26 April 2013
An interview with Arseny Roginsky, chair of the board of the International Memorial Society
Rights in Russia: What is the International Memorial Society today?
Arseny Roginsky: Today Memorial is a network of organisations operating in several countries. Most of our organisations are in Russia— 38 of them. There are about ten organizations in Ukraine, one each in Latvia and Kazakhstan and, further abroad, in Italy, Germany and France. Each organisation operates autonomously and independently; and all of them together form a community, which is called International Memorial. The management board of Memorial is more of a coordinating body than a directive body. Once every four years delegates from all the organisations gather at a conference, re-elect the management board and plan the main strategy for our work going forward.
Moreover, in Russia there are some regions and even some towns and cities where there is not just one Memorial organisation but several. For example, in the Komi Republic we have several organisations. In Perm there are two organisations: a few years ago a separate organisation that works exclusively with young people split off from the Perm Memorial Society — Youth Memorial. In St. Petersburg we have three organisations that are involved in different areas of work: social (St. Petersburg Memorial), research and education (St. Petersburg Memorial Information Centre) and human rights (the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Centre), which focuses on issues related to discrimination against Roma. There is a similar picture in Moscow: Moscow Memorial carries out the main brunt of the work on cooperation with the Moscow authorities on issues related to preserving the memory of the Stalinist terror, the holding of public commemorative events, and social support for the victims of repression; the Human Rights Centre, whose main activity centres on working in areas of internal armed conflict within the Russian Federation, and now also defending the human rights of refugees and forced migrants; and the Memorial Research, Information and Educational Centre.
RiR: How did all this come about?
AR: Well it all started in 1987-1988, when action groups sprang up in several cities and launched a widespread publicity campaign; at that time the main aim was to keep alive the memory of the victims of political repression. Then in January 1989 we held our founding conference, at which we created the All-Union Memorial Society, since at that time the Soviet Union was still in existence. In 1990, after lengthy delays, the authorities registered us and we began operating as an officially recognised NGO. Then in 1991 separate organisations split off to work in different areas. That is when the Moscow Research Centre and Human Rights Centre came into being. Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, the ‘All-Union’ phrase in the title became meaningless and we re-registered as the Memorial International Society. Those organisations that exist today in Italy, Germany and France originated in recent years, originally as support groups for International Memorial.
RiR: And what is the Russian Memorial Society?
AR: Well I guess the simplest way of putting it would be to say it is a collection of Russian organisations which belong to the International Memorial Society. However, unfortunately it’s not that simple. Our community includes organisations that are registered with regional branches of the Ministry of Justice, and there are some who are not officially registered. But only registered organisations can belong to International Memorial, such is the requirement for an international organisation under Russian law. That at least is how it was explained to us in the 1990s. But there is no such requirement for a national organisation. So that is why the Russian Memorial Society contains both registered and unregistered Russian organisations. Registered organisations belong to both the Russian and the International Memorial societies, while unregistered organisations belong only to the Russian Memorial Society. You have to understand, this isn’t because we like to complicate matters, it’s simply because our Russian legislation is so convoluted. We have to try to adapt ourselves to fit in with it.
RiR: How do unregistered organisations differ from those that are registered?
AR: Registered organisations are “legal entities” and consequently can, and by law in fact are obliged to, have their own bank account, stamp and other attributes of a “legal entity.” In addition, they can own property, rent premises, etc. Unregistered organisations can do none of these things and as a result cannot pay their employees. So all their work is purely voluntary. And from a legal perspective they are nothing more than an informal group.
Life for non-governmental organisations in Russia is pretty tough, especially legal entities. They have to continuously report to a huge number of inspection and monitoring authorities, who are frequently not very well disposed towards them. And many of our regional organisations have come to question why they would need this kind of headache. We’ll just be an informal group instead, they say. We won’t have to register. And if they’re already registered they simply don’t renew their registration. So they cease to be legal entities. But carry on their work. They are no longer members of International Memorial but they still belong to the Russian Memorial Society.
