Histories, Aesthetics and Cultures of Dissent
Barbara Martin - History as Dissent: Independent Historians in the Late Soviet Era and Post-Soviet Russia: From “Pamiat’ ” to “Memorial”
Abstract This paper establishes a line of continuity between the Soviet, Brezhnev-era dissident historical journal Pamiat’ and the post-Soviet human rights organization Memorial. It examines the differences and similarities of their histories, contexts of action, and goals.
Rulers have often acknowledged the importance of mastering historical writing and quenching dissenting memories in order to reinforce popular allegiance to the regime or to forge a new consciousness of a people’s past, present, and future. Nowhere was this better understood than in the Soviet Union, where the Communist leadership sought to exercise an absolute control over the past through a careful overseeing of both academic historiography and historical literature. As the subjection of official history to the regime had reached a peak under Stalin, his death triggered some momentous, if temporary, changes.
The official denunciation by General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 constituted a major milestone in the process of de-Stalinization of Soviet society. This did not lead to a depoliticization of historical writing, however. Until Perestroika, history remained a carefully guarded sanctuary over which the State retained a quasi-absolute monopoly. This entailed both a restriction on the range of themes studied and a submission of historical writing to ideological and political imperatives defined by state and party organs.
While Khrushchev initiated a “thaw” which allowed for the publication of a number of articles, monographs, poems, and novels dedicated to hitherto taboo themes—such as the Gulag camps, political repression, and Stalin’s wartime failures—his removal in October 1964 heralded a new freeze in official historiography and literature and a tightening of censorship (Markwick 2009). From then on, publications on sensitive issues of the past disappeared from presses, and alternative accounts of the Stalin era had to recede underground.
Still, despite the increasing likelihood of repression, some amateur researchers decided to pursue their exploration of the “blank spots” of Soviet history ← 51 | 52 → independently. Deprived of access to Soviet publications, these isolated voices circulated their writings in samizdat or published them in the West (tamizdat).1 They acted out of the ethical conviction that the truth about the Stalin era had to emerge, whether through the state or by individuals. Sometimes, this discourse was also tainted by political activism, as revelations about the past had consequences for the present and the future of the Soviet state and society.
My argument here is that, from the point of view of the state, such activity could not be considered “private” and constituted an open act of dissent, in and of itself political. As the totalitarian state sought to control all spheres of the lives of its citizens, Western distinctions between private and public spheres disappeared (Killingsworth 2012, 27). Therefore, circumventing censorship and the state monopoly on historical research was no trivial accusation. Regardless of the declared orientation of their writings, dissident amateur historians directly threatened a central attribute of the totalitarian state: its absolute control over the notion of “truth,” including the truth about the past (Killingsworth 2012, 43). In this research, the notion of “dissent” or “dissidence” will be used to characterize such activities: these terms are used in a broad sense to name conscious acts in opposition to a regime’s norms or rules of social behavior and considered by the regime as threatening or hostile and therefore incurring potential repression.2 Still, it should be underlined that the Soviet state’s reaction to such behavior varied considerably over time, with frequent ebbs and flows, depending, inter alia, on changes of political personnel and variations in official policy.
This paper aims to demonstrate the specificity of the Soviet state’s relation to dissident historical research, in comparison to the post-Soviet era. I will first provide a brief overview of the phenomenon of Soviet dissident historical research in the post-Stalin era, then examine in greater detail the case of the dissident historical journal Pamiat’ (“memory”). In order to analyze both the differences and the continuities of the state’s relation to independent historical research into the post-Soviet era, I will make a comparison with Memorial, the post-Soviet non-state organization that grew, during Perestroika, from Pamiat’s roots, with an ← 52 | 53 → overlap of both research themes and personnel. Despite these continuities, I argue that there are substantial differences in the political and ideological contexts in which they appeared and operated. Unlike Pamiat’, Memorial was able to adopt organizational forms, and has been acting in a framework, characteristic of civil society activism in democratic or mildly authoritarian societies, encountering, for most of its existence, hostility, but not outright repression, from the state.
“Pamiat’ ”: A Late Soviet Case of Dissident Historical Research
Dissident Historians as a Social Phenomenon
In contrast to the near absolute totalitarian control of Soviet society in the Stalin era, the late 1950s and early 1960s allowed for the emergence of a semblance of a private sphere escaping, or seeking to escape, the control of the state and security organs. This new, relatively narrow breathing space, coupled with Khrushchev’s destalinization policy, constituted the necessary preconditions for the emergence of dissident historical research. Enthused by the radical decisions of the Twenty-Second Party Congress and the relaxation of censorship that presided over the publication, most prominently, of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag camp novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1961), a small number of individuals took upon themselves the task of writing unofficial histories of the dark pages of the Soviet past. Deprived of any access to state archives, they decided to use those primary sources that were readily available and had remained hitherto unexploited, in particular oral testimonies. However, after Khrushchev’s removal, they were faced with an increasing reluctance on the part of the regime to continue and deepen the process of destalinization, and had to turn to alternative channels of publication, whether tamizdat or samizdat. Therefore, the context dictated both the methods of research and the means of publication of these works, but also, more often than not, their content, ideological orientation, and tone, which differed strikingly from those of official Soviet historiography.
This was the time, in particular, when the two most prominent studies of Soviet dissident historiography were conceived and written. Undoubtedly the most notorious of the two was Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973). This work, which the author dubbed “an experiment in literary investigation,” retraced in detail the long history of the Gulag camps, based on hundreds of testimonies of former Gulag inmates and on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience. The ground-breaking nature of this research, which incurred the wrath of Soviet authorities and caused the eviction of Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union, could hardly be overstated. Although many have criticized it from a factual as well as an ideological point of ← 53 | 54 → view, it remains the first study of this kind, and arguably the most potent collective testimony of half a century of history of the Gulag camp system.
The second most well-known work by a dissident historian was Roy Medvedev’s monumental study of Stalin and Stalinism Let History Judge (1972). Conceived of as the author’s contribution to the democratization of Communism, it tackled the questions of the origins, causes, and consequences of the phenomenon of Stalinism, which Medvedev, in line with Khrushchev, considered as a distortion of the Party’s ideological line. Although Medvedev’s study was criticized in the West for its avowedly socialist perspective, the Western scholarly community welcomed the publication of this first independent historical study on Stalinist repression written within the Soviet Union and based on hitherto unknown testimonies of old Bolsheviks—veterans of the Revolution who had occupied high positions in the state and party apparatus before being repressed by Stalin.
