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Melanie Ilic – Protecting the Historical Record

On Friday 23 November, my friend and colleague Mark Harrison (Prof of Economics, University of Warwick) was interviewed for Radio 4’s Today programme (begins 2.24 to 2.29) about the Soviet practice of erasing the public record of political and cultural figures who fell into disfavour, mostly during the Stalin period. Mark outlines the debate on his own blog:

Once individuals fell out of favour with the Soviet regime and became ‘politically inconvenient’, their publications were removed from the bookshelves of libraries and they were no longer mentioned in news reports. Roads, squares, factories and whole cities, which once celebrated and honoured these great figures, were now renamed. Their image was removed from photographs and paintings (see David King’s book, The Commissar Vanishes for high-profile examples).

The Today presenter, Justin Webb, then asked what we should do with the historical record of those who, in our own time, were once celebrated but have since been accused of engaging in criminal behaviours. Jimmy Savile’s gravestone has been destroyed, commemorative streets and hospital wards have been renamed, his edition of ‘Desert Island Disks’ has been removed from the online archive, with discussions continuing over what to do with his recordings of ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Jim’ll Fix It’.

The removal of honours is one thing, but the destruction of the historical record, or limiting access to it, is another. How do we guarantee ‘free and equal’ access to the historical record not just for our own, but also for future generations?

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