Vera Vasilyeva: Thinking Differently. On Memorial and Book Lovers

22 September 2020

By Vera Vasilyeva, freelance journalist, co-ordinator of the Radio Liberty project ‘Freedom and Memorial’, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Human Rights Award

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Радио Свобода]

The Tver interdistrict prosecutor’s office of the city of Moscow has initiated administrative prosecutions against the International Memorial Society and the chair of the board of the organisation, Yan Rachinsky, for failure to mark materials with the ‘foreign agent’ label. We are talking about the Moscow International Book Fair, which took place in early September at the Manege. The employees of the prosecutor’s office came to Memorial’s stand and ordered the organisers of the fair to immediately post four notices announcing that the Ministry of Justice had included Memorial in its list of foreign agents.

What is remarkable is that the law enforcement agents did not come of their own accord, out of zeal for their work, but, according to witnesses, after someone filed a denunciation with the police. How can we not recall the rich Stalinist Soviet experience in the field of snitching, which is one of the things Memorial talks about?! The Memorial stand was only four metres square! After that, two other publishing houses who were participating in the fair (Novoye Izdatelstvo and Medlennye Knigi), also posted A4 sheets with the words: ‘I / We are a foreign agent’ on their stands, as a sign of support for Memorial.

This seems to me a very important story; it’s about civic solidarity. It goes far beyond the corporate solidarity that has been much talked about lately (when doctors stand up for doctors unjustly persecuted by the state, actors stand up for actors, and a publisher publicly expresses support for a publisher). Because Memorial is not just and not only a non-profit organization engaged in, among other things, publishing and educational activities. Today it is a centre of Russian civic life. It is the driving force behind extremely important civic projects aimed at rescuing the memory of our history from oblivion, and preserving it. That is not a story made up exclusively of victories, where there is no place for doubts, tragedies and errors that need to be comprehended. It is also about something unsightly, which it is not really done to remember now: the victims of political repression.

Alongside others working for Memorial, this history has been the concern of, for example, Yury Dmitrev, chair of the Karelian branch of Memorial. His appeal against the sentence – which many people consider was handed down for a very ‘inconvenient’ story, Sandormokh [the location of the discovery of a mass grave of Stalin’s victims in Karelia] – will be considered on 22 September at the Supreme Court of Karelia. That is why Memorial now finds itself under attack. About thirty, in my opinion, completely false protocols have been drawn up in the Memorial Society’s case – after all, it is at the very least illogical to call a Russian non-profit organisation operating on the territory of Russia and for the good of Russia a ‘foreign agent.’ Fines of five million roubles were imposed, money which could have been spent on scientific, educational and cultural activities. The persistence with which Memorial has been fined for exorbitant sums, and the methodical approach taken, lead me to believe that the real goal of the authorities is not to enforce the rule of law (even if we really dislike this law), but to destroy an undesirable human rights organisation.

The action of the two publishers at the book fair shows that not everyone agrees with the authorities’ current approach to history, where one is only supposed to remember its bright, celebratory sides. And some are ready to publicly declare their disagreement. This wasn’t brought about by a directive from the organisers of the book fair. It was horizontal links within civil society. By the way, towards the end of the day, the organisers of the fair removed the shameful notices from the Memorial stand. Either they themselves were ashamed of their actions, or they reacted to the publicity in the press, and to public condemnation, which apparently turned out to be unexpected.

It was as if they were testing our strength once again. In my opinion, it was no coincidence that this happened at a book fair. Publishers, readers and writers  are thinking people, as a rule. It is more difficult to cloud their minds with the jingoistic myths and fabrications designed for the consumer who does not know how to and does not want to analyse and reflect.

From this point of view, writers, publishers, and readers are inconvenient, dangerous people for an authoritarian state, as they ‘want what is different,’ they want to think differently and to feel differently.

What happened at the Moscow Book Fair is further confirmation that this claim about readers is still relevant. I would very much like the state to draw conclusions from this story: not everyone is afraid of shameful labels. 

This applies both to those on whom they are hung, and those who appear to be using this method to warn of the necessity of unquestioning obedience. Not everyone is prepared to get silently in line. In the long run, the application of tough pressure on thinking people can lead to those very fundamental changes that an authoritarian government is so afraid of.

Translated by Anna Bowles

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