An interview with Irina Flige, director of the St. Petersburg Memorial Research Centre (Part One)

11 April 2012

"If there is an enthusiast, there is a monument. If there isn't one, then there is no monument"

An interview with Irina Flige, director of the St. Petersburg Memorial Research Centre, by Masha Karp

On 28th March Index on Censorship, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary, awarded one of its annual Freedom of Expression awards to Memorial Research and Information Centre. Irina Flige, director of the Centre in St. Petersburg, came to London to receive it. Masha Karp spoke to Irina Flige about the work of the Centre and about the current situation in Russia. This first part of the interview looks at the work of the Centre.

Masha Karp Why do you think you received the award? 

Irina Flige I think that is a question for Index rather than for me, but in their invitation to the ceremony they explained that they were making the award for two of our projects: our Archive and our Virtual GULAG Museum. The idea of this project is to put up on the Net and make accessible to everybody a huge archive of documents and data that has been collected by St Petersburg Memorial, or rather by its Research and Information Centre, over the last twenty years. The Virtual Museum of Gulag started in 2004 and has been developing rather slowly, because it requires a lot of work and a lot of money. The idea of the project was to collect material on the GULAG from all the museums in the country that deal with this theme. 

When we started we did not even know how many museums of this kind existed. It was this curiosity that made us start the project. In 2003-2004 we all felt that we had been working for so many years and there was still no museum on the GULAG as at the end of the 1980s we had dreamt there would be, when we first started going out to rallies and organising “weeks of conscience”. We said then: We need a museum about the Gulag, we need a monument to the victims of terror, we need to know their names, we need to know the names of those who tried to resist.  

In 1987-89 there was a general feeling that the transformation of the country that we all wanted so much to happen would not be possible unless we addressed our past, unless we understood what the
Terror was and what the GULAG was. At that point it was a mass movement, which united those who had been to the GULAG, or whose parents had been there, and those who had been trying to fight the Soviet regime. It united the emerging politicians and ordinary citizens. Everybody believed that understanding the past was a necessary condition for the country to change. But this did not last long. 

By 1993 the theme of the Terror and the GULAG had become marginalized. What remained from the movement of this time were Memorial organisations all over the country – there are 60 of them today. This is not a small network. And there are organisations outside Russia – in Germany, Italy, France, Latvia, Ukraine, partner groups in Kazakhstan. But the work was marginalized, that is, it was mainly carried out by enthusiasts very often on the basis of local museums, libraries and school clubs. So it went on for decades: some exhibitions were mounted, some materials collected, some interviews recorded, some monuments erected. The monuments were of necessity very simple – there has not been any funding for them. They were put up on the outskirts of towns and villages. In the last twenty years over a hundred monuments have been erected at the sites of mass burials. These were places where people were shot, GULAG cemeteries and cemeteries of special settlements. Today they sometimes look like monuments in the middle of nowhere – memory pushed to the margins of consciousness, so to speak.

Irina Flige, director of the Memorial Research Centre, was presented with the award in London by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, one of Index on Censorship’s original trustees. Photo: Index on Censorship
I’d like to ask you at this point: did you feel any support from government?

IF No, the government had nothing to do with it. The Federal authorities never supported it at all. On the local level it was different. Some mayor or some governor of some tiny region could be quite interested in the idea and could be supportive at his level of government – we know several cases like that. Behind every monument, every museum, every newly-discovered mass grave, there is always an initiative by one person. If there is an enthusiast, there is a monument. If there isn't one, then there is no monument. It has nothing to do with education or status. Sometimes this enthusiast could be the head of a local government body. But can you call him a representative of the state? He just has a few more opportunities to do something, so he puts up not just a small stone on the mass grave, but something more decent in terms of size or location.

So in 2003 -4 the idea of creating a virtual museum of the GULAG originated from a research interest. We kept saying: there’s nothing done, we need at least to get an idea of what exists out there. So in 2004 we went on our first reconnaissance expedition and started a widespread monitoring. Then we found out that there were quite a few museums. Among the museums that deal with this theme, some exhibited their materials, others kept them in storage, and others did both. And it was then that we decided to create a virtual museum.

MK You are saying there are quite a few museums. How many?

IF In the summer of 2011 there were over 400 GULAG museums in Russia. We also work outside Russia. It’s impossible to explain why in some places there are a lot of museums and in some there are none. In Estonia there is one, in Latvia there is one and in Lithuania there are 12. This is mostly accidental – it depends on funding, it depends on partners, it depends on how much material has been sent from this or that place.

Our project takes a lot of time, and to make it move faster and be more evenly spread, the funding really needs to be on an entirely different level. Not just a bit more money, but funding should be on a different scale entirely. For example, we only managed to organise a trip to Kolyma in 2011. We knew it would have to be a major expedition of many weeks, so we kept putting it off until we had enough funding.

So what is the project about? We visit all these museums, take photos of the exhibits, discuss how we can deal with the information – sometimes there are descriptions of the exhibits, sometimes they are missing, so we prepare them ourselves. We get some additional materials, get the biographies. So in the last few years we have created a full catalogue of 120 museums with images on-line. This is one aspect of our work.

