: ‘We live in a world of unsettled outcomes’

18 December 2022

A speech by the late Arseny Roginsky, co-founder and long-time head of Memorial, that he delivered on 14 November 2014 in Brussels to mark the award to Memorial of the Pax Christi International Peace Prize in 2013. The speech was republished on 18 December 2022 by Roginsky’s colleague, Aleksandr Cherkasov, on his Facebook page on the fifth anniversary of Roginsky’s death.

Source: Facebook

On the occasion of fifth anniversary [of Roginsky’s death] and thinking over all the debates we had about memory, repentance, guilt, and responsibility, here is an important (programmatic, to my mind) piece by Arseny Borisovich Roginsky, ‘We live in a world of unsettled outcomes.’ This was an acceptance speech for the Pax Christi International Peace Prize, awarded to Memorial in 2013.

Aleksandr Cherkasov, Facebook, 18 December 2022. [Photo by Nikita Mouraviev]

Dear friends,

It is customary at such ceremonies to start by thanking those who awarded us the prize. And I will get to this, of course, only a little later. I should like to begin by telling you about Memorial.

International Memorial isn’t a single organisation in Moscow, but a network of several dozen entirely independent organisations based largely in Russia, but also in Ukraine, Latvia, and other countries. We are all united by the same goals. We have two main areas of focus: human rights, and historical-educational. And, of course, we provide legal and social assistance to past victims of the terror. Each organisation decides on their own principal activity. These groups are very different: some are really quite small, while others are large, their work involving hundreds of people in their region. The Memorial organisations tend to have a complicated, and often strained, relationship with the authorities. But, despite all the challenges, we have been around for twenty-five years now.

We aren’t a union of historians – far from it, although there are a few professional historians amongst us. Our main concern isn’t research (although we do a fair amount of that), but something else: how to share the knowledge of Soviet state terror, acquired by historians, with a wider public and make it part of our collective historical memory. This involves:

  • Publishing articles on the history of the terror and organising symposiums, presentations and public rallies;
  • Producing and holding exhibitions, and encouraging local museums to create their own exhibits on the subject of the Terror and the Gulag;
  • Working with local communities to perpetuate the memory of victims of the Terror;
  • Compiling consolidated reference works of national importance using local information sources. One example of this is the electronic disk ‘Victims of political terror in the USSR’, which we produced in Moscow in 2007 based on local Memory Books and which contains over two and a half million names;
  • Perhaps most importantly, delivering educational and awareness-raising projects to schools: to teachers and schoolchildren.

This is the sort of historical and educational work that Memorial does, in Moscow and in the regions.

The human rights advocacy we do is varied. It involves delivering pro bono legal advice to the public, monitoring detention facilities, providing legal protection against police brutality, and lots more besides, depending on the local circumstances.

Many organisations do this. But Memorial also does certain types of activity for which it is known, like protecting the rights of migrants and public advocacy for political prisoners (unfortunately, they have appeared once again in our country). We also offer advice to those who, not having found protection in Russian courts, are forced to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The most typical sort of work done by Memorial is in ‘hot spots’, primarily in the Northern Caucasus, where wars break out or violence smoulders. This mainly involves monitoring events, investigating murders and kidnappings, and disseminating information about developments. I don’t even know if you could call the work we do in ‘hot spots’ like Chechnya or Dagestan protecting human rights. To an extent, we simply stop people from killing each other. Anyway, as I understand it, this is precisely the kind of activity that put us on the Pax Christi radar.

Another thing is that in many regions, Memorial has ended up becoming a nucleus of civic life, and many people look to it for guidance on a range of critical issues. Naturally, this doesn’t make us terribly popular with the current government – well, so be it! – although this can sometimes lead to trouble. More importantly, it imposes a heavy responsibility on us for our words and actions. Later on, I’ll speak mostly about responsibility – civic responsibility for everything that happens around us.

But first, a word of thanks.

So, I would like to thank you on behalf of International Memorial for the prize you have awarded to our society.

These thanks are not simply an empty gesture or a formality. It isn’t just that receiving an award from Pax Christi, whose work is known and respected around the world, would be a great honour for anyone and for any organisation. 

