news

‘Go ahead, and then they'll lock you up’ A Russian social movement's mixed success memorializing forgotten victims of the Great Terror

Meduza
21:08, 10 august 2017

Evgeny Litvinov for Meduza

Since December 2014, a project called “Last Address” has operated in Russia, dedicated to memorializing the victims of Soviet repression. Members of this project mount memorial plaques outside homes where people were once seized by the secret police and taken to be imprisoned and shot. Today, volunteers working with Last Address are active in cities across Russia and the former Soviet Union, studying archival materials, completing tedious paperwork, and most importantly convincing apartment owners to permit the installation of the memorial plaques outside their homes. At Meduza’s request, the chief editor of the Urals-based website It’s My City, Vyacheslav Soldatov, explains how these activists get homeowners in Yekaterinburg to see the necessity of memorializing Soviet repression victims.

Picture a dingy hallway lined with shelves packed full of fat folders labeled “Repression Victims” and other documents. On the wall, there’s a large map of the USSR, scattered with symbols marking the locations of prison camps, and also a separate map of the Urals’ Gulag network. Here, in the basement of a Stalin-era five-story building on Lenin Prospekt in Yekaterinburg, you’ll find the local branch of the “Memorial” human rights group, or rather you’ll find an office run by a group of citizens who have united under the name “Memorial Urals.” They’ve been working like this since 2016, when Russian officials labeled their organization a “foreign agent.”

Lately, the group has focused its efforts on a project called “Last Address,” memorializing the victims of Soviet repression with special plaques mounted outside what was once their homes.

Designed by architect Alexander Brodsky, the tablets are etched with basic information about each victim: their name, date of birth, date of arrest, date of death, and information about their rehabilitation. The first of these plaques appeared outside nine homes in Moscow in December 2014. By the spring, tablets started surfacing in St. Petersburg, and soon the project had spread to other Russian cities and even some places abroad. Today, activists have installed 560 plaques across Russia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, and they say they’re now working on another 1,500, including some in Belarus, Armenia, and the Baltic states.

“Memorial International” is one of the founders of the nonprofit foundation that directly runs Last Address, though generally it is staff and volunteers from local Memorial branches who manage the project on the ground, working with permits, doing archival research, and persuading homeowners to consent to the plaques. Last Address is supported through crowdfunding, and whoever initiates the installation of a particular tablet pays for its production costs: 4,000 rubles ($67) each.

“The wonderful thing about Last Address is its spontaneity and grassroots focus. As our freedoms are shrinking in this country, [Last Address] gives people space for this freedom,” Yekaterinburg Memorial coordinator Anna Pastukhova says. “This whole story with the plaques has really brought human rights workers closer to people who aren’t ready for a confrontation with the establishment, but who nonetheless want to express what they’re feeling.”

Elena Shukayeva, the coordinator for Last Address in Yekaterinburg, works at a local advertising company. She got involved with Memorial as a member of another organization called “Yekaterinburg for Freedom,” created during the 2014 events in Crimea. The group started out exclusively as a Facebook community, and then some especially like-minded members started meeting up offline. One of these gatherings took place at Memorial’s local office, where Shukayeva first learned about the Last Address project. She says she remembers how the installation of plaques seemed to her to be more coherent and grounded as a civil act than picketing against police brutality or demonstrating in support of political prisoners.

In order to get a memorial plaque installed through Last Address, you apply on the project’s website. You don’t need to be a relative of a repression victim to file one of these applications: the project doesn’t recognize a “family monopoly” on memory. An applicant must provide a complete dossier showing the orders for a victim’s arrest and execution, and a certificate documenting their rehabilitation. Additionally, in order to start the tablet installation process, an applicant is required to designate not just the victim’s exact former address, but also its current status, or the status of whatever building now stands in its place. After this, activists from the project verify the information in the application and appeal to the building’s homeowners’ association or house council, which must approve any sign installation before it happens. Shukayeva says it’s this final stage — reaching an agreement with homeowners — that usually takes the longest.