Both of these cases display a common pattern of relations with the state, characterized first by a search for accommodation and collaboration, encouraged by Khrushchev’s “Thaw,” then followed in the second half of the 1960s by a turn towards increasing confrontation and repression under Brezhnev. Yet the turn towards illegality was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from a gradual narrowing of available options over time. Twelve years before being branded as a traitor, Solzhenitsyn had met with national acclaim following the publication of his first short stories in the Soviet journal Novyi Mir. However, starting from 1964–5, Solzhenitsyn faced increasing state hostility and KGB harassment, and his novels Cancer Ward and The First Circle were rejected by Soviet censorship. It was the failure of these attempts that prompted him to turn to samizdat and tamizdat and radicalized his position away from a compromise with the regime.3 This spiral of mutual estrangement between Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet state explains the culmination constituted by the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, which the dissident Larisa Bogoraz has described as an “indictment against the Soviet regime” (Bogoraz 2009, 210). As a result of his increasing outspokenness, Solzhenitsyn faced exclusion from the Writers’ Union in 1969, before being arrested and forcefully exiled from the country and deprived of his citizenship in 1974.
Similarly, Medvedev voluntarily submitted the manuscript of his book to the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1964 to get, if not official support, then at least tacit approval—but these illusions were dispelled in the following years. After the ← 54 | 55 → Soviet intervention to crush the Prague Spring in August 1968, Medvedev’s brand of “democratic socialism,” reminiscent of Czechoslovak “socialism with a human face,” could not but face repression. By August 1969, he had been expelled from the Party—solely for his authorship of an unpublished manuscript. It became clear that the notoriety procured by the publication of Let History Judge in the West, while potentially incurring further repression, could also protect its author. And indeed, while he narrowly escaped arrest by hiding in the months preceding publication, after 1972, Medvedev was able to pursue, virtually unimpeded, a career as an independent historian, regularly publishing political and historical studies abroad (Medvedev 1980, 33).
Although both works may arguably be described as political statements, it was not merely the political content of these works that was deemed threatening by the regime, but, more broadly, the very fact of undertaking independent historical research outside of the framework of state-controlled scientific institutions, as shown by the example of the historical journal Pamiat’.
The Case of Pamiat’
The dissident historical journal Pamiat’ appeared towards the end of the Brezhnev era, partly in continuity with and partly in reaction to the dissident historical works discussed above. It represents a unique case of a Soviet dissident historical periodical publication, authored by non-professional historians. Although it shared with previous dissident historical research a striving to uncover “historical truth,” its authors belonged mostly to the post-War generation, who had grown estranged from state ideology.
In 1975, the Soviet dissident Larisa Bogoraz sent an open letter of protest to Iurii Andropov, head of the State Security Committee, demanding the opening of the archives of the KGB and threatening to collect and publish testimonies and materials about the history of political repressions, which had affected so many members of her family, both in the Stalin and post-Stalin eras, as well as herself.4 (Tolstoi and Gavrilov 2011). A few months later, her call was unexpectedly answered by the visit ← 55 | 56 → of Sergei Dediulin, a young man from Leningrad who invited her to take part in a project of underground historical publication, which he and his friends Arsenii Roginskii and Valerii Sazhin were elaborating (Bogoraz 2009, 211).
A common love for forbidden Russian literature and samizdat, as well as a free spirit and the willingness to escape the stifling climate of the Brezhnev era through independent projects of all kinds were probably the main ingredients of the three young men’s friendship. Despite an outstanding academic record during his studies with the famous semiotician Iurii Lotman at Tartu University (Estonia), which predisposed him to a brilliant academic career, Roginskii failed to become enrolled as a doctoral student in 1968 and had to move back to Leningrad. Yet he did not renounce his calling and decided to conduct historical research independently. As the son of a victim of political repression – his father had survived a first incarceration under Stalin, only to die after his second arrest, in 1951—Roginskii was born and raised in internal exile. Growing up in the 1950s, he had begun early on to grasp the history of political repressions and resistance to the Soviet state by interrogating neighbors who were Gulag camp returnees. From this interaction with survivors of various oppositions to the regime grew his interest for the history of the nineteenth century revolutionary movement in Tsarist Russia, on which he published several articles (Ferretti 1993a, 82). In 1973, after the scandal surrounding the trial of Petr Iakir and Viktor Krasin, two dissidents who had betrayed their peers, he developed an interest in the conduct of dissenters of all eras in the face of repression:
I obtained the address of an old Menshevik woman. She gave me the address of others. I began to visit them, during the summer holidays I travelled to other cities, visited old people’s homes, where some of them lived, I asked them about the 1920s’ underground and began, on this basis, to compile a dictionary of Socialist Gulag prisoners. (hro.org 2006)
Roginskii thus belonged to what one of his former teachers would later describe as “the lost generation of scholars” (Gasparov 1981): lacking an official affiliation, he faced countless restrictions and obstacles in his work as an independent historian—a category unforeseen and unwelcome in a totalitarian state. He made a living through various minor jobs, as a tourist guide, librarian, and then as a teacher of Russian literature in an evening school—a position, which left him enough free time to work on his personal research projects on the side. Soon, he recommended this convenient job to his friend Sergei Dediulin, a former chemist and self-taught specialist in Russian literature (Dediulin 2013). Involved in small-scale underground literary publications starting from his student years, Dediulin had also become a passionate amateur bibliographer: among his countless projects was a bio-bibliographical dictionary of Soviet dissidence and an anthology of ← 56 | 57 → Anna Akhmatova’s poetry. In the course of these activities, he had encountered numerous dissident writers and, with his friends’ active support, had started to assemble an archive of samizdat (Sabbatini 2004; Dolinin et al. 2003a). He was actively supported by his friend Sazhin, who worked in the manuscripts archive of the Leningrad Public Library—a position that allowed him to explore freely the personal papers of early twentieth century writers, which fascinated him. Sazhin had met Roginskii during a student conference at Tartu University, and looked up to this talented and charismatic peer with respect and admiration (Sazhin 2014).