It’s also that we at Memorial feel a certain spiritual affinity for a movement that, just like our own, arose in response to the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 20th century. Pax Christi, to my knowledge, was born out of deep reflection on the experiences of World War II. For Memorial, the experiences being reflected upon were terror and violence, which the peoples of the Soviet Union endured over many decades at the hands of their own state.

World wars and state terror are two very different types of historical catastrophes. But they are similar in their sources and in certain essential characteristics, although they have led to quite different consequences.

The prelude to the worldwide tragedy of 1939-1945 was the triumph of state coercion in the two largest European countries, Germany and the Soviet Union. Both during the war and during the terror there was a devaluation of fundamental human values: the values of human life, human dignity, and human freedom.

In postwar Western Europe, the experience of Nazism, the experience of World War II, was the basis for the recreation of social relations based on reviving the principles of democracy, freedom, and law. It seems to me that this happened largely because the tragic lesson was understood and made sense of. As much as it is within human powers to make sense in general of Auschwitz, Dachau, Dresden, and Hiroshima.

But Russia did not make sense of the terror.

I’ll mention the two most important factors that influenced the formation of the memory about the terror — its length and its scale.

The terror — first mass, then selective — lasted 70 years. Even if you count only the period of mass terrorist campaigns, from 1918 to 1953, that still comes to 35 years, three times more than, for instance, the reign of “national socialism” in Germany.

About five million people were arrested during that period on political charges alone; more than a million of them were executed, the rest sent to prison camps. More than six million ended up in special labour-camp settlements in the North, in Siberia and Kazakhstan, without any individual charges at all, as a result of mass deportations.

Moreover, we can add the more than six million peasants (by no means only Ukrainians, as many believe) who died during the man-made famine of 1932-1933 to the direct victims.

Let us not forget the millions of people convicted on various trivial charges, like being late to work, or moving to a new place of work without the bosses’ permission.

And despite all this, in Russia, even after the fall of the Communist order, the principles of freedom, law, and democracy did not become the basis for public life. Why?

The Memorial society works primarily in two areas: the collective historical memory and the contemporary civic consciousness. Our answer to this question will also be twofold: the causes of democracy and freedom in Russia are in poor shape because our historical memory is fragmented and contradictory and our civic consciousness is weak.

Why is our civic consciousness weak? For decades, the people in our country were told that any publicly significant initiative — I emphasize, any initiative, not necessarily oppositional or even political but, for example, cultural or religious, or social, even humanitarian — if not sanctioned by state authorities would be brutally punished. In some periods very brutally, by prison or even execution; in others less brutally — but punished.

The Terror led to the fact that in the country of victorious collectivism there was no such thing as society in general. There was only the populace, atomized and disconnected, filled with complete mutual distrust. Permeated by fear, a fear deeply rooted in the subconscious of the little man facing the almighty state. Permeated by doublethink and its inevitable consequence: cynicism and the total relativization of moral values.

People gradually got used to the fact that they were responsible for nothing, that the state was responsible for everything, both good and bad. For many, this kind of existence was fairly comfortable. In these conditions, the sense of civic responsibility in the mass consciousness atrophied, remaining the legacy of individuals that was tortuous and sometimes fatal for them.

When with Stalin’s death the period of mass terror ended, independent public activism began to revive little by little. The dissidents of the late Soviet period were not without exception political oppositionists, after all. The majority of dissidents simply wanted to be citizens. They felt a civic responsibility toward their country. But the state considered dissident activism to be political opposition and put many of them behind bars. On this ground, a protest movement arose that began to be called the human rights movement. It is with the dissidents that the first attempts began at reviving civil society in our country.

They were no longer just a few individuals but tens and hundreds of people. Still, they were too few for the warped civic mentality to be restored as a socially and politically significant phenomenon.

Perestroika, which began in the mid-1980s, changed little. After all, freedom was given to the population from the top, at the state’s decision. People understood one thing, that now they didn’t have to obey the state, they could even demand something of it, so that it, the state, would do something good for people. The idea that not only the government but also the citizens themselves are responsible for what goes on in the country, that each one of us is responsible, has made very slow and hesitant headway; more than one generation may have to pass for this idea to become our universal heritage.

Now as to memory.