Elena Shukayeva, coordinator of Last Address in Yekaterinburg
Evgeny Litvinov for Meduza

The first plaques from Last Address started appearing in Yekaterinburg in August 2016, when the city’s mayor, Evgeny Roizman, and the project’s creator, Moscow journalist Sergey Parkhomenko, attended the local opening ceremony. By July 2017, however, the project was unveiling new plaques without fanfare, and installing tablets only half as often as the year before. In three cases, in order to convince homeowners at buildings to agree to plaques, volunteers spent at least six months working on each plaque.

A socialist-revolutionary from Opytstroi

On July 30, 2017, the center of Yekaterinburg — a landlocked city — fills with men dressed in sailor shirts and caps, celebrating Naval Forces Day. Elsewhere in town, at a 10-story building on Decembrists Street, not far from an unfinished TV tower, about four dozen people gather. Some carry flowers and others hold portraits. On the day marking the 80th anniversary of the start of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror, this was the first address activists would install a memorial plaque.

In the 1920s, this place was known as “Opytstroi” (“Experimental-Formation”) — home to the first co-opts in Sverdlovsk, built during the days of the New Economic Policy for the young USSR’s “technical intelligentsia.” On August 22, 1937, it was in one of these buildings that police arrested the brothers Sergey and Mikhail Sigov for allegedly participating in a “socialist-revolutionary terrorist insurgent organization.” The first brother was shot (his relatives say he was so outraged by the ridiculous allegations that he flew into a rage and threw an inkwell at his interrogator, who then killed him), and the second brother returned home half-blind only after 20 years in prison camps.

Eighty years later, the Sigovs’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren (along with Sergey’s niece, Marianna Kazberova) came back to this spot, where a highrise apartment complex now stands in the place of the old Opytstroi wooden buildings. In 1937, Marianna was two years old. She doesn’t remember her uncle, but after his arrest she says one room in the family’s home was always known as “Uncle Seryozha’s room.” “He was in the Socialist Revolutionaries’ party, but in Soviet times he wasn’t politically active. We didn’t know if he’d been shot,” she says. “Once my mother said, ‘Where is this innocent man being tortured now?’ And I, good Soviet schoolgirl that I was, answered, ‘Innocent how? He was a Socialist Revolutionary!’”

Marianna Kazberova, niece of Sergey Sigov, arrested and executed in 1937
Evgeny Litvinov for Meduza

It took the collective effort of five people to get the memorial plaque installed outside the home on 75 Decembrists Street: one person hit the archives to determine the exact location of the Opytstroi co-opt buildings; another person worked in the library, studying Sigov’s scientific writings, and interviewed his living relatives; and others made contact with the homeowners of the building that now exists where Sigov’s apartment once stood. It took almost a year to convince the homeowners to grant them permission to install the plaque.

According to Yuri Tsybin, the chairman of the building’s homeowners’ association, many members initially refused to consent to the tablet, explaining their reasoning by saying simply, “Nothing good will come of it.” “It took multiple meetings and lots of persuasion, explaining [Sigov’s] history, and then people gradually changed their point of view,” Tsybin says.

He admits that he knew nothing about Sigov before he was contacted by Last Address, but the man’s story had a powerful effect on him, Tsybin says. “For me, the idea of illegally convicting someone and executing them is horrible. Executing 600,000 people in two years is a terrifying statistic,” he says. “We need to preserve the memory of each person, and Sigov lived at this place, and there are documents proving that he was a victim of the repression.”

“For the most part, [residents] asked, ‘Why do we need this?’” Tsybin explained. “The people living here are fairly affluent. Nobody was necessarily against the plaque, but there was still the lingering question: Why? People don’t want to leave the confines of their apartments and get involved in something they think is unnecessary.”

In the end, the activists managed to persuade those who refused at first to consent. “People are scared, but it’s unclear why exactly,” says Tsybin. “‘Sure there were repressions,’ they say, ‘but why should I bother remembering them now?’ They talk about it like that, trying to avoid the problem. When this happened, I asked people to imagine themselves in Sigov’s place, and then people’s attitudes changed.”

