Jens Siegert: Arseny Roginsky. On his 70th birthday [30 March 2016]

posted 24 Dec 2017, 04:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 Dec 2017, 04:44 ]
31 March 2016

We publish this translation of an article by Jens Siegert, written for the 70th birthday of Arseny Roginsky, to mark the passing of the Russian historian and civil society activist, leader of Memorial, on 18 December 2017.

Strange as it may seem, I have no clear memories of when I first met Arseny. I only know when it must have been: back in 1991 in Cologne, at the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the street named Unter Krahnenbäumen. Arseny Roginsky, together with Yelena Zhemkova and Oleg Orlov, was in the middle of Memorial’s legendary “Prison Tour” through North Rhine-Westphalia’s penal institutions, organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. If I remember correctly, at the time his official role was expert adviser to a commission on the reform of Russian camps and prisons. O tempora, o mores!

I was in my early 30s at the time, a supporter of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and a neophyte journalist, and was making a radio documentary on the “Ostarbeiter” or Eastern workers – the many millions of people brought from the Soviet Union to perform forced labour in Germany during the German occupation. The first project embarked on jointly by Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation was to preserve the memory of these people, but it was Lena Zhemkova I interviewed (in fact I recently handed over a cassette containing my recording of the interview to the Memorial archive) and I have no recollection of Arseny Roginsky at all – which is odd, because even back then he must have been the one in charge.

There’s nothing so very strange about it, however, because one of the first things I noticed about Arseny Roginsky later, at the Moscow offices of Memorial, was that he is a boss who likes to fade into the background. Critics might dismiss it as pulling strings, which of course is (also) true, since it is true of all good organisers. Yet Arseny Roginsky’s style of leadership – both inward and outward – stems primarily from authority, knowledge and skill, and in my opinion from a deep well of experience; not only his experience during the dissident era, but also his experience of working at Memorial. This is a wise approach, and perhaps the only possible approach to fostering team spirit among people who are working voluntarily towards a goal which is constantly under threat from outside influences.

I believe however that Arseny Roginsky has more than just practical reasons for practising this particular style of leadership (if one can call it a style at all), since it also emanates from his deeply held democratic convictions and respect for every individual. As I understand it, the democracy which characterises the internal structure of modern-day Memorial also stems from this quintessentially democratic attitude of Arseny Roginsky (and naturally of many other friends within the organisation). This makes Memorial not only somewhere that highly professional and important work is carried out tirelessly, but also a flexible and stable entity; in fact I would even go so far as to say that this inner vitality, even though it occasionally tips over into conflict, is one of the most important prerequisites for the organisation’s stability.

At this point I need to make a brief jump forwards in time, to one of many internal strategy discussions that took place in the first few years of the new millennium and at which I referred to Arseny, without any hidden agenda, as a “human rights activist”. He reprimanded me indignantly; “I’m no human rights activist!” This confused me, because the struggle for human rights is and always has been one of the cornerstones of Memorial’s activities. After some thought, however, I understood; human rights activists must be unswervingly principled, and they must call out human rights infringements wherever and whenever they see them. This attitude is entirely right and laudable, but can sometimes be politically impractical. And Arseny Roginsky is a deeply practical person, a “man of the world” so to speak. He is flexible, good at networking and enjoys a position of authority not only among his friends, but also – and perhaps more importantly – among his enemies. He is astute but merciful, demonstrating his familiarity with the human condition – although occasionally a sweet yet terrifyingly evil smile will appear on his face… but let’s jump back in time again to when I first met him.

After moving to Moscow in 1993 as a correspondent I continued to work for the Heinrich Böll Foundation and became a point of contact for Memorial, long before I opened the Moscow-based office of the Foundation in 1999. Young and inexperienced as I was, it was no easy task to be noticed and taken seriously by Arseny Roginsky, whose trust had first to be earned. This holds true everywhere, but particularly in places like Russia where society has suffered such severe trauma, and where institutions count for little and personal relationships for a great deal.

I’m still not sure how I finally gained Arseny Roginsky’s trust; I only know when I spotted the first signs of progress in this respect. It was 1998, and Memorial had just published a book on the Soviet Ostarbeiter who had carried out forced labour in Germany during the war. The book was called Überwindung der Sklaverei: Folklore und Sprache der Ostarbeiter, 1942-1944 [Overcoming Slavery: Folklore and Language of the Ostarbeiter, 1942-1944], and I was asked to write a foreword for it as a representative of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which had worked together with Memorial on the project. Since I generally write in German, I assume that this foreword was the first piece of my writings which Arseny Roginsky had ever read, and he was moved to comment drily; “So you can write after all!”

It was around this time that our political partnership also began to take shape. Back in the 1990s, I had acted as a true Westerner by pestering many of those in the Russian NGO scene, including Arseny Roginsky and other Memorial supporters, to engage more with politics. They were fervently opposed to this suggestion, regarding anything to do with politics as dirty, immoral and potentially hazardous. This all changed at the end of the decade when politics caught up with the NGOs; under the new presidency of Vladimir Putin, NGOs quickly became one of the groups which had to subjugate themselves to the state if they wanted to stay out of trouble. The previous reluctance of the NGOs to get involved in politics turned out to be naïve, and in some cases downright dangerous.

Arseny Roginsky was one of the first to recognise this, and began working with others to organise the protection of Russian NGOs, not only on a practical level but also on a symbolic or in other words political level. These changes were symbolised most clearly by the Voskresensk Convention adopted in autumn 2000, following regular meetings between partners of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Russia; these meetings formed part of what became a whole series of new political dialogue formats invented by Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

For the first time in Russian history as far as we know, in the Voskresensk Convention NGOs working in a wide range of different areas – environmentalists and human rights activists, women’s groups and consumer protection groups – promised to act in solidarity if any of their number were subject to attacks from the state. The Convention which was adopted in autumn 2000 was drafted by Alexander Daniel, but the idea behind it came from Arseny Roginsky. The most important practical manifestation of this new solidarity among NGOs was the Narodnaya Assambleya – a round table of leading NGO representatives, which was founded at around the same time and quickly gained de facto recognition as a negotiating partner of the Kremlin. Arseny Roginsky therefore played a leading role in the establishment of NGOs as fully fledged political entities in Russia.

Arseny Roginsky’s most important achievement is however his involvement with Memorial, and the fact that Memorial has become the go-to authority for matters relating to Russia’s totalitarian past is in no small part due to his personal reputation and integrity. Even the Russian state still (as yet) deems him a force to be reckoned with, and any government-backed initiative in his field of expertise which does not have his blessing or the blessing of Memorial has a whiff of inauthenticity. Finally, and perhaps most problematically in Russia today; I know many people who regard Arseny Roginsky as a political opponent, some who regard him as an enemy (of Russia), and some who simply don’t like him – but no one who doubts his sincerity.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds