Historical Amnesia in Chelyabinsk

AKG1423992Exhumation of a mass grave in the area of Pit No. 5 aka Zolotaya Gorka (Golden Hill), which was supposed to be transformed into a memorial cemetery for victims of Stalinism in the 1930s. The mass graves are located in Shershni, a suburb of Chelyabinsk. The photo was taken in 1990. Courtesy of the Elizaveta Becker Collection, Gulag Museum, International Memorial Society

The Security Services Don’t Like Plaques: Chelyabinsk Officials Say Plaque Commemorating Executions Would Discredit Police
Yulia Garipova
Kommersant
August 31, 2018

Chelyabinsk city hall has refused to assist community activists who have been trying to mount a plaque, commemorating the victims of political terror, on the walls of the city’s Interior Ministry [i.e., police] building. The site used to be the home of a building in which executions were carried out in the 1930s. According to officials, the inscription on the plaque could cause people to have “unwarranted associations about the work of the police” and undermine its authority in the eyes of the populace.

In 1932, a building was erected from the bricks of the demolished Christ’s Nativity Cathedral on Vasenko Street in Chelyabinsk. It was handed over to the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), later known as the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Historians claim that, during the Great Terror, the building contained an execution room.  In 1937–1938, nine Chelyabinsk priests were murdered in the room. In 1995, a memorial plaque was mounted in the courtyard of the building at 39 Vasenko Street.

The inscription on the plaque read, “During the period of mass repressions in the 1930s and 1940s, innocent people convicted of political crimes were executed in this building.”

In the early 2000s, however, the plaque vanished.

This year, Yuri Latyshev, coordinator of the local history group Arkhistrazh, launched a campaign to restore the memorial plaque. He asked Yevgeny Golitsyn, deputy governor of Chelyabinsk Region and chair of the regional commission for restoring the rights of victims of political repression, for help. Chelyabinsk city hall’s culture department sent him a reply.

Mr. Latyshev was informed the building that had once housed the secret police had been completely dismantled due to dilapidation. The land plot was handed over to the Interior Ministry’s Chelyabinsk Regional Office. A new building had been erected on the plot, and a new plaque mounted on the building. It reads, “In memory of the victims of the 30 and 40 years [sic]. Their memory will be preserved as long as we remain human beings.”

Citing the local Interior Ministry office as its source, the Chelyabinsk city culture department explained in its letter to Mr. Latyshev that the whereabouts of the old plaque were unknown. Restoring a commemorative plaque that claimed people were executed in the building during the period of mass repressions in the 1930s and 1940s  would be a distortion of historical reality, the officials argued.

“There have not been any repressive actions of a physical nature [sic] carried out in the buildings used by the [local Interior Ministry office],” they wrote to Mr. Latyshev.

Chelyabinsk culture officials also stressed the inscription on the previous plaque could “provoke unwarranted associations about the work of the police in the minds of people, even as the Russian federal government has made considerable efforts to strengthen the police’s reputation.”

Mr. Latyshev, however, is convinced part of the old building survived the reconstruction.

“The [old] plaque was absolutely fair, correct, and decent, but someone clearly did not like it. It would be fair to hang it on the street side of the building,” says Mr. Latyshev.

He claims he has sent inquiries to the FSB and Interior Ministry, but has only been given the runaround.

“I’m surprised by the wording used by city hall officials—’unwarranted associations’—and how they immediately project these ideas into the minds of the people of Chelyabinsk,” Ivan Slobodenyuk, coordinator for the project Last Address in Chelyabinsk Region, told Kommersant.

Mr. Slobodenyuk stressed that restoring the memorial plaque would be consistent with the state policy for commemorating victims of political repression, as adopted by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2015.

“Regional authorities have so far neglected this topic. The memorial on Golden Hill has virtually been abandoned. Part of the area containing mass graves has been redeveloped, and another section has been slated for redevelopment. Now the story with this memorial plaque comes to light,” said Slobodenyuk. “In my opinion, putting up a memorial plaque that begins with the phrase, ‘This was the site of a building in which, during the period,” and so on, in keeping with the wording on the original plaque, would not damage the police’s reputation. On the contrary, it would be a manifestation of courage and would make people respect law enforcement.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Last Address: Nikolai Yushkevich

last address-nikolai yushkevichHere lived Nikolai Ignatyevich Yushkevich, clerk. Born 1900. Arrested 23 October 1937. Shot 10 November 1937. Exonerated 1957.

