Acceptance speech – Memorial

The spirit of our work is the fight for truth and law. Attempts to comprehend the past and to find answers to present-day challenges are indispensable elements of this fight.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To begin with, on behalf of the International Historical, Educational, Human Rights and Charitable Society Memorial I would like to thank the people who nominated us for this award and those who deemed us worthy of it. We are well aware of the role that this award plays in the world of civil initiatives, and we are proud that our organization has been bestowed with the highest award in this field.

We in Memorial are particularly gratified by the words explaining why we have been honoured. The jury states that “history must be recorded and understood, and human rights respected everywhere, if sustainable solutions to the legacy of the past are to be achieved.” This statement reflects the main principles underlying Memorial’s work.

Memorial began 15 years ago as an organization devoted to history education. It was a fellowship of people committed to rethinking our country’s recent past, the past that has imprinted the word GULAG on humankind’s consciousness. In those days we believed, and we continue to believe, that without an honest and consistent analysis of the history of the Soviet state terror, Russia will have neither a present nor a future.

However, at a time when Russia was making a painful break from its totalitarian past, Memorial decided that it could not limit its activities to purely historical studies. We could not remain indifferent to repeated relapses into totalitarian policies. Therefore, we in Memorial began our struggle against the violations of human rights soon after our organization was established.

As a matter of principle, we view these two aspects of our work – the struggle to establish historical truth and the fight for observance of human rights today – as an organic whole. The primary source of this unity is a fundamental adherence to the rule of law.

On the one hand, the language of law offers us a new approach to tragedies of the past, such as the Stalinist terror, allowing us to understand it as part of an integrated policy aimed at the consistent suppression of individual rights and freedoms.

On the other hand, we view the violations of human rights that occur daily, even hourly, in Russia today as consequences of history, consequences of imperial and totalitarian thinking which has not yet been relegated to the past.

These relapses include the attempts to establish state control over the mass media, business, and independent political and nongovernmental institutions. They include the secrecy mania that has already victimized several Russian journalists, environmentalists and scientists. And they certainly include the authorities’ tireless construction of political mechanisms for so-called “managed democracy.”

However, the focal point of everything that has been happening in present-day Russia is Chechnya. Let me remind you that the first war in Chechnya began ten years ago – at this very time of year.

The historians and human rights activists who work in Memorial have the same approach to work. Both groups collect, verify, systematize and analyze facts, and then present them to the public.

This uniform approach underlies many aspects of our work: protecting the rights of ethnic minorities who suffer discrimination; the rights of refugees; the rights of the former victims of political repression; and educational projects with students and teachers.

It also underlies the work we do in Chechnya and other “hot spots” across the former USSR, as well as our work in historical archives, which also remain “hot spots” for us because access to them is restricted.

The idea of human rights is the foundation of all our activities. It does not claim to be a new universal religion or ideology. It is simply a system of coordinates that can help us all to find our way — both through the tragic labyrinths of the past and the rapidly changing world of the present, which is becoming increasingly dangerous and anti-human. The phrase “gross and blatant violations of human rights in the past and present,” which Memorial often uses when referring to its human rights and historical activities, is not the symbol of faith but a statement of the values to which we appeal in our everyday work.

Of course, I have not forgotten that the award, which we receive today, is often called “the Alternative Nobel Prize.” This means that we are being honoured not simply as a Russian organization, and not even as an organization that works only with the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present. And this is correct.

The spirit of our work is the fight for truth and law. Attempts to comprehend the past and to find answers to present-day challenges are indispensable elements of this fight. The tragic past that we are trying to rethink and understand is our common past. Because the catastrophes of the twentieth century – such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Kolyma, the Gulag labour camp in the far north of Russia – belong to the entire world, not only individual peoples or countries. If we – all of us – could have comprehended them, we might have clearer answers to the challenges of the twenty-first century, to New York 9/11 and the attack on the school in Beslan. These challenges, too, concern all of humankind, not the USA and Russia alone. Furthermore, they concern the same values: freedom, dignity and the independence of the individual.

Our work with the past and the present is not limited to any particular historical period. It is ongoing work.

The phrase “unity of the past and present for the sake of the future” will be increasingly important to all those who are and will be involved in this work. The idea of a deep, inherent bond between historical memory and present-day human rights advocacy will become increasingly clear to everyone.

Thank you.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Society
Elena Zhemkova, Executive Director
Irina Sherbakova, Head of Educational Youth Programme 127051 Moscow
Maly Karetny per. 12