A game about abuse. An exhibition about the Great Purge. A vlog about a prison camp. A guided tour with hedgehogs, a selection of good old books, and spaces of care: there are a thousand and one ways of engaging people in discussions that touch upon a range of subjects, from steppe mammoths to contemporary art.


A game about abuse. An exhibition about the Great Purge. A vlog about a prison camp. A guided tour with hedgehogs, a selection of good old books, and spaces of care: there are a thousand and one ways of engaging people in discussions that touch upon a range of subjects, from steppe mammoths to contemporary art.

—Human beings like to play, for such is their nature. In a game, the players must feel they are going with the flow, both fascinated, thrilled, and challenged. That is the experience we are trying to produce. People like to get engaged, play, and spend their time, because video games are both instructive and fun.

In 2017, we developed a game titled Gebnya. The idea was to find a fun way to educate our audiences, since people aged under twenty four are unlikely to read in-depth media profiles. The first part was developed for Android, and there were only 10,000 downloads by early spring. Then we developed an iOS version that generated a lively debate among NGOs and got great media coverage. As a result, we caught the attention of the very audience we had in mind. At the moment, 70% of our users are under 24. Over the years, we got a total of 200,000 downloads, mostly Android, which is indicative of the smartphone usage patterns in Russia. So we thought we could do more. First we had to decide which issues were suitable for new formats. The game studio Noesis was launched early in 2020. Our next project, 2024, was developed in collaboration with the hotbed for socially oriented information technologies of the European University in Saint Petersburg. It deals with the ethical aspects of AI and other technologies. Then we released Where Is the Relationship Going, a game about abuse among partners, and finally, Pauline vs. the Stalker that focuses on stalking.

Today we are working on a project focused on the seminal concept of historical memory. As a rule, there are no video game experts at NGOs, so there are many things to explain. But the inhibitions of before are almost gone. Our products have proved their efficiency, they are relatable and trustworthy. On the other hand, everyone wants to experiment and risk new formats to attract new audiences. And our results are good! Yes, we do have to explain and engage the partners, but they like it! Design sprints are special favourites: during these brief sessions with organisations or activists, game prototypes are invented in a collective effort. Working with NGOs is really nice. Although we are experts in games, media, and storytelling, over the past five years I have grown very close to the nonprofit sector. I share their pain, aspirations, hopes, and fears. We never had a moment of tension, let alone conflict. Hope this is the way we shall go on.
—We have Putin to thank for our ever-expanding audience. People come to us because they feel something is definitely wrong, even though they are not yet ready for radical gestures in public squares. They feel that the Memorial represents the axiological set they can relate to. The Memorial is a society open for collaborations, volunteering, and freelance. In any project budget we strive to allocate some funds for fees so that people are able to do odd jobs for us for small wages. On top of that, anyone can attend our events, take part in hackathons, and join educational initiatives. It is a two-way transit: we take credit for opening the doors, and the public for coming.

Media Communications students of the Higher School of Economics are our best audience. We are also popular among literature and history students, but the ones at Media and Communications are the most active. They come asking if they can do an internship of 36 hours, finish their thing, get their evaluation report, and come back after six months: "May I work with you again?" Apparently, they make friends here. "May I do something for you? May I write my thesis with you?" People who come during their studies do it because they are looking for a supportive environment and fulfilment. Those who come as established experts often propose collaborations and joint ventures. Some of them work in galleries or commercial chains. They are young people in their thirties who work flexible hours (like curators or managers), and they are always in for any kind of action: public programmes, guided tours, exhibitions. At times they cheat on their own management that has stronger ties to the system. A major library came a while ago: "We just love what you are doing, let us work together, please!" We developed a tailor-made programme around thor location, and then they got back to us: "We are so sorry, our legal department told us we are not allowed to work with foreign agents." The legal department does not actually care, but for the curators it was hard.

We think of exhibitions in terms of mediums. They are not about artworks to be admired, as in "Wow, look, a Michelangelo!": we do documentary projects that engage the public in ethical reflections.

Our exhibition designs have always been modest at best. But then we decided that we could engage world-famous artists with daring ideas: this way, the items and objects pre-selected by the curators in line with their concepts become more engaging: participative elements are always an added value. In 2014, we invited Yuri Avvakumov to design The Right of Correspondence, which he did free of charge. The total budget of the Afternoon. 1968 project (2018) was 200,000 roubles. I met Alexander Brodsky, the architect, to interview him about 1968, and he plunged into some convoluted story. I said, "We are actually working on an exhibition," and he said, "I'd like to make it!" He did everything and never charged us, he even sent some interns to paint the installation. As our shows grew more eye-catching and state-of-the-art, they engaged more people. Of course, one can always visit alone, read the explanations and leave, but we focus on a different scenario that involves meetings, public talks, curatorial tours tailored for various audiences, discussions touching on postexperience and postmemory. All in all, the space becomes versatile, lending itself for complex, diverse challenges.