Last Address Foundation
45 Tavricheskaya Street, St. Petersburg
April 8, 2018

The Shulgin Tenement House, named after its proprietor, is situated at the corner of Tavricheskaya Street and Tavrichesky Alley. The house was built in 1914, designed by architects Vladimir Upatchev and Mikhail von Wilken in the neoclassicist Art Nouveau style, then popular in Petersburg.

We know that, during the Great Terror, twelve residents of the house were shot on trumped-up charges. Among them was Nikolai Ignatyevich Yushkevich, who lived in the house with his wife and two sons.

Yushkevich was born in 1900 in Vilna Province. He had a primary education. He joined the Party in 1924.

As his wife Maria recalled, “My husband finished four grades of school in 1914 and, since he cane from a family of poor peasants, he had to quit school and work on the farm. In 1917, he left for the city to earn money.”

24_20180406171639YushkFrom May 1917 till his arrest, Yushevich worked at the Main Waterworks Station (Vodokanal) in Petrograd-Leningrad, where he served as an unskilled laborer, a woodcutter, and then a coalman, machinist, and electrician. His last post was head of the supply department. Acccording to a record in the Vodokanal Archives, Yushkevich was “dismissed due to his arrest.”

The arrest took place on October 23, 1937. On November 3, the Vodokanal employee was sentenced to death.

According to the indictment, Yushkevich “was a member of a counterrevolutionary espionage and sabotage organization, into which he had been recruited by Polish intelligence agent V.S. Tomashevich, who had tasked him with collecting intelligence and planning acts of sabotage.”

The NKVD investigators likewise noted that “the espionage information had to do with the structure and location of the city’s water main, and supplies and storage sites of poisonous substances.”

That was not enough for the NKVD officers, however, so they dreamed up the notion that Yushkevich had, supposedly, “accepted the assignment of carrying out acts of sabotage by poisoning the water supplied to the populace during wartime.”

The death sentence was carried out on November 10, 1937. Yushkevich was thirty-seven. He was survived by his wife, Maria, and two sons, six-year-old Boris and two-year-old Vladimir.

In 1942, the Yushkevich family was administratively exiled from Leningrad.

“The authorities insisted on evacuating us, but I refused,” Maria later recalled. “Mother was seriously ill and could not be moved. But the NKVD investigator forced me, since my husband had been arrested. On March 31, 1942, the children and I were forced to leave Leningrad. Mom died two days later. Our group of Leningraders arrived in the Vyselki District of Krasnodar Territory. The family was sent to the Dzerzhinsky Collective Farm. […] In 1945, I returned to my hometown on a summons issued by the Leningrad City Council of Workers’ Deputies, but I was refused a residence permit, since my husband was under arrest. […] I did not want the children to face incidents of mistrust in their lives and work due to their father’s arrest. Since I did not believe my husband was guilty, I kept everything from the children. However, there were incidents. My eldest son was expelled from vocational college […] and refused admission to university.”

The room where the family had lived before their exile from Leningrad in 1942 had been occupied by a secret police officer.

Maria Yushkevich regularly wrote letters and complaints to various authorities in her attempt to find out what had happened to her arrested husband.

“In 1938, [I wrote] to Vyshinsky, in 1939, to Beria, in 1940, to the Central Administration of Prison Camps (Gulag) in Moscow, and later, to Khrushchev.”

The family archives contains a document from the Leningrad City Prosecutor’s Office about a review of the case in 1940. The family received the notification only in 1957, when the decision to fully exonerate Yushkevich had been made.

The decision in the 1940 review contains the following passage: “The verdict against N.I. Yushkevich should be considered correct. […] His activities as a spy and saboteur were wholly corroborated by his personal confession.”