The most important feature of our memory of terror is memory of its victims. It is about the victims, but not about the crime. All but the rabid Stalinists are ready to honour the memory of the victims. And there is a national consensus on this. But there is no consensus about who is guilty, who is a criminal.

There are several reasons.

1. In legal terms, the mass consciousness has nothing to rely on when trying to understand who is a criminal. There is not a single credible judicial decision about a single individual case concerning the organizers or active participants in terror. In post-communist Russia for over 20 years not a single case has been brought against investigators, heads of camps, party functionaries, and participants in the terror. Not a single one. But the most important thing is that no state legal act has ever been passed which would make state terror a crime.

2. In our minds it is not so easy to separate the victims from the executioners. For example, many activists of the terror from among party functionaries were engaged, in parallel with their participation in terror, in important economic activities that were necessary for the people, such as building factories and hospitals and the urban environment. The terrorist aspect of their activities was hidden from the population, while the economic aspect was in plain view, and in many places people retained an appreciative memory of them. In addition, many of these figures later became victims themselves, and this evokes sympathy. Indeed, many people develop the feeling that it is better not to think about all of this than to try to understand it. All these complicated and difficult issues are squeezed out of one’s consciousness.

3. It is relatively easy and straightforward to construct a national memory of terror around the antithesis of ‘our people’ and ‘outsiders.’ Our people are the good, outsiders are bad. Ours are the victims, and outsiders are the executioners. This is basically how national memory is organised in the new post-Soviet states, the former republics of the Soviet Union. “They” (i.e. the Soviet Union, it is more often said simply ‘the Russians’) conquered us, occupied us, committed crimes against us. And ‘we’ have always been the victims. At the same time, ‘we’ have always resisted, and that is why we achieved independence in ’91.

But what do we, the citizens of Russia, do? We cannot say we were occupied by outsiders, that the killers were outsiders. Everything that happened to us was done by us. Our own people killed our own people. It is extremely difficult to accept this. Almost impossible.

In the memory of terror we are unable to assign the main roles, unable to place the pronouns ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This impossibility of setting the evil as something outside us is the main obstacle to the formation of a complete memory of terror. It exacerbates its traumatic nature, becoming one of the main reasons for pushing it out on to the fringes of historical memory.

4. But even this is not enough. The most difficult thing in Russia arises when we compare the memory of terror with the memory of the war with Hitler. How do people see this subject? We have suffered huge losses and won the war against an absolute Evil. This is our greatest pride and the foundation of our identity. And now we are told that the state was criminal. Who should we then feel ourselves to be? The heirs of the victors or the heirs of a criminal regime?

To put it very simply, the resulting conflict of memories looks something like this. If state terror was a crime, then who is the criminal? The state? Stalin, who was at the head of it? But the Soviet Union won the war. And it was under Stalin’s leadership that we defeated Hitler. The victory is the era of Stalin and terror is the era of Stalin. It is impossible to reconcile these two images of the past unless one of them is removed, or at least seriously corrected.

This is what happened: memory of the terror has receded. It has not disappeared altogether, but has been pushed to the periphery of mass consciousness.

So, it was relatively easy for mass consciousness to accept the sympathetic memory of the victims of terror. But to whom were these sacrifices made? To what Moloch? For the sake of what? It turned out that it was easier for people to perceive a national catastrophe as a kind of natural disaster, something like a medieval epidemic of plague, for which no one is responsible, than to recognize the state and its leaders as criminal. This aspect of the matter has never been the subject of public discussion. Sometimes we even get the impression that there has been a silent taboo placed on it by popular consent. And when we raise this issue – and we raise it all the time – we are told we are dividing society and almost provoking civil war.

The nature of the memory of terror has also been influenced by the government’s policy towards history, especially since the early 2000s.

The Putin government, coming to power at the turn of the century, quickly abolished (or at least sharply curtailed) both political democracy and certain civil liberties. I note that Russia’s evolution from democracy to authoritarianism was not due to the Putin government alone: it was also a result of the degradation of Russian democracy in the 1990s and was approved by a large part of the population.

The restriction of freedom and democracy required a certain rehabilitation of the Soviet past. This is where the state policy towards history comes in. That is, purposeful actions by the authorities to create an image of the past that suits them.

