Arseny Roginsky, a Champion of Historical Truth

Posted December 31, 2017 7:19 p.m. EST

Arseny Roginsky, a founder and the longtime head of the Memorial organization in Russia who died on Dec. 18, was no doubt familiar with the admonition of the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel that to forget a holocaust is to kill twice. Roginsky’s father died in prison, and Roginsky himself spent four years in three different Soviet labor camps in the 1980s for printing an underground journal whose goal was “to rescue from oblivion all those historical facts and names that are currently doomed to perish or disappear.”

That remained his mission to his dying day, briefly with the support of the Russian state in the 1990s, then again in defiance of it as Russia under Vladimir Putin set about creating a narrative of Russian greatness in which historical facts could be a handicap. For Roginsky, historical memory meant more than compiling records; it also meant giving a name to the culprits — the interrogators, the guards, the state itself — and sounding the alarm at violations of human rights. In recent years, Memorial was targeted with searches, threats of closing and identification as a “foreign agent.”

It is not only in Russia, of course, that reckoning with a nefarious past has been a struggle. Germany’s Nazi past, America’s Confederate monuments, Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide, China’s censoring talk about the Tiananmen massacre and many other examples bear witness to the difficulty of confronting a troubling history.

The reasons are many. Those who lived through hell, as Russians of an older generation did, may prefer to blot out the horrors they endured or inflicted. Younger generations prefer to live for today. Political leaders prefer to project a noble history, sometimes by turning complicity in atrocities into claims of victimhood. In Russia, Putin and many of his lieutenants came from the KGB and resisted fully confronting its repressive history. And they, like many of their countrymen, prefer to portray Stalin not only as the architect of the Gulag but also as the leader who built Russia’s industrial might and led it to victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia.

The Russian state does not deny the Gulag. Memorials to victims exist across Russia. The Butovo Poligon, or firing range, outside Moscow where more than 20,000 political prisoners were shot and buried in mass graves has been turned into a Russian Orthodox memorial site. In October, Putin opened a Kremlin-promoted monument to victims of political repression in Moscow, the Wall of Sorrow.

To Roginsky, referring to “victims of political repression” was not enough. The phrasing made it sound as if the repression descended like a plague, he said in an interview with Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, "and then the repressions ended and we just keep on living.” No, he said, “these are victims of the state. This was state terror.”

Yet Roginsky was not among the dissidents who scoffed at the Wall of Sorrow as a hypocritical project of the state. It would still be there after the current powers were gone, he argued, and even if it did not give the full story, future generations would know there was a great evil in Russia’s past. Confronting the past is essential for a nation’s future, he believed, but it is a task for generations.

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