The Shulgin Tenement House at 45 Tavricheskaya Street in St. Petersburg. Photo by Natalya Shkuryonok

Before Yushkevich was exonerated in 1957, the authorities replied to his family’s inquiries in various ways. Maria later recalled one such reply.

“‘The case is not subject to review, since N.I. Yushkevich is an enemy of the people, convicted by a special collegium under Article 58 and sentenced to ten years [in a prison camp] without the right to correspondence.’ [They wrote] that my husband would never come back and insisted I remarry. In 1940, I received a reply claiming my husband was alive and well, and that he was in the northern camps without the right to correspondence. […] In 1955, after I sent an inquiry about my husband’s plight to the head of the Gulag at the Interior Ministry, I was informed my husband had gone missing in action during the war.”

As the Military Tribunal of the Belorussian Military District determined when reviewing the case in 1956–1957, “The charge was not based on objectively corroborated testimony. The baselessness of the charge against Yushkevich was established during an supplementary review of the case. Yushkevich was not involved in the case of Tomashevich, who had allegedly recruited the former. There is no compromising information about Yushkevich in the relevant archival agencies. Former NKVD officers Altwarg and Perelmutter, involved in investigating the case, were convicted of falsifying cases under investigation.”

Thanks to Dmitri Evmenov and Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Horreur du Jour (The Obukhovo Defense)

This collectible caught my eye as I was walking home yesterday.

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J.V. Stalin, USSR. Workers of the World, Unite!

I mistakenly thought it was a pin. The women in the kiosk, directly opposite the exit from the Mayakovskaya subway station, who sold it to me for 49 rubles (approx. 70 euro cents), told me it was, in fact, a refrigerator magnet.

stalin magnet label

The label on the back of the magnet’s flimsy plastic package informs us its manufacturer and distributor is Bronze Horseman Trading House LLC, headquartered at 95/2 Obukhovskaya Oborona (The Obukhovo Defense) Avenue.

Located in the south of the city, the Nevskaya Zastava district, where refrigerator magnets bearing the bloody dictator Stalin’s image are stamped out like potato chips in the enlightened year of 2017, was historically chockablock with large, mainly armament factories before and after the October Revolution, and thus was a hotspot of labor organizing and political agitation in the period before the Three Revolutions.

In 1901, the neighborhood was the scene of a showdown between striking workers at several of its plants and the authorities. The center of events was the Obukhovo Rolled Steel Plant.

Members of several underground political circles, including Social Democrats and Populists, called a political strike for May 1 at the plant to protest deteriorating work conditions. Plant management fired seventy workers for their actions.

On May 7, the former strikers increased their list of demands. Aside from reinstating the fired workers, they now demanded a holiday on May 1, an eight-hour workday, cancellation of night shifts and overtime work, an elected workers’ council inside the plant, pay rises, and the dismissal of several managers.

When management failed to meet their demands, strike organizers convinced workers to down tools, leave the plant, and block the Schlisselburg Highway. They were joined by workers from the nearby Alexandrovsky Plant and the Imperial Playing Card Factory.

Obukhovo_defence_1901
Police and workers clash during the Defense of the Obukhovo Plant, May 7, 1991. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Mounted police were summoned to the scene. During the ensuing pitched battle, eight workers, including a 13-year-old boy, and several policemen were killed.

On May 12, the conflict between Obukhovo Plant workers and management was temporarily resolved when management agreed to satisfy most of the points on a new list of demands presented to them. For a month after the agreement was conclused, however, sympathy strikes continued to break out at plants in other districts of the city.

In September 1901, however, a number of strike organizers and former strikers were put on trial for insurrection against the authorities. Seven of the defendants were sentenced to prison; twenty, to army brigades for prisoners; and two to hard labor. Eight defendants were acquitted, but most of the 800 men arrested during the affair (whether they were involved in the standoff with police or not) were exiled from Petersburg.

In 1931, Alexandrovsky Village Avenue was renamed Memory of the Obukhovo Defense Avenue to commemorate the events of thirty years earlier. Later, several other streets were joined to it. Now known simply as Prospekt Obukhovskoi Oborony or The Obukhovo Defense Avenue, it runs along or near the left bank of the Neva River south from Alexander Nevsky Square in the central city to the far south, ending near Rybatskoye subway station. It is thus one of the longest streets in the city.