In 2017, we showed A Story of an Old Apartment based on an illustrated book by Anna Desnitskaya that features nighttime arrests, Stalin’s death, the troubles of the dissidents in the 1970s, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, but only in passing. Our exhibition, on the contrary, was focused on these issues, and every school of the neighbourhood came to visit, including those who had always stayed away, institutions with deeply rooted Soviet traditions that had educated children of Communist leaders.

The Memorial is a nationwide network, and we really care about engaging the local Memorials from every town and region outside Moscow, so that they take the driving seat and become our real project partners.

One of our major actions is Returning the Names. There is a web platform, october29.ru, where I collect the contributions from across Russia and the world. October 30 is the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, so everyone is bound to pay a tribute, commemorate a repressed author or artist, visit a memorial site, bring flowers and say a few words. In Tambov, Tyumen, Kirov and other places it is often a struggle: activists are held up, brought away in paddy wagons, and yet they never fail to show up, inventing subterfuge methods to deceive the police. But in some small towns there are peaceful societies of the victims of repressions, and nice elderly people that join the local authorities in low-key celebrations: three carnations, five speeches, and done with it. But we collect every bit of information jointly with the 7×7 Horizontal Russia web project, placing a banner that invites everyone to find Returning the Names in their own city. So in the city of Biysk three oldsters still living in 1989 decided to hold a commemoration. When 7×7 put up the notice, I was contacted by other guys from Biysk, members of the Vesna movement: they wanted to take part in the action and get in touch with the organisers. But the Memorial oldsters did not want them: "These Vesna people are always in trouble, if they get anywhere near, our nice little Returning the Names will get in trouble as well." What were we supposed to do? There is no other Memorial in Biysk. Vesna could have done their homework better of course, but while facing colossal risks all the time, they do not have the capacity to befriend the local Memorial in the run-up to the 29th of October, a bit earlier than the actual date. This is a problem that does not seem to have a solution.

At the same time, we have to get over the image of the 1980s rabid radicals in baggy sweaters. Our target audience is 144 million large. It includes people of every generation and sweater size. But we prefer focusing on the youth because their perspective is less rigid. They are more open. Many of them reach out to us online.

One of my favourite projects was the Gulag Tourism summer school of 2019. Some background: we learned that the Military Historical Society was launching a new excavation campaign in Sandarmokh. We realised we had to counteract, so we launched an open call for travel bloggers from across the country: people who explore far and wide, picture cities and oceans, and have no less than ten thousand followers. We received applications from Astrakhan and Belgorod, Tambov and Novosibirsk. We had to select 16 participants out of 160, because it would have been impossible to find lodgings for a larger group. And off we went. First we held a kind of a conference in a hotel: we tried to determine the right tone of voice, establish the difference between "repressed" and "executed", and looked for ways to avoid the objectification of victims. We dwelled on the infrastructure of memories, Holocaust tourism, cafes and parkings at Auschwitz. And then we travelled to Sandarmokh on Memory Day, and then onwards to the White Sea Canal and Solovki. It was just amazing. They were all in their late twenties or early thirties, with an established mindset that suffered some severe blows along the way. One of the girls said she wanted to join us, so she curated our Instagram for a while. They all agreed that the initiative could be taken up on a commercial basis and urged us to sell tours. But our financial department was against it.
—We are mapping our area in order to get a better understanding of the potential development assets, to finally focus on the heritage that is in dire need of restoration, preservation, and new use. The Island of Freedom project on Lisy Island is aimed at the locals, not the tourists. Many people would like to visit the place, learn about its controversial history and get a sneak of the experience of being incarcerated in the middle of spectacular nature. The project is managed by Artyom Trembovlev: he runs several logistic companies as well as a public association. He feels keenly about his social responsibilities and shows it by campaigning for the environment, fighting coal dust, cleaning up lakes, and he has built an entire community around the cause. His projects are designed to make the city more livable.

