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An Interview with Dmitry Pritykin, project manager at Memorial Research & Information Centre, St. Petersburg

posted 1 Nov 2016, 09:47 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Nov 2016, 02:16 ]
1 November 2016

On a chilly St. Petersburg morning in early October, Rights in Russia met Dmitry Pritykin, project director of Memorial Research and Information Centre (MRIC), at the organization’s offices on Rubinstein Street in central St. Petersburg. MRIC is a branch of the International Memorial Society and a self-standing organization that was initiated by Veniamin Iofe in 1987 (and formally registered in 1991) on the new wave of openness and enthusiasm that characterized perestroika. It was created with a mission to conduct research into the Soviet state terror, resistance to the totalitarian regime and the history of the GULAG, as well as to maintain and build an archive, based in the first place on Iofe’s personal archive gathered over many years. More recently, MRIC has become perhaps best known for its Virtual Gulag Museum. Its director since 2002 is Irina Flige, who has worked with Memorial since 1988. Index on Censorship, which awarded MRIC its 2012 Freedom of Expression prize, has called the Centre ‘a living tribute to the survivors of Soviet Russia’ for its work in ‘preserving documentation that many have tried to bury.’

Dmitry is a native St. Petersburger. His parents were quite typical members of what was then known as the Soviet intelligentsia. His father was a screenwriter for documentary films (at one time he worked as script editor for the film director Aleksei Gelman). His mother was an editor of journals and newspapers who, at the end of the 1980s, became director of Feniks Archive, a publishing house for works previously published only in the West, set up in the city by Vladimir Alloi (who had emigrated to France in 1975). Dmitry’s mother continued Alloi’s work after the latter’s suicide in 2001. It was from his parents that Dmitry learnt about another side of life in Soviet Russia: the dissidents. Both his parents not only regularly read samizdat, but also participated in its production. Dmitry’s father wrote and edited samizdat articles, while his mother typed them up for distribution. Once perestroika got underway, Dmitry’s mother became one of the founding members of the International Memorial Society in 1989, and in later years also worked for MRIC.

In 1994 Dmitry entered St. Petersburg’s Herzen Pedagogical University to study political science, subsequently qualifying to teach what in the West might be known as sociology and politics. However, he did not work for long as a teacher, but became an administrator in the state education system. After two years in that role, he moved on. By 1999 he was working for the US organization Project Harmony, which was funded by USAID. Project Harmony arranged cultural exchanges between the US and Russia, supported Internet access in Russia (especially in educational centres and libraries), and provided related know-how and training to teachers, students and librarians. At that time there was a strong demand for these programmes in Russia given the generally poor quality of Internet access.

Project Harmony focused its work on the Russian regions, and in those years in the provinces there were high expectations of what US assistance could offer. Yet this was already a time when in St Petersburg and Moscow USAID funding was treated with suspicion by the authorities, a tendency that only increased during the 2000s. Dmitry soon found that he had attracted the attention of the security services who wanted to know more about what they saw as ‘suspicious’ foreign programmes. As a result, in 2002 Dmitry left Project Harmony and went into the commercial world of advertising, where he worked for seven years. It was not until 2009 that he decided to return to the non-profit sector, when he took up a post with the Centre for Supplementary Education for Children. At the same time he began working as a volunteer at MRIC.

This move into the non-profit world was against the grain in terms of what was happening in Russian society at the time, Dmitry points out. ‘Everyone was making money,’ he says, ‘But I was not interested in making money.’ But he realized that his strongest interest lay not in human rights as such, but in history and memory. Memorial, he says, is a human rights organization ‘of a very specific kind.’ The main goal of Memorial, Dmitry says, is to bring about a major, official investigation into the Terror – an investigation that could result in trials like the post-war Nuremburg Trials. Despite the potential significance of this goal, Dmitry says that Memorial, while it is one of oldest NGOs in Russia, does not have a very high public profile. He notes that it is often the authorities and their repressive actions against civil society nowadays that have given NGOs more prominence in Russian society. Indeed, it was the same year, 2009, that Dmitry began working as a volunteer at MRIC that the General Prosecutor’s Office conducted a raid on the organization’s offices in St. Petersburg, confiscating hard drives and CDs containing a great part of the organization’s archive. The raid and the legal proceedings that followed had resonance around the world. Index on Censorship commented on the events of that year: ‘The attack [on Memorial] was condemned by activists and historians across the globe, and eventually all of the material was returned after a battle in local courts.’