What does the inspiring but mostly forgotten story of the Obukhovo Defense of 1901 have to do with today’s feeble but persistent attempts at restalinizing Russia via symbolic and discursive incursions such as refrigerator magnets?

Nothing and everything.

It is nastily ironic that magnets bearing the image of one of the most thoroughgoing counter-revolutionaries and reactionaries who ever walked the earth are stamped out right down the street from where real revolutionaries and trade unionists once fought for workers’ rights and paid a heavy price for their fight.

Are the workers who make the Stalin magnets aware of this history? Do they see their work as contributing to some kind of “revolutionary” cause? Or, what is more likely, are they just trying to make ends meet? How much are they paid per month? Would they ever think about striking against their employers for better pay and working conditions? Or is life at Bronze Horseman Trading House LLC paradise on earth?

One final demonic irony. I bought the Stalin refrigerator magnet almost exactly opposite the spot, on Marat Street, where a few days earlier I had found a Last Address, commemorating Rudolf Furman, a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror. TRR

Four Last Addresses

last address-furman-marata“Here lived Rudolf Rudolfovich Furman, purchasing agent. Born 1906. Arrested 11 February 1942. Died in prison 16 March 1942. Rehabilitated 1989.” The Last Address website reveals more details about Furman’s life and plight. A native of St. Petersburg and an ethnic German, Furman worked as an assistant master chemist at the Moscow District’s Osoaviakhim (Society for the Promotion of Aviation and Chemical Defense) Techno-Chemical Workshops. He lived in flat no. 17 at 4 Marat Street. Arrested by the OGPU on 7 October 1931 under Article 58-11 of the RSFSR Penal Code, Furman was exiled for three years to Kazakhstan, where he lived in Alma-Ata before returning to Leningrad. Arrested during the Nazi siege of the city in late February 1942, Furman died in prison a week later. He was rehabilitated on 11 April 1989. Photo by the Russian Reader

__________________

Dear Last Address Supporters:

We will be remembering the victims of Soviet state terror on December 17 in St. Petersburg.

At 12 p.m., a Last Address memorial plaque bearing the name of Rear Admiral Pyotr Nikolayevich Leskov will be placed on the residential building at 26 Mokhovaya Street. Commander of the cruiser Aurora and head of the Central Naval Museum, Leskov was arrested on 2 November 1937, and shot for “espionage” and “terrorism” in December 1937. He was 73 years old.

At 1 p.m., a plaque inscribed with the name of Kirill Petrovich Peterson, an ethnic German and engineer at the André Marty Shipyards, will appear on the house at 9 Mitninskaya Embankment. Peterson was arrested on 2 January 2 1937 and shot for “espionage” on 29 January 1938. He was 22 years old.

At 2 p.m., a plaque bearing the name of Johanna Gedartovna Preiman, an ethnic Latvian and food service worker, will be attached to the house at 30 Labutin Street. A canteen worker who was employed on long-distance sailing vessels, Preiman was shot for “espionage” on 3 January 1938. She was 49 years old.

Subsequently, the cases of these three victims of state terror were reexamined and found to have been fabricated. All three victims were fully rehabilitated. 

By the end of 2017, Last Address will have placed 234 memorial plaques on 140 houses.

Yours,

The Last Address Group in St. Petersburg

Source: Last Address Newsletter

 

Another Last Address: Six Names

While I realize it was only two weeks ago when I wrote about finding four Last Address memorial plaques in my neighborhood I had not seen before, I would like to document another six plaques I found today, because I do not think it is enough to know they are out there somewhere. Instead, we should pause for a few minutes and read the bare facts on each plaque out loud or silently. It is also important, given the current frightening atmosphere in Russia, to show passersby that they, too, can stop and honor the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror in this way, as well as to share this witnessing and remembering with readers out in the big wide world, whoever and wherever you are.

Of course, Last Address will only be complete when there is a plaque or plaques on every one of the 341,582 addresses in Memorial’s database.

