Skip to main content

'History Must Be Measured in Human Beings'

Izabella Tabarovsky
Arseniy Roginsky: 1993. Photo from Memorial archives.

Interview with Elena Zhemkova, Executive Director of Memorial

Interviewed by Izabella Tabarovsky

This fall, Memorial, Russia’s celebrated historical, educational, and civil rights organization, is observing its thirtieth anniversary. On October 30, the day when Russians remember victims of political repression, some 5,000 Moscovites participated in Memorial’s annual event, the Return of the Names, by reading aloud the names of repressed Moscovites. Held at the Solovetsky Stone in Lubyanka Square, the historic headquarters of the Soviet and now Russian security services, the event has now taken place for twelve consecutive years. Each year the reading of the list continues from where it left off the year before. Several days before this year’s event, the news broke that Moscow municipality was considering withdrawing permission to hold the event at the site, but the public outrage caused the authorities to relent. We caught up with Elena Zhemkova, executive director of Memorial, to discuss the significance of the Return of the Names, how Russian society views Stalin’s repressions, and what it has been like to continue after the passing of Memorial’s legendary founder, Arseny Roginsky.

Q. How did Return of the Names first start?

A. In 2006, I was at an event in Germany that commemorated eight people who had died at the Berlin Wall. It took place in a church next to the graveyard where they were buried. I saw people coming out of the church and recounting details from the lives of the dead. It seemed so right to me. Here were eight people who, for whatever reason, wanted with all their heart and soul to flee the German Democratic Republic, and perished in the attempt. Now they are buried here. Nobody knows whether they have relatives or what befell their families, but there are people who quite possibly did not know them but wanted to remember them, and they organized a commemorative event and talked about them. That gave us the idea for the Return of the Names. We wanted to do something human so that our day of remembrance of political prisoners would have a human dimension.

Q. How did you come up with the specific way of doing it that people now know?

A. My first idea was this. We have over 40,000 names of Moscow residents who were executed, and we have their short bios. So I suggested we start reading the names in public and read them for ten, twenty days—for as long as it took to read out all the names. Everyone told me it was a crazy idea because the municipality would never approve. So we ended up with the idea of reading names from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the course of one day.

We got our approval in 2007. Arseny [Roginsky] said to me, “What are we going to do if no one comes? How will we fill these twelve hours?” I had a ready answer: I told him I’d get twelve of my closest girlfriends, and each would read for one hour. I myself can stand and read for an hour. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’d do it. But people came—maybe 200 to 300 people attended that first reading. Over time, that number has gradually increased.

This year 5,000 people came, and that’s probably the limit. We simply can’t take more. Of the 5,000 who attended, only 1,500 were able to get to the microphone and read the names. We used to give people up to ten biographies to read. Now people stand in line for four hours or more just to read a single biography, though we also let them add their own names if they want.

Many people, knowing they won’t be able to stand to the end, watch on the internet and send messages of support. At this point we understand the pacing of this event. A maximum of 150 people can get through in an hour. If no one adds their own names, it can be 170. But sometimes it’s 130 per hour. So at some point, around 7 p.m., we began to warn people waiting in line: You won’t be able to read. And some people had stood in line four and a half hours.

Q. What makes people want to stand in line for hours if in the end they might not get to read the names?

A. They come just for the chance to stand in this line. They consider it an honor. People of conscience want to feel like they are people of conscience. This event allows people to feel, in a personal way, that they have a conscience and that they have memory. Most people can’t be heroes or revolutionaries. They won’t attend an unapproved meeting. Most people are loyal, law-abiding, and kind. I believe that’s why people stand in line. It’s not such a very high price to pay, to stand in line for four hours in order to feel that you have a conscience and that you are an honest person.

Q. The very personal nature of this event stands in such contrast to the mass nature of the repressions.

A. We always say—and these are Arseny Roginsky’s words—that history must be measured in human beings. Not in victories, not in countries, not in great achievements. To be sure, those are also important measurements. But for us, the most important measure is the human being. In the years of Soviet power, the state issued 1,250,000 death sentences. How to see individual human beings behind this number? This event is one way.

