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Not Business as Usual in Russia


Summer 2002

Briefly Noted:Human Rights Software 

Not Business as Usual in Russia by Mary McAuley

The remains of a labor camp are slowly erased by the snows and harsh winters of the Chita region.Fifteen years ago there was no private business in Russia, let alone any firms specializing in computer technology, although there were many talented computer specialists working for the government and in state research institutions. In 1991, however, in the new post-communist environment, a group of young Siberian specialists in information technology set up a firm they called Maxsoft. "Business" says Aleksei Babii, one of the directors, "is only one of our interests. We are interested in local history, literature, art and much else…Information technology makes it possible, first, to preserve unique materials and, secondly, ensure easy access to them." One of their main interests is the political repression of the Soviet period. 

Krasnoyarsk, a city of just under one million, lies four time zones east of Moscow. It is the capital of a Siberian region that reaches from the Arctic almost to China, a place of exile and labor camps since Czarist times. In the Soviet period the camps stretched across the territory. No one knows how many perished in them. Graveyards in the forests lie uncharted. Relatives of the victims, and human rights activists, began the search for information about them in 1988. They formed one of Russia's early Memorial societies, which aim to document the fate of the repressed, bring them into the public memory, and help their relatives and survivors. Among Krasnoyarsk Memorial's members were Aleksei Babii and other key Maxsoft employees. By the mid-1990's they had compiled a database of 40,000 repressed persons for their region and created a local Memorial Web site (HTTPS://memorial.krsk.ru/). 

Now they are providing the technical know-how to establish a more ambitious electronic database, which will include the millions of victims of political repression throughout the former Soviet Union. Participants in this project, "Reclaiming the Names," include human rights activists, archivists, academics and students from across Russia. Most of them have been compiling and publishing Books of Memory, listing the repressed for their region. Says Babii: "For a company which specializes in developing information technology it is both an honor and important to take part." The primary source of data for the books and the database is state archives. 

Developing relations with the different ministries and agencies is time-consuming and difficult. Obstacles, bureaucratic and political, continually crop up. Relatives provide valuable data, but it all has to be checked. The main problem, in Babii's view, is methodological. "At every stage we are confronted by incomplete, poorly structured information," he says. Hence the importance of the electronic handbooks on all aspects of the system of repression, being compiled by Moscow specialists, to guide those collecting and registering material. Sovfoto Barracks in the Panyshevsky Collective Labor Camp in Siberia, part of the vast Stalinist gulag.

Who will benefit? Babii sees the aim of the site as "alerting people from the former Soviet Union and outside to the terrible lessons of the 20th century, so that they will not happen again." Of course it will also be of practical use to relatives, government officials and to future researchers. According to Babii, "The experience of the Krasnoyarsk Memorial site has taught us that people are powerfully influenced by reading huge lists of those who were… 'shot,' 'exiled,' 'deported,' 'dekulakized,' or 'sent to a camp.'" 

Has the project brought surprises? In traveling across Eastern Siberia and the Far East to visit potential participants, Babii was inspired to find, he says, "how much has been done in so many places to preserve the memory of the victims of political repression--by people without adequate financial help, without assistance from and sometimes in the face of obstruction from local authorities." Now the time has come, he feels, to combine the resources technology can provide with the enthusiasm and commitment of activists to put pressure on, at the very least, local authorities. Last month Krasnoyarsk Memorial and Maxsoft invited representatives of the Regional Administration to a seminar for partner organizations from Siberia and the Far East. Almost all the participants presented copies of their Books of Memory. The Krasnoyarsk Administration had nothing to contribute. A week later the Regional Administration ordered that a book be compiled and published, something the local Memorial society has been urging for the past ten years. 

The Ford Foundation's support of Maxsoft is part of a larger effort to strengthen Russia's human rights community, in particular, activities that are trying to study past abuses and relate them to the present.

 by Mary McAuley

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