While that day seems far off, it is surprising how quickly Petersburg has filled up with Last Address plaques in a mere two or three years.

The plaques my companion and I found earlier this evening were attached to the streetside façade of the building at 146 Nevsky Avenue, the segment of Nevsky, east of Insurrection Square, known to locals as “Old” Nevsky.

The plaques have been placed on the building at eye level and are thus quite easy for passersby to notice, read, and photograph.

The building itself is a hybrid of two eras. First built in 1883 by Valery von Gekker to house the Menyaevsky Market, the building was rebuilt and expanded in the constructivist style by Iosif Baks in 1932–33, turning most of it into a block of flats.

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146 Nevsky Avenue, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of citywalls.ru

When the six people memorialized on the plaques lived in the building, Nevsky was still known as October 25 Avenue, the name it bore from 1918, after the Bolsheviks came to power, until January 1944, when residents asked the authorities to restore a number of old street names in the city center to mark the lifting of the Nazi Army’s 900-day siege of the city.

The address listed on the Last Address map is thus 146 October 25 Avenue, as it would have been listed in the NKVD case files of the victims at the time.

DSCN1846“Here lived Mikhail Pavlovich Kovalyov, welder. Born 1887. Arrested 30 October 1937. Shot 7 December 1937. Rehabilitated 1958.” Born in the village of Raivola, Finland, near the Russian/Soviet-Finnish border, Mr. Kovalyov worked at the Khalturin Factory and lived in flat no. 186.

DSCN1847.jpg“Here lived Vaclav Adamovich Zaikovsky, litographer. Born 1897. Arrested 31 August 1937. Shot 21 November 1937. Rehabilitated 1957.” Born in the Vilna Governorate of the Russian Empire, Mr. Zaikovsky was a member of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) from 1917 to 1937, and director of the First Art Lithography Works. He lived in flat no. 163.

DSCN1848.jpg“Here lived Dmitry Andreyevich Yeretsky, civil servant. Born 1900. Arrested 23 September 1937. Shot 21 September 1938. Rehabilitated 1957.” Mr. Yeretsky was born in Beredichev, Belarus. He was director of the State Institute for the Design of Wood Chemical Industry Enterprises (Giproleskhim) and lived in flat no. 164.

DSCN1849“Here lived Alexander Kirillovich Sirenko, civil servant. Born 1903. Arrested 10 February 1937. Shot 24 August 1937. Rehabilitated 1955.” Born in Ukraine’s Donetsk Region, Mr. Sirenko was director of the Nevsky Chemical Plant and lived in flat no. 146.  He was a member of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) from 1924 to 1937.

DSCN1850“Here lived Alexander Genrikhovich Kogan, theater manager. Born 1898. Arrested 26 August 1946. Shot 13 April 1938 in a work camp in Kolyma. Rehabilitated 1956.” A Jew from Nikolayev, Ukraine, Mr. Kogan was accused by the NKVD of involvement in a wholly fictitious “counterrevolutionary insurgent organization.” The number of the flat where he lived is not listed on the Last Address map or in Memorial’s Leningrad Martyrology database.

DSCN1851“Here lived Melania Ignatyevna Shoka, civil servant. Born 1908. Arrested 2 September 1937. Shot 1 November 1937. Rehabilitated 1989.” An ethnic Pole born in the Grodno Governorate of the Russian Empire, Ms. Shoka was a personnel instructor in the non-steamboat fleet of the Northwest River Shipping Company. She lived in flat no. 70 and was not a member of the Communist Party.

I am not an expert on the Great Terror, but I have noticed a preponderance of non-ethnic Russians and people born outside of Leningrad/Petersburg in the three hundred or so database case files I have perused. Given that the NVKD would also have had to fill its arrest and execution quotas in Central Russia, I am certain, of course, that ethnic Russians are also more than amply represented among the Terror’s myriad victims. It was just that Petersburg had been a cosmopolitan city almost from its foundation and twenty years previously had been the capital of a multi-ethnic empire. In its first two decades, the Soviet regime had also encouraged what historian Terry Martin has dubbed an “affirmative action empire.” But one of the signal victims of Stalin’s crackdown was  faith in a polity that was “socialist in content, nationalist in form.” So, Leningrad’s non-Russians were easy targets for Stalin’s newfound anti-cosmopolitan paranoia.

