Lev Levinson on Arseny Roginsky: "No matter how worn the phrase 'civil society' [...] Roginsky was a leader of civil society in the true meaning of the term" [HRO.org]

posted 28 Dec 2017, 10:52 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Dec 2017, 10:57 ]
24 December 2017

By Lev Levinson 
Source: HRO.org

I want to say a few words about the historian Arseny Roginsky as a human rights defender. And as a politician. At his funeral in a number of speeches it was said that Arseny Borisovich was a great humanitarian, historian, and builder of Memorial, but that he did not consider himself to be a human rights defender in the literal sense, and even thought of human rights defenders with a certain irony.

Not as though he had any ill will towards them, of course, but as if he maintained a distance from them. And, so to say, for that reason (though I did not hear this at the funeral, but have heard it more than once before) he created within Memorial a separate human rights centre for the "excitable ones." But this view is wrong, in my opinion. 

It’s true, Roginsky did not give advice sessions for citizens who have suffered, in one way or another, from the actions of the authorities, not did he speak emotionally at rallies in support of political and civic freedoms. However, it must be seen that the honest work of a historian, that involves the discovery of historical truth, is indeed a necessary part of the work to protect human rights. And not only in terms of the right to information.

And this is also the protection of the right to historical memory, the returning to the people, to humanity, of their past. To possess your own history a right, just like the rights to a home, freedom of expression, personal anonymity and legal personhood. And by tradition the authorities persecuted those historians who did not serve them, because they fear historical truth no less than the truth about themselves in the present.

That is why the totalitarian Soviet regime persecuted both those who published the Chronicle of Current Events and those who studied and published historical materials. And they persecuted not only those who studied the periods of the early Bolsheviks and Stalinism, but also all Russian history, and indeed all history about which which there was an official “uniquely correct” point of view - about which there was a myth that had been created to suit the interests of the regime.

So Stalinist despotism and Soviet imperialism, in the framework of the works created by those historians who served the official myths, canonized Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, and mythologized the Decembrists and the revolutionaries of the People’s Will.

Recently another official version of Russian history has been forced on to us that in some ways coincides with the Stalinist version, while adding to it a crude version of “Holy Russia.” In some sense the redrafting of history in their own interests conducted by the Communists was more honest, and not for nothing the whole course of Russian history, beginning with Rurik, was called the history of the USSR.

Those in power today are not yet so explicit, but laws have already been adopted providing for criminal liability for the “distribution of evidently false information about the activities of the USSR in the years of the Second World War” (up to three years in prison) and for the “distribution of information evidently disrespectful to society about the days of military glory and the memorable dates of Russia related to the protection of the Fatherland.”

In addition, when what is being talked about is the so-called “splendour” of history, the historian risks falling foul of the law that criminalizes “insulting the feelings of believers.” So we see the historian’s trade once again becoming dangerous. This is why the hooray-patriots attacked not Memorial's Human Rights Centre, but those taking part in Memorial’s programme on national history for high school students.

Real history is “stolen history” (in the same way that Mandelstam wrote that real poetry is stolen air, and permitted poetry is garbage). A free historian is a theif in the old Russian sense of this word: in other words, a state criminal .

From this comes my second theme. Roginsky was a true historian, which means he was a human rights defender. And since he was a human rights defender, he was a politician. And a politician not only because he worked on history “without permission.” He organized human rights work (organized in the sense of guided) exactly as "political." 

But this is politics not in the wretched sense given it by the current regime, which considers politics to be the clinging on to power, along with the kicking of opponents. Nor is it politics in the sense of waving a red rag before the authorities.

As a human rights defender Roginsky had a most perfect ability to negotiate and reach agreements. He was able to talk with the authorities on equal terms. But this was not all. No matter how worn the phrase “civil society” (and it is worn and made trite by its opponents quite intentionally), Roginsky was a leader of civil society in the true meaning of the term.

As is well-known, not everyone liked the fact that Roginsky charted a course for Memorial out into the open sea of politics, and did not wish to see the organization remain secluded in a small pond, handing out humanitarian aid to the families of the victims of political repression.

"The people execute their power directly" - states the Russian Constitution. But I do not intend here to mount my hobbyhorse. Arseny Roginsky acted in a somewhat different way. Real power for him was the power of great ideas. He was an astute politician. Astute, according to the linguist Maks Fasmer, means nimble, knowledgeable, experienced and intelligent.