In 1975, the inventive Dediulin came up with the idea of publishing a literary samizdat journal devoted to non-official Russian literature—an idea Sazhin found promising. When they submitted their proposal to Roginskii, he expressed his support, but suggested a historical orientation. Unpublished primary sources, such as Gulag camp memoirs and other sources of historical interest were readily available from the Public Library’s manuscript archives, where Sazhin could safely copy documents during his worktime (Sazhin 2014).
For the three friends, just as for Bogoraz, the recent publication of The Gulag Archipelago constituted a strong impetus for further research on Stalin-era repressions. For Dediulin, the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s work was akin to a “Big Bang”; it opened new, unheard of spaces in their imaginations. They understood that beyond the scope of the book lay huge potential sources of historical material to be explored, readily available and yet hitherto unexploited (Dediulin 2013). Roginskii considered the book as “one of the most important points in our life”—although he disagreed with Solzhenitsyn’s nostalgic views on an eternal and pure Tsarist Russia destroyed by godless Bolsheviks. Roginskii wished to explore the past in all of its complexity, without polemics, simply by presenting facts with commentaries, from across the whole political spectrum: “we were certain that only in this polyphony could one hear the truth” (hro.org 2006).
In the stifling climate of inertia of the late Brezhnev era, the prospect of undertaking such an exploration represented both a welcome breath of fresh air and a dangerous act of rebellion, which they understood could cost them dearly. Moreover, the sustained effort, energy, perseverance, and personal courage required to create, manage, and maintain undercover a tamizdat and samizdat historical publication were such that no equivalent project had so far come into being in the Soviet Union, although many probably shared similar aspirations (Dediulin 2013). Yet they willingly pursued the project, which they conceived of as rigorously academic in form and ideologically neutral in content (Pamiat’ 1978, 1:IX–X).
The collective was completed by the addition of two Leningrad-based friends of Dediulin, the chemist Aleksandr Dobkin and the schoolteacher Feliks Perchenok, ← 57 | 58 → who researched the history of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in his free time. The initial academic orientation of the journal was altered by the addition of a new Moscow-based nucleus, gravitating around the dissident Larisa Bogoraz and her son Aleksandr Daniel’, and joined later by Aleksei Korotaev and Dmitrii Zubarev. The dedication of the journal’s first issue to the political prisoners Gabriel’ Superfin and Sergei Kovalev (the former a close friend of Roginskii’s) testified to this second “dissident” identity. As for professional historians, their participation in the publication was initially limited to the enthusiastic support and enlightened advice of Mikhail Gefter, a retired dissenting historian. Over time, however, the team also benefitted from consultations with other specialists (hro.org 2006).
The first issue, released in samizdat in 1976, contained a foreword laying out the objectives of the publication and calling for contributions. Inspired by the fruitful discussions of Roginskii with Gefter, it was put into words by Daniel’: it began by describing the climate of amnesia, which had taken hold of Soviet society and against the background of which Pamiat’ (“Memory”) emerged:
“Forgetting” is here not just a selectively applied device, no, it is an obligatory rule of any historical research. Deviations from it are punished, and the historian himself, if he acts within the official framework, is a custodian of this unshakeable law. The result is not just the constant rewriting of history according to yesterday’s circumstances and today’s personification of power, but the perpetual conservation of a zone of silence. (Pamiat’ 1978, 1:VI)
Although the access to archival sources was a problem, the state-imposed silence did not amount to ignorance. “Our main historical secrets are of a special kind. Millions of people have been led into these secrets… Millions of witnesses, and many of them are still alive! No historian ever had such abundant material at hand.” Personal archives, memoirs and other personal sources represented “huge reserves of historical memory.” The authors deemed it their duty to “save from oblivion all historical facts and names doomed today to death, disappearance, first and foremost the names of the deceased, persecuted, slandered …” (Pamiat’ 1978, 1:VII–IX).
They called on readers, in the Soviet Union and abroad, to send them “memoirs, diaries, letters, oral testimonies, official documents… unpublished manuscripts… articles, essays, reviews, bibliographies, any materials about the history of culture, religion, science, politics, social thinking,” regardless of the political orientation of their authors. However, the authors noted that, despite their striving to maintain high scientific standards, the lack of access to some archives and restricted library reserves might impede the verification of some of their hypotheses. Still, the format of a periodical publication would permit an in-depth ← 58 | 59 → exploration of some topics across several issues, including, but not restricted to, the Gulag theme, and allow editors to “enter into dialogue with readers” (Pamiat’ 1978, 1:VIII, IX).
Conceived of as a tamizdat publication from the beginning, Pamiat’ was represented in the West by Natal’ia Gorbanevskaia, a well-known dissident and founder of the samizdat information bulletin The Chronicle of Current Events, who had recently emigrated to the West. She supervised the publication of the first Pamiat’ in 1978 in New York. However, after a conflict with the editor Valerii Chalidze, she turned to another friend of the group, Vladimir Alloi, who took over the edition in Paris, releasing four other issues—each a thick volume of over five hundred pages.
In terms of the journal’s content, the five issues covered a very broad range of subjects, with a time frame spanning the years 1900 to 1968—the date of the first publication of The Chronicle of Current Events, the dissident news bulletin documenting contemporary political repressions. Expanding on its original Gulag orientation, Pamiat’ explored the history of a political terror that had affected all spheres of Soviet life, from literature to sciences and religion. By throwing light upon those pages that had been consciously removed from official history, the authors of Pamiat’ established their own alternative histories. Yet theirs was not solely a history of victims; it was also one of opposition to the state (Ferretti 1993a, 83–84)—hence their collaboration with the Menshevik Dmitrii Batser and the post-Stalin era political prisoners Revol’t Pimenov and Veniamin Iofe, or the dedication of a section of the third issue to the dissident Anatolii Marchenko. Therefore, although the focus was not avowedly political, the Soviet state could hardly close an eye on a publication that gave a voice to its opponents and victims.
Except for Roginskii, who was the author of several historical publications, none of the redactors of Pamiat’ could be described as professional historians. Still, they were far from being foreign to the research trade and all belonged in some way to the intelligentsia, whether they were trained in natural, social or human sciences, or self-taught. Moreover, they made up for the lack of access to archives and of professional research skills with enthusiasm and resourcefulness, spending their free time in libraries, from which they had learned to extract every scrap of information available (Zubarev 2013).
