Arseny Roginsky: The Quiet Revolutionary

21 December 2017

By Simon Cosgrove

It is wonderful to read the moving tributes to Arseny Roginsky by his Russian friends and colleagues. It is perhaps not out of place to add a few words of tribute in English.

Arseny Borisovich was an extraordinarily intelligent, charming, charismatic, modest, and at the same time intensely serious, courageous and committed man. The events of his life’s story – his work as a historian, his imprisonment as a dissident, the development of Memorial, his role in the human rights movement – all illustrate his wide intellectual horizons, deep human sympathies, his strong pragmatism, his rich gifts as a leader, writer and speaker, and his resilient values.

These attributes Arseny Borisovich wore very lightly. His most characteristic expression was a slightly ironical, almost self-deprecating, smile. Despite all the odds, but as befits a leader of civil society, his harsh life experiences seem somehow to have distilled in him so many of the best human characteristics: civility, reasonableness, moderation and empathy, always accompanied as these were by clarity of purpose, self-discipline, determination and resourcefulness. In his person he testified to the power of the human spirit over suffering. His experiences, deeply rooted in Soviet and Russian history and society, resulted in a life and work that are a lesson to us all, no matter where we may live on this planet.

It was a treasured experience to be his guest at Memorial’s offices on Moscow's Karetny ryad. Before the anticipated conversation, office matters were settled and coffee made. Arseny Borisovich would light a cigarette and open a small window onto the side street. Some introductory remarks or the airing of a general question – to be the main theme of the subsequent discussion - would follow as Arseny Borisovich began walking slowly back and forth in his office, accompanied by characteristic gesticulations of the hands. And no matter that you lacked Arseny Borisovich’s knowledge and understanding, you sensed yourself a full and welcome, nay valued, partner in this conversation. And over the hour or so as the discussion proceeded, coffee was drunk and made afresh, and one cigarette followed another.

One occasion in particular I recall when Arseny Borisovich, referring to his own experience in Soviet camps (1981-85), talked about the persistent challenges that faced a prisoner, a zek, when, being put in a new situation, confronting new people – whether officials, prison guards, or prisoners (criminals or politicals) – the newcomer faced the test of having to establish themselves in the eyes of the already existing group, and avoid humiliation. The aim in these circumstances, Arseny Borisovich said, was to remain true to oneself. Not an easy task. Not an easy school. But one might guess that it was in these conditions that Arseny Borisovich forged and honed his credo, of the need for the individual to maintain their identity at all costs, that led him later to become the extraordinary champion of human rights and civil society he has been.

As a historian, and in his work at Memorial, Arseny Borisovich always stressed the importance of history as active remembering. Active, civic remembering of the past not only ensures the survival of the memory of people’s actual experiences, but gives birth to the community that is civil society. As the tributes to him flood in, Arseny Borisovich himself is becoming part of that public memory. And the innumerable acts of remembering and commemoration that now engage the thoughts and feelings of his colleagues, friends and fellow citizens, marking his death, mark also the contours of that civil society in Russia which he did so much to bring about. And which, as it grows and strengthens, will cherish the memory of Arseny Borisovich Roginsky. As will we all. Светлая память.