Vanishing memory: Commemorative plaques to victims of Soviet era disappear in Russia amid war and new repressions

Photo of one of the plaques.  Taken with permission from “The Last Address” website.

In the beginning of September, 34 plaques commemorating victims of Stalin’s repressions vanished from the wall of an apartment building in Saint Petersburg (61 Lesnoy avenue), reported Kommersant, a newspaper that is still legally working in Russia. Two months earlier the same media outlet wrote about Moscow losing its memory of those being repressed the same way en masse. In some cases, it’s unknown who is to blame. According to the Teleglam channel SOTA, though, in the recent case, the decision was made by a housing cooperative.

Screenshot of the Telegram Channel Sota. Fair use.

Residents of the “House of Specialists” in Saint Petersburg (61 Lesnoy avenue) from where 34 plaques of the “Last Address” disappeared yesterday told “Sota” that the management company did it.  The management company has not yet commented on its actions.

Some users on X (formerly Twitter) reacted to the news with anger:

34 plaques of the “Last Address” project with the names of people repressed during the Soviet era disappeared from the House of Specialists on Lesnoy Prospekt in St. Petersburg.
Evgeny @evgenyrekhter!
So what is happening? Eh!?

Amid Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine, which demolishes entire cities and kills people every day, disappearing plaques commemorating Soviet people who lost their lives in Gulags or the prisons of People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs — better known as NKVD — seems of little importance. Russia started its prosecution of those uncovering the truth about Stalin’s regime long before the full-scale war. However, the small, only 10 x 19 centimeter plaques on the walls of regular apartment buildings managed to evade the tightening grasp of Putin’s regime so far.

Fighting the oblivion

Global Voices asked Evgenia Kulakova, the Saint Petersburg  coordinator of the ‘Last address’ project — the organization behind the commemorative plaques — whether this is the first disappearance of the plaques and what this could mean.

Unfortunately, stories of removed plaques draw more journalists’ attention than their instalment. This is quite understandable, and mainly good. Every time a plaque is vanished, we see a wave of indignation and support, showing that people and [our] society need this project. The ‘Last Address’ has been active in Saint Petersburg from Spring 2015. Since then, 434 plaques have been installed on 243 buildings. To us, they are not just plates. It is 434 names and fates, biographies, each described in articles on the ‘Last address’ website. Each of these plaques was installed because someone requested so. We don’t come up with names ourselves. We answer requests received through our website. Mostly, they come from relatives of the deceased. However, there are many requests from those who are not related to victims, like ‘neighbours,’ people who just live now in the same house or apartment, as well as researchers, or biographers.

Volunteers from Last Address check all plaques twice a year and only 45 plaques have been removed since the beginning of the project in Saint Petersburg, says Kulakova. After the plaques on 61 Lesnoy avenue were taken down, the number grew to 79 plaques on 26 buildings.

“Is it a lot or not?” questions the coordinator and considers it not a bad result of the eight years that the project has existed in the city. Moreover, some of the plaques were removed temporarily due to the renovation or reconstruction works. If the plaques disappeared because of someone’s complaint, the activists do everything in their power to get them back. Unfortunately, there is little they can do as no regulations exists to help them. “The decision on the plaques’ installment has to be made by the property owners. In the case of 61 Lesnoy Avenue, we hope to restore the plaques as the residents and the homeowners’ association show understanding and want the plaques back after legal issues are settled. We do not see the organized resistance by officials in Saint Petersburg to our project yet, rather disregard.”

On the other hand, each plaque is important, says Kulakova.

79 names of people who were already once victims of state terror, whose names and circumstances of death were not allowed to be know or discussed for decades even to their relatives. Many of the relatives of those whose plaques have been lost are having hard feelings about it, especially the close descendants: children and grandchildren who themselves are already far from being young. Of course, we want our plaques to hang on the houses, so that no one takes them down or even tried to do so. But, even if the plaque is gone, whether temporarily or permanently, the memory of the person cannot be erased. This memory is still alive in families who take their history responsibly.

And, even more, the story of the victim goes beyond the family. Every installation is an event covered by the media. Every name, with its story and related documents, is secure on the Last Address website.

The Last Address team keeps working, promises Kulakova. Activists accept requests, negotiate the approval of installment with residents and owners of the apartment buildings, publish biographies on the website, and, finally, install the plaques.

According to the website, there are more than 1280 plaques in 65 Russian cities and villages, while 2735 requests are pending. Similar projects already exist in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic, as well as opening soon in Armenia, Romania, and Kyrgyzstan.

Last Address's work is an important part of Russian civil society that still gives hope to many inside the country and those in exile. After more than 600 days of full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine, many were able to find their solace in such small positive actions, but still can’t help feeling pain after another deadly attack in Ukraine or a crackdown on non-government initiatives inside Russia. Those following closely the unfolding repressions might have a strong feeling that history is repeating itself. With the news about vanishing plaques coming amid almost weekly arrests for anti-regime or anti-war stance, people start to wonder: how soon would the first plaque with the dates too recent and names too known be installed?

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