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Cambridge Festival to show ‘Memory Scrubbing’ film that depicts suppression of Russia’s Gulag history



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As the situation in Ukraine spins ever further out of control, the signals from Russia grow darker, with the last vestiges of freedom of speech now being forcibly removed.

Anna Dobrovolskaya, executive director of HRC Memorial
Anna Dobrovolskaya, executive director of HRC Memorial

The post-invasion crackdowns have massively impacted Russia’s independent media. On March 1, the prosecutor general’s office ordered federal agency Roskomnadzor to take independent radio station Echo of Moscow off-air and blocked its website. Dozhd TV, also known as TV Rain, was shut down by state authorities on March 3.

There are very few organisations still delivering independent news, or defending free speech and the right to protest.

One of them is Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights group. Founded in 1989, Memorial has established a collection of 60,000 case studies – with photos and artefacts – from the millions of political prisoners who disappeared into the Gulags, the system of Soviet labour camps operating from 1930 to the mid-1950s. Indeed, the custodial sentences that will probably be handed out to the 15,000-plus Russian detainees (so far) will most likely be served in Gulag-style ‘correctional colonies’ (ispravitel’nie kolonii) – the barracks-like accommodation blocks developed under Stalin.

Memorial is divided into two parts – International Memorial is widely known for its archives, and Human Rights Centre (HRC) Memorial, which works against political repressions. International Memorial is in the process of being “liquidated”, and HRC Memorial is also under threat, having had a similar liquidation order – currently under appeal – made against it in December.

Konstantin Goldenzweig is the narrator in ‘Memory Scrubbing’
Konstantin Goldenzweig is the narrator in ‘Memory Scrubbing’

Cambridge Festival, which is supported by the Cambridge Independent, will screen a 2021 documentary film about Memorial on April 8 called Memory Scrubbing, produced by TV Rain.

Anna Dobrovolskaya, HRC Memorial’s executive director, speaking from Moscow over Zoom, said of the immediate future for Memorial: “We don’t know what will happen: the outcomes range from the worst – everyone is imprisoned and the whole organisation can’t continue – to the good: Memorial is liquidated as a legal entity and we have to start working on something else, something not precisely in its previous form.”

There was a short period of time during the 1990s when it seemed to the outside world that Russia could emerge from the shadow of Stalin and function as a quasi-democratic or even democratic state. The dark stain on world history that is Vladimir Putin even spoke at Memorial’s opening ceremony.

“Millions of people were declared enemies of the people, were shot or maimed, went through the torments of prisons and camps,” Putin is seen telling the guests in Memory Scrubbing.

A 3D recreation of a Soviet-era labour camp in ‘Memory Scrubbing’
A 3D recreation of a Soviet-era labour camp in ‘Memory Scrubbing’

So was that taken as a sincere speech in Russia?

“You must always remember that he is a trained officer of the security services,” Anna replies. “If you believe these people… they will let you believe them, if they want you to believe in something they won’t stop. But it [a shift to democracy] was never going on.

“The first elections in Russia were falsified in 1996. He said some nice words and two years later he started the war in Chechnya.

“Russia was never close to reconciliation. It was never a democracy, it was trying for a while but that option was definitely closed after 2008, maybe 2010. This was the last glimpse.”

By 2012, when the law of ‘foreign agents’ was introduced, it was game over – Russia was ruled by an autocrat determined to extinguish any symptom of a free society. The law required any organisation receiving any overseas funding, engaging in any political activity, study or report on crime, military, space and security issues to declare itself as a ‘foreign agent’. It was allegedly violating this law that was the pretext for closing Memorial down. The law requires every frame of a film or page of an article to be branded with a message saying the content was created by ‘Memorial, an NGO that performs the function of a foreign agent, according to a decision of the Ministry of Justice’.

“To start with, after the law was introduced, people said, ‘You must be doing something wrong’,” says Anna. “Later, people ignored it or even saw it as a sign of quality, of independence, of free expression.”

But free expression in Russia is far from free, as this graphic by Statista shows.

Russia spends vast resources on blocking content to its citizens on the internet. Graphic by Statista
Russia spends vast resources on blocking content to its citizens on the internet. Graphic by Statista

Memorial remains – just – a cornerstone of civil society in decidedly uncivil times. Has the invasion of Ukraine worsened conditions for people in Russia?

“They don’t know about it,” Anna says. “It’s not being covered by any medium. They see police cars, they know it’s a protest, but not what’s happening in Ukraine. In Russia, if someone is in an informational bubble, they’ll stay in that unfortunately. Facebook has been blocked and Twitter slowed down.”

Anna has to be careful about what she can say.

“I’m planning to stay in Russia so yes, I can say ‘military operation’, but it’s best to refrain from the word ‘war’. But at the same time a lot of things can be said: it’s horrible, it’s a crime against humanity and it’s absolutely clear people will be brainwashed for a long time – but one day they will hear the truth.”

Elena Zhemkova, executive director of International Memorial, speaking on ‘Memory Scrubbing’
Elena Zhemkova, executive director of International Memorial, speaking on ‘Memory Scrubbing’

Anna, who was raised in Belgorod, 40km from Ukraine – “we wanted nice coffee, to buy clothes and go to concerts” – has two degrees, one in human rights and a second in psychology. She holds out little hope that anti-war protests in Russia will make any difference.

“It’s 0.001 per cent of people protesting,” she says, “and the Russian government never listens to protesters. People are doing it for moral reasons, it makes them feel better. The laws are tightening and this is not something that will change things in my personal opinion.”

She expects more trouble.

“International Memorial is being liquidated now, it will finish in a few months. HRC Memorial? We’re in an appeal court between now and mid-April, then it would take between three and six months to cease working.”

Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the council, HRC Memorial, in ‘Memory Scrubbing’, which will be shown at the Cambridge Festival on April 8
Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the council, HRC Memorial, in ‘Memory Scrubbing’, which will be shown at the Cambridge Festival on April 8

But, she adds, Memorial is a long-term project and the outcome of Russia coming to terms with its own history is not in doubt.

“A colleague, Sergei Kovalyov, who died recently – he wrote the human rights section of the current Russian constitution – said: ‘I know nothing will happen while I’m alive, it will take 300 years’.

“I’m fine with this period. I can wait. Some day people will be asked ‘What were you doing at this time?’, and the question is: ‘Will you be able to live with yourself?’”

Memory Scrubbing is being shown at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) between 2pm and 4pm on April 8. Click here for details.



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