Two Last Addresses

I have written about the Last Address project on a few occasions in the past. Put simply, its goal is to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror by mounting simple metal plaques on the façades of the buildings where they lived before they were arrested, taken away, and, in the majority of cases, shot by the NKVD’s killing machine, usually fairly soon after their arrests on trumped-up charges.

The plaques, designed by architect and sculptor Alexander Brodsky, are ordered and paid for either by residents of the buildings or relatives of the victims.

As far I understand it, the other residents of the building should have, at very least, no objections to the idea of mounting the plaques. If they do, the plaques are not mounted.

I know only of a few cases in Petersburg in which this has happened, and they usually involved privately owned buildings in which the sole proprietors or property management companies running the buildings nixed the idea, rather than ordinary apartment dwellers.

Otherwise, the city has begun to slowly fill up with these silent but eloquent witnesses to the unspeakable injustice visited upon thousands of its residents in the 1930s by the Stalin regime.

When I was walking home this evening along Marat Street, in central Petersburg, I came upon four plaques I had not noticed before. I was able to retrace their exact locations using the map on the Last Address website.

DSCN1423“Here lived Vasily Alexeyevich Lvov, welder. Born 1892. Arrested 1 February 1937. Died in a labor camp in Kolyma, 12 December 1937. Rehabilitated 1938.” Mr. Lvov lived in flat no. 29 at 75 Marat Street, Leningrad.

DSCN1427“Here lived Pyotr Alexandrovich Petrov, engineer. Born 1879. Arrested 2 October 1937. Shot 24 November 1937. Rehabilitated 1963.” Mr. Petrov lived in flat no. 36 at 65 Marat Street, Leningrad.

DSCN1428“Here lived Leonid Petrovich Petrov, bookkeeper. Born 1915. Arrested 19 October 1937. Shot 24 November 1937. Rehabilitated 1963.” Mr. Petrov also lived in flat no. 36 at 65 Marat Street, Leningrad. Judging by his patronymic and the difference in their ages, he was probably Pyotr Petrov’s son. As fate or the NKVD would have it, they were shot on the same day.

DSCN1429“Here lived Yuri Yevgenyevich Gezekhus, technologist. Born 1900. Arrested 23 October 1937. Shot 24 November 1937. Rehabilitated 1963.” Mr. Gezekhus also lived in flat no. 36 at 65 Marat Street, Leningrad. Most likely, this was a communal flat, because the information in Memorial’s database does not indicate that Mr. Gezekhus was related to the Petrovs nor did any of the three men share a workplace. And yet, given the fact that they shared a flat and were all shot on the same day, the NKVD probably fabricated a story about the men’s involvement in the same ring of wreckers, spies or saboteurs in order to justify their arrest and quick executions.

Memorial’s Last Address database currently contains 341,582 addresses. When three plaques were mounted on the building where I live, I used the database to locate the names and addresses of all the people who had once lived on our street and were arrested and shot during the Great Terror.

Even though our street consists only of two longish blocks and twenty tenement houses, I discovered that fifty-four (54) of its residents had fallen victim to Stalin’s Great Terror.

Extrapolate those numbers onto the entire country, where, as we know now, the NKVD was working to meet arbitrarily established quotas for the numbers of people to be arrested and shot in each region, town, and neighborhood, and you conjure up an utterly horrifying picture. It is a picture that becomes ever more palpable as the Last Address team slowly installs its tiny memorials to the dead all over Petersburg. TRR

Remembering the Great Terror

gulag-1
“Here, at Vosstaniya Street, 55, lived Vladimir Dmitrievich Morozov, a quality control inspector at the Etalon factory. Arrested February 9, 1938. Executed October 17, 1938.”

Remembering the Great Terror
David Frenkel
Special to the Russian Reader
November 1, 2015

On October 30, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, the Vesna (“Spring”) Movement organized a memorial event entitled Immortal Gulag, by analogy with the popular annual memorial event Immortal Regiment, held on Victory Day (May 9), during which crowds of people march through the streets of Russian cities bearing portraits of their relatives who fought in the Second World War.

