“Eternal remembrance” – landscapes and memories of the victims of Stalin

I’ve already slipped badly in my 52 posts challenge, so I have some serious catching up to do… Anyway, the article on the BBC website regarding the new plaques to mark Stalin’s victims caught my attention yesterday.

I think it’s impossible not to be moved,  or see the incredible significance of the memorials for the victims of the Starlin era, particularly those placed by the families of those executed at Kommunarka. Equally, I can see why those living in the houses marked by the simple metal plaques are also concerned by what is essentially enshrining their homes to those who lost their lives, but also that they feel it is too “depressing” and “gloomy”, especially to explain to their children.

The act of commemoration, remembrance, and marking of the darker parts of our history is always emotive and fraught with conflict, and I’ll leave that discussion for those better placed than I. However, as a researcher of landscapes what struck me was not only the role of the natural environment in the making of these memorials, but also the temporary nature of them. There is an official memorial at Kommunarka – a cross and stone placed by the Orthodox Church who now control the land – but nothing of the individual ‘shines’ placed in the forest is permanent; the photos tied to trees will fade, disintegrate, and be blown away,  the plastic flowers will fall apart. But what remains is the significance of this place, beyond the last surviving memory – what those responsible for the plaques call the “gathering together” of people to remember and, perhaps most importantly, to learn. In time the personal memories will become stories told, a more distant and removed narrative that reflects the collective loss, but rooted to these places long after the photos have blown away.

There is an evolution of Kommunarka from summer house of Gennrich Yagoda (Stalin’s secret police chief), to a place where thousands lost their lives, to make-shift memorial. These acts tie the individual stories of those involved, both those who were the instigators of the purge, and those who fell victim of it, intrinsically to the place.

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