It was while Dmitry was working at MRIC as a volunteer that he became involved in a project to find and commemorate the victims of the Red Terror, whose bodies had been buried in the Kovalevsky Forest outside St. Petersburg. During the Red Terror, an estimated 4,500 people were shot and their bodies buried at this location, which was rediscovered by Memorial in 2002. The Kovalevsky Forest itself forms part of a larger area, the Rzhev District Firing Range, where as many as 30,000 people are believed to have been shot dead – including the poet Nikolai Gumilev. After identifying the location, Memorial began to raise funds to build a museum on the site. In 2009 President Medvedev indicated he supported the building of the museum. However, no funds materialized, and a number of legal and administrative problems have arisen, as a result of which the museum remains to this day just an idea on paper.

It was also as a volunteer with MRIC that Dmitry first found out about the Swedish governmental organization, Living History Forum, that uses the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity as a starting point to raise awareness of issues related to tolerance, democracy and human rights. Later Dmitry, by then a full-time employee at MRIC, worked with the Swedish organization on a programme entitled ‘The Role of Memory in the Process of Developing Human Rights,’ a three-year initiative bringing together teachers of history, trainee teachers, librarians and local historians. Under the programme, participants wrote articles on historical topics of their own choosing, and a jury then chose the 40 best works. On the basis of presentations by the 40 authors, the jury went on to select ten contestants to travel to Sweden, where they again presented their work.

It was in Sweden that Dmitry became fascinated by storytelling as a mode of oral history. In Sweden, he explained, there is a long tradition of storytelling between the generations. Young people are often told about the past by an older person, and then in turn the older person listens as the young person relates something about their own life. Not only does this practice continue today, but in factories and companies there are people employed to tell the story of the business.

However, Dmitry says that the Swedish model did not work well in Russia, primarily because ‘there is no trust between generations.’ In Soviet times, there were topics forbidden even within the family. For example, parents would often refuse to tell their children about political repression they had suffered, or to which their relatives and friends had been subjected; or about relatives who had been active in opposing the Bolsheviks, by serving as a White officer for example, or who had gone abroad.

Dmitry’s move to work full-time at MRIC took place at around the time of the elections of 2011 and 2012. Before these elections Dmitry, like many others in Russia, had felt rather indifferent to elections. But in 2011 he was caught up and inspired by the simple, but new, idea that elections could make a difference. He sees his own career move at that time as part of a sea change in public attitudes then taking place. After the elections of 2011 (for the State Duma) and 2012 (for President), he says, there was a new sense that change was imminent in society. There was a lot of new energy and civil society felt energized. MRIC itself hosted a preparation centre for those who wished to become observers during the Duma parliamentary elections in 2011. There were concerns the authorities would seek to falsify the elections, and civil society activists wanted to prevent this by means of election observation. While there were no radical activists in St Petersburg that had the same profile as the Moscow leaders, nonetheless the protest mood was strong. Like Moscow, if on a smaller scale, St Petersburg saw demonstrations. Marches of up to 50,000 people filled the streets. But the new energy was not only focused on the elections. Now working at Memorial, Dmitry found there was a new broad interest in civil society initiatives and in NGOs. New forms of activity were springing up all around. New volunteers came to Memorial.

Dmitry pauses in reciting his story. At this point the narrative changes. He says, with something of a sigh, that at that time the situation changed. Despite the election monitoring, the results of the Duma elections, widely suspected of being fabricated, stood. Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency. The period of intense optimism passed. In a radical change, a raft of new restrictive legislation and law enforcement practice, introduced by the authorities from 2012, indicated that officialdom had declared a kind of war on civil society. The adoption of the ‘foreign agent’ law was but one sign of this change, albeit a major one. Among civil society activists there was even a degree of panic as to what the new changes might mean. And, in the meantime, inspections of NGOs imposed under the ‘foreign agent’ law, and the related court cases, got underway. This meant that NGO staff were spending their time dealing with the new, heavily bureaucratic procedures requiring reams of paper and reporting.

