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Bearing Witness Through Names in Russia

What it Meant to Participate in the Commemoration of Stalin’s Victims

It was bitterly cold in Moscow on October 29, with gusts of freezing wind creeping under the layers of clothing, but people stood at Lubyanka Square for up to five hours, each waiting to read a name out loud. One by one, we were naming thousands of those murdered during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-1938. Holding a white piece of paper with the victim’s name, age, occupation, and date of execution, we queued up to the microphone next to Solovetsky Stone near the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), formerly KGB.
The stone was brought all the way from Solovki, on the White Sea, one of the first GULAG camps in the USSR. It was installed at the square in spring 1990 as a monument to victims of Soviet repression, including those tortured and killed in that forbidding gray building.
Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights organization, first organized “Returning of Names” 12 years ago and has been holding it annually at the Solovetsky stone ever since, with the number of participants growing from year to year.
“Dmitry Alexandrovich Lesin,” my card read, “40 years old, accountant at a marled knits factory, executed by firing squad on November 16, 1937.” Workers, clerks, officials, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and stablemen – over 30,000 people perished during those two years of horror in Moscow alone, and around 3,000 names resounded at Lubyanka yesterday. Memorial gave each of us a name to read; some readers added the names of their own killed relatives. Others also called contemporary victims of political prosecution to be freed, including Memorial’s own activists, Oyub Titiev and Yuri Dmitriev, and the Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
Ten days earlier, the municipality suddenly informed Memorial that because of construction, the event had to be moved to the site of a monument to victims of political repression opened by the authorities last year, also in central Moscow but nowhere close to the FSB. This attempt to move the already traditional vigil caused such a public outcry that officials changed their minds.
The reading went on from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and those who arrived after work had little chance of making it to the microphone. But it’s not the reading that counts, it’s just being there, breathing the cold, wrapping your hands around the red or yellow jar with a tiny candle, listening to the litany of voices, making the memory come alive, and vowing not to let history repeat itself.

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