What does it mean when we talk about memorialization? I'm just back from AAM in New Orleans (more to come on that) and my hotel room overlooked Lee Circle, where a huge plinth is now crowned by nothing, after the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in 2017. So memorialization has been on my mind. But a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Stepan Cernousek of Sites of Conscience member Gulag.cz who was joined by Russian journalist Sergey Parkhomenko, founder of the Last Address Project that brought home the power of memorialization work. (Thanks to Hunter College for co-sponsoring the presentation with Sites of Conscience).
Stepan's project is documenting the vast number of gulag camps in the former Soviet Union and creating 3-D models and virtual reality experiences. He shared for the first time, a great film documenting one of his field expeditions: part adventure story, part disaster tale, but most importantly, a deeply human story of loss when he and his team finally reach a camp. They find remnants of letters and other evidence of prisoners. They're obviously touched and a torn letter is carefully reassembled. All of a sudden that person who wrote the letter, still unknown, becomes real to us from across miles and decades.
Sergey Parkhomenko's project is modeled on artist Gunter Demnig's project Stolpersteine, installing brass "stumbling blocks" in front of the last homes of choice of those killed by the Nazis. I've come across these brass blocks in Rome, in Amsterdam, in Berlin, in Paris: all together Demnig has installed more than 70,000 stones all over Europe. Parkhomenko decided the same thing should be done for victims of repressions in the Soviet Union and now is working to install steel plaques on buildings in Russia and other former Soviet states.
One thing I find striking is these projects rely on the consent of current homeowners for their installation--and their success. Stalin's legacy is a complicated thing in Russia, and when asked about whether it was difficult to get permission, Parkhomenko said that when the conversation was centered on the personal, on what happened to a single person who lived at this house, people always said yes.
"Normally we discuss history as something statistical or static, as something geopolitical, as huge numbers, or in terms of Super-Powers who fight each other, in terms of industrialization, in terms of the Second World War, in terms of competition and different political systems. Our idea of all these [memorialization] projects is to see history attentively through one single person, one single life, one single fate, one set of eyes. It changes everything. It changes the whole discussion - if you start to discuss not in terms of big history, or big fighting, or big power, but in terms of one singular human life, one life."
I'm in awe of these men--and so many other men and women around the world who are doing the difficult, emotional work of ensuring that all of us can see the past attentively and change the ways in which we use history to remember. How can you do this work in your own community, wherever you are?
Last Address Project "Here lived Yeraterina Mikhailovna Zhelvatykh, typist, born in 1905, arrested 11/01/1938, executed 04/05/1938, rehabilitated in 1957"
Letter addressed to a prisoner, author unknown, Gulag.cz
Former Lee Monument, New Orleans