Although members of Pamiat’ could work individually on tasks assigned or chosen, the publication was fundamentally a collective undertaking; authorship of one piece was never fully individual, as the whole collective participated in turn in writing, commenting on, editing, and introducing each piece. The definition of the format and orientation, as well as the selection of content for the issue, was also the result of common discussion during editorial meetings in Leningrad and ← 59 | 60 → Moscow. In the editorial team, Roginskii occupied the position of “first among equals.” Although he was based in Leningrad, from 1977 to 1981, he spent the three summer months in Moscow, working on Pamiat’ with his co-editors, in various apartments lent by sympathizers and friends (Dediulin 2013; Zubarev 2013). Apart from authoring, prefacing, or editing many of the publications himself, he was also the “wise strategist” who knew how to manage the team’s “human resources” and ensure the successful publication of the journal, playing his cards astutely in what turned out to be a duel with the KGB (Sazhin 2014).
The conditions of the time dictated conspiracy measures and the use of extreme caution. Some memoirs were anonymized to prevent the identification of their origin or author (Sazhin 2014). Editors and contributors also had to hide behind pseudonyms, except for a few, who rejected anonymity, either because they had a history of repression behind them and had forsaken fear (Revol’t Pimenov, Evgenii Gnedin), because they were retired (Mikhail Gefter), or because they were about to emigrate (Mark Popovskii) (Zubarev 2013). Often, to ensure that the author would not be identified, two sets of initials or pseudonyms stood under one piece. Nevertheless, Dediulin affirms in retrospect that many pseudonyms chosen must have been transparent for the KGB, as the young friends were not experienced conspirators (Dediulin 2013). Bogoraz, who was a well-known dissident, took many precautions to avoid betraying her colleagues when visiting them in Leningrad (Bogoraz 2009, 214; Dediulin 2013). Yet even before the first issue came out, the State Security services knew of its existence and had identified at least some of its authors (Sazhin 2014).
Repression began with house searches. The first was at Roginskii’s and his mother-in-law’s apartments in February, 1977. This was followed by a “prophylactic warning” issued by the KGB organs in June (Wishnevsky 1981). In March 1979, the State Security organs performed new searches at Roginskii’s, Korotaev’s mother’s, Dediulin’s, Sazhin’s, and Daniel’s places. Roginskii, Dediulin, and Sazhin were called for interrogations in March, while Korotaev was called in April, and Daniel’ in July (hro.org 2006). At the KGB’s demand, Roginskii was fired from his teaching position for “the commission by a worker, fulfilling the functions of an educator, of an immoral act incompatible with his continuing to perform that work.” When he appealed this decision with a tribunal, he lost his case and the verdict confirmed that “the books confiscated from Roginsk[ii] do not meet the standards of literature by the KGB,” justifying his dismissal (hro.org 2006). As for Dediulin, he lost a vast quantity of material, seized during the search, including his bio-bibliographical dictionary of Soviet dissidence, and was forced, like Roginskii, to resign from his teaching position. In reaction, Bogoraz circulated a ← 60 | 61 → declaration of support for the young researcher, giving publicity to his work and denouncing an “attack on our memory [pamiat’]” (Ianovskii 2010, 148). Gorbanevskaia launched a campaign of protest in the West, which may have protected Dediulin and extended the life of Pamiat’ for two years (Sabbatini 2004, 5–6; Dediulin 2013).
However, the KGB continued to gather information about the editors of the journal and to harass the group. In March 1981, Dediulin was forced to leave the country (Dolinin et al. 2003a). In April, Roginskii also faced an ultimatum to emigrate. He did not hurry to comply with the demand, however. In June, the Public Library in Leningrad deprived him of his reader’s card for “use of archival material for ‘illegal’ publication abroad.” Finally, on August 12, 1981, he was arrested at his family dacha at Ust’-Narva, in Estonia (Beshenkovskii 1981; Dolinin et al. 2003b). He stood accused of falsification of letters of accreditation to get access to archives.
From then on, a large-scale campaign began in Roginskii’s defense in the West, sustained to a large extent by Sergei Dediulin, by then based in Paris. The latter did not reveal Roginskii’s participation in Pamiat’, as this was not the count of indictment chosen by the authorities, and such a revelation might have endangered him further. Instead, Dediulin waged a successful campaign around the image of Roginskii as an independent historian, who, despite not being a dissident, “still inspired panic to local authorities simply because of the independence of his intellect” (Dediulin 1982). Among the open supporters of Roginskii were Soviet émigré and Western writers Lev Kopelev (Kopelew 1981), Vladimir Voinovich, and Heinrich Böll (“Solidarität mit Roginskij” 1981). The international community of historians also became mobilized, and the “International Committee of Historians in Defense of Arsenii Roginskii” collected over five hundred signatures of prominent researchers in his support (Dediulin 1982).
On November 25, 1981, Roginskii’s trial opened in Leningrad. He was accused under article 196, part 2 of the Criminal code, punishing “forgeries, the fabrication or sale of falsified documents, stamps, seals or forms” by a sentence of up to five years of imprisonment. As much as the count of indictment appeared far-fetched, the conduct of the trial could hardly have convinced Western observers. Key witnesses such as Vladimir Pugachev, a Professor of Saratov University, and Samuil Lur’e, editor from the newspaper “Neva,” who had initially denied providing Roginskii with letters of accreditation, partly recanted during the trial, and showing support for him, implied that they might have been complicit. Only after a third, additional expert report was commissioned by the tribunal could Roginskii’s guilt eventually—and unsatisfactorily—be demonstrated. Nevertheless, the initial ← 61 | 62 → accusation was reinforced by the testimonies of employees of various archives where Roginskii had done research, who claimed that documents published in Pamiat’ came from their archival fonds, to which only Roginskii had been granted access (RFE Research 1981). In the final accusation, the goal of Roginskii’s activities in the archives was described as the “publication of archival documents in foreign editions” (Sobranie Dokumentov Samizdata 1981). Thus although Roginskii was not formally accused of being the editor of Pamiat’—which would have constituted a political, rather than a criminal accusation—the essence of his condemnation lay in his “violation of the monopoly of history” (M.H. 1982, 120). For this, Roginskii was condemned, on December 4, 1981, to four years’ imprisonment. This was close to the maximum sentence offered by law.
