STUMP » Articles » Memorial: A Well-Deserved Nobel Peace Prize » 10 October 2022, 05:49

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Memorial: A Well-Deserved Nobel Peace Prize  


10 October 2022, 05:49

Announcement: The Nobel Peace Prize 2022

This year’s Peace Prize is awarded to human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties.

The human rights organisation Memorial was established in 1987 by human rights activists in the former Soviet Union who wanted to ensure that the victims of the communist regime’s oppression would never be forgotten. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov and human rights advocate Svetlana Gannushkina were among the founders. Memorial is based on the notion that confronting past crimes is essential in preventing new ones.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Memorial grew to become the largest human rights organisation in Russia. In addition to establishing a centre of documentation on victims of the Stalinist era, Memorial compiled and systematised information on political oppression and human rights violations in Russia. Memorial became the most authoritative source of information on political prisoners in Russian detention facilities. The organisation has also been standing at the forefront of efforts to combat militarism and promote human rights and government based on rule of law.

When civil society must give way to autocracy and dictatorship, peace is often the next victim. During the Chechen wars, Memorial gathered and verified information on abuses and war crimes perpetrated on the civilian population by Russian and pro-Russian forces. In 2009, the head of Memorial’s branch in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova, was killed because of this work.

Civil society actors in Russia have been subjected to threats, imprisonment, disappearance and murder for many years. As part of the government’s harassment of Memorial, the organisation was stamped early on as a “foreign agent”. In December 2021, the authorities decided that Memorial was to be forcibly liquidated and the documentation centre was to be closed permanently. The closures became effective in the following months, but the people behind Memorial refuse to be shut down. In a comment on the forced dissolution, chairman Yan Rachinsky stated, “Nobody plans to give up.”

One thing to remember as the Russia-Ukraine war continues is that there are many people within Russia who oppose Putin (he can’t manage to kill all of them right away…)

NY Times: Founded to shed light on Soviet oppression, Memorial is targeted by Putin.

Co-founded by Andrei D. Sakharov, the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Memorial grew out of a popular movement in the last years of the Soviet Union to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s terror. It documented the Gulag and the K.G.B.’s torture chambers by publishing history books, educating schoolchildren, hosting exhibits and even offering historical walking tours of central Moscow to reveal the horrors of Russia’s past that were otherwise hidden behind the city’s prim facades.

But with the rise of President Vladimir V. Putin, telling the truth about Russia’s history became a dangerous business, and revealing the Kremlin’s historical crimes can border on treason.

The chairman of Memorial’s branch in the northern republic of Karelia discovered a killing field where thousands had perished at the hands of Stalin’s secret police. In 2020, that historian, Yuri Dmitriev, was found guilty of sex abuse charges that were widely seen as retaliation for his work; he is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.

Late last year, the Kremlin shut down Memorial itself. Its Human Rights Center — an offshoot that focused on present-day crimes — “justifies terrorist activities,” Moscow prosecutors said. While some of Memorial’s staff members have left the country, others remain in Russia and are fighting in court to keep their offices in central Moscow from being seized by the government. A hearing in that case was taking place on Friday.

A quick detour before we get back to the business to keeping memory alive.

Movie rec: The Death of Stalin

Recently, Stu and I watched The Death of Stalin, which had been recommended by a friend. It’s available through a variety of streaming platforms, and I had also bought it as a DVD, because I’ve learned the value of having physical media.

I had been told it was a comedy, but it isn’t really.

It’s a fictionalized version of the days surrounding Stalin’s death, and it’s grimly amusing, but the funniest bit is that it’s all British actors except for two main characters played by two American actors. The funniest parts of the script are Brits playing Soviets using lower-class Brit slang, because it’s so absurd (such as so many generations of Americans associate Nazis with upper-class Brit accents, due to U.S. casting decisions.) I loved Buscemi playing Brezhnev as a Catskills stand-up comedian (though as the savviest political player of the bunch).

For a moment, I thought they’d play up the conspiracy theory of Beria having actually assassinated Stalin via poison, but no, they went the straightforward stroke and aftermath (and the bungling that actually did happen) approach. While there is a grim veneer of humor, it’s more of showing the brutality of Soviet politics, and how that played out. No, post-Stalin, they didn’t have to do the summary executions (as often). But it was still pretty bleak.

I enjoyed it, and it is fairly straightforward. This sort of treatment would do well for the Reign of Terror, I think. Don’t go into it thinking it will be funny. That’s not the point of the movie. None of it is funny, not really.

