A memorial day few Russians want to remember

By bne IntelliNews November 7, 2013

Julia Reed in Moscow -

"Who was killed in your family?" A man in a beret in his early 60s asked me as he joined the long queue of people. We were both attending the annual recital of the names of the victims of political repressions in Russia by the Solovetsky Stone in Moscow's Lubyanka square, right next to what was the KGB headquarters. This stone was brought from the Solovki Islands in the icy seas off the far northern coast of Russia, where the first Gulag prison camp was opened in 1919. (Bizarrely, the RUB500 bank note pictures the island's monastery.)

I wasn't ready for this question since I somehow assumed that repressions should concern all members of the society and not just the families of the victims. Yet a large number of people in the queue held photographs of their loved ones. The man next to me had a small self-published booklet that contained photocopies of the verdicts and even names of the people who gave evidence or signed the papers that led to his father being executed and his older sister sent to Mordovia, one of the locations of the Gulag prisoner camps (and where until last week Pussy Riot leader Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was being held).

"Last year I waited for three hours," said Arkady Grymov, 62. "It's because many people do not just read out the names they are given (by the members of Memorial, a history preservation society that researches and archives information on repressions in the Soviet Union and about the Gulag system), but they also recite poems, make speeches and add the names of the victims they knew personally."

Indeed, it seemed as if every third person that came to the microphone would call out the names of their family members. Along with each name came the age, occupation and date of the execution. The occupations were strikingly ordinary: worker, shopkeeper, janitor, guard, usher, vet, priest, secretary, low-level government employee. Some of them were junior NKVD (the Soviet secret police in the 1930s and 40s) officers. No famous names or important jobs.

"Perhaps you know somebody?" insisted the same man behind me in the queue. I realized that I could not think of anyone who I was certain was repressed, and this was telling of the environment of secrecy and avoidance that surrounded my Soviet upbringing.

Unwanted history

If you have never heard that October 30 is a memorial day to commemorate the victims of political repressions in Russia, you are not alone. In fact, only a fraction of Russians know. This is not surprising: not only does this date not come up in the top news of the state television channels, it hardly even makes it into the liberal internet news as a newsworthy discussion topic.

Yet just in Moscow there are archived records of 30,000 people killed between 1937-1938. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's landmark speech denouncing Stalin in March 1956 made the fact of repression in the USSR public and gave rise to the process of rehabilitation and release for the victims. The topic became widely publicized and debated again in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when even the ban on the Communist Party was being discussed but rejected by the Constitutional Court.

However, Russia's mass media pay little attention to the subject. It is safe to say that today's Russians have chosen to ignore the darkest days of their history. "My mother told me when I was 15 that my great grandfather was repressed during the war for wanting to build a church in his village, but I never gave it much thought because I was told that it was a regular event for such times," says Natalia Belova, 35.

There are reasons for that. The current political climate does not favour any other view of the Soviet past other than as a period of heroism and dedication by the people. This year on the annual day when members of the public can come to the Solovetsky Stone to remember the victims, the state channels dedicated airtime to Putin giving out awards to distinguished members of society in the Kremlin Palace and to the celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the Komsomol (the youth division of the Communist Party of the USSR).

Soviet history is being rewritten in soft and warm tones, portraying life in the Soviet Union with its normal ups and downs, great enthusiasm and romanticism of large national construction projects involving the youth, with a strong emphasis on the real achievements of the "socialist paradise": the rapid industrialization of the economy, the victory in World War II, and Yuri Gagarin's first flight into space.

Unlike in Germany where there was an official denunciation of Nazism, Stalinism has never been officially denounced. Stalin is still largely perceived as an effective hardliner who won the war and built the nation and is, if not exactly a source of pride, at least not a source of shame either.

Even the families of the repressed continued to join the NKVD and write letters to "Great Comrade Stalin" in those days. The generation who are now in their 60s - the sons and daughters of those who lived under Stalin - still don't see him as evil; the truth of his crimes and the revelations of this macabre period in the Russian history have not transformed their psyche. "Those who worked for NKVD had no choice, they were just recruited there. If they protested, they would be killed themselves. Such were the times - they were also the victims of the regime", says Lyudmila Kozlova, 66.

Today's older generations perceive Stalin as akin to Peter the Great or Napoleon: probably lacking some humane qualities, but a strong-willed patriot who did good things for the country.

Memorial holds tours of the sites in the centre of Moscow that are associated with Soviet terror. None of these places are known to the Russian public and only a few are on tourist maps, like the KGB building (which houses the successor FSB) or the Solovki Islands.

Tours that give an insight into the history of repressions are not routinely conducted in schools, institutions of higher learning or Moscow-awareness tours. What's more, some of these buildings that should have become memorial museums, such as the Military Council of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, (where 31,456 people were executed in 1936-1938), have been privatized and turned into offices and commercial property.

Political repressions of today

This year's memorial service at the Solovetsky Stone sparked a little more interest than usual from that small segment of the public concerned with the plight of the more recent political prisoners such as jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his partner Platon Lebedev, the jailed members of punk rock band Pussy Riot, and the protestors arrested and imprisoned following the clashes with the police during the protests in May last year.

Stalin-style policies of sacrificing individuals for the sake of grand ideas or persecuting those who are seen as different have not only not been denounced, but have taken strong root in the Russian mentality and are silently accepted by the majority. This is seen in the adoption of new laws restricting the freedom of gays, NGOs and in daily treatment of migrants.

Human life continues to have little value in today's Russia, much the same as it was under Stalin, and the judicial and prison systems have experienced little reform since the Gulag times. Prisons are still characterized by harsh, un-dignifying conditions and almost slave labour, as described in a recent letter from a prison in Mordovia by Pussy Riot's Tolokonnikova. Her observations are echoed by many other former inmates of Russia's prisons.

Putin is expected to endorse a new unified version of a Russian history textbook soon. One can only wonder if it is going to be history described from different points of view or continue the trend of emphasizing Russia as a "Great Country" and ignoring the suffering of its people.

"There is no family in Russia who have not been affected by the repressions," says Irina Ostrovskaya of Memorial. Indeed, as I started writing this piece thinking that no one was affected by repressions in my family, I discovered that my great grandfather spent 10 years in jail, was released severely ill and was only rehabilitated in 1991, years after his death.

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