In December 2010 the Russian Memorial Society consisted of 38 registered organisations (legal entities, who also belong to the International Memorial Society) and 27 unregistered ones. This balance is continually changing as the proportion of unregistered organisations increases.
So what does that mean? Even purely voluntary organisations can do a lot. And they do. They are involved in giving advice to people, sometimes in homes, sometimes at places of in other offices. They write letters to local authorities about setting up a monument or publishing a commemorative book. They take part in ceremonies dedicated to the victims of political repression. There is a great deal they can do. But they are not legal entities.
RiR: At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 the Justice Ministry carried out an inspection of the Russian Memorial Society. What was the point of it?
AR: Well, I guess to demonstrate that our affairs were not in order and to force the organisation either to review its activities or to halt them altogether. A distinctive feature of the Russian Memorial Society is that it has no funding. That raised the suspicions of the people conducting the inspection. “Why does the Russian Memorial Society have no funds showing on its accounts? If there are no funds, it means there are no activities! That means it’s a fictitious organisation!” We explain that the activities of Russian Memorial are activities of the organisations that belong to it, that the management is only a coordinator, and the coordination is done on a purely voluntary basis (in the same way that almost half of the organisations that belong to the Russian Memorial Society work on a voluntary basis), but our explanations are not accepted. Another complaint is that our structure is supposedly incorrect. In the opinion of the inspectors, the only structures that have the right to be members of the Russian Memorial Society are those that clearly indicate in their official titles that they are subdivisions of our organisation.
But the majority of the regional organisations were set up by themselves, which is why they are called the Voronezh Memorial Society, or the Yekaterinburg Memorial Society, etc. And only once they were set up did they then afterwards join the Russian or the International Memorial Society, becoming a part of their structure. This doesn’t go down well with the Justice Ministry. They say that legally, if you’ve set up your own local department yourself, established the constitution and composition of the board yourself, and if they’re independent, then how can they be a part of your structure? Our reply is: look, they all have Memorial in their names, we all share the same goals, all work in the same way and we implement joint programmes. But our opinion doesn’t convince the inspectors. For us this is an important matter of principle. We believe that civic organisations are founded from below, by their own initiative, and then afterwards create larger associations or become part of them. But the Justice Ministry says that with national organisations it should be the other way round, that a national organisation should be created from above.
The conclusions of the inspection were that the operations of the Russian Memorial Society, allegedly, do not comply with Russian law and we have been ordered to restructure the organisation. But we believe that we are operating well within the law. And we cannot follow the path we have been prescribed as that would mean officially cutting off a significant proportion of our organisations from the Memorial community. It is important for our regional organisations to consider themselves members of a national structure. Starting the lengthy process of re-registering the regional organisations under different names would be a huge burden on them. And incomprehensible as well. Everyone of us has the same question, if the current structure has been approved by the Justice Ministry for the last 20 years (we have been reporting to them all this time, sending them lists of the organisations that belong to the Russian Memorial Society) then why is this suddenly considered to be incorrect? Everyone knows this has nothing to do with legal subtleties or differing interpretations of the law on NGOs, but about something else entirely: the current political climate.
RiR: So what are you going to do?
AR: We are going to try to resolve these issues in court.
RiR: Why was there this specific kind of inspection and why did it take place at the end of last year?
AR: This inspection of the Russian Memorial Society took place during December 2012 and January 2013. At the time we did not realise that it was a prelude to a long series of inspections, which started just recently in March. Now all the structures of Memorial in Moscow and many regional Memorial organisations have been subjected to inspections. I think that this is all part of a big plan. They didn’t want to start with International Memorial, since it’s already been inspected several times in the past and it’s always turned out to be difficult to make any kind of complaints against us on the financial front. However, charges were made against us anyway, but we challenged them in court and have always won these cases. So now we have this demagogy unconnected with any actual violations of financial discipline but based on pure chicanery, which is almost always impossible to fight against. When the Russian Memorial Society was undergoing inspection we brought them the documents they’d requested, a whole pile of documents. And their reply was: “Your accounts for the Russian Memorial Society don’t show any funds. So what money did you use to buy the paper on which these documents are printed?” They suspect the Russian Memorial Society of having some kind of secret money that we are concealing. This is all very silly, but the potential consequences could be very serious.