Remember the crimes of the Soviet Union

I have written about the need to remember what had been done in the Soviet Union many times before on STUMP.

That is the purpose of Memorial — and, of course, Putin and crew would rather not it be remembered.

I did a podcast on Memorial in February: Memorial and Yuri Dmitriev.

I have been involved in the publication in English of two books by Vladimir Bukovsky, who died in 2019, who had his own stint in a variety of Soviet prisons and wrote about it in his book, To Build a Castle.

A major document in the literature of human rights, this now-legendary memoir, by one of the most prominent of the Soviet-era Russian dissidents, was a world-wide bestseller when first published in 1978.

At the age of 20, as punishment for his political protests, Vladimir Bukovsky was falsely declared insane and committed to a psychiatric hospital—standard practice for communism’s critics in 1963. But the quack doctors and brutal guards who kept him captive didn’t realize: Bukovsky wasn’t locked up with them. They were locked up with Bukovsky.

In this compelling, beautifully-crafted memoir, Bukovsky details with equal parts burning outrage and bitter humor the cruel theater of life for Soviet prisoners of conscience. But he also recounts how he found his inner truth and strength, and built a fortress around it—the imaginary castle of the title—in which he could remain safe from the daily assaults on his body and mind.

Bukovsky refused to break under the pressure of 12 years’ incarceration in a series of psychiatric hospitals, labor camps, and some of the Soviet Union’s worst prisons. More than that, though, he turned the tables on his captors and oppressors—the USSR under Brezhnev—with a series of rebellions, pranks, and persistent goading that ultimately led Soviet officials to trade him for a high-ranking Communist prisoner in the West, as a means of getting Vladimir Bukovsky out of the country at last.

In To Build a Castle, Bukovsky offers powerful firsthand testimony to the importance of personal integrity and perseverance under seemingly boundless, endless oppression and abuse. Over nearly forty years, Bukovsky’s story has inspired dissidents, prisoners, and those trapped by circumstance: Even in chains, you can be free.

Prior Posts and more

October 2021: Remembering Vladimir Bukovsky, 1942 – 2019, Soviet Dissident

To Build a Castle was originally published in 1978, soon after Bukovsky was exiled to the West. He spent most of the rest of his life living in London. We re-published the book in a new translation in 2017, as an e-book, with additional notes for reference as so much time had passed. (Sorry to say, we haven’t gotten the publication rights for hardcover/paperback. You can find used, very old copies out there, but of course I’m going to recommend getting our version.)

It is a fast read, with lots of humanity therein, but I don’t want to use high-flown rhetoric, as the bit that is really amusing and compelling is the dark humor throughout, and especially the tricks Bukovsky, his fellow dissidents, and even outright criminals played in the Soviet prisons in the post-Stalin era.

The funniest gambit, to me, was the mass production of complaint letters they produced (until those letters stopped being responded to) — a plot line out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with a dozen men copying out texts, making each letter only one page (so that it wasn’t thrown out immediately), picking their targets carefully (complain about somebody who somebody else in the bureaucracy wants to get rid of), and overwhelm the system with volume so that functionaries can’t make their quotas.

The issue is that everybody knows about the hideous gulags, but the “softer” side of the Soviet system after Stalin wasn’t much better.

As Bukovsky keeps reminding the reader, the whole system could perpetuate only due to lies and fear. Bukovsky refused to be afraid, refused to add to the lies, and thus he was deemed insane (as were other political prisoners).

You can read more at the post.

9 November 2020: Classic STUMP: Remember the 9th of November

One of the points is that we have to keep fighting, and we need to remember this history.

That is the point of Memorial.

To remember.

Do not forget

The official motto of the Clan Campbell is “Ne Obliviscaris”, which means Do Not Forget.

The reason for Memorial, for the books of Vladimir Bukovsky, for the activities of Yuri Dmitriev, and many more are so that people do not forget what happened. If people do not forget, perhaps we can prevent people from doing the exact same thing again. Maybe.

For years, Putin and his cronies have been trying to paper over the crimes of the Soviet Union, not just the “softer” years when Putin himself was complicit, and in the post-Stalin years, but even during the undeniable years of the gulag. Putin and his cronies even have tried pretending the massive numbers of deaths of the Holodomor – aka Great Famine were not deliberate policy (they were).

They’ve tried minimizing the number who died in the gulag. That Memorial has named and numbered the victims is not pleasing to the Russian regime.

Related: Never Forget: 100 Years Since the Russian Communist Revolution