Topography of Terror: Moscow’s Memory of Repression

Every day, muscovites walk unaware past former cogs in the machinery of Soviet terror — concentration camps, former prisons, execution sites. ‘Topography of Terror’, an online mapping and informational project by the International Memorial Society for history and human rights, connects this past with Moscow’s present, facilitating urban memory of what happened. Artem Kravchenko, a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, talks to the creator of the project, Memorial’s cultural programmes curator Alexandra Polivanova.

– Why does Moscow — and Russia as a whole — need the project ‘Topography of Terror’?

– I can’t imagine how the project could fail to have enormous significance for muscovites’ urban identity. After all, at its core the project is about memory. A modern city is made up of layers of the past, the present, and the future. When a city is healthy, these layers intersect organically. But when connections between the layers are disrupted or when there are falsifications in the urban fabric, then the city, so to speak, falls ill. I think that Moscow’s urban space is already infused with memory. But that memory is latent. With ‘Topography of Terror’, we are exposing it — working with the sites where memory is concentrated and bringing it to the surface.

We want to re-establish the connection between contemporary muscovites and their ancestors, and between contemporary muscovites and their city. People visit all sorts of places in the course of their day-to-day lives — their workplace, the cinema, their school and so on — but they are unaware of the meanings with which these locations were endowed in the 1920s and 1930s.  For example, there is a building where the NKVD main reception once stood. People used to go there to learn the fate of relatives who had been arrested. Today this point on the map has no significance for passers-by. And yet it is described in countless memoirs and works of fiction. This was no ordinary building: the houses built in its place may carry other meanings today, but they are also inevitably connected to what this address meant in the past.

Of course, we cannot claim that, for example, when we unearth and publish information about the sharashki, we are dealing with history that is directly relevant to the majority of citizens. Yet, at the same time, the sharashki were the birthplace of a huge number of scientific and engineering innovations that have transformed everyday life. So identifying and designating the places where sharashki once existed is in no way an act of imposing somebody else’s memory. Moscow will simply discover, for example, that the renowned Korolev and Tupolev were political prisoners who did much of their work not as free researchers and engineers, but specifically as prisoners of sharashki. We are interested not only in what happened in the city, but also in where it happened. In our view, people are not the only carriers of authentic memory — places and buildings can do it too. We are attempting to make this memory visible.

 – Could you describe in a couple of words how the ‘Topography of Terror’ site works? Who is it for?

– The site can be viewed in two modes: a map mode or a text mode. In the map mode, users can switch on various layers of information (‘Concentration Camps of the 1920s’, ‘Sites of imprisonment’, ‘Sites of mass executions’ and so on) to see their locations overlaid on the map.  Every month, we are going to add a new layer with a new theme, a new category of place — it’s like a magazine publishing themed issues. Every layer and every location is accompanied by detailed reference material.

We very much want the site to be accessible to any muscovite; at the same time we have done an enormous amount of research and it seemed a shame to publish a very selective, journalistic product. We do think of the site as a proper data base which we are building through systematic research.

We have designed the site to work for both fleeting visits and long, in-depth reading. Demanding readers will find a wealth of information complete with links and source references. Meanwhile, people simply taking a stroll through Moscow are probably not interested in all the details, so they can browse the map and look at the fragments of material which matter to them. The site is convenient for the fleeting visitor: there are summaries and pictures, you can easily scroll to the relevant section, look at photos, and watch videos.

– All the same, would you say that the site is conceived more as a digital data base for experts or as a project for the uninitiated? 

– I don’t think it’s a ‘site for experts’. It’s for everyone.

 — Does the project have a finish line? 

– No. It will run and run. At the moment, we are developing around a thousand locations in total. For instance, there are no fewer than three hundred ‘Sites of forced labour’ around Moscow, and it looks as if we’ll identify many more. We currently have ten different layers in development. But we also have proposals from other parties who want to develop their own categories.

– When did the idea for the project arise? 

– It’s hard to say exactly. The idea of the topography of terror was around at ‘Memorial’ long before I started working there. Back in the 1990s, when the organisation had just begun to study the newly released archives, almost every researcher was looking at topography; but they were simply using it for their own work — they never tried to create a separate project about it.

Later on, different branches of Memorial collaborated to make an atlas of five cities. Each branch compiled a booklet about their city, essentially structured in the same way as our project. But researching other cities is more straightforward than researching Moscow. Usually they had one prison and one execution site, sometimes two. And so on for all the other categories. You don’t run into the sort of problems that we have been encountering. Moscow was the capital of all state institutions, including the state apparatus for repression. Consequently, Moscow has many more sites associated with terror.

