December 14, 2011


The Civil Archipelago: How far can the resistance to Vladimir Putin go? ( David Remnick, December 19, 2011, The New Yorker)

Recently, I walked past 38 Petrovka--the headquarters of the Interior police--and crossed the street to the new headquarters of Memorial, a civil-rights group that began in 1987. Those were the early days of glasnost, when all kinds of neformaly, informal civic political groups, with names like Moscow Tribune and the Club of Social Initiatives, were suddenly allowed to bloom. The organizers of Memorial, some of them former dissidents and political prisoners, began with the idea that progress was impossible without proper commemoration of the horrors of the Soviet past. Activists for Memorial collected tens of thousands of signatures on petitions urging the Communist Party to build a monument to the "victims of illegal repressions" under Stalin. After a series of marches, conventions, and encounters with the Kremlin leadership, Memorial spread to dozens of provincial cities and towns.

Gorbachev was convinced that, in order to reform the country, he had to win over the intellectual class, and in 1988 he endorsed the idea of a monument at a Communist Party conference. But he was ambivalent about Memorial itself, rightly seeing it as the seed of a broader political opposition that would end up questioning the legitimacy of the system itself. "We have to somehow de-energize Memorial, really give it a local character," he declared to the politburo. "What this is about is not Memorial. It's a cover for something else." Gorbachev did not crack down on Memorial, but the group wasn't allowed to register, a bureaucratic maneuver that hampered its ability to collect funds and operate smoothly. At Andrei Sakharov's funeral, in 1989, Gorbachev asked Sakharov's widow, Elena Bonner, if there was anything he could do for her. She said, "Register Memorial."

Memorial survived. The Soviet Union did not. At Memorial's new headquarters, underwritten in part by the Ford Foundation and U.S.A.I.D., I was shown around the library and the archives, where, in the past two decades, scholars have done research for hundreds of new publications on the Soviet past. An archivist opened drawers filled with handkerchiefs, drawings, and other modest artifacts made, surreptitiously, by prisoners in the Gulag. The archivist pulled, at random, the file of one Vladimir Levitsky, who was imprisoned in 1932 for the crime of collecting stamps. Stamp collectors were suspected of trafficking in secret signs and codes. In 1937, Levitsky was shot at a labor camp called Olkhovka, near Krasnoyarsk.

Memorial has expanded in intent and practice over the years, becoming not only a research center, with libraries and archives around the country and a virtual library on the Gulag system, but also an important locus for human-rights work. It sponsors essay and outreach programs for schools. Sometimes, Memorial feels the pressure of officialdom. In 2008, police broke into its St. Petersburg offices and confiscated twelve hard drives that included an archive on Stalin, representing decades of work. The director there, Irina Flige, said it was an act of intimidation. Six months later, the courts told the police to return the hard drives.

One of Memorial's founders is a historian named Arseny Roginsky, whose father died in Stalin's prisons. Roginsky attracted the notice of the K.G.B. in Leningrad when, in the seventies, he started collecting a kind of proto-archive of documents about Soviet repression; in the early eighties, he was sent to a prison camp for four years.

I had coffee with Roginsky, whom I've known for years, at Memorial's old headquarters, a less antiseptic set of offices, where the entry hall is plastered with photographs of heroic figures of the dissident era, and where Roginsky is allowed to smoke. Sitting in, and sometimes pacing, his minuscule office, Roginsky told me that the past few years have seen a proliferation of independent human-rights groups, media outlets, think tanks, academic departments, election watchdogs, and N.G.O.s not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but all over the country. Because their efficacy is so limited, so circumscribed by the Kremlin, they do not constitute a true civil society; rather, they are an archipelago of islands in a vast sea, barely connected to each other and ignored, at best, by the political élite.

"To speak in a grandiloquent way about it, this whole process is about shaping civil society," Roginsky said. "This is more important even than whatever we accomplish in human-rights cases or in the study of history. In this country, we have a lot of state and very little society. Our task is to make it so that there is more society and less state."

...Mr. Remnick's writing about the fall of the USSR is necessary reading.
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Posted by at December 14, 2011 6:21 AM

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