Q. Memorial was designated a foreign agent back in 2016. How has that influenced your activity?

A. Working with this designation takes a lot of our energy. We live in constant expectation of an audit. And it is clear to us that they could simply kill us through an audit or suffocate us with some horrible fines. It keeps our accounting department under terrible stress. We are constantly living on the edge. Being designated a foreign agent has also influenced some of our projects. In some cases schools have received directives not to work with us because of that.

Q. There is some ambiguity here. On the one hand, the government puts pressure on you. On the other, the authorities allow you to hold Return of the Names. What does that say about the attitude in Russian society toward the subject of repressions?

A. That’s the attitude in society toward repressions—ambiguous. On the one hand, there isn’t a family that wasn’t touched by repression. When you start to work with the family history, you’ll always encounter a history of repression in one form or another. Maybe it was a distant relative, and maybe he or she wasn’t executed but was exiled or resettled or deprived of something or prohibited from doing something. True, not every family has kept this memory. For some families the catastrophic, devastating memory of the [Great Patriotic] War has overshadowed the memory of the repressions. At the same time, the memory of the war is something you can be proud of, but not the memory of repressions. So people may talk about the war but not about the repressions. For some families that memory is simply walled off, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The repressions touched millions of people. If we just add up the numbers according to the Russian law on rehabilitation, which defines repressions very narrowly, 11 million people fall into the category of repressed. Each of those people had relatives, so if you just multiply by two, it’s already 22 million. And there were also children, and other relatives. Again, this is according to a narrow interpretation of repression, which doesn’t include, for example, the victims of Holodomor.

On the other hand, in many cases the memory was wiped out. There is very strong government propaganda whose main point is that we and our children don’t need this bad memory. Our children need to grow up happy, they need to feel they are children of a victorious country. How to combine the story of us as a victorious country with that tragic, ugly, betrayal-filled memory, that bad memory, the memory of the crimes? It’s hard to do that, which makes a conflict for society.  

Q. In 2017, Russia opened an official monument to victims of repressions, the Wall of Grief. President Putin participated in the unveiling. You had originally proposed the concept for the monument, but your idea changed in the process. What are your thoughts about this monument?  

A. It’s very good that it exists. It’s a step forward. It allows schoolteachers to say: The president opened this monument, and this is what the government says in the name of all citizens. It’s not just something that Memorial wants. Whether we like this president or not, he represents the executive power of the state, and he has now said that repressions are bad and established this monument. What’s important for us is that it not be considered a full stop at the end of a sentence but rather a point of departure. Our original concept included ideas for working with schools, archives, memory, monuments, how to search for mass burial sites, and, most important, what to do with survivors: how to provide them with a dignified old age, social recognition, and rehabilitation; how to offer a state apology.

Q. Once again, there is ambiguity. On the one hand, the government doesn’t want to acknowledge the subject; on the other, it put up the monument.

A. Absolutely. And that’s why I think the monument is our victory. It may not be the most glorious victory, and it may not be the best monument from an artistic point of view. I personally like the Solovetsky Stone the most. Nothing can better express the tragedy of the millions than this simple, natural stone. For me, this stone is a witness and a symbol. So it’s not important what the wall looks like. What’s important is that it exists, that the state has indicated its attitude on the subject.

Q. It’s been almost a year since Arseny Roginsky passed away. How has this year been for you?

A. It’s been hard. He is very much missed. He wasn’t just an incredibly smart person. He was a person whom people sought out for advice because they sensed he was someone who had seen so much in life and understood something important about life.

When he was with us, a lot of us felt somewhat aggrieved that he was wasting his life on Memorial because it didn’t leave him time to write. He was a great scholar, but he wrote very little. So many books were left unwritten! At his sixty-fifth birthday celebration we asked him about it. He said he was happy that he was able to spend his life on Memorial, that Memorial was his life’s project. And if that’s the case, then our mission is not to let it fall apart. Yes, being without him is difficult for us. But we are trying, and we are succeeding.

Photo credit: Arseniy Roginsky: 1993. Photo from Memorial archives.

About the Author

Izabella Tabarovsky

Izabella Tabarovsky

Senior Advisor, Regional Partnerships and Programming
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more