Sazhin recorded, and Dobkin transcribed, Roginskii’s last declaration at his trial and then dictated the text over the phone to Dediulin, who made it public in the West (Dediulin 2013; Roginskij 1982). As during the whole trial, Roginskii refused to discuss the matter of his guilt and instead attacked the whole system that forced historians to bend the law in order to work independently. Any serious researcher of the Soviet past needs to work with archival material, he claimed. Yet in the Soviet Union, only historians accredited by Soviet research institutions or press for specific projects could get such authorizations; indeed, even if they did, they could be arbitrarily denied access to specific documents or archival fonds. The result was a narrowing of the themes studied by historians, an alienation of independent researchers, and, ultimately, a distortion of history. Roginskii called for a new system to be instated, according to which interviews would replace letters of accreditation, and restrictions on access to documents would be lifted. Only this would create the conditions ensuring that researchers would not have to “contrive” to get accreditations or humiliate themselves further by resorting to forgeries. Finally, Roginskii set out to prove the absurdity of the distinction made by the prosecution between unauthorized publication of an archival document in a foreign journal and that document’s Soviet publication.
A document, if it is reproduced faithfully and commented objectively, remains a document independently of where and by whom it is published—because there is only one Russian culture, there are historical and literary archives, which belong to this culture. And only the free study of these archives and their free publication will help us learn the truth about our past. (Sobranie Dokumentov Samizdata 1981, 12)
Interestingly, the connection to Pamiat’ was made even in the Soviet media: on February 12, 1982, an article appeared in the newspaper Vechernii Leningrad: “How ‘canards’ are born, or the tale about a ‘talented researcher, ‘famous writer’, and so on” (Grigor’ev 1982). After mentioning a “revolting” case of library book theft, the ← 62 | 63 → article turned to the case of Roginskii, whose evil deeds had caused damage “beyond measure” to Soviet society. The “criminal activity” of the historian was mentioned in a somewhat fantastic account of how a copy of Pamiat’ had been discharged by a foreigner before going through customs. Upon examination of the copy by the Public Library staff, it was revealed that the journal contained documents from their archives. “How could they end up in a U.S. publishing house? [The staff] clarified who had received access to them. They found out it was Roginskii” (Grigor’ev 1982). Then followed a detailed account of his reprehensible activities, from his early house searches to his alleged forgeries. The question of the complicity of Pugachev and Lur’e was also raised: the latter displayed astonishing amnesia and the former sought to demonstrate that Roginskii was enrolled as a doctoral student in his institution. However, Roginskii’s most vocal supporters were, obviously, “the ‘ideologists’ from the emigrant scum” who had instigated a campaign that found widespread support with the Western media and public opinion. “How could they let go of such a ‘titbit’? How could the West not make Roginskii, an average crook, ‘a fighter for human rights in the USSR’ (don’t laugh!), ‘a scientist with a world reputation’, ‘a worldwide famous Russian historian!’ ” (Grigor’ev 1982)
Such rhetoric was a familiar denigration device used against dissidents who attracted attention from the Western media. However, the campaign did not go any further: indeed, Roginskii was unknown to the Soviet public, as was often the case with low profile dissidents, any further media attention could only result in raising undue public interest in his activities.
The history of Pamiat’ shows quite clearly that independent historical research was not tolerated by the Soviet regime, which still sought to exercise a totalitarian control over society. It was not a question of whether the material published by independent historians was political and threatening to the regime. Rather, the creation of an independent historical journal published in samizdat and tamizdat violated several state “monopolies,” most prominently those on historical research and publication. Although these were not official monopolies, Soviet intellectuals had known since the infamous 1966 trial against the writers Iulii Daniel’ and Andrei Siniavskii that publishing “anti-Soviet” works abroad could result in a seven-year prison term. Roginskii and his friends were aware they were crossing dangerous boundaries and exposing themselves to repression, but they knowingly circumvented these monopolies. Therefore, I argue, their actions qualify as dissent.
Nonetheless, in contrast with their predecessors, such as Solzhenitsyn and Medvedev, their actions did not amount to a political struggle, nor was it in and of itself a posture of protest in relation to the regime. Undoubtedly, each member of the collective conceived of his/her involvement with Pamiat’ in a different way, ← 63 | 64 → but perhaps what they shared was an idealistic striving to write as they pleased, independently of the regime—a posture traditional of the old Russian intelligentsia (Tolstoi 2012). Dediulin and Sazhin, who were in their late twenties when Pamiat’ was created, also shared with the younger generation, born after the war, a feeling of estrangement from official ideology, which went along with a deep interest for their country’s culture and history. Sazhin confessed he had long been “anti-Soviet,” but had acted out of ethical rather than political motives, in addition to a thirst of knowledge and a strong interest for archival documents (Sazhin 2014). Far from wanting to emigrate, Dediulin wished to escape constraints and bans imposed by the regime, not through open protest or provocation, but instead by avoiding attracting undue attention unto himself. “We needed to work, read books, read forbidden books, read archives, look for private archives, and talk with people,” he recalls (Dediulin 2013). And this required remaining out of the KGB’s limelight.
Yet this proved impossible in the long run: by publishing abroad, even under pseudonyms, the editors of Pamiat’ had chosen to step into the open, in contrast to generations of Soviet intellectuals who had quietly written “for the drawer,” and the Soviet state could not ignore this act of resistance. With publicity came repression, and, crucially, Roginskii’s “Last Word” took notice of this unwilling change of circumstances, this forced transition from the status of historian to that of dissident. By turning to a position of outright defiance towards the system that condemned independent researchers to break the law or renounce their activity, Roginskii initiated a shift towards open militancy, which would lead in later years to his active involvement with the organization Memorial.
