‘Last Address’ Goes on Amid Destruction of Civil Society
May 17, 2023
  • Oksana Matievskaya
    Project Coordinator “Last Address”

Oksana Matievskaya writes that new plaques have kept going up on the walls of houses in Russia featuring the names of those who were shot during Stalin’s dictatorship. There are even guided tours with stories about the victims.

In today’s Russia, when people hear about Last Address putting up another memorial plaque, they, astonished, ask: How? You weren’t shut down?

No, we were not shut down or stopped. We continue to install plaques with the names of people killed during the Stalinist terror and hold ceremonies to which people come with their whole families.

Amid the ongoing war, we continue to emphasize the value of each, separate human life, and that the state has no right to kill people.

The civic initiative Last Address emerged in close cooperation with Memorial – “liquidated” a year ago by the Supreme Court – and thanks to the huge archival work done over the 30 years of its existence. Thanks to Memorial, millions of people now know about the fate of their relatives who perished in the Stalinist camps.

For a decade now, Last Address has been taking applications from people seeking to preserve a memory by linking the person’s name to the place where he lived and he was taken to his death. The flow of applications has not stopped either. Over the years, we have installed more than 1,500 signs in Moscow, St Petersburg, Tula, Perm, Taganrog, Makhachkala and other Russian cities and towns.

How do the plaques appear?

Last Address was designed in a way that permission to install an informational sign does not need to be signed off by the authorities or bureaucrats.

The plaque on the wall of the house with the name of someone who lived there and was sent to die happens when two active positions come together: an application from an initiator and the consent of the owner of the house. It does not require any paper from above.

Now, as civil society is being routed, including those institutions involved in human rights protection and enlightenment, the way that Last Address operates has unexpectedly helped it stay afloat.
Oppositional politician, now political prisoner Ilya Yashin putting up a plaque in memory of a victim of political repression on the wall of the LUKOIL building (Moscow, February 2021). Photo by David Krikheli
Victims of Stalinist repressions and today’s political prisoners

The harsher the repressive apparatus gets in modern Russia, the echoes of what happened here almost a century ago during the Stalinist repressions grow louder.

In 1936, geneticist Solomon Levitt was expelled from the party for “smuggling hostile theories into the Institute’s writings.” Two years later, he was sentenced to death for “spying for Germany and involvement in a counter-revolutionary terrorist organization.”

In March 1952, university student Vladilen Furman was executed for “seeking to establish a criminal relationship with representatives of hostile foreign states and anti-Soviet nationalist groups operating on the territory of the USSR.”

In Stalinist sentences, the similarities with the phrasing of today’s law enforcement ring.

The past seems to be sprouting in the present, and in this atmosphere a chairman of the council of the house often hesitates to give permission for a plaque. “I’ll sign off and then go away for being a German spy?” – someone told us recently.
A commemorative sign on today’s LUKOIL building appeared two years ago with the support of the Moscow municipal deputies Ilya Yashin and Alexei Gorinov. Now, both are in prison.
Workers of Last Address with a newly installed sign on the LUKOIL building (February 2021).
Photo by David Krikheli
After the elections of 2022, there were no “independent” deputies left even at the municipal level, meaning even less support for real, lively civil initiatives.

Plaques as a guide to history

Through the plaques installed over Last Address’s 10 years of work, you can follow the course of history.

On February 3, 1938, 229 Latvians were killed at the Butovo Firing Range. In the neighborhood of Chistye Prudy, where the Latvian embassy is now located, more than a dozen plaques were put up with the names of those killed during the NKVD’s Latvian Operation in 1938.

With each plaque on the wall of a building, an article appears on the Last Address website that has more detailed information about the name that is engraved on the plaque. Reading the stories of the residents of just this area, one can learn about the existence in 1920-30s Moscow of the Latvian theater called Skatuve, whose members were almost all killed. This is a story forgotten by Muscovites. Three years ago, a memorial plaque appeared on Strastnoy Boulevard on the building where the theater had been located – there are only dates, not a word about what happened to the theater in 1938. The only memory of the theater is a few small plaques scattered along the various streets where the Skatuve actors lived.

In August 1937, People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov issued an operational order on “the operation to repress wives of traitors to the motherland.” And in the spring of 1938, besides this order, a circular appeared that ordered the establishment of undercover surveillance of the children of repressed parents so that anti-Soviet sentiments could be uncovered and suppressed. If such sentiments were detected, it was necessary to bring the children to justice on a common basis and send them to camps. The circular was signed by the deputy of the people’s commissar of internal affairs, Mikhail Frinovsky.

Less than a year later, Frinovsky himself was arrested and shot, followed by his wife and son, a 10th grader. First they shot the son, then the wife. Last Address does not put up memorial signs for those who were directly related to organizing the terror. But plaques with the names of Frinovsky’s wife, Nina Stepanovna, and son, Oleg Mikhailovich, have been installed on the wall of the house where they lived – a building built specially to house law enforcement.