RiR: What impact will the new law on NGOs acting as foreign agents have on Memorial?
AR: A very serious impact I believe. In our opinion this law has nothing to do with justice. It contains two basic concepts – foreign funding and political activity. We released a special statement about this law.
Firstly, this law is discriminatory: it divides organisations into different groups depending on their sources of financing. There is one way of functioning set out for those whose funding comes from one set of sources and another one for those whose funding comes from a different set of sources. We consider this to be utter nonsense.
Secondly, this law forces us to publicly lie about ourselves.
Whatever President Putin might say, in Russian the phrase ‘foreign agent’ has no other meaning than ‘enemy’, ‘spy’, ‘traitor.’ The point of this law is to set society against those organisations which the authorities consider to be harmful. Memorial in particular cannot forget how the phrase ‘foreign agent’ has been used in our country’s history, how many hundreds of thousands of people were executed for allegedly being ‘foreign agents.’
But even if this expression is interpreted in its most neutral sense, “an organisation that represents the interests of the particular foreign foundation which is funding it,” then that is a lie! We have never subordinated our work to any outside interests; none of our sponsors, either foreign or Russian, have ever set us any conditions of the kind: ‘Look we’re giving you money, so for that you should do this or you should do that, act like this or act like that.’ Quite the opposite: we decide to implement a particular project and then we look for sponsors for it. Some agree to support us, others don’t. But the project is ours and ours alone. The authorities’ logic is based on the crude principle that he who pays the piper calls the tune. There’s something very awkward about that. The tune is always ours, ours alone.
RiR: But isn’t it the case that you yourselves are supposed to register as foreign agents?
AR: That’s the whole point. If someone, without our involvement, were to declare that because we receive foreign grants we would be entered onto a special register and would therefore have to undergo inspections not once every two years but for example twice a year, that would be tough for us (inspections take a lot of effort) but on the whole it wouldn’t make much difference. But under this law we are supposed to write on our letterheads that “Memorial is an organisation acting as a foreign agent.” We would have to write that on our websites and on any books we publish. And most importantly we are supposed to, of our own accord, in our own name, send a request to the Justice Ministry: “Please include us in the list of foreign agents.” Of course we cannot do this. And we won’t.
And finally, thirdly, this law contains a completely ridiculous definition of political activity as “activities designed to shape public opinion with the aim of changing government policy.” But that is exactly what any normal non-governmental organisation is involved in: trying to change government policy on a particular issue. With the possible exception of purely social charitable organisations that provide assistance to certain sections of society, for example children or the elderly. But even these organisations generally also try to change parts of government policy, at least the policies of the relevant ministry. And they often try to mobilise public opinion in doing so. So of course in this sense we are continuously involved in ‘politics.’
RiR: Can you give an example?
AR: For example we are trying to get the government to change its policy on commemorating the victims of political repression, to be actively involved in preserving the memories of the victims of repression, to stop human rights violations against, for example, refugees. And of course we try to influence public opinion by telling people about the political terror of the Soviet period, for instance.
Here is a specific example: our project about access to historical information stored in state and institutional archives. As you know the situation with regard to access to archives is very difficult right now and it’s continuing to deteriorate. And we are trying to mobilise public opinion and interested professional associations to overcome this situation. But from a purely legal standpoint we are coming up against several legal concepts: on the one hand freedom of access to information that is of public interest, and on the other hand the concepts of “state secrets,” “official secrets” and “protection of personal data,” etc. As part of our project we recently held a very interesting conference attended by many different kinds of people: historians, lawyers and archivists. And you know, as a result we managed to get some very important lawyers from academic institutes to collaborate on our project, we found a common language with archivists, so that even staff from government archives said that in principle they were on our side. And the historians are of course by definition on our side.
Simultaneously, as part of this project we initiated several court cases.
