When I settled in Moscow in 1998, I first visited the Memorial. The “fruits” of the recent call to schoolchildren to ask their grandparents about the Great Terror of the Stalin era were gathered in cramped classrooms. Children’s handwriting on thin paper crumbled historical truth and knowledge, explored in a generation that was going to take secrets to the grave
For three decades of official existence, which ended last week with a court ruling on liquidation, Memorial has carefully documented the cases of the Gulag and its victims. However, this is much more than a charity that specializes in historical research. This is a large part of the remnants of Russia’s civic consciousness.
The Soviet regime not only killed 20 million people, but also turned this crime into a taboo. Stories of revelations, demonstrations, interrogations and deportations, starvation, torture, and mass executions were whispered in private, and even silenced. At the official level, amnesia prevailed.
By documenting the crimes, Memorial brought lies to the surface. The founders of the center have not forgotten the godfather of Russian democracy – dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. The Memorial embodied hopes in the late 1980s and 1990s that the country would live in peace not only with its difficult past but also with its neighbors: many of Stalin’s victims came from outside Russia.
Those hopes followed the water. Among the alleged reasons for the closure of the “Memorial” – a violation of the radical law on “foreign agents”, which in fact prohibits the receipt of money from abroad. Another catch – “destabilization of the country.” Studies of the center traced the decline of present-day Russia to authoritarianism. For example, Memorial has compiled a list of 400 political prisoners. Authorities say the center aimed to “spread negative perceptions of the country’s judiciary and misinform the public.”
However, the Memorial is actually another danger. Putin’s legitimacy is increasingly based on a nostalgic narrative in which modern Russia recalls the heyday of the Soviet Union and its heroic, lonely struggle to liberate the world from the German plague. Stalin’s repression is obviously the weak point of this narrative: it hinders attempts to portray him as a hero, genius or liberator. Thus, the removal of the taboo on talking about the crimes he committed not only threatens the pride of Russians, but also challenges the legitimacy of the Putin regime.
DURING THE THREE DECADES OF ITS OFFICIAL EXISTENCE, MEMORIAL HAS CAREFULLY DOCUMENTED THE CASES OF THE GULAG AND ITS VICTIMS. HOWEVER, THIS IS MUCH MORE THAN A CHARITY THAT SPECIALIZES IN HISTORICAL RESEARCH. THIS IS A LARGE PART OF THE REMNANTS OF RUSSIA’S CIVIC CONSCIOUSNESS
The narrative is very simple: Stalin fought against the Nazis, so those who criticize him sympathize with the Nazis. This syllogism sounds ridiculous. However, this is exactly the accusation against Memorial. In fact, the story is, to put it mildly, contradictory. Communist and Nazi totalitarianism intersected. Stalin and Hitler were allies before becoming enemies. As a result of his paranoia, the Soviet dictator devastated his own armed forces and ignored warnings of a German attack. The same Soviet forces that, having suffered heavy losses, liberated Eastern Europe from the Nazi yoke, brought a new tyranny. Modern Russians are not to blame, but they must remember.
The Germans, of course, remember. They treat their country’s Nazi past with disgust, not pride. Imagine that today’s Germany has banned Holocaust research because it damages its image abroad and the morale of Germans. But former Soviet criminals do not risk such a mess in Russia, where there was nothing like the Nuremberg Trials in Germany or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
The laundering of Soviet crimes is a terrible signal to all the countries affected (from Finland onwards to the south). In fact, Putin says: “We do not regret what we have done to you. We can do it again. ” As the French scholar Nicolas Tenser points out, the deeper meaning of this message is that the Kremlin leader is reviving the Soviet concept that justice and truth are not pillars of civilization, but tools to be used for political purposes. Mythology depicts Russia as an occupied fortress, which has every reason to blame critics in the homeland or defend themselves from lying and threatening foreigners, such as Ukraine. The artificial famine that Stalin caused in this country in the 1930s, killing several million Ukrainians (exact figures are not named) is one of the reasons why modern Ukrainians cherish independence from Moscow. The less Russians know about those events, the more they will support Putin’s aggression.
We can counterattack. The first priority is to support the Memorial. The second is support for Russia’s neighbors, who are trying to counter the Stalinist version of history, and an honest approach to our own. However, our prospects are bleak. The Chinese Communist Party has successfully erased a huge layer of its bloody history from public discourse. Putin probably has high hopes for himself.