Vadim Pankov, who manages Last Address’ communications with homeowners’ associations in Yekaterinburg, says Tsybin basically became an activist for the project, while he was convincing residents at 75 Decembrists Street to agree to the memorial plaque. “It was as if he could breathe again,” Pankov says, describing Tsybin’s work.

Memorial plaque for Sergey Sigov at 75 Decembrists Street in Yekaterinburg
Evgeny Litvinov for Meduza

An Andriyashin for a Mandelshtam

If it was “terrorist insurgency” that doomed the Sigov brothers, Alexey Andriyashin, who died in a prison camp in Magadan, was done in by his supposed “negligence.” A member of the Bolshevik party since 1920 and a veteran of the Russian Civil War, Andriyashin spent the early 1930s working in the supply department at the Society for the Promotion of Aviation and Chemical Defense. He was arrested when training weapons went missing from the warehouse.

In 1937, the NKVD’s Sverdlovsk regional branch organized two major cases against Trotskyites and the “Ural Insurgent Staff,” leading to the repression of roughly 25,000 people. The “insurgent staff” was supposedly created by an axis of “local Trotskyites, rightists, and Socialist Revolutionaries,” joined by a White royalist organization and clergyman Peter Kholmogortsev, the alleged leader of a major insurgent organization charged with planning to sabotage collective farms, steal weapons, and form insurgent groups. Kholmogortsev’s conspirators supposedly got their weapons somewhere, and that’s how a group of local Chemical Defense staff — Andriyashin included — got swept up in the case.

Before he was taken by police, Andriyashin lived in a home on March 8 Street built in the late 1920s. His daughter Tamara says the family remained in the same communal apartment after her father’s arrest. The authorities never even tried to force them out of the space; nobody wanted it because the ceiling leaked.

Getting permission to install a plaque for Andriyashin proved even harder for Last Address than it had been at 75 Decembrists Street. Elena Makei, a volunteer at Memorial who helped reach out to residents, says the homeowners’ association initially said it saw no reason to memorialize a nobody who died in a Soviet prison camp.

The association’s chairperson, Tatyana Osintseva, also first opposed the project’s tablet proposal, though she had her own reasons: She’s currently writing a book about the building’s history, where writers and scientists have lived since the 1930s, and she says she was already planning to install a large memorial plaque to recognize all the repression victims who once lived there. Osintseva says she also wants to place a memorial plaque at the Yekaterinburg train station, where the poet Osip Mandelshtam and his wife Nadezha spent a day in 1934, while traveling together to forced exile in Cherdyn. Memorial and Osintseva eventually agreed to cooperate on the train-station tablet, and she gradually became one of Last Address’ active supporters. In the end, the project’s members say she played the decisive role in winning permission to install the plaque memorializing Andriyashin.

Memorial plaque for Alexey Andriyashin in the hands of his daughter, Tamara
Evgeny Litvinov for Meduza

Despite winning consent from the homeowners, Osintseva was the only local who attended the plaque’s opening ceremony, and Andriyashin’s only relative to show up was his daughter, Tamara. “Asked about the installation of this tablet, my son says, ‘I don’t care,’” Tamara explained.

Activists from Memorial and Last Address say they’re planning to install another four or five plaques with the names of other repression victims from the same building.

A funeral service for a Komsomol “counter-revolutionary”

“It’s a funeral service or something,” a puzzled woman tells her friend, as they walk a dog by a five-story building on March 8 Street (the same road as Andriyashin’s old home). Outside the building, there’s a group of people gathered for the installation of another memorial plaque.

The apartments went up in 1933, built for local members of the Society of Old Bolsheviks. They were built directly opposite a constructivist housing complex for NKVD officers. According to Artem Berkovich, a historian and the curator of a photography center located inside the building today, police arrested a dozen residents in the 1930s, including the founder of a local institute dedicated to the history of the Bolshevik party.

In September 1937, NKVD officers came for Vladimir Tarik, the deputy director of the Sverdlovsk Home for Children’s Artistic Education and one of the founders of the Youth Pioneers House in Kharitonovsky Park. The following January, he was shot for “active participation in a counter-revolutionary organization of rightists in the Komsomol.”

