In Memoriam, Arseny Roginsky

Arseny Roginsky

On December 18, 2017, Arseny Roginsky or “Senya” to his friends, archivist, historian and Chairman of the Board of the International “Memorial” Society, died after a year of treatment in an oncological clinic in Israel. I was acquainted with him since 1990. Formally, the International “Memorial” Society, a non-profit organization devoted to research of political repressions in the USSR and modern Russia, was established in 1992. It was preceded by the Moscow group “Memorial” (its full name was “For the Perpetuation of Memory of the victims of Repressions”), that emerged in 1987 and gave rise to a number of regional organizations and groups. In 1989, all of them united in the All-Union Historical and Educational Society “Memorial”, registered in 1990. Academician Andrei Sakharov and the prominent human rights activist Sergei Kovalev were among organizers of the Society, and Academician Sakharov was its first Honorary Chairman of “Memorial”, while Kovalev was a co-chair. Arseny participated in the organization of the Society from the beginning, then was a co-founder of the International “Memorial”, its scientific advisor, and from 1996 on, its Chairman.

In fact, Arseny was much more than Chairman. As Oleg Orlov, a member of the International Memorial Board and a well-known human rights activist put it, Arseny was “’the heart, brain, motor, and soul’ of Memorial. He was not just a clever man, but a deeper, more wise man. Without him, what became the meaning of life for us, the work in  ‘Memorial’, the restoration of historical memory, would not have taken place. He was the leader, our leader.” The famous writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya had a similar opinion: “In a sense, [Arseny Roginsky] was the ‘Memorial’ because he embodied that special relation to the eternal conflict between a lonely little man and a huge impersonal state, between general positive ideas and a courageous momentary action.”

Roginsky was born on March 30, 1946, in the town of Velsk (Archangel Region), where his parents were exiled. His father, the engineer Boris Roginsky (19051951), who worked at the factory “Elektrosila” in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), was arrested in 1938, during the Great Terror. He was sentenced by the NKVD Special Board (OSO) to five years of imprisonment and was sent to a labor camp in the Archangel Region. After the release, he was ordered to live in the same region. In January 1951, he was arrested for the second time, and now the MGB (State Security Ministry) OSO sentenced him to exile to the Krasnoyarsk Area. However, in a week after sentencing, he died in prison in Leningrad. The family, as was customary, was not informed about the death, and Arseny’s mother waited for her husband for four more years and sent parcels with food and clothes to him. Only in 1955, she was officially given, as it appeared later, a false certificate of her husband’s death from a heart attack, and was allowed to return to Leningrad. Because of the history of his family, Arseny decided to become a historian when he was a boy.

From 1962 to 1968, Arseny attended University of Tartu (Estonia), the most anti-Soviet intellectual place in the Soviet Union at the time. He was one of the favorite pupils of Professor Yury Lotman, the famous founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School. At the university, Arseny’s close friends were Nikita Okhotin, a future collaborator at the “Memorial”, and Gabriel Superfin, a future philologist, and dissident, and political prisoner. As the topic of his studies, Roginsky chose the 19th century, in particular the Decembrists and the revolutionary organization Narodnaya Volya. Since 1965, he published historical papers, and in 1967-1968, together with Superfin, Arseny edited compilations of presentations of the Tartu University at student conferences. Soviet censors did not allow the compilation to be published.

In 1968, Arseny was back to Leningrad. He worked as a bibliographer at the State Public Library named after the writer M. Ye. Saltykov-Shchedrin and as a school teacher of Russian language and literature.

From 1975 to 1981, Roginsky compiled and edited volumes of samizdat (underground) historical collections “Pamyat’” (“Memory”) dedicated to the history of political repression in the USSR. They contained original history papers, memoirs of the victims of political persecutions, professionally compiled commentaries of historians, and were published abroad in Russian.

On February 4, 1977, KGB operatives searched Arseny’s apartment for the first time. After the second search on March 6, 1979, he was fired from the Saltykov-Shchedrin library. In 1981, Arseny was deprived of access to the library because of “publishing archival documents in a foreign anti-Soviet publication.” The KGB suggested he emigrate, and in those years, such an offer meant a choice between emigration and prison. Arseny refused to leave the country.

