For eight years now, Russia’s oldest and arguably most noble human rights group, Memorial, has been organizing an annual commemoration event for victims of the Great Terror. The ceremony, called Return of the Names (Возвращение имён), takes place every year on October 29. Its dedicated website, suitably located at http://october29.ru, explains:
On October 29th, the eve of Russia’s Day of Remembrance of Victims of Political Repression, we will gather from 10 in the morning until 10 at night to read the names of those who were shot in Moscow as part of Stalin’s Great Terror. From 1937 to 1938, more than 30 thousand people were murdered in Moscow alone. We would like to invite all who wish to take part in the reading of these names to come to Lubyanka Square at any time on October 29th to join in Memorial’s annual ceremony. You will find us gathered around the Solovetsky Stone, a remnant of the Solovki prison camp meant to commemorate victims of the Soviet Gulag.
Every October 29, wherever I was, I would tune in to the event’s website and stream the ceremony live. Now, having moved to St. Petersburg, I bought a train ticket and went to Moscow to witness it in person for the very first time.
I did not manage the full twelve hours, mostly due to beginning to freeze slowly but surely, but I did stay around for most of the day. Upon arriving to Lubyanka Square, you get a piece of paper with two names of people who perished in the 1930s, and a candle:
Then you join the queue, which took well over three hours in my case. Every minute of it was more than worth it, however: the atmosphere was somber and light at the same time; in other words, intense in the best way possible. Much like the March of Peace this September. “There are no accidental people here,” Alexandra Polivanova, one of the ceremony’s organizers, told me at some point. And Alexey Korotaev, one of Memorial’s longest-standing staff members, commented when I shared this picture on Facebook:
Only two names — it’s a good sign. More people are attending, so every person gets fewer names to read, for reasons of time. Four years ago we had four names per participant, and before that — even more.
Despite its eight twelve-hour runs so far, the Return of the Names has barely reached the middle of the list of victims (most surnames this year began with K, L, and M). After honoring the people on this main list, many participants add the names of their own family members, who also perished in the 1930s. Their voices would often break as they spoke.
This remains my biggest impression from the ceremony — the number of people who cried. Like most others, I knew the extent of the Terror — intellectually. But witnessing the rawness of emotions of those still in mourning is very, very different than seeing those numbers in print. I knew the wound exists; I don’t think I realized to what extent it still bleeds. That’s when I registered that what had looked primarily like an honoring process on those live feeds all these years — a performance of sorts — is actually a real, full-fledged grieving ceremony.
Here are some photographs I took while waiting in line.
One can find Memorial’s official photo album (over 400 pictures) here.
And this is how “my” two names sounded:
The whole video is over five hours long; scroll through it to catch glimpses of this year’s ceremony. For instance, go to 4 hours and 13 minutes (or click here) to watch a man so elderly that he mentions not his grandfather or great-grandfather, but his father (1888-1938). He gets so distraught as he tells the story that he forgets to set his candle down at the stone. Apologizing, he walks away. When I saw and heard him from the queue, my heart dropped. I rushed over to offer help with the candle — but he was already cared for by others, who were bringing him hot tea. Here is what he says at the microphone:
My father. [ inaudible* ] Andrei Sergeevich [ inaudible* ]. Born in 1888. Participant of the First Russian Revolution. Four years of hard labor from [Tsar] Nicholas. Executed by a firing squad in July 1938. We found out about it after… ten years… forgive me…
As a side note for English speakers: there were a few of you there, reading names together with other mourners. So bookmark http://october29.ru, join the Return of the Names page on Facebook, like Memorial’s page on Facebook — the organization is under growing threat from the authorities — and consider coming next year (along with your camera, if photography is your thing). Like in my case, it may well turn out to be one of your most important experiences in Russia.
* if you can make out a surname (or something else), please kindly let me know.