Stalin wasn’t yesterday
The Georgian version of the ‘Open List’ website, a database of the victims of political terror in the USSR, where any user can add the names of his/her beloved ones, appeared in October. Sergey Bondarenko, the project co-founder, told JAMnews, why it is so topical now.
– The main thing that makes the ‘Open List’ different from other similar projects is the direct involvement of users, who can register, fill out a form and create an article on Wikipedia principle. But here comes the question: Is there any system to verify the data that are sent to you?
– The fundamental difference between us and, let’s say, the ‘Memorial’, lies in the approach to data verification. The ‘Memorial’ has a list of sources that it relies on, for example, historical data, that can always be referred to. Whereas what we do is actually similar to Wikipedia technology. We publish almost all the data that are sent to us, ranking them according to the reliability of sources. That is, if the information that we’ve received isn’t and can’t be verified, then an article appears with a mark indicating that these data may be unreliable. In addition, every time a user adds some important information, I, as an editor, write him/her a letter requesting to send some documents, photos or anything that could confirm this information, and in most cases people respond and send something. Finally, the data are verified, but it all just works a little bit different.
– The project has been launched based on the ‘Memorial’ database, and those two and a half million records, available in the ‘Open List’, are mostly those, that were collected earlier. How many of those two and a half million records have been made by the users themselves? In other words, is there public demand for your project?
– It’s hard to give an exact answer, since we can count only the number of registered users. There are about 400,000 of them. But some of them visit our website not just to create an article, but simply to have access to the list. And those people, in my opinion, are no less valuable than those, contributing new names to the list. We receive dozens of articles within a month. It may seem that it’s quite a few, but in fact, it’s a large number. After all, 80 years have passed since the ‘great terror’ and each individual record indicates that people still remember, and, in my opinion, it’s very important.
Since we are sent those articles, it means that there is a public demand. We just want to give the ‘Open List’ a jump start, and then, as we hope, it will be operating practically without our interference.
– Why have you decided to engage in this project?
– I’ve been working at the ‘Memorial’ society and I’m majoring in the Soviet time history. Although terror is absolutely not my specialty, a few years that I worked at the ‘Memorial’ made me realize that it’s a theme, that everything in our recent past is one way or another related to.
I view our project as part of civic education. The matter is that political reprisals in the USSR aren’t just past, but quite a tangible present.
– Now, alongside the Russian version, the ‘Open List’ is also available in Georgian and Ukrainian languages, and each country has its own database. What motivated such country choice?
– It was simply easier to reach those countries. A possibility to compile such a database certainly depends much on the state’s attitude towards the reprisals and how it interprets its history. It’s certainly not a coincidence that we managed to launch the ‘Open List’ with Ukrainian and Georgian databases. Ukraine and Georgia, at least at some point of their post-Soviet life, turned out to be more liberal countries than others. They just moved farther from their Soviet past. These countries have always had serious public interest in reprisals issue. Therefore, especially in Ukraine, people actively discuss this theme and work in this direction: they draw up lists, go through the archive records, there is a public agency that deals with it. These countries have more open access materials that one can work with. Georgia has much smaller database, but if compared with many other former Soviet countries, the situation is practically ideal. It seemed to us that it made sense to create the ‘Open List’ in Ukraine and Georgia. Since the reprisals theme sounds familiar there, there surely will be people, who have something to share.
– Are you going to create ‘Open List’ in other post-Soviet countries?
– Actually, we are eager to increase the number of countries where ‘Open list’ will be available, because technically it’s not so difficult. We have developed a website that can be launched everywhere, provided that we reach an agreement with some local people and organizations who will manage the website. In other words, we want the ‘Open List’ to become a kind of franchise that can be used in different countries and in different languages. It’s an elementary task from the technical point of view. But the problem lies in its expediency. The situation so far is more complicated in other countries. If access to all materials is blocked, then it will be strange to create the ‘Open List’, because it will be just empty.
– Does the government deal with this problem in Russia? Does it, for example, help to open the archives?
– There are two ways it could help: to take it all in its hands, to open the archives and prepare the national database, just the same way as it treats the lists of the victims of the Great Patriotic War; or at least not to hamper some private organizations and activists to do that. Unfortunately, the Russian government in no way helps in this regard. Access to the archives has become more complicated over the past 10-15 years. The laws are adopted, under which access to the cases is closed and the term of their confidentiality is extended. There is a law on personal data, according to which, if one wants to get familiar with someone’s personal records, he/she should get consent from that person’s relative, even if it’s 80-year-old case.
– Why, do you think, it happens so?
– It’s mainly because this issue is closely linked to politics. Our state, one way or another, is built on the foundation that was laid during the Soviet era. And it isn’t denied, on the contrary, many things that happened in the Soviet Union, are regarded as positive. And the state is not going to discredit its legacy, because it is building our present-day life on this legacy.
– Non-recognition of mistakes?
– ‘Mistakes’ – it’s a very mild word. After all, reprisals are part of the Soviet community, it wouldn’t have existed without them. It’s impossible to talk about this community not mentioning how the repressive system was arranged. So, this issue, even if it’s not given any assessment, at least needs to be studied. And the process of studying the issue usually gives rise to the questions: ‘why was it happening’, ‘who should be blamed for that’ etc.
In this regard, Germany is an example for us. They have extensive experience dealing with such material, they have included it the school curriculum, there is even a separate term-‘processing the past.’