On August 12, 1981, Roginsky was arrested on charges of forging 11 letters-requests to various archives. These were letters from official scientific institutions, without which a researcher in Soviet times could not gain access to archival materials; Roginsky was accused of presenting letters with fake signatures. During sessions of the Oktyabrsky District Court of Leningrad, officials of the archives accused Roginsky of publishing documents in the collection “Pamyat’” without their permission. Roginsky stated: “I absolutely refuse to plead guilty. I refuse to answer specific questions. I do not want to disclose the motives of my refusal.” On December 4, 1981, the court sentenced him to four-years imprisonment in a correction labor camp. Arseny served his time in camps located in the Komi ASSR, Murmansk and Kirov regions. After his release in August 1985, he resumed his research work. In 1989, he compiled and published the book “Memoirs of Peasants-Tolstoy Followers. 1910s1930s” (Moscow; in Russian). In 1992, Arseny was completely rehabilitated.

In addition to the every-day work in “Memorial”, Roginsky’s activity was enormous. From 19901993, he was an expert at the Committee of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation for Human Rights, at the Commission of the Supreme Council on the transfer of archives of the CPSU (Communist Party) and KGB for state storage, and the Commission of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation for the rehabilitation of the victims of political repression. And, on the top of all of this, in 1992 he was an expert at the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation on the “Communist Party (CPSU) case”.

In the 1990s, Arseny was a board member of the Open Society Institute (Russia) and a member of the editorial boards of the Russian journals “Zvezda” (“Star”) and “Otkrytaya politika” (“Open Politics”).

At the same time, Arseny found time to continue his research and publish important papers on the history of Soviet political persecutions. In his last article, entitled “Rehabilitation of the Victims of Soviet Repressions Lays Between Sympathy and Indifference” published posthumously, he and his long-term “Memorial” colleague, Yelena Zhemkova, summarized the history and scale of Soviet terror and periods of official rehabilitation of the victims. The authors gave a new analysis of figures in archival documentation and concluded that from 1918 to 1987, Soviet security services arrested approximately 7 million people, and of them, 5.15.3 million were political arrestees. Of this number, 1.0–1.1 million were executed. The number of victims of mass deportations was, most likely, 6.3–6.7 million people. In total, 11.0–11.5 million people were repressed for political reasons and were eligible for rehabilitation. From 1953 and until 2013, less than 9 million were rehabilitated (and for approximately 2,5% of them, rehabilitation was rejected). By mid-2013, 776,667 of repression victims were still waiting to be rehabilitated, while an additional 230,000 had died during the two previous years.

I met “Memorial” members for the first time in November 1988, at the first USSR exhibition, entitled the “Week of Conscience”,  honoring the memory of the victims of Stalin’s repressions. It was organized by Alexander Weinstein, director of the Club (“Palace of Culture”) of the Moscow Electric Lamp Factory, with the help of a few human rights organizations and editorial board of then extremely popular magazine “Ogonyok.” A huge “Memory Wall” was covered with photos and documents of the victims, and the “Memorial” members helped people to learn about the fate of their persecuted loved ones at the Information Center of the exhibition.

At the time, I came to Moscow only for a few days. Since mid-1986 I worked at a biology research institute located approximately 300 miles from the city of Murmansk and could visit Moscow and Leningrad on business trips rarely. In 1984, on the order of  KGB, I was fired from a research biology institute in Moscow (I’m a geneticist) because I was an individual member of the Amnesty International. After that, I was not accepted in any research institute in Moscow and for two years was constantly harassed by the KGB. I was lucky to finally sign a three-year contract with that Murmansk Institute. But even above the Arctic Circle, I used to bump into the KGB “curator” (supervisor) who visited the Institute, coming from Murmansk.

I was stunned by the “Memory Wall.” It was not only information shown for the first time that struck me, but I felt I found like-minded people. In the 1970s–80s, I knew many political dissidents in Moscow and some of them now entered the “Memorial” movement.

In the fall of 1989, I returned to Moscow, and at the beginning of 1990, I met Roginsky, Okhotin and other “Memorial” people. In April 1990, on the 50-year anniversary of the Katyn Forest massacre, I joined Memorial members on a trip to the city of Smolensk and the Katyn Forest. A group of Poles – relatives of th0se executed in the Katyn and a crew of documentary filmmakers accompanied us. On the train, Natalia Lebedeva, a leading expert on the massacre, informed us in detail what happened in 1940 in that forest. I can’t forget the view of the forest and an interview of the local man who was still afraid of saying on camera to the Polish journalists what he witnessed 50 years before.

