R.I.P. Memorial’s Arseny Roginsky: fought to keep memory of Soviet crimes alive


Arseny Roginsky (left), a veteran activist who was chairman of the respected Memorial human rights society, has died after a life chronicling abuses and injustice in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, RFE/RL reports:

Born in 1946 in the northwestern region of Arkhangelsk, Roginsky was a Soviet dissident who got involved in human rights in the 1970s and worked, among other things, to expose the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin and his government. In 1981, Soviet authorities arrested and sentenced him to four years in prison on a document-forgery charge after he rejected their order to emigrate….. Roginsky was released in 1985, after serving his term, and was formally exonerated by Russian authorities in 1992 — the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. More recently, with President Vladimir Putin in power, Roginsky fought against what he once described as efforts by the authorities to push the memory of Stalin’s abuses “to the distant periphery of the consciousness.”

Roginsky, who co-founded Memorial in 1988-89 and served as its chairman until his death, died on December 18 at the age of 71, Memorial said on its website.

“Many years before Memorial came into being, he began his struggle for historical truth and for human rights — and was deprived of his freedom as a result,” the Memorial statement said. “Thank you, Arseny Borisovich, you will always be with us,” it added.

Under Roginsky’s leadership, Memorial founded ‘Perm-36,’ a Center for the History of Political Repression, in Russia’s Urals region, dedicated to political repression in the Soviet Union, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

A recipient of the NED’s 2004 Democracy Award, which recognized Russia’s beleaguered democracy activists, in the 1970’s Roginsky edited and compiled a samizdat collection of materials on the history of political repression in the USSR for publication in Paris. He was also the editor of the historical almanac, Zvenia, and other periodicals issued by Memorial.

Roginsky was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society.

“I think this is a deeply unfair decision, although of course it was predictable in the current climate,” he said, referring to the 2015 banning of the Soros foundation. “Soros has done much good for Russia ever since the 1990s, supporting education and science as well as civil society. The organization should be thanked, not banned. But those are the times we live in.”

Roginsky’s father fell victim to an earlier generation of ‘special services’ when he perished in Stalin’s gulag [so he] appreciates that Putin’s authoritarianism differs from the tsarist or Soviet versions, the New Yorker’s David Remnick noted.

“Today’s power is very rational,” Roginsky said. “Power today doesn’t shut everyone up. There is freedom of expression and speech. There are shelves of anti-Putin books in the stores. This is no longer the eighteenth century. A book with a printing of a thousand copies will not topple this state.”

Roginsky was a leading player in Russia’s ‘tug-of-war’ over Soviet history:

Perm-36, a former gulag that had been preserved as a museum of political repression, was recently transformed into one that focuses on the camp’s labor history. A recent exhibition there extolled Perm-36’s achievements in timber production.

“This is a very complicated problem,” said Roginsky, chairman of an organization founded to commemorate Stalin’s victims, but which is now attacked by Putin loyalists as a nest of “foreign agents.”

The Kremlin’s distortion of history served a political purpose for the regime, he said.

“For the authority and for some parts of Russian society, it is important to represent history as a long train of beautiful events, one victory following another,” Roginsky said:

The Kremlin exploits the large celebration to try to strengthen the nationalistic, patriotic version of history to sell the idea that Russians consolidated themselves around the Stalin government in order to win.

“They mean that in order to win, it is always necessary to consolidate around the authority,” Roginsky said. “It was true yesterday, it was true today and it will be true tomorrow. The fight for history is also the fight for the present day.”

Contesting falsifications of history is not the business of the state but should be “defined in free discussion among professionals or simply among people, among societies and peoples in various countries,” Roginsky insisted.

He criticized the Kremlin’s banning of democracy assistance groups and other foreign funders, including the NED, as ‘undesirable’ organizations.

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