Arseny Roginsky, a Champion of Historical Truth

The New York Times
January 1, 2018 Monday
Arseny Roginsky, a Champion of  Historical Truth
By SERGE SCHMEMANN
Arseny Roginsky, a founder and the longtime head of the Memorial
organization in Russia who died on Dec. 18, was no doubt familiar with
the admonition of the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel that to forget a
holocaust is to kill twice. Mr. Roginsky's father died in prison, and
Mr. Roginsky himself spent four years in three different Soviet labor
camps in the 1980s for printing an underground journal whose goal was
''to rescue from oblivion all those historical facts and names that
are currently doomed to perish or disappear.''
That remained his mission to his dying day, briefly with the support
of the Russian state in the 1990s, then again in defiance of it as
Russia under Vladimir Putin set about creating a narrative of Russian
greatness in which historical facts could be a handicap. For Mr.
Roginsky, historical memory meant more than compiling records; it also
meant giving a name to the culprits -- the interrogators, the guards,
the state itself -- and sounding the alarm at violations of human
rights. In recent years, Memorial was targeted with searches, threats
of closing and identification as a ''foreign agent.''
It is not only in Russia, of course, that reckoning with a nefarious
past has been a struggle. Germany's Nazi past, America's Confederate
monuments, Turkey's refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide,
China's censoring talk about the Tiananmen massacre and many other
examples bear witness to the difficulty of confronting a troubling
history.
The reasons are many. Those who lived through hell, as Russians of an
older generation did, may prefer to blot out the horrors they endured
or inflicted. Younger generations prefer to live for today. Political
leaders prefer to project a noble history, sometimes by turning
complicity in atrocities into claims of victimhood. In Russia, Mr.
Putin and many of his lieutenants came from the K.G.B. and resisted
fully confronting its repressive history. And they, like many of their
countrymen, prefer to portray Stalin not only as the architect of the
Gulag but also as the leader who built Russia's industrial might and
led it to victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known
in Russia.
The Russian state does not deny the Gulag. Memorials to victims exist
across Russia. The Butovo Poligon, or firing range, outside Moscow
where more than 20,000 political prisoners were shot and buried in
mass graves has been turned into a Russian Orthodox memorial site. In
October, President Putin opened a Kremlin-promoted monument to victims
of political repression in Moscow, the Wall of Sorrow.
To Mr. Roginsky, referring to ''victims of political repression'' was
not enough. The phrasing made it sound as if the repression descended
like a plague, he said in an interview with Masha Gessen in The New
Yorker, ''and then the repressions ended and we just keep on living.''
No, he said, ''these are victims of the state. This was state
terror.''
Yet Mr. Roginsky was not among the dissidents who scoffed at the Wall
of Sorrow as a hypocritical project of the state. It would still be
there after the current powers were gone, he argued, and even if it
did not give the full story, future generations would know there was a
great evil in Russia's past. Confronting the past is essential for a
nation's future, he believed, but it is a task for generations.
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