Society should participate in the creation of a database of victims of repression

posted 7 Feb 2020, 10:54 by Translation Service   [ updated 9 Feb 2020, 08:41 ]
Image may contain: text31 January 2020

Roman Romanov, Aleksandr Cherkasov and Yan Rachinsky on the president's plan to create a single database of victims of political repressions

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: The Insider

President Vladimir Putin has instructed the presidential administration, together with the FSB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Penitentiary Service and Rosarkhiv, to look into creating a single database of victims of political repressions. They have until 1 October 2020 to submit their proposals. Historians and human rights defenders, interviewed by The Insider, believe that gathering complete and objective information on victims of political repression is impossible without opening archives and involving civil society organisations.

Roman Romanov, director of the GULAG Museum:  
(Romanov put forward the proposal to create the database)

There is an enormous amount of materials. They are scattered about like a dismantled jigsaw puzzle, and it is important to gather all the pieces together. There are materials like prisoners’ registration cards, for example, which are the last documentary record of a person's imprisonment in a camp, because the files might have been destroyed, but there are still the registration cards. They are not included in the Archive Fund of the Russian Federation, and it is important that such crumbs of evidence are registered, scanned, and added to the single database being created. It is important that the archive contains primary source documents because the databases that are publicly available at the moment are mostly based on memorial books created in different regions using different methodologies. We think it is extremely important that the database is underpinned by archival documents and their scans.

The database prepared by the Ministry of Defence together with Memorial, where these scanned documents are presented, is the example we are following. We have high hopes that the database we have been talking about will be created along these lines.

I have not yet been invited to take part in compiling the database, but I hope I will have the opportunity to offer my own methods and techniques, and I could submit the queries we receive at the museum. The museum is a documentation centre that helps people search for information on relatives who suffered repression. We get more than a thousand queries every year and have developed a methodology for searching the archives, or if a person is being refused something from the archives. We have a lot of experience, and we understand what issues people come to us with and the problems they face.

There should also be extensive discussion in which civil society organisations could take part, of course. Memorial has a database from which others are generated, and there is also the Open List. These are people who have been working on this issue for decades, of course, and their experience and understanding are even greater than ours. I would also invite the experts who worked on the Defence Ministry's database. These are individuals who have already gone down this road and now have a finished product that could be used for guidance.

Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, and winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group award:

It’s a huge task. The memorial books we have today contain information about, at best, a quarter of the total number of those repressed. At the same time, we have to collect information from across the former USSR, as there was a significant movement of people across this territory.

This is not a straightforward task, you need to know where and how to search. This is a task for real historians. Akhmatova wrote: "I would like to call everyone by name, but they took away the list, and there is no way to find it." The main requirement is the same as it was before — opening the archives. This demand to open the archives, the so-called "Moscow appeal", was initiated by Larisa Bogoraz after Solzhenitsyn's exile.

Archival access is key, as is digitizing and verifying materials. You can imagine how the records were kept during the years of the Great Terror. At some point I worked with the catalogue of the Mordovan camps of that time. It’s almost impossibly demanding work for an archivist.

The archives contain a huge amount of personal information, but you need to understand what you’re looking for. In the meantime, we have been fined for not labelling ourselves as ‘foreign agents’ on the database of victims of political terror in the USSR, which contains data on three million of the 12 million people who fall under the definition of the law on rehabilitation.

If information about the victims is relatively accessible, information about the authorities would seem to be completely inaccessible. However, we published a database relating to the NKVD for the years 1935-1939. If you understand how the administrative system works, you can even find this in the archives that are open. This requires professionalism, not everyone can do this.

There is other work that is carried out, as well. Artem Drabkin, for instance, interviews veterans. He is a fairly well-known mainstream military historian. He did hundreds of interviews with Ukrainians and Germans. This is the kind of work that we need to start. However, in terms of interviews with witnesses, we are probably already too late. The twenty years of Putin have got in the way.

Yan Rachinsky, chair of the board of the International Memorial Society:

It’s a very old idea. We insisted that it should be the state that did this. In 2011-12 we received a presidential grant to draw up a proposal to create such a database, and for this to include a great many materials from different sources which evaluate the statistics, and proposals for a programme of activities and a timetable for their implementation. All this was done. The report was submitted to the presidential administration.

The key questions in today’s decision are the dates, the budget, and, most important of all – whether researchers will have access to the documents on the basis of which it will be possible to create such a data base. As of today a large number of these documents remain inaccessible. And without access to them all any database will remain of doubtful value.

From one point of view, it is a very good thing that such a decision has appeared, even if the completion date looks a little strange. To my mind, two months would be sufficient to prepare the proposals. After all, as far as I am aware, the FSB and MVD have their own databases. The FSB, at least in some regions, have their own databases – although to what extent they are compatible and satisfactory is another matter.

But if we are given ten months to prepare to proposals, then I fear that the time allotted for working on the database will be of such extent that only the great grandchildren of those who were repressed will see the results. But, thank God, this process has begun, although it should have been started many years ago.

There’s also the problem of the extent to which their proposals will meet the demands either of society or the relatives, and, on the other hand, of the researchers. Approaches to these databases can differ significantly, as they do for the Books of Memory. We know instances of this. The Ivanovo region’s Book cannot be used because it includes only the surname, name, and patronymic, date and place of birth – that’s all, and nothing on whether the individual was arrested or shot.

In my opinion, it would be correct to set up a working group with the participation of all the different ministerial archives. That is where the archives are held, unfortunately, they are not in the State archives. The fact that they have the archives, despite a ruling by Yeltsin, long ago, that they should be transferred to the State, in itself makes the task very difficult to carry out.

Translated by Nicky Brown, James Lofthouse and Mary McAuley