Day of Memory

People, don't kill each other

Roger Ballen, Headless. 2006, archival pigment print. 19.5 × 19.5". Courtesy of the artist.

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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