When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policies of Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) in the mid-1980s, he hoped that a limited liberalization of the Soviet economy and media would be sufficient to pull his country out of its bureaucratic stagnation. But Gorbachev’s wager that he could control the forces of free speech failed. Glasnost opened up a Pandora’s Box of free discussion, criticism, and debate about the history, crimes, and legacy of the communist regime. There is no organization that better embodies the spirit of this age than Memorial.
While Memorial was officially chartered in 1989, its origins can be traced back to 1987. It was first known as The Group for the Preservation of the Memory of Soviet Repression Victims. As the name suggests, the group’s mission focused on exposing the truth about the history of mass-scale human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. Its first committee chairman was Andrei Sakharov, a prominent Soviet nuclear physicist and an outspoken political dissident who was driven into exile in 1980. As the group grew, so did the scope of its humanitarian work. In 1989 it founded its Human Rights Group, which organized a protest at the office of the Procurator General of the USSR, demanding the release of all remaining political prisoners.
After 1987, when the ban on discussing Stalin’s atrocities was finally lifted, Memorial began circulating a petition to erect a memorial and museum to the victims of Stalinist repression. By June of 1988, nearly 50,000 people had signed the petition. Heeding the outcry, Gorbachev began discussing building a memorial, but without acknowledging Memorial by name.
In truth, the members of Memorial were uncomfortable with the same Soviet authorities who were responsible for political repression in the first place dictating the memorial’s construction and design. Eventually, members of Memorial took it upon themselves to build their own monuments and archives. One of their earliest triumphs was the replacement of the statue of secret policeman Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Moscow statue with the Solovetsky Stone, a large stone from the from the Soviet Union’s very first Gulag camp, located on the Solovetsky islands.
Memorial also worked alongside the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta to collect the memories of survivors. The Society created an archive that includes photos, correspondence, and the personal testimonies of victims, their families, and former repressors. These archives have expanded massively. Between 1990 and 2008, Memorial managed to catalogue the names of over 2.65 million such victims.
In the wake of the sweeping democratization movements of the 1980s, Memorial began to push for political reforms as well. It was frequently the first informal political organization to arrive in the Russian provinces, where it helped organize campaigns for reformist pro-democracy candidates for the Congress of People’s Deputies. Several Memorial chapters also helped elect Boris Yeltsin, who was also elected to Memorial’s leadership council. Since this was in the early days of Perestroika, very few parties had the courage to mobilize politically. Without the help of Memorial, which acted as a galvanizing political force, viable alternatives to the communist regime would not have had the necessary support to provide a meaningful challenge.
By Soviet standards, Glasnost ushered in a period of unprecedented freedom of expression. But getting involved in politics and criticizing the USSR’s past leaders was still risky. In the fall and winter of 1987, several of Memorial’s leaders were harassed or lost their jobs for their involvement in archiving the names of Stalin’s victims. While some local governments helped Memorial build monuments, elsewhere the reaction was decidedly negative, both because of Memorial’s specific aims and owing to a general distrust of nongovernmental organizations. Government agencies would refuse to register provincial branches or block them from holding vigils. There were also attempts by the KGB to infiltrate and splinter Memorial.
Fortunately, the response by the government became less negative after the 1990 elections. In addition to physical monuments to the dead, Memorial also secured the passage of a 1991 law rehabilitating victims of repression and had October 30 marked as a day of remembrance for political prisoners.
Memorial’s activism was instrumental in helping Russia transition out of communism. By promoting democratic candidates and political organizations, Memorial played a key role in shaping the face of early postcommunist politics. But most importantly, Memorial shed light on the darkest periods of Russian history by commemorating the horrors of the Soviet regime. Memorial keeps the names of the dead from slipping away in a country that often has difficulty facing its dark past.
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.