Russian activists brave backlash to honor Soviet victims
Russian activists are fighting to remember the millions of victims of Soviet repression, even as Vladimir Putin’s government seeks to downplay the historical crimes of the USSR.
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If history is written by the victors, then a small group of Russian activists are doing their best to make sure the battle to remember the millions of victims of Soviet repression is not lost – one small steel plaque at a time.
President Vladimir Putin has sidelined those who have done most to research the crimes of seven decades of communism, perhaps loath to invite comparison with his own suppression of dissent, or blur the patriotism needed to drive his war in Ukraine.
The leading chronicler, Memorial International, was banned almost two years ago after more than three decades of painstaking work.
But the Last Address project has over several years managed to put up 1,200 plaques on buildings across Russia, each memorializing one victim at their last home before they were executed or exiled, or locked away in a prison colony.
Each steel rectangle, 11 by 19 cm (roughly 4 by 7.5 in), has a square hole, and is engraved with the person’s name and profession and their dates of arrest, internment, or execution, and formal rehabilitation.
“Every plaque has been requested by someone. We don’t invent names. … The Last Address memorial project is based on public initiative,” said Mikhail Sheynker, a coordinator in Moscow.
Sometimes local people resent the plaques, at odds with the prevailing official patriotism, or say they are turning the city into a cemetery.
“People who talk about cemeteries forget that our heroes don’t have their own grave,” Mr. Sheynker counters. “They’re all buried in mass graves.”
Memorial plaques removed, and sometimes replaced
Yevgeniya Kulakova, Last Address coordinator in St Petersburg, said 434 plaques had been installed there since 2015, always with the building owner’s permission.
At least 45 have been secretly removed. But some, like a plaque on Vasilievsky Island, have also secretly returned.
“It hung there for a day, then someone took it down, no one knows who. A week later this replica appeared. Another week later, someone put the original removed plaque next to it,” Ms. Kulakova said.
“Who took down the sign? Who made the duplicate? We don’t know any of that. But it means that the project is alive. That is, there are people who want to protect them [the plaques], even though there are people who are against them.”
Mikhail Polenov, whose grandfather has a plaque, feels the latter are gaining ground.
“Those people who don’t need the memory, they’re in fashion now,” he said.
His maternal grandfather, career soldier Alexei Peremytov, was shot on July 28, 1937, one of thousands accused of espionage and conspiracy at the height of Joseph Stalin’s purges, the “Great Terror.”
Mr. Polenov has researched the case since 1989, and is grateful to Last Address.
Attending another unveiling last year, he found they were also replacing his grandfather’s plaque, which had been removed without his knowledge.
“They hadn’t told me anything because they felt sorry for me. Because when I found out, I nearly collapsed.”
Artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov had hoped to see a Museum of Political Repression adorned with dozens of his portraits of victims open on Oct. 29, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression, in Borovsk, 115 km (71 miles) southwest of Moscow. But local authorities canceled the event.
It was not the first time Mr. Ovchinnikov, whose grandfather was shot by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in 1919 and whose father was arrested during Stalin’s purges, had been thwarted in this way.
“Why do we stay silent? Why do we hide things?” he said. “Instead of learning lessons, we’re creating a country of lessons not learned.”