Memorial emerged from a grassroots historical and human rights movement that came together through the clandestine efforts of hundreds of people in the late Soviet period. On the eve of the fall of the USSR, the movement and organization became the center for the critical, cathartic reckoning with the traumas of totalitarianism. The emotional significance of Memorial for hundreds of thousands of regular Soviets—those who had gone through the gulag themselves and those who had lost their loved ones to it—cannot be overstated. Memorial’s work maintained its relevance even after the organization was able to rise from the underground and the state whose crimes it documented ceased to exist. Then, in the early 2000s, political repression began to make its way back into the Russian political status quo. KGB archives, which had briefly been totally open to researchers, once again started to limit their access. Branches of Memorial began to be searched, audited, and fined in attempts to shut them down. I think that for some in the West, it has previously been difficult to understand why the Putin regime fought so hard to reinstate the secrecy around Soviet political repressions. One simple way to explain it is that the people who opposed that violence and erasure then are the same ones who oppose it to this day. Memorial’s work was not limited to maintaining the memory of the past: its organizers were an active presence in the contemporary opposition. These things are one and the same: the legacy of oppression and its modern-day face. Another simple example: Putin did, after all, start as a KGB agent.
Jenya, my beautiful and dear friend, who I met writing this essay is, as I write, in Siberia, where she spends half of her time supporting Vitya Filinkov, a political prisoner. Despite the extreme danger to her, she has not left Russia since the war—she feels she must stay and continue to protect him, as his public defender and friend. Yuri Dmitriev remains in prison. Zhenya and Sasha, a gay couple, were forced to flee several years ago under threat of deportation and arrest. Lena and Irina Flige remain in St. Petersburg. Russia is still at war with Ukraine.
—Bela Shayevich October 6, 2022
August 5, 2014
Nobody asked me what I was doing at the Memorial Society for the commemoration of Soviet political repressions, scanning NKVD files, coming and going like a big-smiling ghost to a back office packed with files and artifacts like the balls of ore mined by women prisoners gathering dust on the shelves. To get into the office, you took an eyeglasses case off a bookshelf, snapped it open, and took out a five-inch-long key that you snapped back into the case after unlocking the door. I would have gone just for that. None of my relatives were in the gulag; I’m not a journalist or a historian. Summer was dragging in Petersburg, and I’d wanted to go somewhere where there’d be smart people to talk to if I dared to reveal my hideous Russian and ignorance. I didn’t dare. No one cared.
My second week at Memorial, in the tiny kitchen where everyone smoked when they didn’t want to smoke at their desks, Tanya, the deputy director, suddenly noticed me.
“Oh!” she offered, “do you want to come to Solovki?”
“Yes!!!” I said. I’ll go anywhere, even if I don’t know where it is, especially away from St. Petersburg. Turns out that Solovki is the Solovetsky Islands, home of the first Soviet labor camp, the titular gulag archipelago. According to Wikipedia, there is a 16th-century fortress there that houses the 15th-century monastery on the back of the 500-ruble bill. I didn’t have one on me. We left the following Monday.
Jenya was 25, the only one at Memorial my age. She had a pet snail named Hydra she’d found in Novosibirsk and flown back two thousand miles to Petersburg and kept alive for three years, but she kept saying “Geedra” for “Hydra” and I couldn’t understand her.
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