This time last year, in a video blog commemorating the victims of Soviet repression, President Medvedev impressed upon the Russian people the importance of remembering the political repression of the Soviet era. Memorial museums were needed to ensure it was never forgotten, he affirmed.
This was no empty rhetoric. He had just signed an initiative, from the human rights organisation Memorial, to create Russia’s first national memorial museum complex in the Kovalevsky Forest outside St Petersburg, where around 4,500 victims of the Red Terror, the first victims of the Bolshevik regime, lie in still unmarked mass graves.
But now, one year on, the working group behind the Kovalevsky Memorial Museum, headed by the director of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, has gone public on the project in the hope of pushing the president and the Russian government to follow through on its commitment.
The memorial complex was intended to be the Russia’s equivalent of the holocaust museum at Auschwitz or, as Mikhail Piotrovsky suggests, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. But despite the fact that none of the federal ministries nor the local government departments who examined the proposal has raised any objection, no mechanism has been worked out to implement it, or even to give the site legal status as a memorial.
The danger now, as the cultural historian and supporter of the memorial museum, Alexander Margolis, points out, is that the whole burial site could simply disappear under new housing as the Russian ministry of defence plans to hand over the land to the local government.
This is a familiar story for Memorial’s Research and Information Centre team in St Petersburg. They uncovered the Kovalevsky site and have spent the last two decades trying, against the odds, to ensure that such sites all over the former Soviet Union are commemorated and kept in the public memory.
Indeed, it is symptomatic of a broader problem where declarative statements by Russia’s leaders founder in the lack of political will to implement them. Today, despite Medvedev’s insistence that the memory of this tragic past should be “passed on from generation to generation,” the archives have become more restricted and none of the…