Two young women attended this conference. They were lawyers who had already met before at one of these court cases, where one of them was representing the interests of the claimant, ours in other words, and the other the interests of the defendant, the archive service of the FSB. It’s important that they met at the conference, where they could conduct a dialogue not aimed at defending someone’s interests but with the aim of better understanding one another, understanding the arguments of their opponent. We cannot give up using legal processes, however bad the situation with the legal system is in our country. The main thing now is to act calmly, with dignity and without hysterics. And even today you can achieve certain things through the courts.
Only recently the Constitutional Court ruled in our favour on a very important matter to do with access to archive information, concerning the time when previously classified documents should be declassified. (You know that in Soviet times a huge number of documents were marked ‘Secret’). The gist of the case was that in 1993 a law was passed on the maximum period of validity for the term “state secret.” For documents stored in archives this was 30 years and for intelligence documents it was 50 years. As a result, today in 2013 you would think that you should no longer be able to use ‘state secrets’ as a reason for refusing access to documents from 1983 (or 1963) or earlier. But the FSB has come up with a quite astounding interpretation of this law: in their opinion, since this law is not retroactive, it only applies to documents created in 1993 or later! Please come back in 2023 (or 2043) to read documents written in 1993… The court, thank God, did not uphold this ludicrous interpretation. Now if they want to restrict access to a document they have to come up with other excuses. You can be sure they’ll find some. And the arguments will start all over again.
Of course it’s much more interesting to talk about what we actually do and the things we really achieve than about the conditions of our existence in this crazy atmosphere created by the efforts of our government and our legislation. But as far as I know the topic of this interview is unfortunately not our positive work, our educational, research and legal activities, but about the conditions in which we are forced to operate…
RiR: Unfortunately that’s true. Can we go back to the law on foreign agents? What will happen to Memorial?
AR: Yes, it turns out that we may well fall foul of this law. We receive financial support, including from foreign funds. At the same time our activity could, according to the wording of this new law, be interpreted as ‘political.’ What will happen to us? Let’s suppose we are told that we have to issue a statement saying we are foreign agents. But we cannot and will not comply with this directive because it’s not true and we do not want to lie. Of course our refusal could lead to serious consequences, including having the organisation shut down. Yes, we will fight in the courts. So what will happen if we lose all the court cases…You know, the Memorial organisation has been in existence for almost 25 years. Without the support of society we could not have existed for such a length of time. It seems to me it is not only the concrete results of our work that are in demand – from gathering facts about crimes of the past to monitoring human rights violations today – but also the idea on which all our work is founded: the connection and continuity between the past and the present. And because society needs this, it means our work will continue. One way or another.
RiR: But the law on foreign agents has already come into force. Are you doing something about it?
AR: Yes of course. Together with 10 other NGOs (including the Moscow Helsinki Group and Golos) we have submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights about the highly illegal nature of this law. Lawyers from the Memorial Human Rights Centre prepared the complaint. Unfortunately, the effects of this law may be felt far earlier than we receive a reply from the court in Strasbourg.
RiR: Have the current inspections of hundreds of NGOs in Russia in connection with the law on foreign agents affected Memorial?
AR: And how! Representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Federal Tax Service called on us demanding a host of different materials from all the Moscow Memorial organisations, from protocols of our executive committee to the most detailed level of bookkeeping accounts. We have submitted a total of over 8,500 pages of copies. And that’s just for Moscow. Our organisations in St. Petersburg, Perm, Ryazan, Ivanovo, Vladimir, Syktyvkar and other cities have been subjected to the same inspections. The Memorial Human Rights Centre and the Memorial International Society have appealed against these inspections in court; we consider them to be unlawful on many counts.
RiR: Are there already any results yet from these inspections?
