NEW YORK — Arseny Roginsky, the longtime leader of the Russian human rights organization Memorial and a Soviet-era dissident who documented the victims of state persecution during the Cold War and after, died Dec. 18 in Tel Aviv. He was 71.
Memorial announced his death in a news release. He had cancer and had gone to Israel for treatment as his condition worsened, friends said. Israel is a common destination for Russian Jews, like Mr. Roginsky, seeking cancer care.
Mr. Roginsky waged his longest battle with the ghosts of Russia’s past. For almost 30 years he oversaw Memorial’s painstaking campaign to record the names of more than 3 million victims of Soviet persecution.
Under his leadership, the organization also extended its mandate to confront human rights issues in modern Russia, especially abuses in the restless North Caucasus and in the continuing war in eastern Ukraine. In the process, he helped shed light on the forces to which he himself fell victim in the 1980s as a political prisoner of the Soviet regime.
Mr. Roginsky became Memorial’s official chairman in 1998. By then, the flirtation with liberalism that began under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had ended. And with the rise of Vladimir Putin, whose nationalism depended on a heroic portrayal of Russia’s past, the crimes that Memorial had cataloged had no place in the official narrative.
In 2016, as part of an escalating clampdown on Western influence, Putin’s government declared Memorial a “foreign agent.” The group’s offices were raided for evidence of foreign funding, and Memorial was fined for refusing to accept the foreign agent designation. Nevertheless, the group remains a pillar of the global human rights movement.
“Arseny Roginsky, by launching Memorial, made a concern with the past an integral element of the ongoing record of the human rights movement,” said Aryeh Neier, cofounder of Human Rights Watch and president emeritus of Open Society Foundations. “That was incredibly important.”
Mr. Roginsky’s personal history reflects Russia’s struggle to reckon with its turbulent past.
Arseny Borisovich Roginsky was born on March 30, 1946, in a remote outpost in the northern region of Arkhangelsk. His father, Boris, an engineer from Leningrad, had been exiled there in 1938 at the peak of Stalin’s great purge.
After a subsequent arrest in 1951, Boris Roginsky died in prison, though the family was not immediately informed of his death, and Arseny Roginsky’s mother continued to send her husband monthly packages as she waited in vain for his return.
The family finally learned the truth in 1955, after a telegram had arrived saying that the packages were no longer being received. The father had had a heart attack, they discovered.
His father’s terrible fate, and a desire to comprehend it, shaped Mr. Roginsky’s life, according to his close friend and fellow historian Lev Lurye.
Mr. Roginsky attended Tartu University in Estonia, where he studied under prominent cultural historian Yuri Lotman and encountered other critics of the Soviet government, future dissidents like poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya.
On his return to Leningrad, he continued research he had begun in college on 19th-century revolutionary movements in Russia. He also began collecting Stalin-era documents. In 1968, he began a decadelong stint as an archivist at Leningrad’s main public library while teaching evening courses in history.
In 1975, Mr. Roginsky and several fellow historians started Memory (Pamyat), an underground history journal. In the prologue to the first edition, they wrote, “We see it as our duty to rescue from oblivion all those historical facts and names that are currently doomed to perish or disappear.”
They began chronicling the fates of people who had been deemed enemies of the state, who had been tortured or executed, whose families had been forcibly split up. They also recorded the names of those who had reported others to the authorities.
Afraid that the KGB, the secret police, would discover their work, they often buried it, to protect their sources.
Mr. Roginsky’s troubles began soon after. In 1977, Soviet authorities began bugging his phone and showing up at his apartment to search it. Two years later he was barred from teaching.
In April 1981, he was told to emigrate or face jail and given 10 days to decide. He stayed. He was then arrested and charged with “the publication of documents in an anti-Soviet foreign journal” and with forging signatures on documents he had used to gain entry to Leningrad archives.
On Dec. 4, 1981, awaiting his sentencing in court, Mr. Roginsky read out a remarkable 12-page statement that challenged the official view of archives as a trove of information to be kept from prying eyes.
“Ultimately,” he declared, “this whole system of measures to restrict access to primary documents, to real historical information, creates fertile soil for false and even intentionally skewed treatment of the Russian historical process. This system needs to change.”
He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and served out the term in three different labor camps.
The system did change. When Mr. Roginsky was released, the Soviet Union was celebrating the emergence of Gorbachev, whose liberalizing programs, known as perestroika and glasnost, had lifted press censorship and fostered a new debate about the darkest pages of Soviet history.
Mr. Roginsky soon found a new spiritual and intellectual home in Memorial, one of a number of human rights organizations in a nascent civil-society movement.
Mr. Roginsky leaves his wife, Yekaterina, and three children: Aleksandr, Boris, and Asya.
Despite his persecution, Mr. Roginsky was a pragmatist in dealing with the authorities, his friends said, noting that he had maintained a dialogue with the Putin government even as it grew hostile to his work.
“He understood that if you want to change power, to affect power, you need to talk to power, and he never had a chip on his shoulder,” said Leonard Benardo, vice president of Open Society, which Russia has banned as an “undesirable” organization.