Aleksandr Cherkasov on Arseny Roginsky: “The tracker himself does not leave a trail"

posted 19 Jan 2018, 13:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 19 Jan 2018, 14:00 ]
21 December 2017

By Aleksandr Cherkasov, head of Memorial Human Rights Centre 


This article was written about Arseny Roginsky in the spring of 2016 to mark his 70th birthday. And now he is no longer with us... 

The tracker himself does not leave a trail. Well, almost.

There are people whose public face means a lot to them: appearing in front of an audience, giving speeches, adding signatures. It’s easy to talk about people who think leaving a trail is the most important thing.

But someone who has devoted his life to the search for the half-erased trails of former generations is himself not inclined to carve his initials on cliffs or trees or to stomp his boots over the landscape of a present that is swiftly becoming the past. Perhaps because he knows how silly that will look.

But perhaps because there’s something misplaced in this—making special, unnecessary efforts merely in order to stick in someone’s memory.

In addition to ambition, there can be other things. Status as a researcher, for example. But no — how many times in an analysis of “places of burial,” when the discussion was about documents from dissident-era archives, about the Chronicle of Current Events, have I heard from his friends: “Senya, but wasn’t it really you, I think, who wrote that?” The school of samizdat times: “Well, yes, I did.” And the manuscripts “didn’t burn” — that is, there were people who read them, who were inspired, who retyped and passed them on. And that’s the main thing. Not the authorship and not the signature.

But nonetheless, there is a trail.

There are things to be found in biographies, but who reads them? Place of birth: Velsk, Arkhangelsk region. Father, arrested in 1938, after prison camp exiled there. Died while under investigation in 1951, after his second arrest. Returned to Leningrad.

Tartu University. The Lotman school, at the time the Mecca of humanitarian knowledge. Not simply study: when he was studying, Arseny lived in Yury Mikhailovich Lotman’s home.

Here, in Tartu — even before the very word “dissident” was born — getting to know future dissidents — for example, Natalia Gorbanevskaya (read Ulitskaya! [“Poetess”]), who had come there.

Participation in Russian culture and history. That is, in the history of the struggle for freedom. Isn’t that what Russian history is?

Memory of the terror. State terror and revolutionary terror. Of how yesterday’s fighters for freedom become the new gendarmes. How they themselves fall victim to a machine they created with their own hands.

And how neatly this terrible future conceals itself inside the liberation movement itself. Yet, despite everything, the liberation movement cannot be reduced to those victors who immediately and successfully began exterminating their comrades-in-arms of the day before. . . .

Research and the restoration of continuity is the work to which the Tartu school made an enormous contribution. One example — but very important! - from the history of the “populists” is Stefanovich’s letter to Deich, which Arseny Roginsky and his friend Lev Lurie found and Lotman published in Scholarly Notes of Tartu University.

The publisher’s thoughts on “revolutionary ethics,” the hierarchy within the revolutionary milieu, and “revolutionary generalship” are relevant even today (for those who remember — this refers as much to the Razvozzhaev-Lebedev case as to the Krasin-Yakir case).

...Perhaps this is why Arseny Roginsky has no “soldier stripes.” Perhaps this is the source of his dislike for joining “councils and commissions” and going around to high-level offices . . . although they called him, they called him!

Russia’s history began not in 2012, not in 1985, not in 1956, and not in 1917. It was rewritten multiple times by those who wished to be “the first men on earth.”

Russia’s history — including the history of “gross and massive human rights violations” — is unbroken and indissoluble. That’s for one. Continuity is important; however, continuity cannot be marked down merely to “hereditary disease.”

People also like to distill Russia’s history down to large numbers — with as many zeroes as possible — of people executed, incarcerated, and tortured.

But people should be counted by ones, not zeroes. The history, the biography of an individual person — that is the starting point and the fundamental scale of the work. That’s for two.

Actually, these two “legs” are what Memorial now stands on. . . .

. . . Nor can history be reduced to collecting “urban legends,” either. After all, mythologizing is little better than oblivion. After the “Moscow appeal” of 1974, Roginsky and a group of similar young enthusiasts began putting out the independent historical anthology Pamyat’ (Memory.)

Unofficial does not mean “amateur.” It turned out, academic standards could be maintained in Samizdat. And chance witnesses to the work who suddenly realized: “You’re making samizdat!” could be dumbfounded by the reply: “Where have you seen samizdat with citations?”

The result is logical. At 35, the seemingly office-bound scholar, bottled and batched in Tartu, would land in a prison camp for criminals. Why for criminals? That year the KGB organs, subordinate to the Party organs, requested and received permission from the “authority” (the Department of Administrative Organs of the Communist Party Central Committee) to convict three Petersburgers “as common criminals": Roginsky, Azadovsky, and Klein. Roginsky’s final speech at his trial was about the status of the historian in the Soviet Union. . . .

...In his stories about prison camp, Arseny Borisovich looked least of all the hero (although the stories about how he served time with Chechens, along with the stories of other dissidents sentenced by the Soviet authorities to serve time in “general regime” prison camps, helped me greatly later in my work in the Caucasus). Paramount in these stories, practically, was not to look like a “leader,” not to be tempted by the “romance of revolution.”

And not to overawe others with the grandeur of omniscience.

Roginsky once commented: “I have had two teachers in life: one was Sergei Adamovich Kovalev (this was at Kovalev’s anniversary); the other, Mikhail Yakovlevich Gefter. The former, when I would ask him something, would immediately say to me: “Look. It's very simple! . . ." While the latter usually replied: “Dear boy! In fact, everything was a good deal more complicated! . . .”

And then . . . then there was Memorial. If I had any taste, any sense of tact and style, I would draw the line right here.

...Actually, there is another, much more widespread view of Russia’s history, though. In Dovlatov’s Zapovednik [“Nature Reserve”] about the Pushkin Hills, he writes of the director: “. . . He wants to create a grandiose park of culture and recreation. He hung a target on a tree for reasons of colour. People say that students from Tartu stole it. And threw it in the lake. Good going, structuralists! . . .”

One of those young students was Arseny Roginsky. To have been part of that circle, from which Dovlatov came and which Dovlatov describes endlessly; and yet to have been able to “hide” anonymously in that story, as marvelous as a haiku...

Some try to turn national history into a “grandiose park of culture and recreation.” While others struggle with different kinds of chains. Herein lies the life and fate of Arseny Borisovich Roginsky.

Translated by Marian Schwartz