Still, in the long run, and in the face of repression, Pamiat’ was broken. While Roginskii was sent to a labor camp, the KGB interrogated other members of Pamiat’ who remained in the USSR. Although the repressive organs did not proceed to further arrests, they kept a close watch on the group, and in 1985, the State Security made it clear to Dobkin and his friends that there could be no question of publishing the sixth issue of the journal, which Dobkin had sent to the West and was being prepared for publication. If it came out, Roginskii would be given a new sentence, the KGB warned. The group had no choice but to obey. This material was nonetheless published in the new historical journal Minuvshee, created in Paris by Alloi in 1986, and conceived of as the continuation of Pamiat’ (Alloi 1998, 198; Igrunov 2005). As for Roginskii, he was liberated on August 12, 1985 (“Spravka N° 021634, SSSR Ministerstvo Vnutrennykh Del” 1985). By that time, three Soviet General Secretaries had gone to their graves and a fourth one, Mikhail Gorbachev, was about to launch his revolutionary policy of Glasnost. ← 64 | 65 →
“Memorial” and Post-Soviet Independent Historical Research: Anti-Stalinist Activism in Post-Soviet Russia
The Birth of Memorial
In contrast to the strict taboos of the totalitarian Brezhnev era, which labeled as anti-Soviet any independent exploration of the past, Russian post-Soviet society has been characterized by a less unequivocal attitude to the memory of past crimes and to independent historians who have sought to perpetuate it. The case of Memorial, a human rights organization born during Perestroika from the seeds sown by Pamiat’, reveals these differences of context and attitude. As I will argue, this new context, starting with Perestroika and increasing after 1991, has allowed for the birth of a kind of anti-Stalinist activism that could not have taken place in the Brezhnev era. While the anti-Stalinist impetus for the creation and continued existence of Memorial is similar to that which gave birth to late Soviet dissident historical research, the form taken by Memorial testified to important changes in the political and, by extension, memorial climate.
The history of the birth of the Memorial movement during Perestroika is well-known: the initial impetus was provided by a petition of former political prisoners and their descendants to erect the monument to victims of political repression promised by Khrushchev in 1961 (Smith 2009; Ferretti 1993b). But the construction of this memorial could not be an end in itself, and the members of the newly-created organization understood that Memorial “should transform into an all-Union social organization, whose main task should be the restoration of the historical memory of the people, in autonomy, independent from the state and state institutions” (Mezhdunarodnyi Memorial 2014a).
In the context of Glasnost, social interest in the repressed past reached its peak, and the Memorial movement grew in size. Local branches sprouted up throughout the country. As it sought to build its support-base within society, Memorial faced the difficulty of negotiating a legal status with the authorities, attempting to strike an intermediary course between incurring debilitating repression and risking co-option by the regime. The growing popularity of Memorial presented the Communist Party with a new challenge: not only did the birth of civil society break the Party’s totalitarian monopoly over social and political institutions, but the emphasis on the memory of political repression, despite being in line with the new policies of Gorbachev, was still potentially threatening to the legitimacy of the regime. In order to give an official status to the movement, a founding conference was convened in Moscow in January 1989. Yet it took another year before the organization was granted official registration, with Gorbachev’s support (Roginskii 2014). ← 65 | 66 →
Former barriers were progressively unravelling under the combined pressure of public opinion and the reforming leadership. What seemed previously utopian was becoming reality. But even as Gorbachev himself encouraged explorations of Soviet history, Memorial insisted on retaining its independence, refusing to entrust the people’s memory to “a state which, during its whole history, only lied about the present and falsified the past” (Mezhdunarodnyi Memorial 2014a).
By May 1989, the creation of what would become the “scientific historical-educational center Memorial” was already on the way. Roginskii presented the future organization in these words:
Progressively, in the course of discussions and numerous debates, another, deeper and broader idea emerged: that it was necessary to create in Moscow […] a memorial complex in memory of victims of political repressions, which would have to include, not just a monument […] but also a scientific-informational and educational center, which would in its turn contain an archive, a museum and a library accessible to all (that is the most important notion here, accessible to all). Only such a center with information, with data about victims could […] become an effective, a real factor on the long term in the struggle with Stalinism, and I mean Stalinism in the broadest sense of the word. (Alekseeva 1989)
The very definition of the term “Stalinism,” and correspondingly of the scope of the phenomenon, was the object of bitter discussion at the Memorial preparatory conference in October 1988. On this definition would depend not only the scope of research, but also the general orientation of Memorial. While moderates were in favor of a restrictive time frame limited to the 1927–1953 period, radicals called for a much broader scope (Ferretti 1993b, 352–353). Roginskii belonged to the latter camp and defined Memorial’s goal as “the restoration of historical truth on the crimes of Stalinism, on the illegality of terroristic methods of state government, the study of its causes and consequences, the contribution to the recognition of the crimes of Stalinism, of crimes against humanity” (Alekseeva 1989). These objectives were in line with the general process of democratization and testified to the entanglement of two struggles inherited from the dissidence of the 1960s and 1970s: anti-Stalinism and human rights defense. Indeed, studying totalitarianism in the past went hand in hand with opposing its resurgence in the present (Roginskii 2014). Therefore, Memorial’s mission evolved into two broad directions, intrinsically intertwined from the beginning: a historical direction, focused on the study of the history of political repression, which constituted the natural continuation of the work of Pamiat’; and a human rights defense direction inherited from the struggle of past dissidence. Complementary missions were the education of civil society and the material and legal support of victims of political repression and human rights abuse (Mezhdunarodnyi Memorial 2014b). Roginskii recalled that “some proposed that we become a research institute, others, a [political] party, ← 66 | 67 → but we decidedly turned away from either of these options. Our basic directions, historical-educational and human rights defense, were interrelated, and, what is important, ideologically connected: we consider history through [the prism of] law and law with the help of history” (Roginskii 2014). The heritage of the dissident era, with the prominent ethical values assumed by the struggle for the “restoration of historical truth” and anti-Stalinism, was thus central to the goals and values of Memorial from the very beginning. However, this dual orientation was not unproblematic in Memorial’s relations with the state, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, and has conditioned the current official hostility towards the organization.