MRIC has only a small administrative staff. Valuable resources that could have gone on project work were spent on the bureaucratic requirements of the foreign agent law. It was clear that the authorities wanted to create problems for civil society organizations. In reaction, the activists put their heads down and carried on working. Yet MRIC was not quite as exposed to official arbitrariness and the repressive measures as it may seem. While the organization does not have its own lawyers, it works in close collaboration with the group of jurists led by the prominent human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, known as Team 29. As Dmitry explains, these lawyers have always been ready to come to the assistance of MRIC, to give advice, and to represent the organization in court. On many occasions their work has been crucial to MRIC’s survival.

By 2014, and even before Crimea, Dmitry notes, in the civil society sector there was a sense of depression. Some people began to think that there was no future in civil society projects. And when Crimea happened, it divided society. Even among the staff of organizations like Memorial there were divisions, for and against.

In November 2015 MRIC was added to the foreign agent register by the Ministry of Justice. At that point, the organization decided to cease all public activity. Those individuals who still wished to take part in the kind of public activities formerly carried out by MRIC now did so through an informal, unregistered, association known as the Iofe Foundation. This decision marked a move away from the increasing professionalization of the Third Sector that had taken place in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 2000s, and a return towards the informality of civic associations of the late Soviet years.

In the current situation, Dmitry says, ‘It would be wrong to exaggerate and pretend there is a threat to our very lives. This is not a matter of life or death. But the situation disturbs and annoys us. It creates problems for us in our relations with officials, with schools, and so on. It is all a bit insulting and very unpleasant. We do our best to resist. We look for a bureaucratic way to dull the impact of the law. And sometimes the officials step back. There is no heroism on our part. We feel under pressure all the time. We can no longer do the work we want to do in the way we would like to do it. There’s the temptation to stop work and give up.’ He goes on, wanting to make sure the point is clear: ‘I have no victim complex. And it’s wrong to exaggerate. I have no sense of serious personal risk, of a threat to life. There is no pressure to leave country. But there are permanent bureaucratic problems - reporting, problems with funding. It’s very unpleasant.’

Asked if there is still interest in society in the work Memorial does, Dmitry says: ‘There’s no problem with getting people involved in our work. The interest remains, and it’s strong. For example, the project Last Address, which involves putting up plaques on buildings to commemorate those who lived there before they were taken away to their deaths during the Terror. Last Address is not a project of Memorial, but a completely independent initiative. The project is very successful in engaging young people.’

He points out again that the project is wholly independent of Memorial, and only one of the main participants happens to be a MRIC staff member. ‘So things go on. And some people, when the pressure on them increases, for that very reason want to continue doing what they have been doing. I would say there is even more interest in the issues we are working on - in preserving historical memory. The work continues, our projects continue, for example the Virtual Gulag Museum. All the time we are gathering information and publishing it. Publishing resources for the public - for people who don’t know this history. For example, the Map of Memory. Take as an example the burial places in Sandormokh in Karelia – an important place for the study of the Terror – where so many people were shot. We have all the documents about this atrocity. We know the names of those shot, and of those who did the killing, and how it was done. We know everything.’

‘And as for the future,’ Dmitry concludes, ‘we can only speak for ourselves. We shall continue our work. Of course, the situation in the country has a direct impact on what we can do. But we shall continue our work despite the pressure that the authorities put on NGOs, because we are convinced that this is the best form of resistance to this pressure, and because we see that there is a demand in society for the work we do. And our interest in our work, our commitment, remains strong.’

The remains of the tea on the table had grown cold during our conversation. After bidding goodbye to Dmitry and leaving the offices of the Memorial Research and Information Centre, the air outside seemed also to have acquired an additional chill, though it was still morning in St. Petersburg.

On 6 November 2015 the Ministry of Justice declared the Memorial Research and Information Centre, based in St. Petersburg, a 'foreign agent' NGO. The Memorial Research and Information Centre includes an archive, a library, premises for discussions and exhibitions, and an online GULAG museum. The Centre was founded in 1991 by Veniamin Iofe as a research centre to support Memorial's work on historical archives. Arseny Roginsky, chair of International Memorial Society, described the decision of the Ministry of Justice as 'an enormous blow for all those who work on preserving the memory of Soviet terror.'