I joined Memorial three years ago, at which point I did not have a fully-fledged idea for a project about the topography of terror. In fact, I was under the impression that everyone in the team already knew everything, and that my job was simply to make this knowledge more accessible and to include a topographical lens. But, as it transpires, a great many details are still unknown. It turns out, for example, that everyone’s picture of what happened in the 1920s is quite general. People know that executions took place in Butyrka prison, but exactly what prison institutions existed there or at what point other prisons were subordinated to Butyrka has not yet been established. Or take another tricky question: where were the sharashki? In many cases, we don’t know their exact whereabouts.

In the end, we won a grant from the Dynasty Foundation and got down to work. We thought the project would last a year. Now, we’re in the third year and there’s no end in sight.

– How do you see the project developing in the future? Is there anything which you feel needs to be added?

– In the ideal world, of course, we would make a ‘total project’ and complement the website with android and iPhone apps with an augmented reality function, so that you could walk through the city and see how different places looked in the 1930s. The app could show you a list of the nearby houses and flats where people lived who were later repressed; or it could inform you, for example, that you are walking past the old site of Sretenskaya prison and tell you what happened there. But that sort of app is very expensive to build.

I would also very much like to represent the memory of terror directly in the urban environment. I don’t necessarily mean turning these sites into museums — it could simply be putting up information, acknowledgements of what happened there. Like what’s being done in Germany, for example. In Leipzig, when you walk down the route of the demonstrations during the 1989 revolution, you see special signs everywhere informing you what happened and where.

So, yes, we do dream about our project as a version for web-browser, a mobile application, and an intervention in the urban environment. For the time being, though, we’re doing what’s within our powers.

– At what point did you decide to make a digital version, rather than a print version?

– I never even thought about a print version — there was never a plan for a book. From the very beginning, we knew that our data was far from complete and never would be. A printed book implies a certain completion. That’s why a website strikes me as an extremely appropriate platform — we can continually supplement the information. For example, today we were in the Russian State Archive and made new copies of various documents. We could immediately upload the new materials to previously published layers on the website.

– Since you mentioned archives — do you have any problems accessing archive material? What are the key sources for the project?

– Archive material is a crucial source for us, although it is not the only one. We use old maps, for example. It’s important for us to understand how buildings were arranged. The precise location of many camps was not documented, only roughly indicated with a note such as ‘a camp has opened in the grounds of the old Morgunov factory’. The addresses of camps are also often mentioned in old directories, such as the address and telephone book ‘Vsya Moskva’ (tr. ‘All of Moscow’) published in 1923. Memoirs are also a valuable source for us. The ‘Memorial’ archive has quite a large number of unpublished memoirs, and we are sifting through them for mention of Moscow sites of imprisonment.

All the same, our most important source materials are from the state archives. In our case, the most relevant are the Russian State Archive, the Central State Archive of Moscow City, and the Central State Archive of Moscow Region. Unfortunately, there is no access to the FSB archive, which is where the documentation of the prison sector is stored, in fund no. 20. All the information which we spend months trying to piece together from oblique references in the documents could be extracted from that archive in a matter of minutes. Every prison has its own passport, which includes photographs and blueprints, and that passport is stored in the FSB archive. Some people managed to get in there during the 1990s — we even have a few transcripts — but now we have no access whatsoever.

How can I put it… Even in the state archives which are open to us, we sometimes run into some bizarre situations to do with ‘state secrets’. For example, there is a very important building on Varsonofevskii Lane where between ten and fifteen thousand people were murdered. We now know who shot them and where they were shot (a state investigator arrested during the 1953 Beria case gave some details during a cross-examination). Various sources even describe what the premises looked like. But nobody has ever seen them. And it’s really important — simply to see the building and the walls where these people were shot. But the premises are still occupied by the FSB — today they’re a vehicle depot. To get in and take photographs is simply not possible. So one of our researchers ordered an 1861 plan of the building from the Moscow City Archive. But they wouldn’t issue it to her — they asked for permission from the FSB as the owner. But the FSB isn’t a private party — it’s a state service paid for by our taxes.

– How is ‘Topography of Terror’ connected to the ‘Moscow. Sites of Memory’ seminars and Memorial’s guided tours to sites of terror?

– The seminars are principally for research purposes — for people working on the project. We meet in ‘Memorial’ once a week for an in-depth discussion of our work and roughly once a month we invite an external expert. Gradually our research work is yielding various products. The website, excursions, exhibitions. We have been developing the exhibitions and we plan to develop them further. In terms of the exhibitions directly relevant to the project, we organised an outdoor exhibition entitled ‘The City As a History Textbook’. Initially it was in Lubyanka Square, later it moved to the Museum of Moscow.