Memorial and Pamiat’: Continuities and Differences
The shift from dissident historical research to civil society activism was prepared and conditioned by the changes of Perestroika, but it did not affect all former members of Pamiat’ to an equal degree, although all of them continued, in some way, to be active in the field of independent historical research. For Roginskii, joining Memorial was a natural step:
It was in the Spring of 1988. I had already heard previously that a group had appeared, which collected signatures on the question of a memorial to the victims of Communist repression. However, I found out that they were also collecting information, that they were preparing a questionnaire for former prisoners. And in general, their idea was not only about a monument, but [more broadly] about memory: archives, a museum and a library about repressions. The four of us joined; Larisa [Bogoraz], [Aleksandr Daniel’], Sergei Kovalev and me. (hro.org 2006)
Daniel’ and Roginskii became two of the pillars of the “scientific historical-educational center Memorial”: the former, until 2009, as the head of the research program dedicated to the history of dissent in the Soviet Union (Mezhdunarodnyi Memorial 2014c), the latter as the head of the organization since 1996. In the first years of the new regime, Roginskii acted as an expert for both the “Committee of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation for Human Rights” and the “Commission of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation for the transmission of the archives of the CPSU and KGB into state conservation and for the rehabilitation of victims of political repressions” (Dolinin et al. 2003b, 317). Finally, Korotaev and Zubarev also joined Memorial, one in the field of human rights defense, the other focusing on the history of dissidence.
However, others did not perform a turn towards activism and continued to pursue independent research as they had before. Dediulin remained in the West. Sazhin, estranged from the group, pursued independent research on the ← 67 | 68 → history of literature. Although Perchenok wrote a project for the creation of the “informational-scientific center Memorial” in 1989 and tried to obtain the opening of archives on his favorite research theme, the history of the Academy of Sciences, he died in 1993, leaving behind but a few published articles (Dolinin et al. 2003c; Dobkin and Sorokina 1995). After Roginskii’s arrest, Dobkin redirected his attention towards Minuvshee, Alloi’s Paris-based historical journal conceived of as the continuation of Pamiat’. When the publication was transferred to Russia, he became the informal chief editor of the journal until his death in 1998 (Dolinin et al. 2003d).
These two diverging paths taken by former Pamiat’ members underline the differences of context between the Brezhnev era and Perestroika and the post-Soviet era, but also the differences in their personalities. Larisa Bogoraz and her son Aleksandr Daniel’ had been human-rights activists before joining Pamiat’, and their renewed activism with Memorial was a logical outcome. So was it for Roginskii, who had willingly faced imprisonment and had stood up at his trial to call for the freedom of historians. With the onset of democratization, the cost of involvement decreased, and the potential benefits in terms of social impact increased considerably. Having conducted research in conditions of clandestinity, under threat of repression, they could now collect historical material virtually unimpeded, reach much broader audiences, and even try to influence political decision-making. Also, given the relative lack of political support for a deepening of the historical enquiry into and public acknowledgment of past crimes, the anti-Stalinist cause has remained relevant for post-Soviet Russian society, ensuring the continued engagement of Memorial activists. Yet for others who had joined Pamiat’ primarily on ethical grounds or out of a passion for historical research and who cherished their independence, civil society activism and involvement with the political game were less attractive.
The evolution in terms of structure also shows a striking contrast between Pamiat’ and Memorial. While Pamiat’ was a purely volunteer-based project, conducted clandestinely, Memorial has sought, since its inception during Perestroika, to become registered officially and constitute an established, institutionalized movement. This process was coupled with a professionalization of its members: former editors of Pamiat’ are now part of Memorial’s staff and have turned into a life-long profession what was initially an amateur activity and an ad hoc response to a social need. This evolution from dissident activity to organized activism only became possible with the democratization of the state.
In terms of size, Memorial has grown into a large movement encompassing eighty local branches, extending into many countries of the post-Soviet space as ← 68 | 69 → well as Western Europe. Two major evolutions explain this successful enlargement. Firstly, Memorial became a multi-issue organization, dealing not just with historical research, or even the perpetuation of the memory of victims of political repression, but also more broadly with human-rights issues and the education of civil society. This was made possible by the liberalization of the regime, which broadened the range of issues that could be safely contested in the public arena and incorporated into the programs of institutionalized organizations; and it made the activities of Memorial more relevant to society than mere historical research, whose targeted audience was bound to remain limited. Secondly, the transparency characteristic of Glasnost and the post-Soviet era ensured increased publicity around the activities of Memorial, which allowed its membership to grow considerably. This was in contrast to the secrecy, conspiracy and anonymity that was required of Pamiat’ members, contributors and readers, which kept their numbers low.
Memorial: Achievements and Obstacles
In a democratic Russia, it would seem that Memorial was well-placed to influence official politics of memorialization of Soviet-era political repression and public opinion on this issue. Yet twenty-five years after its foundation, Roginskii drew pessimistic conclusions regarding the activity of the organization. Although Russian society honors the memory of victims of political repression, it is reluctant to acknowledge, in a political culture that has traditionally regarded state authority as sacred, the responsibility of the Soviet state for the crimes committed. The defeat is both on a political and social level: on the one hand, the post-Soviet regime has failed to pass a legal act that would officially condemn the crimes of the Soviet era and has been little supportive of civil society initiatives in this domain; on the other hand, Russian society remains highly ambivalent about its past (Roginskii 2014). Numerous researchers make similar assessments (Sherlock 2007, 149–185; Adler 2005), deploring the decline of the liberal narrative in the Russian public space and the return of a heroic depiction of the Soviet past—and the “Great Patriotic War” in particular—in which Stalin occupies a prominent place. As Russian leaders sought to reconstruct a post-Soviet Russian identity, the appeal to a “useable past” implied the restoration of key elements of the Czarist and Soviet legacy; but such politics of selective memorialization also resonated with public nostalgia of the heroic legacy of the Soviet era in a period of national economic and political weakness. Therefore, the current climate of selective forgetfulness is a result of a complex mutual interaction between state and society. ← 69 | 70 →
Although the tendency towards a rehabilitation of Stalin is reminiscent of the Brezhnev era, there are also clear differences. The memory of political repression, previously taboo, is no longer restricted solely to the private sphere. Instead, it has come to occupy a legitimate, and yet peripheral place in the public sphere, reflecting the difficulties that Russian society faces in assimilating a painful and divisive past, in which the roles of perpetrators and victims cannot be satisfactorily assigned. While civil society and local authorities have been consistently involved in perpetuating this memory, the Federal administration has remained conspicuously silent, abstaining from any legal or political evaluation (Roginskii 2011, 14–16). To a certain extent, the opposition can be boiled down to a contrast between, on the one hand, a mass public educated by new history textbooks tailored to promote “pride for their fatherland and its history” (Sherlock 2007, 172) and mass media relaying a world vision increasingly painted in black and white (Roginskii 2014), and, on the other hand, professional researchers publishing nuanced accounts of a complex and painful past, whose primary audience and support base is restricted to former victims of the Soviet regime and the liberal intelligentsia. According to Nanci Adler (2005, 1114), among the various versions of the past that coexist within Russian society, “the officially sanctioned version suppresses the Stalinist repression and commands the largest constituency,” while “the iconoclastic version that emphasizes Stalinist repression commands a small and dwindling constituency within Russia. If the contested histories were to be decided by plebiscite, the minority version would be likely to disappear from Russia’s history of itself.”
