Walking through Moscow, you may pass by a small steel plaque no larger than your hand. These plaques are affixed to apartment buildings and bear nothing more than a few dates and a name. The dates do not recall some world-famous event. They are the dates of the birth, death, arrest, and rehabilitation of political prisoners. The names are not those of Moscow’s most famous inhabitants. They are the names of husbands and wives, parents and children, and homemakers and accountants. After seeing humble memorials to the victims of the Holocaust in Germany, journalist Sergey Parkhomenko decided to create similar markers for the victims of Soviet repression. In the absence of known graves, these addresses—the victims’ last—serve as memorials to the lives lost to one of the most oppressive regimes to ever scourge the face of the earth.
Not everyone supports these little memorials. Although more than 25 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, deciding on the proper way to remember it is still controversial. Some Muscovites object to plaques going up on the buildings where they live. They’d rather not return home each day to a reminder of suffering—if the Soviet Union is to be remembered, they’d rather recall the good times. These objections have even been raised by people who lost family members. The project coordinators’ consensus-based policy means that even one objection is enough to block a plaque. Nevertheless, most have gone up unopposed.
The Last Address project would not have been possible without the help of Memorial, a Russian NGO dedicated to remembering the victims of the former Soviet regime. The organization has created a publicly searchable databased of over 48,000 victims of repression in St. Petersburg and the surrounding area and the addresses of 12,000 in Moscow. Those interested can use the database to confirm the address and then pay 3,500 to 4,000 rubles (around $60 to $70) to have a plaque dedicated to a person of their choice. Between its start in December of 2014 and April of the following year, the project received more than 500 requests.
The project comes at a critical time in Russian history. As some groups dedicate themselves to honoring the dead, others try to shine a more favorable light on the Soviet Union. There are movements to change Volgograd’s name back to Stalingrad and return the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky to Lubyanka Square, the former home of the KGB. More than half of Russians surveyed in 2015 believed that Stalin had a positive effect on Russia. Officially, the government has no stance on the issue, but political activism of any kind is remarkably difficult in Russia. Many in Russia were surprised that Mr. Parkhomenko was able to get his plaques placed at all. Memorial itself has been subject to considerable legal harassment by the Putin regime through inspections, court summons, and police raids. In the face of these hardships, Memorial and the Last Address project have persevered in their vital work.
The project has spread outside of Russia. In the Czech Republic, four organizations have launched their own version of Last Address to commemorate the victims of the Czechoslovak communist regime. Four plaques have already been approved, and another is on the way. The project has also spread to Poland and Ukraine, although the Polish version has not yet launched. In May, activists launched the Ukrainian version of the project with the motto “one name, one life, one sign.” Across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, private organizations are taking it upon themselves to honor the lives lost to communism.
This work should not go unnoticed. With one fifth of the world’s population suffering under brutal communist regimes today, communism is still a part of the world we live in. Remembering the victims remains as important a task today as it was during the height of the Cold War. By dedicating each plaque to one person, the Last Address project has changed the conversation from statistics to persons.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation will be honoring Memorial at the Centennial Commemoration Dinner and Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom Ceremony on November 9. Please visit the Centennial Commemoration website for further details.
Photo: Last Address