Breaking Down Russia's Wall of Silence

The Memorial movement uses the Web to help keep alive the memory of Soviet-era crimes and victims

If the end of the world really did exist, then Ivan Panikarov has found it. His village, Jagodnoje, at the extreme eastern end of Siberia, is a 14-hour drive from Magadan, at the heart of the Kolyma region, sadly known for its concentration camps during the Soviet era.

But for Panikarov, the remoteness of his region doesn't justify forgetting its painful heritage. Not only has he created a museum for victims of repression in his small two-bedroom apartment but he also regularly writes articles in regional newspapers, has written a history book on the villages of the Kolyma, and has collected testimonies from former prisoners. "I have sacrificed everything for the region and for the human destinies here," says Panikarov.

Luckily for Panikarov, whose letters take an entire month just to reach Moscow, the Internet opens ways to make his message heard in just an instant around the globe. But even then, the site that he created with a friend might have remained totally unknown were it not connected to the Memorial Web site,, a Moscow-based movement set up to help Russians remember their past and to fight against crimes that were perpetrated during the Soviet era. Seeking to break the wall of silence that still exists today, Memorial lobbies in many different ways, publishes various documents, and tries to get all the information it can onto its site, which now also exists in English and German versions.


  At Memorial's headquarters, housed in an old building with narrow corridors and small offices, roughly 50 employees and a handful of volunteers work day and night to fulfill their mission. Funding for the movement comes mainly from international foundations rather than from the Russian government itself, which remains reluctant. "We have always had a problem: Our relationship is difficult with the government and therefore difficult with the media, since they are not completely free," says Jan Ratchinski, who created the site in 1998. Added to that is the indifference of the people themselves. "Our society has lost all interest in past crimes," says Ratchinski. "At the beginning of the 1990s, money problems eliminated all other concerns."

This means that Memorial must fight extra hard to make an impact and to usher in change. The movement actively lobbies to get compensation for victims of repression, publishes books, and conducts archival research. It has even published documents listing the names of 420,000 of the estimated 1 million victims executed between 1917 and 1956. Memorial also distributes information regarding human-rights violations, particularly in Chechnya, and researches the penitentiary system during the Soviet era, among other things.

Memorial tries hard to get as much of the information it has collected and cataloged during the past 12 years onto its site. Over the years, for example, the movement has established a biographical list of 600 former heads of the NKVD, which was the predecessor of the KGB and operated between 1934 and 1941. Of those biographies, 200 are currently posted on the Web site. The site also features a list of former concentration camps, complete with their addresses and names of the people that headed them, creating a gold mine for historians.

But Memorial is also interested in the present. Its site posts articles from nationalistic newspapers published over the last 10 years, as well as reports on discrimination going on today in Russia and information on human rights. "We even have a document that was created with the French and that is based on talks during the parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg regarding Chechnya," says Ratchinski, "but we don't know where we can fit it onto the site." Too much information is a godsend, though, if you compare that to the days when voices at the end of the world were silenced and buried by repression.

By Marie-Pierre Subtil

Translated by Inka Resch

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