In May 1990, Professor Guy van Dardel, the brother of the famous Raoul Wallenberg (although formally he was a half-brother, he considered himself a brother) invited Arseny and myself as representatives of the “Memorial” to the International Committee to Determine the Fate of Raoul Wallenberg that he was creating in an attempt to find out what had happened to Wallenberg. The Committee consisted mostly of Prof. von Dardel’s friends and former Swedish officials.

The “Russian group” of the Committee included Arseny, myself, and Kronid Lyubarsky, an astrophysicist and dissident, who was forced into emigration in 1977; he lived in Germany. Lyubarsky was a prominent Soviet human rights activist. In 1974, when he was a political prisoner in a labor camp, he coined the idea of organizing a united Day of Resistance of Political Prisoners, and along with several other political prisoners he was able to spread this idea to other labor camps and prisons. Since the first celebration in camps on October 30, 1974, this day became the Day of Political Prisoner in the USSR; from 1991 on in Russia, it is the official Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repressions. Participation in the Committee gave Lyubarsky a chance to visit Moscow for the first time since 1977.

The Swedish, Soviet and then created in October 1990 Russian Foreign Ministries, and especially Vadim Bakatin, Soviet Interior Minister until December 1990 and KGB Chairman until December 1991, provided help to the Committee.

After a couple of organizational meetings at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow, the Committee received a permission to visit Vladimir Prison and the archive of the local KGB branch for finding out if Wallenberg was kept in Vladimir Prison as a prisoner. In 1956, several primarily German former POWs testified to the Swedish authorities that while having been under investigation from 1945–47 in Moscow prisons, they were in knocking and other contact with Wallenberg. After conviction, they were put in Vladimir Prison, that is why they were convinced that Wallenberg, most likely, was also imprisoned there. Therefore, the first main goal of the Committee was to check this information.

That an international group, including foreigners, could inspect Vladimir Prison’s archival materials was unheard of in the Soviet Union. First, since 1986 political prisoners were not imprisoned there, the prison was still one of a secret facility for keeping the most dangerous convicts. Second, the group included two former political prisoners of that prison, the American Marvin Makinen, Professor of the University of Chicago, and Kronid Lyubarsky. Professor Makinen was arrested by the KGB in 1961, when he, as a student, visited the Soviet Union. He was convicted as an American spy and spent two years in Vladimir Prison. Lyubarsky was kept in Vladimir from 1974 to 1977. He recalled his time there in his prison memoirs:

When I was there, the number of political prisoners ranged from thirty to forty of the whole almost two thousand prisoners. […] The criminal convicts treated us with great respect and constantly asked us for help in writing complaints or to smuggle information to the outside world […]

Of course, we saw the prison only from within, within the cell, corridor, walking yard, sometimes the hospital […] The attitude of the prison administration towards the political prisoners was relatively decent. […] The administration realized that we were in contact with the outside world and that we had the ability to influence the public opinion. As for the other prisoners, they were subjected to what we call lawless treatment: beatings, press-cells [special cells, where the prisoners were subjected to beatings and humiliations by the prison administration – V. B.] […] This was always going on Vladimir.

In 1990, Kronid and Arseny had the opportunity to visit the prison as independent experts. In addition to the members of the Committee, the group that visited Vladimir included the film director Alexander (“Sasha”) Rodnyansky. Later the same year, Rodnyansky released a documentary “Raoul Wallenberg’s Mission,” in which he presented information about the Committee’s work. In 1991, Rodnyansky received the Felix Award (“European Oscar”) from the European Film Academy for this film.

During the week of our Vladimir investigation, Arseny and I shared the same room in the hotel “Vladimir” and became acquainted well and discussed a lot of things.

The first day, when the group arrived in the Administration Office of the prison, the Administration’s MVD officers refused to allow us to start working. The officers could not believe that foreigners had permission to see documents in the prison archive. Negotiations with Moscow MVD headquarters took the whole day and part of the second day. At last Bakatin’s order reached the Prison Administration and the work started.

We were allowed to examine the file of personal cards of prisoners, called in Russian kartoteka. When a prisoner was brought to Vladimir Prison after conviction, a special card was filled in with information about the prisoner. The front side included his or her name, address before the arrest, prisoner’s occupation and position, the date of the arrest, the name of the organization that arrested him or her, the articles of the Criminal Code under which the prisoner was accused, the date of arrival in Vladimir Prison, the number of his/her personal file in prison, the numbers of cells to which he/she was put in the prison.