Another aspect concerns the burial places of the Stalin terror. At the end of the 1980s all at the same time a lot of search groups were created. Children were looking for the graves of their parents who had died in the GULAG, and quite often their searches were successful, although they did not make any use of the archives, but only the testimonies of witnesses. So all the efforts of the Soviet authorities to conceal the places of execution proved to be in vain. In the 1990s those who had been alive at the time of these events - who could show this is where the lorries came, this is where the people were shot - were still alive. At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s there was a huge effort to find the locations of mass burials and the places of execution.

But by the beginning of 2000s these newly–found sites of mass burials had been lost. Even those that had been marked by signs were lost for a second time! Just imagine: a place was found, flowers brought, a cross or a stone was put up, people came and held vigils in memory of those who were buried there. But then this generation passed on and a new generation forgot the way to these sites – both literally and metaphorically. Why did this happen? Because these sites were never given any official status as memorials or historical places, so if a road was built across the area or something else happened, there was nothing to protect them.

So in 2003 we started registering these sites. We did not do any new searches, but we wrote to the governments of the regions, to local historians, to ordinary people, asking them for information about existing sites. Now we have about 800 places of mass burials that have been found in our register. Of these 800 there are less than 10 that have some sort of status. Sometimes everything is legally formalized, sometimes this has not been completed because there is a lot of bureaucracy involved, but at least some efforts have been made. And it does not matter whether there are monuments there or not – these monuments are not registered either. We have a separate register of monuments too - there are over 1,500 monuments today. But they do not have any official status either…

MK What is needed for them to acquire this status?

IF Good will. The good will of government.

MK Which is not there?

IF Which is not there. Well, it is not that something is actively done to oppose this. It is just passive indifference. The monuments are there, but if for example something wooden gets burnt down, nobody has any responsibility for it and nobody has to restore it.

And there is another aspect to our work. A virtual museum has advantages over a real one – there is no pressure of space. And this is why we added a new appendix to the museum: “Traces of the GULAG and Terror”. These are our “out-of–museum” exhibits – things such as an abandoned train, for example. You can’t really bring it into any real museum! But everything is possible with a virtual museum. So in this part of the museum we “collect” prisons and the offices of the secret police (the Cheka – NKVD - KGB). These buildings do not have any memorial plaques or any information about the numbers of people shot there. There are also mines and bridges and roads built by prisoners, GULAG factories, remainders of prison watch towers in the taiga and the tundra. Naturally we describe all of them and give detailed information about the reality behind these “exhibits”. This is still very much an academic site – we have not yet turned it into a real museum with tours or exhibitions.

However, we have one virtual tour. It’s called “People and Objects”. There are simple things appearing on the screen – a bowl, a spoon, a hacksaw…. And then these objects start speaking with the voices of those who left memoirs. Quotations are read about these things – the squeaking door of a cell, the horror a woman experienced when she saw a spyhole in the prison door, a bowl bringing back memories of hunger... We know that this part of our site is widely used by teachers, journalists, and film directors.

And one more thing that we do. After the search by the authorities that took place in 2009 and resulted in the seizure of our electronic archives, which had about 700 recordings of testimonies, digitalized memoirs and all the original materials on 12 hard drives, we started systematically to digitalize our paper archives. This is again a very labour intensive project – we started in 2009 and have done a quarter of the archive by now.

MK But you got everything returned to you in the end, didn’t you?

IF Yes we did. The court hearings lasted six months, but we got everything back.

Now you can access our database remotely and when researchers approach us we allow them access. We have now been joined by Memorial in Ryazan – they are digitalizing their collection and putting it into the same database. So we are now planning a joint archive. The archive of the NGO Conscience from the town of Kotlas in Archangelsk region is being added as well. This, of course, gives researchers more opportunities. Interestingly, when we started putting together materials from Kotlas, Ryazan and Petersburg, we discovered links between the materials in our names’ register, because Gulag stories would start in one place and end in another, so we are getting a fuller picture now. So as soon as we get more funding we are going to open access to the joint archive. And then we shall allow remote additions to our archives to be made, because now there is a completely new generation who are interested in doing this.

MK What generation are you talking about?

IF Generally speaking, there have been several waves of additions to our archives. The first wave at the beginning of the 1990s came mostly from the people who had actually been prisoners of the GULAG themselves. The second wave came from the children of these people. Some of them brought objects and documents that they had inherited from their parents as things that were very precious and valuable. Others said: “My children won’t need it, I’d better give it to you.” Yet others brought the objects as things they did not need: “We have to move, there is no place to keep them.” Basically this happens in any museum and sometimes the explanations can be false – people may just be embarrassed to bring things that are of valuable to them, and they come up with an explanation in order to make things easier for themselves.

And now we have this completely different generation – they are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of GULAG prisoners. They bring their materials to us, saying: “Look, what I have found in my grandmother’s chest of drawers!” That sort of thing. These are young people – they are happy to scan the document, they are happy to send it electronically and to write their own annotation to it. Their motives are entirely different – they do not even necessarily want to give their materials to the archive. They want to show their documents and to have somebody explain to them the context in which the documents originated. This is of extreme importance as this is a sign of a new approach to the past. This only started happening in recent years and the enquiries are becoming more and more numerous. The younger generation is demanding an explanation of what the GULAG was and how this could have happened.

Their parents and grandparents would answer these questions by saying: “This was our life, this is how we lived.” This is what they told themselves, what they told other people, and the younger generation. The new generation – those who are 25 -30 years old now – want to understand the phenomenon.