The Heinrich Böll Foundation mourns the death of Memorial co-founder Arseny Roginsky


With the death of Arseny Roginsky, the Heinrich Böll Foundation loses one of its closest and oldest friends and partners in Russia.

Arsenij Roginskij

Arseny Roginsky, born in 1946, was “a child of the GULAG”, as his father, an engineer from Leningrad, had been sentenced to imprisonment in the camps in 1938 – and again in 1951. His parents met during their exile in the North. In 1956, after his father’s death in detention, he and his mother moved back to Leningrad. In the 1960s, Arseny Roginsky studied at the historical and philological faculty of Tartu University, with the famous semiotician Juri Lotman as his most important teacher. After finishing his exam, he worked in Leningrad as a bibliographer and as a teacher of Russian language and literature.

Already while in Tartu, he began his investigation into recent Soviet history, starting with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and their persecution and annihilation by the Bolsheviks. Over the years, he began to delve more and more deeply into the history of Stalinist repression, collecting materials on a subject that was strictly taboo during the Brezhnev years. He thus became one of the most important pioneers of the study of contemporary history in the Soviet Union, with an approach that was questioning as well as emancipatory. Since 1975, he published his research in the samizdat magazine Pamyat (Memory), becoming its de facto editor. He was also involved in the publication of the samizdat human rights magazine A Chronicle of Current Events. After having refused an “offer” to emigrate to the West, he was arrested in 1981 in Leningrad and charged with the alleged “unlawful use of libraries and archives”, as well as with “the forging of documents” and subsequently sentenced to four years detention in a labour camp. There, he served his full sentence and was released in 1985. 

In 1987, during the major upheavals of perestroika, when topics of Soviet history that had formerly been taboo frequently made the headlines, Arseny Roginsky, together with Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov and others, founded the association Memorial – In Memory of the Victims of Repression. Within only a few years, Memorial became the country’s most important independent organisations dealing with historical and human rights issues, with 65 branches in almost all parts of the country, as well as abroad, for example in the Baltic states, Ukraine and Germany. In 1991, under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Roginsky was instrumental in drafting the law regarding the rehabilitation of those who had been persecuted for political reasons in the Soviet Union. Thus, by means of Memorial, whose chairman he had been since 1996, Arseny Roginsky was closely linked to two aspects of his country’s history – on the one hand as someone, who laid the groundwork that has become indispensable for any historic account of the Soviet Union; and, on the other, over the last 30 years he himself has made history with his substantial contributions to the development of a democratic and emancipatory civil society in Russia.

From its very beginnings, Memorial had three goals – investigating Soviet repression with a special focus on reconstructing and appraising the stories of individual victims; rehabilitating – legally as well as socially – the millions of victims and their descendants; and documenting the human rights situation and human rights education in today’s Russia. Under the leadership of Arseny Roginsky, and inspired by his commitment, Memorial’s information centre in Moscow has become the world’s largest archive and data collection about the life stories and the persecution of the hundreds and thousands victims of the GULAG. In the process, Memorial rescued many of the thousands of nameless victims of Stalinism from anonymity. Their archives on “Ostarbeiter” is also unique. “Ostarbeiter” (literally, “Eastern workers”) is what the Nazi occupiers called people they deported from their Eastern European homes and used as forced labourers in Germany; after returning to the Soviet Union many of them were accused of being “collaborators” and became victims of persecution all over again.

As early as 1989, in collaboration with the Polish organisation Karta, Memorial initiated a research programme into the Katyn massacre during which, in 1940, on orders of Stalin himself, a large number of Polish officers was executed. The results of this research, as presented in publications, played a key role towards the (belated) acknowledgement, in 2010, of the Soviet Union’s responsibility for the massacre made by then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. To great international acclaim, Memorial also produced numerous publications, exhibitions and documentaries, for example on the “execution lists” of 1937-38, on the role and structure of the NKVD, on women in the GULAG, on art in the camps, as well as on many other facets of the period’s history. For this, Memorial and Arseny Roginsky himself received numerous international honours, among them the Right Livelihood Award and the Polish and German Order of Merit.

Although Memorial never defined its activities in purely political terms (the word “political” still has mostly negative connotations in today’s Russia) it is an organisation whose scope has gone well beyond its historical and human rights focus and, guided by Arseny Roginsky, it has attained great political impact. For thousands of participants, Memorial’s history contests for students offered an education in critical thinking; its festivals and conferences experiment with forms of civil society activism and resistance against government propaganda; it has opened its facilities to many other groups and thus widened the scope for democratic political activities; and Memorial is also responsible for many public acts of remembrance, such as the annual reading titled “Give them their names”, which is held at the monument for the victims of Stalinist terror outside the Lubyanka Building (the former KGB headquarters) in central Moscow.

In addition, Memorial has become one of the most important voices of Russian civil society, co-operating, since the early 2000s, with many other Russian non-governmental organisations in the fight against the substantial restrictions of many democratic and civil society liberties. For this, Memorial, amongst others, has been declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. Internationally, Arseny Roginsky always viewed Memorial’s activities as part of a common European project, remembering the 20th century’s victims of the rule of terror and of war. For him, both Germany and Russia have a great historic responsibility regarding the Baltic countries, Poland and also the Western successor states of the Soviet Union, which means they have to work towards a peaceful European order – an order, in which the smaller countries will enjoy equal rights as their larger neighbours. Arseny Roginsky also initiated the “European Historical Forum”, an annual event organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Memorial, that discusses ways and means for achieving a shared European “culture of remembrance”.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation and Memorial have been partners since their very beginnings. Early in 1988, a small delegation of the first, Cologne-based Heinrich Böll Foundation visited Moscow, among them Elisabeth Weber and Susanne Nies. There they met with the group that had created Memorial – with the always enterprising, genial and funny Arseny at its centre. Since then, contact has never ceased. Beginning in 1990, with a project on “Ostarbeiter” (forced labourers from Eastern Europe) that was financed by the Foundation, this has since developed into a permanent form of co-operation. Numerous conferences, publications and initiatives have been undertaken by the two organisations – such as a scholarship programme for junior Russian historians, human rights lawyers and sociologists; visiting tours for former “Ostarbeiter”; history competitions for students; the European Historical Forum and, last but not least, the Green German-Russian Forum, co-hosted by Memorial, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Green Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag. Throughout these co-operation projects, Arseny’s comprehensive knowledge of history and of literature, his sophistication and his political foresight have touched and impressed numerous people.

To us, Arseny was, above all, a faithful, funny and genial friend. Our memory of him will always be suffused with great gratitude and with love.

For the board and the employees of the Heinrich Böll Foundation,
Walter Kaufmann, Ellen Ueberschär

Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.