The list of cell numbers grew as the incarceration continued. On the back side of the cards, there was information about the case: what court sentenced the prisoner, what was the charge, the sentence given to the prisoner, and from which prison the prisoner arrived. Also, there was a place for additional notes, for instance, if he/she was sent to a prison in Moscow and returned back, or was permanently transferred to another prison or camp or was released or died. So, there was a lot of information on the card about the prisoner and his/her case. The card stayed in the kartoteka after the prisoner died or was released. After evaluating the size of the kartoteka “by eye”, Arseny and I concluded that it contained approximately 60,000-80,000 cards.

It was decided that our group would be divided into two parts and Arseny would head the subgroup that would inspect materials in the local archive and would interview some local witnesses, while I would supervise the subgroup in charge of selecting the cards of prisoners who potentially might have been related to the Raoul Wallenberg case. Kronid Lyubarsky joined Arseny’s group.

The Prison Administration provided me with four women-office workers acquainted with the cards for technical help. Michael (“Mika”) Chlenov, a prominent ethnographer and at the time, co-chair of the Council of Confederation of Jewish organizations and communities of the Soviet Union (WAAD), who came with us to Vladimir, also volunteered to help. The question was what cards should be selected. After a discussion, Arseny, Mika and I decided to check at first the presence of cards of Wallenberg and those persons who testified about him in 1956, and then to select as many cards of foreigners and political prisoners as it would be possible to find during our short stay in Vladimir.

Also, we paid special attention to a possibility of the existence of the “numbered” prisoners, i.e., prisoners who were kept under numbers instead of names. I knew about such prisoners from the memoir of the former prisoner Boris Menshagin, who was sentenced to a 25-years imprison because he knew that the Katyn Massacre was carried out by the Soviets. In the 1970s, I listened to Menshagin’s stories when my friend used to bring him once a year from the nursing home in Murmansk Region, where he was forced to live under KGB surveillance, to Moscow. Arseny also knew Menshagin since his old friend Superfin published in Paris an excerpt from Menshagin’s memoir. According to Menshagin, most of his term he was kept in Vladimir Prison in solitary confinement under no. 29.

The cards were not only selected, but also video filmed – Professor von Dardel brought a high-resolution camera. Rodnyansky supervised the filming. As a result, we selected and filmed about 800 cards. Later information from the cards was written down and in this format, a few volumes of these records are kept in the International Memorial Office.

As Arseny, Kronid, and myself expected, we didn’t find Wallenberg’s card. We did not believe that Wallenberg was ever imprisoned in Vladimir, and a little bit later, in Moscow, even wrote our own, separate from our foreign colleagues, statement about that. However, we found the cards of those former prisoners who testified in 1956. And Menshagin was correct, he was Prisoner no. 29 for a long time. We also found cards of several other numbered prisoners, including those of Stalin’s relatives and ministers of the Baltic Countries, but nothing pointed to Wallenberg as a numbered prisoner. Later Professor Makinen returned to the prison to investigate more cards in the kartoteka, but there is still nothing pointing to Wallenberg’s possible presence in that prison.

Soon after returning from Vladimir, Arseny and I received another assignment: as members of the Committee, we were allowed to work at then absolutely secret Special Archive (TsGOA; currently, the Russian State Military Archive, RGVA) in Moscow. This was an unbelievable opportunity since we, two persons with dissident pasts and without secrecy clearance, received access to the archive, the existence of which even not every Soviet archivist knew at the time. The TsGOA contained a collection of personal files of former foreign POWs who in the mid-1950s testified about Wallenberg in the West.

This was not a routine research work in the archive. We were not allowed to see any description of the collections, apparently, the descriptions were classified. I simply presented to the director of the archive, Anatoly Prokopenko, a list of names of persons who we were interested in, and he brought us folders of personal files, one after another, to his office, where he invited us to get acquainted with these materials. Every day after the end of our work, Prokopenko locked the files in his safe.

