Last Address: a civic initiative to commemorate victims of Soviet repressions 

Jun 10 2018

On Monday, June 4, the Kennan’s Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, organized a panel to introduce “The Last Address” project – a civic initiative to commemorate the victims of repressions in the Soviet Union which originated in Russia and is gradually spreading to other countries. The panelists talked about the origins, success, and challenges of the initiative.

The panel included:

Sergey Parkhomenko, Journalist, “Echo of Moscow” Radio; a George F. Kennan Fellow at Kennan Institute and a founder of the “Last Address” initiative;
Dmytro Belobrov, Head of “The Last Address” in Ukraine and a journalist at the independent Ukrainian channel Hromadske.ua;
Grigory Frolov, Vice President of Projects and Development, Free Russia Foundation, Ukraine.

Moderated by Izabella Tabarovsky, the Senior Program Associate at Kennan Institute.

“One name – one life – one plaque”

Sergey Parkhomenko, a founder of “The Last Address” initiative, which started in 2014, said he was inspired by a memorial project of German artist Günter Demnig “Stumbling Stones”. “Stumbling Stones” – Stolperstein  – started in 1993 and is still ongoing, and has been widely spread across Europe and commemorates the victims of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust from 1933-45 by installing commemorative brass pavement stones at their last place of residence or work.

“In Russia, we had another catastrophe,” said Parkomenko. “We had an if I can say, “Russian Holocaust.” It was four decades of Soviet political repressions” with all the republics and nations in the Soviet Union not being able to escape this “machine of extermination,” said Parkhomenko.

“The Last Address” project installs commemorative plaques the size of postcards to individual victims of Soviet repression at their last places of living: with their name, profession, date of birth, arrest, death, and rehabilitation.  The idea behind the project is a “personalized” memorial – “one name – one life-one plaque” – where installation of plaques is proposed by a particular person who can be a relative of the repressed or just interested in the installation of the plaque.

The project is based on the vast historical database compiled by the Russian human rights group “Memorial,” which has the data of more than four million repressed across the former Soviet Union. To date, Parkhomenko said, more than 2,500 applications across Russia have been submitted through the project’s website and almost 800 plaques have been installed in more than 40 Russian cities. The project is also expanding into other countries – sister projects already exist in Ukraine and the Czech Republic and will soon start in Estonia, Georgia, Moldova and Romania.

“Value-based” and grassroots initiative

Dmytro Belobrov who coordinates “The Last Address” sister project in Ukraine said that for him, the project is involved in the restoration of principles that Ukrainian society might have forgotten. “This project is a part of a puzzle that would help us to restore our principles and to restore our modern understanding of us, the understanding that there is truth and we should fight for it,” said Belobrov.

Grigory Frolov, who heads Free Russia House in Kiev and supports the Ukrainian project said that an important part of it is its educational role in discussions on such difficult issues as a shared Soviet history, communication, repressions and the need to commemorate the victims of communism. The latter may not seem a priority in the country which has to commemorate those perished in an ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, said Frolov, however for society to move forward, there is a need to understand the past which still affects many societies in post-Soviet countries.

Also, the de-communization process should not be a “political” but a “value-based thing which should go through the society,” said Frolov, adding that the project represents a grassroots “value-based” initiative based on the lives and stories of particular people. With this approach, it is easier to discuss de-communization with people who oppose it – particularly those in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

“We have so far put 18 plaques, mostly in Kiev and Odessa,” said Frolov, with Lviv, Dnipro, and Kharkiv to follow soon.

No big challenges

The public has been generally supportive of the initiative, said the panelists. “We had very few cases of vandalism,” said Parkhomenko, “from around 800 plaques we had 5-6 cases of situations of conflict”. One of the reasons for this lack of conflict is that the permission for installing the plaque is needed only from the residents of the buildings, and there is always an open discussion with them prior to the installation, said Parkhomenko.

Belobrov said there was one case of vandalism in Odessa. He noted it is more difficult to talk to people about the initiative in Odessa where some “communism clichés” arise. Yet according to the panelists, the personalized approach along with the grassroots level of the project helps to overcome these difficulties.

For many people, said Frolov, this project is a personal thing and “it goes from family to family,” being built on personal stories.

“It is very difficult to be against or criticize the project,” said Parkhomenko adding that in Russia, where the project hasn’t faced either support nor resistance from the authorities, even the state-media had a quite positive coverage of the project.

In Ukraine, said Frolov, there hasn’t been any negative stance from the authorities either. After the KGB archives were made public in Ukraine in 2015, it is very easy for the project’s volunteers to access archives with the data of the repressed.

However, in some parts of Russia such as Chechnya or Dagestan there may be some challenges, said Parknomenko, since the case applications based on political repressions should be separated from the inter-ethnic repressions, as the project doesn’t deal with the latter.

The panelists noted that “the Last Address” project is not just an “anti-Stalinist” but an “anti-totalitarian” due to repressions dating back since 1917. There has also been a plaque installed in Ukraine for Valeriy Marchenko, a Ukranian dissident who died in 1984.

“All totalitarian regimes with totalitarian repressions are the same,” said Parkhomenko which is the idea behind the project and its international sister initiatives.

“The Last Address project” – Russian initiative: https://www.poslednyadres.ru/

“The Last Address” – Ukrainian initiative: https://www.ostannyaadresa.org/

By Valeria Jegisman

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