It has been precisely Memorial’s mission to prevent such a disappearance and to go beyond oversimplified visions of the past, acknowledging both its glorious and its more painful, shameful aspects. At the basis of the organization’s involvement lay both the “aspiration to historical truth and the feeling of civil responsibility”: the notion of guilt, following Roginskii’s reflection, ought to be transformed not into fruitless repentance, but rather into an active position of civil responsibility meant to prevent future abuses and crimes (Roginskii 2014).
Although Memorial has failed to impose this vision on Russian society, it has nonetheless reached some of its objectives. It has fulfilled its initial goals of erecting a monument to these victims, on Lubianka square in Moscow, and of creating a research center with publicly accessible archives and a library. On a legal level, it has contributed to the passing of the 1991 “Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repressions” and the declaration of October 30th as the “Day of Memory of Victims of Political Repressions.” It has also contributed to the relative opening of Soviet archives (Mezhdunarodnyi Memorial 2014a). Furthermore, Memorial’s ← 70 | 71 → historians have published countless articles and monographs and created a number of databases on the history of Soviet repression and dissidence; and the organization has initiated and carried out numerous educational and commemorative projects in conformity with its mission.
Such developments, needless to say, would not have been possible in the totalitarian climate of the Brezhnev era. The fact that Memorial was able to carry out its actions relatively unimpeded testified to the silent acquiescence of the regime and to the possibility of a stable modus vivendi in relation to the authorities. Until recently, at least, one could say that Memorial had managed to occupy a certain niche allowing for its continued existence. This is a position that would not have been tenable in the Brezhnev era, when the Soviet regime considered any kind of independent initiative with utmost suspicion.
However, in recent years, Memorial has frequently been the object of administrative and political harassment, the most striking being its categorization as a “foreign agent,” a label applied to Russian NGOs that received foreign funding while performing some kind of political activity, according to the November 21, 2012 law (Newsru.com 2012). Another attack was also launched against “Perm-36,” the only former Gulag camp turned into a museum, created by the Perm branch of Memorial. In January 2014, the regional authorities “nationalized” the museum, arguing that it would be financed by the state program for “the commemoration of the memory of victims of political repressions.” However, the museum was simply closed to the public, and on June 25, 2014, the state program supposed to finance it was officially discarded. Although the museum might re-open, the ideological line will clearly be considerably altered by the new owners (Racheva and Art’emeva 2014).
Nevertheless, despite these attacks, Roginskii considered that the authorities “are forced to bear with us, to take note of our position and in some cases take us into account—and this is already a result, and not the least, of our work.” The main question, he concluded, was not one of mutual hostility, but of the possibility of obtaining something from the state (Roginskii 2014). What remains to be seen is whether the state will attempt to take control of this field of memorialization so as to neutralize alternative discourses on the past, or whether it will allow non-state organizations to pursue this social mission. In any case, it would seem that the conservation of a niche, albeit peripheral, for anti-Stalinism is necessary for Russia’s image as a “democratic” state.
In conclusion, I would like to reflect on the relations between the notions of dissent, activism and repression, which have been central to this study. While activism does not necessarily trigger repression—indeed, in a democratic state, ← 71 | 72 → it should not—in the totalitarian context of the Brezhnev era, they usually went hand in hand. I have chosen to use the word “dissent” to refer to the case of Pamiat’ because the participants in this project deliberately engaged in an activity which they considered socially significant, necessary, and yet knew could expose them to repression. By contrast, Memorial has sought from its inception to abide by the rules of the new political configuration, in a quasi-democratic context, to ensure that its activism would receive the broadest social resonance it could. In this sense, Memorial’s activities qualify as activism as opposed to “dissent”—for the time being, at least.
Still, it should be noted that activism and dissent are not mutually exclusive notions. Indeed, the Soviet human-rights defense movement occupied as much a posture of dissent towards the regime as it was a form of activism targeted towards the Soviet people. By pursuing publicity both within and beyond Soviet borders, it actively strove to produce change. This, however, was not the orientation of Pamiat’, which sought on the contrary to avoid any form of publicity on its activities in the Soviet Union and preferred clandestine action to provocation. The time was not yet ripe for safe activism, nor did it represent the preferred orientation of Pamiat’s members. Memorial, in contrast, represents a project both inherited from Pamiat’s fearless thirst for “historical truth” and from the human rights activism of the Soviet dissidence movement.
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1The term samizdat designates typed copies of non-authorized texts circulating underground.
2This definition is inspired by one provided by former Soviet dissidents and members of Pamiat’s editorial committee, Aleksandr Daniel’ and Larisa Bogoraz (1993, 147): “Any conscious act in opposition to the regime and violating certain (open to some degree of variation, depending on the place, time and circumstances) ‘given’ limits of social behavior. The criterion here is the possibility of repressive (in the broadest sense of this word) reaction on the part of the authorities.”
3For these two novels, published in the West in 1967 and 1968 respectively, Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1970. In his own country, however, only a few of his short stories were published, and he failed to be awarded the Lenin Prize for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1964.
4This letter was a follow up to the “Moscow Declaration” authored by Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion, in February 1974. Bogoraz had been arrested for her participation to a demonstration on Red Square against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, in August 1968, and had spent four years in exile in Siberia. In addition to her grandfather and several relatives, who had suffered from Stalin era repression, her first husband Iulii Daniel’ and her second spouse Anatolii Marchenko were also imprisoned in the Brezhnev era.