The files of a few persons Prokopenko did not bring. As I discovered later, some of these persons died in Vladimir Prison and their files remained in Vladimir. The file of one of Wallenberg’s cell-mates, the German Lieutenant Willi Schlitter was not given, apparently because, as we found out, he was used as a cell informer under the name of Willi Scheuer. Prokopenko told us that he would make Xerox copies of 4-5 pages per file of the most important prisoners for us.

We constructed our search the following way. One of us read a file from the beginning to the end, and then the other inspected the same file. This way we hoped that we would not miss something important. To some extent, Arseny was my teacher: I saw the archival materials for the first time in my life. Of course, with my current knowledge of the Wallenberg case I would write my notes about the files more carefully and ask Prokopenko to copy more pages.

At the beginning of our work Arseny and myself received a strange offer. Sergei Bobkov, a poet and the son of Fillip Bobkov, former creator of the KGB Ideological (5th) Directorate, and at the time, KGB First Deputy Chairman, contacted Arseny and told him that his father wished to see us regarding the Wallenberg case. Since we were members of an international committee, we refused to have a confidential meeting with one of the KGB leaders.

In the meantime, our research in the archive turned out to be successful. We found one of the orders of the military counterintelligence investigators who directly mentioned Wallenberg and his transfer from Lefortovskaya to the Internal (Lubyanka) Prison in late February 1947. This discovery was the first documentary evidence of Wallenberg’s presence in Moscow prisons in 1947 found by independent researchers. The previous document, the so-called “Report” about Wallenberg’s death, written by Colonel Alexander Smoltsov, chief of the Medical section of the Internal Prison, was released by the KGB in February 1957. Since then, the Soviet authorities claimed that this was the only archival document found in the KGB archives that mentioned the name of Wallenberg. And, contrary to these statements, we found another archival document! Later we found a second document with Wallenberg’s name. Also, we found a document with the name of Vilmos Langfelder, Wallenberg’s driver who was arrested in Hungary together with Wallenberg. This was the first documentary proof that Langfelder, in fact, was kept in MGB investigative prisons in Moscow.

In addition, in the documents we examined we identified two former SMERSH/MGB investigators involved in the Wallenberg case who probably knew what happened to Wallenberg, who were alive and lived in Moscow–Boris Solovov and Pavel Grishaev. When I called Boris Solovov on the phone from the Swedish Embassy, he refused to talk to me about Wallenberg, saying that he need to receive an order for this. It was unclear whether he meant the order of the leadership of the KGB or of the Communist Party. Later Solovov was interviewed by the Swedish and Russian officials, but he gave a vague and controversial testimony about Wallenberg.

At the time, the public interest in the Wallenberg case was very high. Arseny and I were invited to talk about our research to various audiences, especially after Rodnyansky’s documentary was publicly shown. We were interviewed on the TV, I was also invited to the then new independent radio station “Echo Moskvy” and during the transmission, answered questions about Wallenberg coming on the phone from listeners.

In Moscow Arseny and I continued to be in close contact, meeting almost every day in his apartment or, following the dissident tradition, at the kitchen of very friendly Nikita Okhotin and his wife. Nikita was still keeping part of the Memorial growing archive in his apartment.  In July 1991, I left Moscow for Washington, D.C., to attend a scientific conference on bioethics. I gave a talk about the infamous NKVD laboratory that tested poisons on political prisoners sentenced to death. Ten years later I published a book entitled “The Perversion of Knowledge” in which I included a few prisoner cards from the Vladimir Prison kartoteka and some information from the files Arseny and I studied at the TsGOA. More information obtained in the TsGOA I included in my next book, “SMERSH.”

Since August 1991, I have lived in New York. But every time when I visited Moscow, I spent two-three days at the new Memorial office, meeting with Arseny and his colleagues. My current work is still connected with them.

On May 29, 2012, an open international press conference “Is Clarity Possible in the Raoul Wallenberg Case?” took place in the conference hall of the International Memorial Society. And on September 22, 2016, Arseny opened the Raoul Wallenberg International Roundtable, organized with the help of the Society.

For his activity in the International Memorial Society, Arseny received three awards from the Polish government as well as awards from the Estonian and German governments. On December 19, 2017, condolences were expressed by the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, and many state and public figures. Despite it’s long history of revealing the truth about Stalin’s crimes, on October 4, 2016, the International “Memorial” Society was announced to be “a foreign agent.”

The Americans who met Arseny in Moscow, David Remnik and Masha Gessen,  have recalled Arseny with great respect and warmth in memorial articles.