As solo pickets are the only form of public protest in Russia that does not require prior permission from the authorities, and most people are reluctant to attend unsanctioned street protests, Vesna decided to held series of solo pickets on Vosstaniya Street in downtown Petersburg.

The activists stood in front of buildings holding posters bearing the name of somebody who had lived in the building and was arrested and executed during the Great Terror of 1936–1938.

gulag-2
“Here, at Vosstaniya Street, 21, lived Alexei Ivanovich Kirishev, a clerk at Bus Depot No. 3. Arrested September 14, 1937. Executed October 15, 1937.”

Earlier in the week, the website of the political party Velikoye Otechestvo (Great Fatherland), co-chaired by the notorious pro-Putin nationalist Nikolai Starikov, published an article dubbing the memorial event a “provocation”, and its organizers “a new generation of people willing to betray the interests of their Motherland for fine talk about democracy [a]nd green paper slips [printed] with portraits of American presidents.”

The article exhorted Petersburgers to avoid Vosstaniya Square on the evening of October 30. It reminded readers that “Russia [was] striking IS positions in Syria,” and there was thus “an extremely high risk of terrorist threats in major [Russian] cities,” they “should avoid large gatherings of people whenever possible.”

“Here, at Vosstaniya Street, 43, lived Sigurd Felixovich Machevsky, an inspector at the Leningrad Customs Service. Arrested August 25, 1937. Executed December 16, 1937.”

Despite the fact that the event had been heavily promoted, only thirty-some people took part, most of them Vesna activists and their friends.

Another disappointment was the fact that the posters contained the bare minimum of information about the Terror victims: their names, professions, and dates of birth and execution. There was only one line in small print at the bottom of each poster reminding passersby that October 30 was the Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression.

A pack of torn-up posters found in a trash bin also raised eyebrows, triggering unpleasant associations with discarded “granddads on sticks” from certain Immortal Regiment events, which had provoked a storm of protest on Russia social networks.

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“Here, at Vosstaniya Street, 2, lived Alexander Ivanovich Galanin, head of the special department at the Lepse Factory. Arrested August 4, 1938. Executed November 6, 1938.”

Most passersby who stopped to read the posters reacted positively. Some shared stories of their own families, while others nodded and said, “We support you.” One woman even handed out flowers to the activists.

As usual, other passersby sought to link the event with evil plots by the US State Department or the Ukrainian government, but there were few such people.

gulag-5

One standout among them, Andrey Yazov, posed as a journalist and attempted to “troll” the activists. He even subsequently posted a video on his page on the Russian social network VKontakte. In the video, entitled “Trolling Vesna,” he asks the activists whether the Terror victims had not, in fact, been criminals. He clearly loses his interest when he learns that Soviet authorities later exonerated all of them.

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“My great-grandfather, Fyodor Seliverstovich Kolnibolotchuk, a peasant, lived in the village of Voskresenka, Orenburg Region. He was ‘dekulakized’ and exiled along with his family on February 23, 1930. Arrested December 8, 1937. Convicted under Article 58-10.1 of the RSFSR Criminal Code [anti-Soviet and counter-revolutionary propaganda and agitation] on February 10, 1939. Killed in prison.”

He does, however, reveal the sensitive fact that not all of the activists studied the biographies of the people whose posters they held. On the other hand, two participants held posters bearing the names of their own relatives.

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As during other such memorial events, most passersby sped past the activists without visibly paying any attention to them.

The police did not interfere. They merely asked the activists, “Why don’t you stay at home?”

All photos by and courtesy of David Frenkel. The Memorial Research and Information Centre in Petersburg has recently launched a searchable online version of its Leningrad Martyrologue, a catalogue of local victims of the Great Terror (in Russian), in concert with the Last Address project. Curious readers should also look at Laboratorium 1 (2015), Gulag Legacy: Spaces of Continuity in Contemporary Everyday Practices, ed. Olga Ulturgasheva (in Russian and English), published by the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR), recently declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian Ministry of Justice.