A Site of Conscience: Monumental Names and Memory Activism in Moscow
Every fortnight, a small number of memory activists, members of a civic initiative to commemorate victims of Stalin’s political terror, install stainless steel plaques on the facades of residential buildings in Moscow. Design by a utopian, “paper” architect, Alexander Brodsky, and engraved by hand by a celebrated Moscow-based calligrapher, Eugine Dobrovinsky, the plaques are austere in design. Approximately the size of a postcard, the plaques are engraved with names of the dead, and their date of birth, arrest, execution and rehabilitation. Executed in matt stainless steel, the plaques do not shine. Paradoxically, they are meant to reveal a history of murder and conceal their own presence to remain protected from inclement weather and vandals. Importantly, a simple act of attaching the plaque to the wall transforms the empty space of forgotten or unacknowledged atrocity into a site of conscience.
Memory activists engage in different activities. They do archival research and collect diaries and documents from relatives of the Soviet political prisoners. They organize seminars, commemoration events, and history walks. They raise funds and build monuments. It is remarkable, nevertheless, to what extent their daily labour is saturated with names of the dead. Names are recorded, copied, printed in books of memory, mentioned in conversations, read out loud, and etched in metal and stone. This position contrasts sharply with the statistical reason of the body count that dominates Russian politics of history. While debates about numbers of victims are commonplace in the Russian media, the activists refuse to quantify human loss. For memory activists, names provide evidence of the Soviet crimes against its citizens. In its factual specificity, each death is undeniable. They also refuse to differentiate between victims and perpetrators, Russians and Jews, Buddhists and Orthodox Christians. The imperative, almost a commandment in Derrida’s terms, to archive names of the dead can be traced to the post WW2 moment in Soviet historiography and subsequent dissident chronicles that resisted a perceived totalitarian drive to create, what Hannah Arendt described as a “mass man”, a faceless subject of authoritarian propaganda. Thus, one name or a singular specific person is juxtaposed with the abstraction of the many. But brought together as a list or inscribed on a monument, they point out the scale of mass atrocity.
This project explores how acts of collecting, archiving and monumentalizing names of the dead posit an important question about our relation to unwitnessed history and its absent subjects. What is it about names of the dead that they appear so well suited to articulate this relation in different contexts and with reference to different tragedies? The aesthetic of etching names on monuments is familiar; they appear on gravestones and on many war memorials. Names are inscribed on the marble slabs of the Vietnam War Memorial, despite the initial controversy about their political meaning and architectural merits. Names are etched on Stolpersteine Stones, another example of public art that commemorates those killed during the Holocaust across Europe. It seems that names have a political and aesthetic capacity to express both oneness and multitude and give form to a difficult to visualise relation between personal destinies and collective history.