This policy can be expressed in many ways: to which individuals the state puts up monuments – and to which ones it does not; which veterans it supports and which it does not; which historical dates it celebrates and with what degree of grandiosity, and so on.

In November 2003, at a meeting with Russian historians, the head of state said literally the following: ‘At one time historians were so focussed on the negative, because their task was to destroy the old system. Now we have a different, creative task.’ A year and a half later, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.’ Such statements are ready-made formulas for the construction of national memory.

In its efforts to create a positive image of Soviet history, the government could not fail to address the memory of the war. In 2005, the anniversary of Victory Day is being celebrated in a grandiose manner as never before in the post-Soviet period. Hundreds of events throughout the country are devoted almost exclusively to the Victory and only to it.

The matter of the cost of the Victory is not an issue that is raised at all. No mention is made of the mistakes and crimes of the government that led to the disastrous defeats of 1941-1942, the appalling war losses, the millions of soldiers taken prisoner – none of this fits at all well in the tinselly picture being offered to the population as national history. The tragic memory of the war has been replaced by the memory of one happy day – Victory Day. Now a new organizing committee, ‘Victory, has already been set up for the celebrations of the 2015 anniversary. The chair of the committee is the President of Russia. I believe that all the particular features of the latest celebrations will be preserved in 2015.

‘Russia is a country of great victories.’ This is the basic formula of Putin’s policy on history – no longer just for meetings with historians, but for mass public consumption.

But what about the policies on history and the topic of terror?

In Russia, no national monument to the victims – put up by the state and witnessing to the the state’s attitude toward terror – has ever appeared. Those monuments and memorials which do exist, as a rule, were erected by public groups with the assistance of regional authorities. There are quite a few of them, but they are regional, not national memorials.

Nor is there a national memorial museum.

Our toponymy is full of names not of victims, but just the opposite, of activists of the terror. No nationwide Book of Remembrance for Victims has been created. Books of remembrance are being created in many regions, but they are very incomplete. It is not difficult to create a general database; all the documents have been preserved. An excellent database for those who died in the war was created long ago. But there is nothing similar for the victims of terror, because there has been no instruction from the federal centre.

Nor have the places of mass burials of the bodies of those executed been identified. For example, in the years 1937-38 alone at least 700,000 people were executed. The burial places of no more than a third of them are known. The locations of the camp cemeteries were not found either – and there were many thousands of them. As a result, most descendants of the victims do not know where their loved ones are buried.

In our latest school textbooks on history, terror is presented as a historically determined tool for solving governmental tasks, and one to which there was no alternative. At best, it is presented as a cost of modernization. This concept does not exclude sympathy for the victims (this sympathy is clearly stated by the authors), but categorically does not allow the question of the criminal nature of terror and the identity of the perpetrators(s) of this crime to be raised.

Finally, two words about social support for the victims. Compensation was paid only to those who had passed through the camps, and nothing to those deported to the labour settlements. The low level of compensation is astonishing – 75 roubles (less than two euros) for each month of imprisonment. If a person spent five years in Kolyma, and survived by a miracle, they would get 120 Euros. There are also monthly payments – also miserably little – from the mid-2000s the central government passed responsibility for these on to the regions.

And all of this is government policy towards history. To be fair, I note that in the past three years there have been some innovations. Medvedev and Putin have alternately expressed sympathy for the victims. Just before Medvedev left the presidency, he even authorized the creation of a state programme to commemorate the victims, a decision that was later approved by Putin. Unfortunately, it looks so far as though the work on the programme (and we of course take part in it) will end up more or less without any positive results.

In general, the direction of policies with regard to history remains the same: we live in a country of great victories. Victories in wars, great construction projects, achievements in science and culture, the conquest of space – this is all us. We are proud of our country’s glorious past. We have nothing to be ashamed of about the past. And terror is nothing more than an incidental, uncharacteristic ‘warp,’ an ‘excess.’

This policy towards history contributes least of all to the understanding of terror as a systemic phenomenon, as a crime of the state against the individual. It is directed not towards the preservation of memory, but towards so-called ‘patriotic education.’ And ultimately, towards the strengthening of state power, the confirmation of the idea that the state is always right. Political power is above any moral or legal assessment. By definition, it is not subject to the laws because it is govern in terms of state interests, which are above the interests of individuals and society, above morality and law. The state is always right, at least as long as it successfully overcomes its enemies.

It would seem a miracle, but the memory of terror in Russia, despite all the aforementioned unfavourable circumstances, has not disappeared altogether.

The memory of the terror is being preserved today thanks to the work of numerous historians and archivists; thanks to systematic educational work organized at their own risk by hundreds of schoolteachers, museum workers, local history enthusiasts and journalists; thanks to the work of civil society organizations, including the Memorial Society.

But this memory is peripheral, secondary, fragmented. It is a memory devoid of legal or even political evaluations. The place of this memory in public consciousness is such that the trauma is yet to be overcome.

We live in a world of unsettled outcomes – not only the outcomes of the terror, but the outcomes of the Soviet past as a whole.

I have outlined the main factors preventing such an assessment of the past, which could form the basis for an assessment of the present.

You can see that we are very far from the path Germany has taken in overcoming the Nazi past. We are in no way prepared to accept the blame for the crimes of the past.

But here is the question: Should we accept such guilt? Over recent years, Memorial has been painfully searching for a different formula of reckoning with the past that we could offer to society. It seems to us that we have finally grasped it. It comes from the daily work of our organizations, in which work with the past is inextricably bound up with our struggle for human rights today, and an assessment of historical tragedies is linked to a heightened sense of civic responsibility for Russia’s present.

Finally, we have begun to understand that national (and universal) historical memory, national (and universal) historical consciousness and civic responsibility are two sides of one medal, two sides of what is civic self-consciousness, dealing with both the past and present and binding them into a single whole. And in this the concept of ‘national guilt’ has no place.

Criminal guilt requires punishment. But who do we punish today?

The ‘metaphysical guilt’ of which Karl Jaspers wrote requires an act of repentance. But what do we today, and our children and grandchildren, have to repent for?

One can understand Jaspers and the Germans of this time: in the second half of the 1940s, the wounds of Nazism were very fresh, a majority of the people who had committed crimes in the name of the German people were still alive, the question of guilt was more than relevant. In today’s Russia, none of Stalin’s executioners are still alive; their deeds have become the subject of history. The traditional Russian question, ‘Who is to blame?’ can and should be posed only in terms of criminal guilt, in relation to the activities of specific people, long dead and buried. ‘The metaphysical guilt of the whole nation’ is a counterproductive notion for us today. It hinders, rather than helps us in our work.

It is not even just that modern legal thinking rejects the concept of collective, and all the more hereditary, guilt for a crime. The main thing is that for a serious understanding of the past, for the search for a way out of the dead end of historical contradictions, civic responsibility is necessary. Responsibility, which each person voluntarily assumes, feeling themselves to be a member of a certain historically formed community, for the acts committed today and committed in the past in the name of this community.

For Memorial, the notion of civic responsibility is inseparably connected to the work it is doing today to advance human rights – or, rather, the human rights work it is doing today derives from a sense of civic responsibility. Civic responsibility requires awareness and hard work – hard work to overcome the past in the present. In this sense, Memorial inherits the tradition of Soviet-era dissidents and human rights activists.

If the people of a country are united not only in terms of its immediate civil and political life but also in terms of a shared past and aspirations for a common future, then the category of civic responsibility naturally extends to national history as well. It is civic responsibility for one’s own history, not great achievements or great catastrophes as such, that makes people in the full sense a nation as a community of fellow citizens.

Photo of Arseny Roginsky. Source: Aleksandr Cherkasov

Repentance is a one-time and symbolic act; making sense of the past is an ongoing and tenacious labour. It is not the kind of work that can be done once and for all. Each new generation must revisit its past again and again, each generation must assess and reassess its past, especially its bitter and terrible pages. Each generation must develop its own understanding of history. And this, again and again, will awaken the civic engagement of people, the determination on their part not to permit the country to slide back into the degeneracy of unfreedom, dictatorship and lawlessness.

For now, International Memorial is merely trying to provide a fundamental basis for this process: a developed civic consciousness and civic responsibility. Or, simply put, to keep people awake.

Thank you for your attention. And again, thank you for your award. I would like to believe that we have deserved it.

Brussels, 14 November 2013

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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