MOSCOW (Reuters) – If history is written by the victors, then a small group of Russian activists are doing their best to ensure that the battle in memory of the millions of victims of Soviet repression is not lost – a small steel plate at a time.
President Vladimir Putin has sidelined those who have done the most to investigate the crimes of seven decades of communism, perhaps reluctant to invite comparison with his own crackdown on dissent, or to blur necessary patriotism to wage his war in Ukraine.
The main chronicler, Memorial International, was banned almost two years ago after more than three decades of painstaking work.
But the Last Address project managed, over several years, to put 1,200 plaques on buildings across Russia, each commemorating a victim in their last home before they were executed or exiled, or left to rot in a penal colony .
Each steel rectangle, measuring 19 cm by 11 cm, has a square hole and bears only the name and occupation of the person as well as the dates of their arrest, internment or execution and formal rehabilitation.
“Every plaque was requested by someone. We don’t make up names… The Last Address memorial project is based on a public initiative,” said Mikhail Cheynker, 75, a coordinator in Moscow.
Sometimes local people are unhappy with the plaques, contradicting the dominant official patriotism, or say they turn the town into a cemetery.
“People who talk about cemeteries forget that our heroes don’t have their own graves,” Sheynker retorts. “They are all buried in mass graves.”
COMMEMORATIVE PLAQUES REMOVED AND SOMETIMES REPLACED
Yevgeniya Kulakova, coordinator of Last Address in St. Petersburg, said 434 plaques had been installed there since 2015, always with the permission of the building’s owner.
At least 45 of them were secretly deleted. But some, like a plaque on Vasilyevsky Island, have also returned secretly.
“It sat there for a day, then someone took it down, no one knows who. A week later this replica appeared. A week later someone put the original removed plaque next to it.” , Kulakova said.
“Who took down the sign? Who made the copy? We don’t know. But that means that the project is alive. In other words, there are people who want to protect them (the plates), even if There are people who are against them.”
Mikhail Polenov, whose grandfather owns a plaque, believes that these are gaining ground.
“Those people who don’t need memory are in fashion now,” he said.
His maternal grandfather, career soldier Alexei Peremytov, was shot dead on July 28, 1937, one of thousands accused of espionage and conspiracy at the height of Joseph Stalin’s purges, the “Great Terror.”
Polenov has been studying the case since 1989 and thanks Last Address.
At another dedication last year, he discovered they were also replacing his grandfather’s plaque, which had been removed without his knowledge.
“They didn’t tell me anything because they felt sorry for me. Because when I found out, I almost collapsed.”
Artist Vladimir Ovchinnikov, 85, hoped to see a museum of political repression decorated with dozens of his portraits of victims inaugurated on October 29, Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression, in Borovsk, 115 km southwest from Moscow. But local authorities canceled the event.
It was not the first time that Ovchinnikov, whose grandfather had been shot by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in 1919 and whose father had been arrested during Stalin’s purges, had been so upset.
“Why do we stay silent? Why do we hide things?” he said. “Instead of learning lessons, we are creating a country where lessons are not learned.”