Memorial, a self-described "international, historical-educational, human rights, and charitable society," was founded in Moscow in 1988. Its original inspiration lay in the work of scattered professional and amateur historians who had quietly and often covertly done independent research on Soviet history, realizing that their works might never see the light of day, at least in their lifetimes. In some cases they had given their work to the young Leningrad historian Arseny Roginsky, who from 1976 to 1981 included them in his anonymously produced samizdat (typewritten, self-published) journal Pamyat, or Memoria. He then smuggled the journal abroad, where successive issues were published in Russian as separate volumes.
Memorial emerged in 1987, when individuals started to collect money to erect a monument to the victims of Josef Stalin's "great terror." This goal was achieved when a short tribute to these victims was carved on a boulder from a concentration camp near the Arctic Circle, and, on October 30, 1990, the boulder was installed in a square facing the Moscow headquarters of the KGB. In the meantime, Memorial had chosen the former dissident leader Andrei Sakharov as its honorary chairman and established groups in dozens of towns all over the USSR. However, official resistance to the new organization remained tenacious. Only in 1991 did the authorities give it the legal registration that it needed.
Memorial's mandate for historical research concerns all varieties of official persecution and discrimination conducted against individuals and groups during the Soviet era. Its researchers have sought access to governmental archives, rummaged through the buildings of abandoned concentration camps, and searched for the many unmarked and overgrown burial grounds that hold the remains of millions of prisoners who died in captivity. They have also solicited documents, letters, and oral history from surviving victims and witnesses. Apart from building up Memorial archives in Moscow and elsewhere, the researchers have had their work published by Memorial in Russian and other languages in hundreds of journals, newspapers, and books.
Memorial also researches current violations of human rights in Russia and other former Soviet republics, especially when these occur on a large scale. Examples are atrocities committed during the two Chechnya wars, and continuing official discrimination against the Meskhi Turks, who were deported from southern Georgia in 1944.
Memorial's charitable work consists of helping victims of oppression and their relatives (e.g., materially and with legal problems).
Memorial's activities have been directed from Moscow by a stable core of individuals, including Roginsky, Nikita Okhotin, and Alexander Daniel. Its funding has primarily come from bodies such as the Ford Foundation, the Soros Foundation, and the Heinrich Boll Stiftung in Germany, and a few domestic sources.
Since the early 1990s most of public opinion in Russia has become indifferent or even hostile to the work of Memorial. However, its members derive hope from pockets of societal support and the launching in 1999 of an annual competition for essays on Memorial-type themes by high-school children that attracted 1,651 entries during its first year. Some members recall that, after the fall of Adolf Hitler in Germany, three decades went by before German society began seriously to confront the Nazi era and to create a more reliable national memory. A similar or longer period may be needed in the former USSR, before Russian society, in particular, can face up to myriad grim truths about the seven decades of communism. In the interim, Memorial has unearthed small pieces of truth about hundreds of deportations and millions of deaths.