Arseny Roginsky: Giving Russia its history back


“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The line comes from one of Milan Kundera’s novels about the totalitarian experience in the twentieth century, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” the New Yorker’s David Remnick writes. Now, in the twenty-first century, as the forces allied against democratic institutions employ historical falsehoods once more as a kind of distorting mirror, it is especially painful to lose Arseny Roginsky (left), one of the great warriors against forgetting.

But the most important thing that Memorial managed to do for Russian society is give it a sense that history — whether of a state, region or individual family — can belong to everyone, notes Mikhail Kaluzhsky, lead Russian-Language Editor at oDR and curator of the theatre program at Moscow’s Andrei Sakharov Center. Memorial has become a model of the approach whereby rights defense, historical research, popular outreach and artistic practices merge together, he writes for Open Democracy.

Interviewing Roginsky— the head of Memorial, who died on Monday, at the age of seventy-one —was like attending a customized lecture, notes the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, author of The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017:

“Everyone is willing to commemorate victims,” Roginsky said, even government officials. “But what’s the difference between them and us? The difference is that, for twenty-five years now, we have been asking the question, ‘Who are these people victims of?’ ” He waited for me to answer the question.

“The state?”

“These are victims of the state,” he confirmed, smiling. “This was state terror. The state killed these people. But they like to think that we live in a wonderful state, and we lived in a wonderful state before, and they get mad at us for saying that our state was a criminal who killed our fathers.”

Arseny Roginsky passed away on December 18, the same date that Vaclav Havel died six years earlier.  Like Havel, Roginsky devoted his life to the struggle for historical truth and human rights; and also like Havel, he was imprisoned because of this commitment, the National Endowment for Democracy’s president, Carl Gershman, writes:

As NED’s Nadia Diuk remembers, Arseny was one of the first Memorial people to welcome us to Moscow more than a quarter century ago.  We were impressed by his warm sense of humor, his innate moral courage, and the emphasis he placed on the need for historical and civic education as a requirement for the respect of human rights in post-communist Russia. 

The National Endowment for Democracy was proud to support the Perm 36 Center for the History of Political Repression, the museum Arseny created in the only remaining Gulag labor camp, which became a center for the kind of education that he believed was needed to prevent the memory of Stalin’s crimes from being pushed to “the distant periphery” of Russian consciousness.  We were also honored to present him with NED’s Democracy Award in recognition of his immense contribution over more than four decades to human rights and to the principle of universal human dignity. 

“Let us all hope that the memory of Arseny’s moral example will help Russians find their way to a better and more humane future,” Gershman added. “We will not forget him, and we will honor his memory by continuing to support the work he inspired others to do, and that remains his legacy.”

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