Sergei Lukashevsky: The Wall of Sorrow – a memorial to the victims of political repression – is opened in Moscow

posted 6 Nov 2017, 05:32 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Nov 2017, 05:36 ]
31 October 2017

By Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source:]

On Monday 30 October, the Wall of Sorrow, a memorial to the “Victims of Political Repression”, was opened in Moscow. From a purely artistic point of view, the memorial is perfectly good: the shades of those who suffered are calling out to our memory. It was a pompous official opening, but the event kept within reasonable limits. In front of two dozen former Gulag prisoners and their relatives, as well as a group of officials relevant to the occasion, President Putin gave a formal, but fairly unremarkable speech: “This terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and can never be justified, not even by the so-called greater good of the people” and so on. The unambiguity of the evaluation is good, but the responsibility of the authorities is blurred, obscured by something like a ‘historic tragedy’. That is not the main issue, however.

It is clearly hypocritical to open a memorial to victims of political repression in a country where at least 47 people are today in prison, penal colony or pre-trial detention [1] on politically motivated charges and many thousands are being convicted on varying degrees of trumped-up charges. And thirty-eight Soviet dissidents wrote as much in an open letter: “It is impossible to genuinely grieve over the past while slyly turning a blind eye to the present.”

It is true that there is hardly a politician anywhere who is not hypocritical, but there is always a certain benefit, often deferred, to establishing the right symbols and saying the right words.

There is something else that is genuinely sad. Today’s Russian government and, perhaps, other governments as well, likes to rank everything: it likes to establish league tables. I don’t remember whether anyone has said or written this before, but I’m convinced that the memorial to the Victims of Political Repression was always conceived as the centrepiece of national memory.

We all live in a symbolic space. We want to know where the ‘heart of the capital’ is, the centre of the city. In the free cities of mediaeval times it was the town hall square; in Moscow it is the Kremlin (“an ideal palace for a tyrant”, de Custine once remarked). And this says just as much about the nature of public life as the wording of laws or the system of government.

The Wall of Sorrow has established the place where the victims of political repression may be commemorated, on the outer fringes of old Moscow. It is within the Garden Ring,[2] but not on Red Square. It is neither on Pushkin Square, the people’s centre of Moscow, nor on Lubyanka Square, the symbolic centre of the Terror. Apart from its artistic appearance, therefore, the message of the memorial is that it is certainly important, but not that much. The repressive acts of those years can “never be justified”, but they are not the focus of national memory.

And this symbolic geographical position, not the opening of the memorial, is the sad result of the path taken by our society and its current condition.

I am reluctant to think of it as the defeat of civil society. Rather, it is evidence of the depth of humankind’s corruption, the scale of which has not been properly assessed and understood. And today, this corruption is presented to us in the most immediate sense of the State’s promotion of hatred, wars and political murders, its contempt for orphans, the sick and the poor, and our powerlessness in the face of an unfair trial.

Symbolically, the Wall of Sorrow tells us that there is humanity within us all, but it has been pushed to the side. Society’s task is to move it back to the centre. The Russian government thinks that by unveiling the memorial, it has put the matter to rest. We must show that the conversation is only just beginning. It is not the end of the road, but the starting point. Not the most advantageous position, but certainty is better than illusion. The main thing now is not to stop. 

Translated by Nicky Brown


[1] As of today the Memorial Human Rights Centre lists 47 political prisoners, held in penal colonies, prisons or pre-trial detention in Russia, and a further 70 individuals who have been incarcerated because of their faith (see URL [ ] Current List of Political Prisoners [R])

[2] Moscow’s Garden Ring, today an eight-lane ring road, marks the former line of the defensive walls and earthworks that surrounded the city until the late 18th century.