AR: For Memorial so far no, we are waiting from day to day. Out of the many hundreds of Russian organisations inspected so far the Ministry of Justice and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has identified only three ‘foreign agents.’ The reasons are striking: for one organisation (Golos) it was the preparation of a draft electoral law and a public discussion about it; for another (the Kostroma Resource Centre) a public discussion in which an employee of the American Embassy took part; and for a third (Kostroma Soldiers’ Mothers) it was the publication of their results of electoral violations. It all looks ridiculous (if not delusional) but the fact is attempts are being made to fine them all for not declaring themselves as foreign agents. Of course all these NGOs will challenge these fines and their classification as foreign agents in courts. On the whole this is very revealing: to date not a single NGO has voluntarily declared themselves to be a foreign agent – to the irritation of the authorities and unleashing all these illegal (in our opinion) inspections. The pointlessness of these recent inspections is exacerbated by the fact that the authorities already knew everything about these organisations anyway. We already (in accordance with existing legislation and countless by-laws) continuously report to the tax authorities and Justice Ministry. To which state authorities don’t we report! The Justice Ministry website regularly publishes comprehensive reports of every organisation as well as their funding, including both the overall budget for every NGO and the exact amounts of funding from abroad. So the government already has all this information: the amounts, where each organisation gets its funding from, and what they spend it on. Therefore the authorities are perfectly capable of deciding who should be labelled a ‘foreign agent’ in their view and who shouldn’t without any of these inspections. The inspections are more about general intimidation than about obtaining specific information. The main thing these inspections demonstrate is that the authorities still do not understand or don’t want to understand what freedom of association, which is guaranteed by the Constitution and international law, means. They are trying to maintain absolute control over NGOs in all areas of their lives. So the overall trend today is not one of establishing civilian control over state institutions, but the exact opposite.
RiR: Your building was recently covered in offensive slogans and banners. Was that an expression of public dissatisfaction with your organisation?
AR: No, I don’t think that was done by ‘ordinary people.’ I saw the banner which was placed on our building. It was very professional looking. And in order to put it up on the roof they probably even used some kind of crane to get up there.
This was well thought through and prepared beforehand and was designed to insult us and set people who are walking along this street against us. Just think: this was done during the very first night after the law came into force. Who in this country knew what date the law was coming into force?
There are certain youth groups that have been established to support the Kremlin. They’re like a kind of Red Guard, officially independent from the government, but sharing their ideas and hounding those deemed to be enemies of this government.
RiR: Ludmila Alekseeva says that the Moscow Helsinki Group will try to seek internal sources of funding, collect donations from Russian citizens, etc. What do you think, is this is possible in principle?
AR: Overall, we do receive funding from inside Russia too. For example, from Russian business, from Russian charitable foundations set up by Russian businessmen. It’s not a lot and not all that often, but it does happen. But there are two points here. Firstly, in Moscow it’s still possible to get these types of grants sometimes, but in the provinces it’s much harder, especially in the poorer regions. And secondly, business knows full well that the government is not very well disposed towards NGOs such as ours. So do you think there are lots of business people willing to risk supporting us financially under these circumstances, given that in this country business is still highly dependent on the government?
Then, and I will say this again, dividing organisations according to their sources of funding is unlawful and discriminatory. What’s more, it’s not only discriminatory against those NGOs that receive money from foreign foundations, it’s also discriminatory against those foundations who really have invested a great deal to set up civil society in Russia, maybe not quite as much as is written about in the semi-official Russian press, but still, we’re talking about substantial sums. We should be grateful to these foundations for their help. In my opinion it’s not right blatantly refusing their help now. If it gets as far as a legislative ban on receiving funding from abroad, that’s another matter, then there would be no other choice. But while there is no such ban in place we should continue working with them normally.
RiR: So what can you say about the overall approach to civil organisations on the part of the authorities, about this war of annihilation the state is waging against civil society? Is this a new 1937?
