OHS condemns closure of Memorial International

Former political prisoner Susanna Pechuro at a procession before the opening of the monument to victims of repression in Moscow.

The Oral History Society joins in the widespread condemnation of the closure of Russia’s International Memorial Organisation. The decision to close ordered by a Russian court on the 28th of December represents an assault on human rights, and in particular an attempt to suppress the Organisation’s significant contribution to the history of the Soviet Union.

Memorial was set up to document and record Stalinist absolutism, the crimes of the Soviet regime and the history of political repression in the USSR. This has included the creation of the Ostarbeiter archive containing the testimonies of slave labourers transported by the Nazis from central and eastern to work in Germany during World War Two. Other projects have been conducted on the Gulag and dissent in the USSR, family history and Perestroika journalists.  In a statement following the decision, The Memorial wrote, “Memorial is not an organisation, it is not even a social movement… Memorial is the need of the citizens of Russia to know the truth about its tragic past, about the fate of many millions of people.” 

As oral historians we understand the political significance of memory and how it can be perceived as a threat to a powerful state.

Memorial logo

Defend Memorial International

by Graham Smith

Republished from The Lug

Three decades on from the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian state is trying to outlaw historical research into the crimes of Stalinism. On December 28th, the country’s Supreme Court issued a verdict confirming a government recommendation made a month earlier that Memorial be shut down for supposedly acting on behalf of “foreign agents”.

Memorial International, along with its affiliated Oral History Centre, has conducted several oral history projects, including the Ostarbeiter oral history archive, beginning in the 1980s. More recently they have been processing interviews collected between 1991 and 1998 and have identified several subcollections or themes including family history, Perestroika journalists, and Arbat intelligentsia. In addition, Memorial has significant collections of memories of the Gulag and dissent in the USSR, databases of victims of Stalinism, as well as records of more recent human rights abuses. All this is threatened.

Fourteen years ago, Irina Flige, the chairperson of the St Petersburg Memorial group, was amongst those who were criticising the Russian government for covering up state-sponsored terrorism while emphasising its victory over fascism and the modernisation of the former Soviet Union. In 2008, Memorial made an international appeal in which the Memorial’s leadership complained,1[1] For more on the use of Memorial oral histories see the work of Nanci Adler: https://www.niod.nl/en/staff/nanci-adler

instead of a serious nationwide discussion about its Soviet past, the Soviet State patriotic myth with small changes is reviving. This myth views Russian history as a string of glorious and heroic achievements.

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation and former KGB officer, has recently accused Memorial of violating its “humanistic ideals” because the organization, had included the names of three Nazi collaborators on its website, an error that was swiftly rectified. Putin’s charge was repeated in this week’s court session when the state prosecutor, Alexei Zhafyarov, pointed to Memorial’s crime of criticising state authorities and distorting the memory of the Great Patriotic War. Zhafyarov further noted that Memorial had speculated about the terrorism of the USSR while rehabilitating Nazi criminals.

There will be oral historians who have political differences with Memorial, especially given the connections Memorial’s leadership has with Russia’s liberal opposition. However, this is a key moment in history. The decision to ban Memorial and its branches within Russia is the latest exchange in the long-running history wars that have raged within the country for more than three decades. Memorial was founded in the late 1980s with the aim of uncovering the crimes of Stalinism and the organisation continues to be one of the most obvious targets of the conservative leaders of the ruling United Russia party who have leaned on nationalistic historical myths to maintain electoral support. 

The banning is a part of a larger attempt to rehabilitate Stalinism. A failure to support Memorial aids that broader project.

Memorial November statement: http://basees.org/news/2021/11/30/defend-memorial-statement-against-the-intended-closure-of-memorial

If you want to learn more about the archives collected by Memorial, then visit https://www.memo.ru

All pages on the website can be translated from Russian to English (or any other language) using Google Translate by doing the following:

– Go to translate.google.com.
– In the box to the left, select Russian, by clicking on the downward arrow.
– In the box to the right, select English
– Add the URL (https://www.memo.ru) into the box on the left to produce a clickable link in the box on the right
– Click the link and the website or page it navigates to will be translated into English.


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