We have another project, the Paleo Village, an archeological reconstruction that takes the visitor all the way from the Stone to the Middle Age, archeology and ethnography combined. But most importantly, it was created with the participation of teenagers from our archaeological camp. They went on to do guided tours and set up a volunteer cluster. Many of them grew up to become wonderful people, some took up history, others would go on to find jobs at the museum. For the locals, the Paleo Village is an important employer: we encourage them to showcase local crafts, do master classes and workshops, engage in folk rituals that attract the attention of tourists. Whereas for us it is a solution to the permanent shortage of staff: it is hard to bring experts all the way from town to a remote village with 740 people. Their 140 children have no club, no library, and no school. They are supposed to go to school by bus to a bigger place. Our project engages the locals proactively, and the next phase is building an outdoor sports ground.
—We are trying to go local and employ locally. The guided tours are done by our neighbours. There are five people who live in villages nearby and are very proud of their work. Some of them originally come from Moscow: they have bought land in Zvizzhi and live there with their families. The level of culture and education is very diverse, but the project is also multilayered, so everyone finds something to do. We value and train our guides, and they come highly skilled. The festival includes ten different guided tours, including night-time ones. The experience of the park in the dark is truly unique. One has to know how to work with it. The people who live the project know every twig, stump, bird, or hedgehog.
—We have an experience of working with migrants. There used to be a mass and diverse migration before the pandemic, including the internal, professional variety. We are all migrants, by and large, or at least cultural nomads. I include myself in their number, since I feel the need to explore new places all the time. It is about professional and/or individual mobility.

We endorse participation and engagement, but we stopped supporting grassroots initiatives, especially since there are virtually none to be found. We do not want to enforce our favours, and participative culture is not always called for. Sometimes it is ok to be a consumer. Moreover, there are various levels of participation, and the engaged parties should decide for themselves how far they are willing to go. Participation and engagement can be integrated into the project framework wherever necessary, but specific formats and opportunities should be well thought of and explained. People are not used to being asked what they think. They say, "Who are we to tell a museum what to do?" A museum is a grand, arrogant institution with a certain reputation, an expert in itself.
—We will never learn what we have without engaging third parties. First of all, I mean universities and academia. In some projects we are already collaborating, like in the excavations of the steppe mammoth. But actually it would be nice to make all the students of hydrogeology take internships in our depots. The second area is for digital volunteers: I was much inspired by a project of the municipal archive of Perm several years ago. They have engaged officially unemployed people from the labour exchange to transcribe documents on their home computers with minimal wages. It would have worked wonders for our documentary department. The third area is citizen science, mostly for STEM disciplines. We need both experts and digital volunteers. Then there are colleagues from other museums, including local and municipal ones. We would be willing to train them and engage them at the same time. The semi-scientific knowledge of the local history experts could be integrated with museums and scientific research on a mutually beneficial basis. And finally, aside from the actual collections we have to deal with communication and information issues where the museum is way behind commercial institutions. And yet, it has content and meaning that many people need.
—Russia is not represented on the international academic scene. Only a handful of articles get translated. Thus, we are seen as a country that needs to be taught the basics, starting from the ABC of creative industries. The researchers working at an international level are a very small group, there has been no time to expand it. In the Russian regions, there is an infestation of opportunists that produce Soviet-style word forms with absolutely no scientific background or serious research behind them, just a bare set of ideologisms. These articles are unreadable, and yet they are published in peer-reviewed magazines, ending up in science citation indexes where students may fall for them. Basic academic works are lacking, decent articles are hard to find, there are only sporadic presentations dealing with the trendy issues of creative industry methodologies. In the next few years, we shall probably be swept by the foamy wave of creative industry discourse.
—I have just read the inspirational interview of Teresa Mavica. She spoke about social architecture, local focus, and most of all, care. I believe the time of care has come. We reopened after a major renovation during the summer. It was part of the city day celebrations, and we invited everyone to visit free of charge. People came in great crowds! Everyone queued to the museum, even though the programme was diverse and enticing in other places as well. We could once again invite people over so that they took a break from staring at their own four walls and have a look at something more interesting than the print on the tea cosy. We should not demand anything in return, it won’t hurt. Then we could follow up with more sophisticated offers, maybe involving young artists. For instance, a series of contemporary art classes that combine a short presentation dedicated to a 20th or 21st century artist with a workshop where everyone tries their hand on the signature techniques. A kind of art therapy.
—For us, dialogue is paramount. We must keep talking to each other, to the team, to the art scene, and most importantly to the loyal audience we have managed to build over six months. We hold thematic discussions and align public programmes with exhibitions. We realised that the entire event framework must change in order to meet the needs of our audience and maybe broaden it. The exhibitions last longer now: the number of shows has decreased but the number of public events has grown. What we are trying to point out is that there are multiple ways of talking about art. One of our very first big events attracted an incredible lot of people even though it cost about three cents: we had over eight hundred visitors over the course of one evening. That was the effect of a thoughtful combination of events and exhibitions. We now see cool, well-dressed young people and even an occasional stray full-lipped lady (what I really meant to say, a public that prefers conspicuous consumption). People arrive from the university campus to attend performances by international artists and musicians.

