Perpetuating the Memory of the Victims of Repression

The perpetuation of the memory of the victims is one of the most important, but also one of the most difficult tasks of Memorial.  It was around this very idea that Memorial formed in 1988.  Quite a bit has been accomplished during the past decade, but much more remains to be done.

From the very outset, three areas of work assumed top priority:  the establishment of a list of the names of all victims and the publication of these names; the clarification of the places of burial of the deceased, and the establishment of memorial signs on these burial places.

Already in 1988-89, many newspapers began to publish lists of victims of Soviet repression.  Unfortunately, the wave of social enthusiasm for this dissipated in the beginning of the 1990s.  Today the publication of such lists is a rarity.  Therefore, Memorial has taken the initiative and begun preparing “Books of Memory” in many regions.  These are special publications, in which one finds not only the names, but also short biographical descriptions of the victims, and sometimes even photographs.  

Unfortunately, the work on establishing the “Books of Memory” has not proceeded equally quickly in all regions.   At the present time, the published books contain only several hundred thousand names.  By comparison, even official figures reveal that, by the time of Stalin’s death, at least 4 million individuals were convicted by the executive organs VChK and MGB.  Moreover, besides those convicted “in criminal cases,” millions were affected by administrative decisions (collectivization, the deportation of nations, etc.), or were victims of extra-judicial punishments.  The separate parts of Memorial conduct work in this area (for example, in Krasnoyarsk, a detailed data bank is planned on special deportations), yet there are only a few such parts of Memorial.  In 1988 we promised to remember everyone.  But if the work on the creation of such “Books of Memory” continues at the current rate, it will be completed not in decades but in a century!  In some regions, the problem has been resolved by including only information on victims of execution in the “Books of Memory.”  The shortcomings of this approach is obvious to all of us.  Memorial must find a way out of these complicated predicaments.

The discovery of the places of mass burial of the victims of repression is also an expansive and complicated task.  It cannot be completed without unimpeded access to the diverse documents in state archives – and particularly in the archives of the Interior Ministry and the former KGB.  However, Memorial has almost no possibility of conducting such work.  After some progress in the beginning of the 1990s, the search for burial sites was practically halted by the employees of the departmental archives.  We know that, in the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, the executed victims were buried primarily in city cemeteries.  Yet no later than the autumn of 1937, with the beginning of mass executions, special “zones” (on territories under the control of the NKVD) were established in every region of the USSR for the burial of the executed (and sometimes the executioners).  We are far from identifying the locations of all of these “zones”, and even where their locations are known, research remains to be done on the verification of their scope.  Even today, some of these former “zones” belong to the security services.  For example, near Moscow there were two such “zones” – in Butovo and at the sovkhoz “Kommunarka.”  The territory of the former has been given recently to the Orthodox Church, while the latter remains under the jurisdiction of the FSB and thus remains closed to visits.  Hence, although Memorial has done much to uncover the locations of mass burials of the executed, the majority of this task remains uncompleted.  Matters are even worse where the verification of places of camp cemeteries, cemeteries of labor settlements, etc., are concerned.  The most serious achievements of recent years include the establishment of the locations of mass executions and of the burial sites of the convicts in the Solovetskii prison in  the natural boundaries of Sandormokh near Medvezh’egorsk by the St. Petersburg affiliate of Memorial, (I. Reznikova, V. Iofe.) in cooperation with the Karelian association of Memorial (I. Chukhin, V. Dmitriev).  These discoveries have genuine international significance.

From 1989 to 1991, Memorial was the initiator of fund-raising for a memorial to the victims of political repression.  These funds, located on the account of the USSR Culture Ministry, vanished along with the saving of Soviet citizens.  However, the lack of funds was not the only problem connected with the “central” memorial.  Until now, even after many discussions and two contests for the project, Memorial does not have a final answer to the question of whether this monument will be established.  Or was the Solovetskii Stone, placed by Memorial on Lubianka Square in 1990, already this monument?

In the 1990s, memorials and memorial plaques to the victims of repression were established in many regions of the former Soviet Union.  They are being raised even now, regardless of the difficult economic circumstances.

The work of recent years demonstrates that the perpetuation of memory exceeds the powers of one social organization, let alone those of one small organization such as Memorial.  The support of all organizations and associations is needed.  Finally, the support of the authorities, on whom access to archival information and places of burial relies, is crucial.  The help of experts and the permission to erect memorial signs is also needed.  However, given the current socioeconomic hardships, the overwhelming majority of the population is not inclined to worry about these problems.  Indeed, to many it seems that such problems belong to the distant past.  Similarly, waiting for the authorities to help, does, with rare exceptions, not work.  What little the government does is done only under pressure from social organizations, including Memorial.  From our perspective, before considering future work, it is necessary to bring together all the available information of each part of Memorial concerning the names of the repressed, the places of burial, and monuments.  Unfortunately, even today this information has not been systematically collected and examined.