“I’ve outlived my father more than twice over. He [died] four months before his 30th birthday,” says Vladislav Tarik, Vladimir’s son. A documentary filmmaker, Vladislav directed the 1988 movie “The Man With a Song” — a rare Soviet documentary comedy about a composer who wrote hymns for Soviet factories. “It’s 400 meters [437 yards] from our home to the basement where they shot him. I measured it on a map. They didn’t even call a police van. They collected him on foot. Our apartment had a balcony, and my mother and seven-year-old sister ran out there to watch how they led father away.” Vladislav was just two years old at the time of the arrest. Apparently, he slept through the whole thing.

Vladislav Tarik at the unveiling of a plaque in honor of his father, who was killed in the Great Terror
Evgeny Litvinov for Meduza

Vladislav Tarik personally handled the process of getting permission for the memorial plaque, say activists from Memorial. “He was the one who broke through all the legal bureaucracy.” Vladislav says he owed a personal debt to his father. “I don’t remember him, but I feel like I know him. It’s as if he’s always nearby,” Vladislav says. “For me, installing this plaque is like my father’s second coming. All the more so because the highway memorial, where locals executed in the repressions were buried, is becoming more and more impersonal. Right over people’s remains, they’re paving new roads, turning the whole thing into pseudo-graves.”

The decision to consent to the memorial plaque was made at the building’s house council. Vladislav Tarik collected the signatures himself. He says the most difficult and unpleasant step in the overall process, however, was getting the necessary permits from local officials. The house of the old Bolsheviks, where Tarik’s father was arrested, is now a recognized cultural heritage site, which means that hanging anything outside the building requires additional permits from regional and city security agencies.

“I was greeted politely at the monument-preservation office on Karl Liebknecht Street,” Tarik says, “but one of the staff muttered, ‘If they put up a plaque outside every home, what happens to this city?’” A similar attitude awaited him at City Hall, where he was given the runaround and sent from architect to architect. “I ran around and waited in the hallways,” Tarik says.

Tarik argues that installing the plaque was important for the preservation of his family’s memory, but he’s less confident when he talks about the societal impact of Last Address. “I’ve noticed that nobody looks at them. People just pass by. I don’t think the plaques have any impact on the city,” Tarik says plainly. “The repressions are discussed only very quietly, even on the 80th anniversary of the Great Terror.” He says the building’s residents didn’t object to the installation of the plaque, but they were apparently wary when he approached them. “They said, ‘Go ahead, and then they’ll lock you up.’ I’m afraid they’ll start calling me ‘son of an enemy of the people’ again, now that the plaque is up.”

Plaque memorializing Vladimir Tarik outside his old home at March 8 Street in Yekaterinburg
Evgeny Litvinov for Meduza

Other activists also attest to the difficulties involved in getting memorial plaques installed in Yekaterinburg. Alexey Mosin, a history professor at Ural Federal University, says execution orders were carried out in the basements of NKVD prisons at 17 Lenin Street. Afterwards, the bodies were buried alongside a nearby highway. “The people working in that building today are [the NKVD’s] successors in the Federal Security Service, and we can’t get approval for a memorial plaque there,” Mosin says. “Meanwhile, there’s a tablet hanging on the neighboring building dedicated to a brief visit by the Grand Duchess.”

According to NKVD secret order 00447 (widely considered the formal catalyst for the Great Terror), the agency planned to arrest more than 10,000 people in the Sverdlovsk region alone, and 4,000 of these suspects were due to be shot. Mosin, who has studied the Great Terror in the Ural region, says no fewer than 20,000 people in the Sverdlovsk region were executed between 1937 and 1942. A memorial for the victims can be found near a regional highway, where many of their bodies were buried. The monument lists the names of more than 18,000 people. The number of memorial plaques Last Address volunteers have managed to install in Yekaterinburg is nine.

Russian text by Vyacheslav Soldatov from Yekaterinburg, translation by Kevin Rothrock