23 plaques

There are buildings with signs in two, three and even four rows – these are most often the buildings of agencies, and their walls now speak of the scale of the catastrophe of entire industries. The house at the corner of Pokrovka and Potapovsky Lane belonged to the Military Builder Cooperative. Today’s residents of the house decided to keep alive the memory of everyone who was taken from there to die – it is 23 people. Twenty-three plaques now hang on the façade, passers-by always stop.
Dom Ino (Foreigner House), Ordzhonikidze Street 5, Moscow. The first 15 plaques were installed in December 2016, the last one in April 2017.
Photo by David Krikheli
Fifteen commemorative signs are installed on the facade of Foreigner House (Dom Ino) – this is how the house where foreigners were settled was called – at Ordzhonikidze 5. These signs tell about another so-called “national” operation of the NKVD – against Germans. Foreigner House was built specially for foreign workers of the machine-tool plant who had arrived in Moscow in the early 30s under agreements with equipment suppliers. Many of them actually built the plant, residential buildings and medical unit before going to work at the plant, which was launched in December 1932.

On July 20, 1937, on Stalin’s orders, repressions against Germans began: “A proposal to Comrade Yezhov to give an immediate order to the NKVD to arrest all Germans working in defense factories (artillery, shell, rifle and machine gun, cartridge, powder, etc.), and to expel some of those arrested abroad.” Five days later, all departments of the NKVD were sent an order from the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, No.00439: “Agents among German subjects, while already carrying out acts of sabotage and subversion, are focusing on organizing sabotage operations for a period of war and for this purpose are preparing cadres of saboteurs.” On February 1, 1938, Yezhov issued order No. 233 to extend all “national” operations until April 15, 1938.

An application to install 15 memorial signs at Foreigner House was submitted by history teachers and graduates of one Moscow school. They also obtained the consent of the residents of the house and put a lot of effort into searching for and collecting information, documents, photographs and living testimonies, as well as tracking down the relatives of those killed. And they were the ones who hammered the signs on the wall.

The current residents of the famous “Government House” (“House on the Embankment”), decorated with official memorial plaques to the military and party leaders who lived there, were frightened by the number of potential memorial signs for the repressed: more than 200 former residents. The process of installing the Last Address signs began but was suspended.

Refusal to put up signs
Along with Memorial’s It Was Right Here research project, which brings to light places that are part of the history of Soviet terror on the map of modern Moscow, Last Address now runs house-to-house tours,”
The plaque on the house where Osip Mandelstam lived: "Here was the house where lived Osip Emilievich Mandelstam / Poet / Born in 1891 / Arrested May 16, 1934 / Died December 28, 1938 / In a camp near Vladivostok / Rehabilitated in 1956". Photo by David Krikheli.
where plaques commemorate the residents who were victims. Several times a week, those who want to learn more about the work of the project come to a themed walk and hear the story about the fate of different people, residents, who were arrested there and never returned.

The last Moscow address of the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky was very close to the house where several decades later the musicologist Sergei Popov lived, who studied the legacy of Tchaikovsky and restored his first opera The Voyevoda. There, Sergei Popov was arrested, accused of counter-revolutionary activities, and later shot. The house where Tchaikovsky rented an apartment has not survived, but while the building of Sergei Popov is intact, there is no sign on it. Now, an organization called International Foundation for the Spiritual Unity of Peoples is there – its employees refused to install a plaque in memory of Popov.

Another amazing intersection of fates is connected with the poet Osip Mandelstam. A plaque in his memory hangs on the site of the demolished building of the cooperative “Soviet Writer” on Nashchokinsky Lane, where Mandelstam and his wife lived in 1933.

In the 1920s, businessman Sergei Kaptsov, who was arrested in 1926 as part of the case against the Moscow Mutual Credit Society, along with a group of his colleagues, lived on a neighboring street.

Having learned of the death sentence for five members of the credit society, Mandelstam turned to Nikolai Bukharin, who at that time was protecting him, to lessen the sentence. As Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda Yakovlevna later wrote, he “turned all of Moscow upside down and saved the old people.” One of the five saved was Sergei Kaptsov. The execution was interrupted by an urgent telephone message and “lessened” to 10 years in forced labor camps.

Sergei Kaptsov never made it out – he died in 1932 while serving his sentence. And in 1934, Mandelstam himself was arrested, followed by exile to Cherdyn and then Voronezh. He died in 1938 in the Vladivostok Transit Camp.

During their lifetime, Mandelstam and Kaptsov were not neighbors and never met. At the time when Mandelstam was fussing about the fate of the condemned, he had not yet moved to Nashchokinsky Lane. Now the writers’ house no longer exists – it was demolished in 1974. In its place is a large multi-apartment brick building. On the corner hangs a sign with the name of Osip Mandelstam.

Meanwhile, the house on Bolshoy Afanasyevsky Lane, where Kaptsov lived, is intact. But its residents refuse to hang up a plaque.
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