AR: No of course it isn’t. That’s a completely inappropriate comparison, even as a metaphor. The year 1937 was above all about the murder of hundreds of thousands people and the sending of further hundreds of thousands to prison camps. It marked the final isolation of the country from the rest of the world, the start of life behind the Iron Curtain. Today the situation is completely different. Today our relatively sluggish authoritarianism is trying to turn into a strict authoritarianism. Today the regime is making more and more extensive use of anti-Western, Great Power rhetoric; this rhetoric is becoming the base for the ruling elite. It’s hard to take and it’s unpleasant, that’s true. But not only is this not 1937, not mass state terror, it’s also not life behind the Iron Curtain. There is no curtain and by all appearances you would no longer be able to lower one over Russia. This is not just a question of technical capabilities, the Internet and the like, but about the fact that real isolation would not hold out, it would fall apart. Yes, we live in a reactionary age, but becoming Burma or even the Soviet Union under Brezhnev is not something that can be done any more.
RiR: What has been the reaction in Russia to the Magnitsky Act?
AR: It backs up what I am saying. It’s striking that what caused such agitation among our legislators was the fact that a certain corrupt section of the Russian ruling elite is having difficulties travelling to the United States! Their rhetoric may be as nationalistic, Great Power, and isolationist as you like, but they are actually falling over themselves to go to the West, like bees to honey. The reaction of the ordinary, average members of the Russian public to the Magnitsky Act is perfectly calm: ‘We cannot deal with our corrupt officials ourselves, so let them have problems travelling to the States.’ As for myself, personally I have an ambivalent attitude to the Magnitsky Act. On the one hand, it’s a correct step, but on the other hand, why should it only apply to Russia? If it was extended to cover all countries (including China) or even only applied to a specified number of countries it would mark a real breakthrough on the issue of human rights protection. The protection of human rights is, after all, a worldwide issue. So the Act is correct, but it doesn’t go far enough, which is why it is so easy for Russian politicians and political analysts to use it to whip up anti-Western, anti-American sentiment in this country.
RiR: OK, but it is perfectly clear that the attitude of the authorities today to independent civil activism has become much more negative than before.
AR: When do you mean, “before?” In Soviet times people were imprisoned for civic activism. For civic activism, political activism, cultural activism, religious activism, etc. The Soviet authorities were firmly against any kind of public independent activism whatsoever. Then when the Soviet regime collapsed, in the 1990s independent civil activism was mainly manifested in the activities of non-governmental organisations. The authorities were pretty indifferent to this activity, they didn’t understand it, didn’t believe in it and didn’t value it in the slightest. The general view was that there was no civil society in Russia and there couldn’t be one. This was the firm belief of the ruling elite, the mass media, the population and, odd as it sounds, even some of the civil society activists themselves. It was agreed that in the best case scenario in Russia there were “shoots of civil society,” in the form of non-governmental organisations. Then Putin came along, uprooted political opposition, dispersed the regional elites, took a grip of the business community, took control of all the significant media outlets. And then he turned his attention to NGOs.
At first he wanted to come to an amicable agreement with us, turn ‘third sector’ into a peculiar kind of continuation of the ‘power vertical.’ A testament to this effort is the Public Chamber, a structure which has not caused any particular harm, but at the same time has not brought any great benefit either. But a significant number of organisations remained outside this Putin-style consensus, preferring to maintain their independence. These organisations, which included Memorial, did not think of themselves as ‘political opposition,’ virtually all of them were prepared to cooperate with the government and its agencies, but as equal partners. These were the organizations that the authorities considered to be enemies.
The authorities are continuously looking for signs of an Orange Revolution, believing, probably sincerely, that Orange Revolutions are created by NGOs using Western money. It is these signs they are fighting against.
Civil society is not just about a free press and NGOs. Above all it’s a question of having a certain mindset, a certain level of self-awareness, at least among the general public. But look at how things have turned out. In the 2000s the authorities managed to get a lot done: control over regional elites, control of TV stations and the press, control over business and the marginalisation of opposition political parties. If anyone protested it was only a handful of people. A few hundred people might turn up at protest rallies in Moscow, in rare cases maybe a few thousand. And in the provinces if a hundred people turned out, that was a lot. Then all of a sudden at the end of 2011 something happened and thousands of people started going out onto the streets to protest, and in Moscow it was tens of thousands. Who led them out onto the streets, the NGOs? No, of course not. It was simply that people appeared in Russia who had their own sense of civic concern about what was happening in the country and were not afraid to publicly voice this concern, they were the mouthpiece for civic responsibility. They were not born yesterday, they’ve been around for some time, it’s just that 18 months ago they finally came of age. So there we have our civil society.
