It is with deep regret that the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation marks the passing of Arseny Borisovich Roginsky, a historian, dissident, author, and co-founder of the human rights group Memorial (Мемориал), which received the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom in 2017.
Roginsky’s devotion to truth—and disregard for the consequences—were apparent from early on. After graduating in 1968 with a degree in history from the University of Tartu, Roginsky found his career blocked because of his Jewish background and because his father had been an “enemy of the people”—denounced, purged, and exiled by Stalin. In 1975, Roginsky became the editor of a samizdat publication called Pamyat, or “Memory.” His career as a dissident had begun.
Roginsky put his historical training to work by delving into the Soviet archives, trying to uncover the story of his father’s persecution and that of hundreds of thousands like him. He found himself harassed at every turn by the KGB—he was denied admittance to the University of Leningrad, his apartment was repeatedly searched, and his books were confiscated. In 1981, Roginsky was arrested on the charge of forgery—the charge of having forged a pass to the Leningrad archives!
The young dissident academic was given a stark choice—emigration or incarceration. Roginsky chose the latter. He was imprisoned for four years. When he was released in 1985, the Soviet Union was on the cusp of a new era in its history.
One year later, in 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev first publicly used the term glasnost, or “openness.” As the screws of repression were loosened, civil society groups began to spring up unbidden across the USSR. In 1987 and 1988, historical memory societies started forming at the municipal and regional level; slowly but surely, they asked hard questions about the bloodiest—and least-discussed—episodes in the Soviet past.
Along with the legendary nuclear physicist and outspoken dissident Andrei Sakharov and fellow samizdat editor Sergei Kovalev, in January 1989 Roginsky co-founded Memorial—a new coordinating network that would incorporate the many young civil society activists and groups across the Soviet Union calling for a true accounting of the crimes of the Stalin era and the dreaded Gulag system. (The Russian word Pamyat could not be used as it had been usurped by an anti-Semitic ultranationalist group with whom Roginsky and his colleagues would soon come into conflict.) With Roginsky as its first president and later Chairman of the Board, Memorial became one of the foremost organizations actively uncovering, preserving, and promoting a truthful historical narrative of Soviet communism in the post-Soviet sphere.
Memorial’s projects in the field of historical memory were (and are) many: the erection of a Memorial to the Victims of the Gulag to replace the statue of KGB founder “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky in front of the former KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square; the “Last Address” project, which places memorial plaques at the last known physical addresses of Stalin’s disappeared and executed; the Topography of Terror, a project which seeks to uncover and document mass graves from the Great Purge; and the collection of a vast archive of the names, personal effects, and stories of the Soviet regime’s millions of victims.
Memorial’s historical mission is all the more necessary in the light of recent attempts to whitewash Stalin’s legacy. “In the new history textbooks, Stalinism is presented as an institutional phenomenon, even an achievement,” Roginsky said. “But the terror is portrayed as a historically determined and unavoidable tool for solving state tasks. This concept does not rule out sympathy for the victims of history. But it makes it absolutely impossible to consider the criminal nature of the terror, and the perpetrator of this crime.”
Under the leadership of Roginsky and others, Memorial also monitored human rights abuses by Russian forces in the Tajik Civil War and during the two Russian invasions of Chechnya, and has documented and protested Russian president Vladimir Putin’s headlong rush into authoritarianism and dictatorship.
Memorial’s tireless commitment to truth-telling, both about the Soviet past and the Putinist present, led to its being smeared a “foreign agent” by the Russian regime. “In Russian the phrase ‘foreign agent’ has no other meaning than ‘enemy,’ ‘spy,’ ‘traitor.’ The point of this law is to set society against those organizations which the authorities consider to be harmful,” said Roginsky in an interview. “Memorial in particular cannot forget how the phrase ‘foreign agent’ has been used in our country’s history, how many hundreds of thousands of people were executed for allegedly being ‘foreign agents.’”
Arseny Roginsky was a clarion voice for truth, justice, and memory in the twenty-first century—a time when such voices are sorely needed. Memorial, now composed of more than 80 constituent organizations across the former USSR and elsewhere, is still carrying on its founder’s legacy. “Memorial is not just a job,” Roginsky once said. “It’s a way of life.”