– Is there any overlap between ‘Topography of Terror’ and the project ‘Last address’? In a sense you are doing the opposite: ‘Last address’ acknowledges the site of certain events in physical space, ‘Topography of Terror’ — in the online space.

– ‘Last address’ complements our work extremely well. It was set up later, in many ways as a partner project. But ‘Last address’ is about families, about people, and about the memory of the local community. It’s about the value of dedicating a plaque to your relative or to someone who lived in your block of flats. Since ‘Last address’ is about fixing plaques on residential buildings, you need to reach an agreement with the Housing Owners Association or with the direct owner of the housing block. You don’t need any special permission from the city, insofar as the plaques are informational rather than memorial in nature.

Our project is much more complicated to realise offline. For a start, reaching an agreement with the Housing Owners Association is much simpler than with our present government. Meanwhile, in the case of ‘Topography of Terror’, we would have to put up signs on an enormous number of buildings which are still under the jurisdiction of practically the same institutions that participated in the terror — their successors. And these successor organisations have in no way renounced the practices of their predecessors.  The signs on these buildings would have to show information like ‘they murdered people here’, ‘they tortured people here’, ‘forced labour was used here’, ‘they wrote death sentences here’, and so on.

But aside from the technical difficulties, there is also another significant problem which, as I see it, would prevent our project from working offline. I highly value the ‘Last address’ project, but it is important to point out that it is centred exclusively on memory about the victims. That was its original agenda. But it is also the reason the project has been relatively successful and why nobody has tried too hard to put a spanner in the works. It’s about the fact that a particular person lived in a particular house, that on a particular date they were arrested and that on a particular date they were shot. It’s about the fact that we remember this person.

But the figures of the executioners are passed over in silence. Nowhere is there any mention of who arrested the person, who conducted the investigation, who passed the sentence, or who initiated its execution. Therein lies our essential difference from the logic of ‘Last address’ — we are constantly dealing with how the system of repression worked.

– Is the name of your project — ‘Topography of Terror’ — a conscious reference to Berlin’s museum of the same name?

– Yes, of course, it’s not a coincidence. We are consciously referencing the German experience of working with the past. I am a big admirer of the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin. But I ought immediately to mention that Berlin’s key loci of National Socialist power were quite concentrated. The distribution of secret service organs in Moscow was also relatively compact, however the ‘ghetto of terror’ itself was not — it was diffused throughout the city.

I recently spent a little over a month in Berlin, looking at how they treat sites of memory there. I very much like how social initiatives to create memorials come together with the work of German governmental institutes. For instance, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was opened on the initiative of the Jewish community. The Topography of Terror Documentation Center grew out of a civil initiative. I would welcome more grass-roots initiatives working with memory in Moscow. I don’t think that memory is a sphere which the government should attempt to manipulate or interfere with much.

I am very interested in Germany’s experience — it is important to take into account — but I wouldn’t like to see Russia take exactly the same approach to memory. For example, I don’t think the laws criminalising holocaust denial are right. In my view, it is another instance of censorship and the curbing of freedom. The denouncement of dictatorship only means something when it is a free manifestation of a person’s, or humanity’s, good will.

 — Do you have any plans to create an offline museum space? 

– I think that our work on the project will be over when we can get into the building in Lubyanka Square and see, for example, whether there are ten underground floors. That’s the legend. But I can’t comment on its authenticity either way. Before making any assertions, we need to actually spend time inside the building and study every last corner. Only when we have seen everything, when we have open access to all the archives, when we have created an enormous museum in the Lubyanka building — only then, perhaps, will we be able to say that the project has truly run its course.

 — Several times in our conversation, you have used the phrase ‘site of memory’, referring to Pierre Nora’s concept of ‘lieux de memoire’. But according to Nora, ‘lieux de memoire’ are not limited to physical places — to buildings, statues or squares. Do you think that an online project can be a site of memory?  

– I’ve never stopped to think about it. But, yes, I think so. Why not? People spend an enormous amount of time on the internet today. Why shouldn’t an iPhone or an iPad be a carrier of memory? I think that the internet zone of Memorial’s projects — and (probably not yet — has already become a site of memory for many people.  If you type any name, patronymic, and surname into Yandex, one of the top entries will be a link to Memorial’s website — to a list of victims of the repressions. The place where a user first encounters information about the life of a relative or of someone else they were researching is certainly a ‘site of memory’.



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