RiR: So what about civil society organisations? What is their role in public life, apart from the very specific work that each of them is engaged in, shall we say?
AR: I don’t think they have that much of a role to play in the development of the protest movement. The authorities believe that the protests are being initiated by civil society organisations using Western money; that is why the law on foreign agents was brought in. Our role is actually a much more modest one, albeit a very important one. The protest movement is developing on its own, it is creating its own infrastructure, finding its own language and ways of acting. NGOs did play a significant role in creating the conditions for the emergence of the protest movement. Around 10 years ago, when the government started taking control of everything, our organisations and several newspapers, radio stations, non-governmental expert centres, certain educational institutions, etc. became rather like little islands of independence. One such island was Memorial, another the Moscow Helsinki Group, a third the Sakharov Centre, and a fourth the Moscow School of Political Studies. There is also the Levada Centre and of course Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow radio station. And others. And there has been no small number of these islands over the past few years. We have probably managed to keep certain banners flying, which is important for public awareness.
We are not civil society. But we prepared the ground to enable civil society to emerge, and it has emerged.
RiR: If what you say is correct, then there is a future for civil society on the whole in Russia. Do civil organisations, in particular Memorial, have a future? It would seem that the main goal of Memorial is to persuade society of the perniciousness of totalitarian forms of government, to create a consensus of public opinion about the Soviet past and about state terror in the Soviet era. But this has not been achieved. Stalin’s popularity is on the rise, as is nostalgia for the Soviet past. The human rights situation in Russia is also very difficult. That means that you have to give some thought to who is going to carry on your work after you. What is the situation like with young people in Memorial? What role do they play in your organisation?
AR: Regarding Memorial’s mission, you are of course right, our work is far from complete. But I don’t think that our educational efforts have been totally unsuccessful. Today far more people know about the Stalinist terror than was the case say 15-20 years ago, and Memorial’s activities played a key role in this I think. However, knowing something about Stalinism is one thing, but understanding the phenomenon, with all its causes and consequences, understanding the fatal role Stalinism played in our lives, is another matter entirely. But, as one of my colleagues said, we may not have succeeded in changing the situation for the better, but without us it would probably be much worse.
As far as young people are concerned, for us there are two sides to the question. Firstly, young people are the target of our educational activities. And here, in my opinion, practically all the Memorial organisations, and the Memorial Society as a whole, is doing a fantastic job. For instance, for the past 14 years we have been running a historical research competition for senior pupils, ‘People in history. Russia in the 20th century,’ which receives between 1,500 and 4,000 entries every year. Nearly all the regional organisations regularly work with schools and teachers’ associations, a vast pool of schoolteachers has formed around us.
The other side of this issue is getting young people involved in Memorial’s activities. In recent years many of our organisations have been very successful in this area. I’ve already mentioned the Perm Youth Memorial group. We have lots of young people working for us in Ryazan, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Penza and other places. There are of course problems: attracting young people is one thing, holding onto them is much harder. The point is that our work requires professionalism and at the same time total dedication. Young people need to study, and those who are a little older need to make a start in life and earn a living. They simply do not have the time. If it was possible to give Memorial two hours of your time once a month everything would be okay. But Memorial is not just a job, it’s a way of life. And the requirements for professional skills, of course, impose certain restrictions: high school students, for example, cannot be given the task of annotating personal recollections that end up in our archives, there is too much they have to be taught before they can do this.
But we are seeking and finding solutions. Maybe schoolchildren can’t annotate survivor’s tales, but they can, for example, catalogue new additions to our library. It’s another matter that this exercise is tedious and boring for young people.
Nevertheless, young people do come to us, both as volunteers and, those who are a little older, for permanent employment. And we are very happy to work with them.