Historical Enlightenment as a Human Right

Arsenij Roginskij | Photo: Stephan Röhl
Arsenij Roginskij | Photo: Stephan Röhl

Historian and co-founder of the Russian civil society organisation MEMORIAL, Arsenij Roginskij, died in December 2017. On 4 March 2018, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the German Society for Eastern European Studies commemorated the enlightener and humanist from Russia in a matinee. The event was supported by many further institutions, among them the Körber Foundation as a long-standing partner of MEMORIAL International. MEMORIAL is a member of the EUSTORY Network and has been running a history competition in Russia since 1999.

Throughout his life, Arsenij Roginskij had campaigned for the remembrance of the dictatorships of the 20th century as a joint European responsibility. And this task was at the same time his legacy, said Ellen Überär, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, at the beginning of the commemorative matinee on behalf of the organisers. Around 200 German and international guests followed the invitation of the Böll Foundation, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German-Russian Exchange as well as the Lew Kopelew Centre and the MEMORIAL Germany association to the Heinrich Böll Foundation's representative office.

The main focus of the event was the role of Arsenij Roginskij as one of the forerunners of historical enlightenment in the Soviet Union and in Russia, as well as the discussion on the future prospects of MEMORIAL, which he co-founded. At the end of 2016, MEMORIAL was declared a so-called "foreign agent" by the Russian Ministry of Justice. In addition to a personal appreciation of the deceased, the programme included two rounds of talks on his work and the future of MEMORIAL. Pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov provided a suitable musical setting for the event with works by Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Vsevolod Zaderatsky.

In his commemorative speech, Wolfgang Eichwede, a historian of Eastern Europe, recalled Arsenij Roginskij as an enlightenment scholar and humanist, who - although exile had never been an issue for him - had dealt very intensively with the debate on the historical reappraisal in Germany and to whom reconciliation between Russia and Poland had been an important concern.

The subsequent round of talks with, among others, Elena Zhemkova, Managing Director of MEMORIAL International, Russian historian Nikita Petrov and former member of the German Bundestag (parliament), Marieluise Beck, were devoted to the work and legacy of Arsenij Roginskij. Here, too, it became clear that Germany and the German-Russian dialogue on overcoming the past and dealing with history had a special significance in Roginsky's life. Elena Zhemkova emphasised that he was proud of the efforts made by German members of the Bundestag to provide compensation for Soviet forced labourers. For Arsenij Roginskij, man has always been the focus of attention, said historian Nikita Petrov. Roginskij had seen his life's purpose in dealing with archival materials and opening up archives.

In dealing with the consequences of totalitarianism, he was never concerned only with those primarily responsible but first and foremost with the people in background, who had been affected as perpetrators or victims of oppression and totalitarian rule. "MEMORIAL has always done what the state hasn't," Petrov said. Marieluise Beck emphasised that Roginskij was not only interested in the past, but also in the present and the future. She outlined his legacy as a mandate for future generations to work against the return of nationalism and for a continuation of educational work.

A second round of discussions, among others with the historian and publicist Irina Scherbakowa, the long-time head of the Moscow office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Jens Siegert, and the Russian historian Sergej Parchomenko, focused on the future prospects of MEMORIAL. Jens Siegert emphasised that despite the current difficult situation of MEMORIAL, there is a great social need for the work of MEMORIAL in Russia. The organisation is now Russia's largest NGO and has created a meeting place with its house in Moscow and a structure with its networks in the regions which makes it possible to maintain a nationwide dialogue on historical revision and human rights.

Maintaining these networks and at the same time organising the generational change in the organisation in such a way that the growing number of young historians, experts and activists, who are already committed to MEMORIAL today, could assume more responsibility in the future, will be the central task for the coming years, emphasised Irina Scherbakowa.

At the end of the matinee, all discussion partners emphasised that the organisation MEMORIAL, its networks, its house and the comprehensive archives represent a "free Russia". This is the legacy of Arsenij Roginskij, which must be preserved even in difficult times.

On the occasion of the matinee an edition of the magazine OSTEUROPA (Eastern Europe) with texts by Arsenij Roginskij was published. 

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