We know how to work with adults and children, but teenagers were missing.
Launching a programme for them, I imagined myself as a kind of a movie character, a teacher who discusses really important issues avoided by other adults. But I had really low expectations. And yet, there were eight people at our first meeting — quite a nice turnout for a Samara museum never visited by teenagers before. The orientational session was about setting the rules and included a discussion of the book that I had announced in advance, Delete This Entry? by Larisa Romanovskaya, a sample of contemporary young adult prose. I was naive to suppose that a book on a person their age, a girl and her online diary, would be to the point. The first session was actually quite abrasive. I felt like a complete and utter fool. They were sitting there, and I paced around them as if I were the anchor of some stupid talk show. I made feeble jokes and silly questions I had not really prepared. That was the end of it, I thought. But somehow they came back and kept returning. The project, titled To the Point, gradually evolved. We did nothing special, just read contemporary texts and talked about them. It was a matter of principle, and also of some organisational difficulties: in order to read contemporary prose from the catalogues of top publishers they had to spend some money on books. I was ashamed every time I asked them to get this or that title, but both the parents and the kids were quite eager. We stuck to contemporary prose for young adults, and the choice proved a right one: they instantly recognised issues they were also facing in real life and cued into discussions. By the end of the first season we felt bold enough to switch to classics: for instance, Funes the Memorious by Borges. During the lockdown I tried it again, with an adult public this time, and I realised that the discussion with the kids had been much more productive. During the second season we spent more time writing and creating than actually reading. We told stories in a variety of ways and techniques: through words printed on cards, performative practices, or mini stage shows. Sometimes I would provide them with three objects to tell the story with. They became actors, creators, and caught their second wind. Since we were already working with spaces, objects, and narratives, I felt we were already producing a museum-level project. I had a dream of making a literary exhibition together. They gave it a try at one of our last sessions in May: we chose the best texts of the season and translated them into a spatial, objective narrative for which they had to find exhibits in the building. They had to invent a way to display the text, and some of them even managed to produce curatorial explanations.
Gebnya is a scornful label for security services that comes from the abbreviation KGB, the main security agency of the Soviet Union.
To play: game.eu.spb.ru. Image: game screenshot.
By 2022, Noesis developed a detective quest game on investigative journalism titled Quiet, and Loyalty, a game on the persecutions of civil activists.
To play: kudaotnoshenia.ru. Image: Alina Kugusheva © kudaotnoshenia.ru.
Instagram: @polinavsstalker. Image: game screenshot.
The various branches of the Memorial were first listed as foreign agents (2014−2016) and then liquidated by a court decision in December, 2021.
In April, 2022 the Higher School of Economics closed the academic track for human rights and rule of law within the Political Analysis and Public Politics masters programme.
An equivalent of € 2700 in 2018.
Photo: Michail Konchitsa © memo.ru
‘Returning the Names' is the Memorial’s annual commemoration of Great Terror victims that takes place on October 29: read on meduza.io.
Vesna (‘Spring') is a youth democratic movement dating back to 2013. In the aftermath of the 2018 pre-election protest campaigns, some of the leaders were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. In May 2022, the entire organisation was placed under investigation for impingement of persons and civil rights.
The Military Historical Society promotes the official, highly ideologised version of history, and is run by Vladimir Medinsky, former minister of culture, currently presidential aide.
Sandarmokh is a forest area in Karelia, in the north of Russia, where thousands of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror were executed in 1937−1938. Yuri Dmitriev, the leader of the Karelian branch of Memorial, had it transformed into a memorial cemetery. Since 2016, Dmitriev has been imprisoned for corruption of minors, an accusation that the human rights activists claim to be entirely false. The Military Historical Society, on the other hand, wants to prove that the graves belong to the victims of the 1939 war with Finland. Image: Visem © Wikimedia
The Memory Day in Sandarmokh coincides with the date of the infamous NKVD decree № 447 that set off the machine of political repressions in August, 1937.
The White Sea Canal was built in 1931−1933 by convicted labour.
The Solovetsky Islands special purpose camp (abbreviated as the SLON in Russian) was set up in 1922−1923 on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea as a remote and inaccessible place of detention, primarily intended for socialist opponents of Soviet Russia’s new Bolshevik regime. Read more: gulag.online. Photo: Ekaterina Rovnova
Teresa Iarocci Mavica is one of the co-founders of the V-A-C Foundation established in 2009. She left the position of director in December, 2021 to concentrate on international activities.
Freiß, Nina. 'Russia's other history': zois-berlin.de. Image: LLC Samokat Publishing House © Anna Desnitskaya.

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