Julia Reed in Moscow -
Crimes? What crimes? In 1997, the then prime minister of Sweden, Goran Persson, heard on the radio the results of a survey that Swedish youth knew next to nothing about the Holocaust. Outraged by the finding, he got the support of parliament to create a national Holocaust awareness programme for schools. The aim of the programme was not only to spread the knowledge of the Holocaust, but also to organize a nationwide debate about democracy and tolerance. The programme has become known as "Living History." In 2010, another national programme was launched that focused on the awareness and memory of the crimes of Communist regimes, notably those in Cambodia, China and Russia. Swedish researchers came to Russia looking for evidence and examples.
Alexandra Polivanova worked in the cultural department of the Swedish Embassy in Moscow where she first heard of the Living History. Her job took her to the remote corners of Russia, including the Gulag camps, where locals looked surprised to hear about the crimes of the communists. It was common to talk about Nazi atrocities, sometimes even about a ‘few’ mistakes made by Stalin, the occasional repressions, but never about full-blown crimes against humanity by the state perpetrated against its own citizens. “It was like a trauma that you want to forget and it got pushed out from people’s psyche,” comments Polivanova, now a curator of cultural programmes in Memorial – a history society that holds archives and spreads knowledge of Soviet repressions.
Memorial is also an organizer of an annual "Restoring Names" event when members of the public meet on Lubyanka square – the headquarters of the Communist-era KGB and still the headquarters of its replacement, the FSB – to read out the names from the list of 40,000 people repressed or executed during the Soviet era in Moscow alone. “I was inspired by Sweden's example and became involved in projects that raise public awareness of our tragic past, because this is unfinished business for many Russians,” explains Polivanova, whose relative, the Russian philosopher Gustav Shpet, was executed in Tomsk in 1937.
Tales of grandchildren
In an attempt to spark a debate in a society whose modern history is seen through the prism of victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1945 and Yuri Gagarin’s first flight in space in 1961, Polivanova put together a documentary play, named “Grandchildren”, based on interviews with grandchildren of those who took an active role in repressions.
In one such account, a grandson tries to reconcile his household memories of his grandpa in socks and dressing gown with the knowledge that he was the head of a prison camp. At the end of the play, members of the audience are invited to speak. And this is when the actual relatives of the victims can meet the relatives of ‘those who did it.’
Another ongoing project, called “The Family Journey,” looks into “how to restore what was taken away from us.” Its goal is to get children from as young as nine to learn about their family life in the Soviet Union by getting to know the objects and household items from the Memorial’s museum archive and the things they brought from home and to reflect on their findings.
But for larger-scale projects than these, the Moscow City government’s approval is hard to get. “We wanted to install plaques with the names of executed Muscovites on the houses where they lived, similar to what they did in Berlin,” says Polivanova. “At first, Memorial's idea was met with understanding in the Mayor’s office. Then they changed their mind. They want Moscow to be known by its bicycle tracks and not as a memorial site,” she laughs.
Polivanova sounds upbeat in the environment of the state hostility toward internationally sponsored NGOs – the so-called "foreign agents" law. Memorial has also found itself in the firing line; the Ministry of Justice has threatened to shut down the NGO on the grounds that it has a "legally inappropriate structure."
Polivanova comments with pride: “We had some success this year: we [Memorial] were authorized to install an outdoor exhibition featuring the sites of Moscow associated with the repressions right on Lyubyanka square, next to the Solovetski memorial stone – a large stone brought from the Solovetsky Islands off Russia's northern coast and home to the first Gulag. The exhibition is going to run for a month and a half, starting from October 29, the eve of the day of the victims of the political repressions in Russia.”
“And my mother…”
A long line of people of all ages gathered next to the Solovetski Stone on October 30 holding candles and flowers, looking solemn. A few have pictures of their loved ones held against their chests. Some with children, some on scooters, others on their way home from work lugging full shopping bags.
Russians have been gathering at this spot since 1974 on October 30 to commemorate the victims of political repressions. The tradition started with a hunger strike organized by the inmates of Mordovia and Perm prison camps and until 1987 the day was commemorated with annual hunger strikes in cities across the country. One of the biggest demonstrations was held in 1989 just before the fall of the Soviet Union when about 3,000 people surrounded the KGB building in a line of candles. Since 1991, October 30 has been officially recognized day of the memory, but there is little official acknowledgement of the day.
The Solovetski Stone was brought from Solovetski monastery, where Stalin sent the first political prisoners, and installed on the square in 1990 as a reminder of Soviet political oppressions. In an annual all-day event that has been taking place since 2006, ordinary people come to the Stone and read out the names, ages, occupations and the dates of execution from a list of 40,000 Muscovites who were put to death.
The two names I was given to read were:
Alexeev Victor Petrovich
32 years of age
executed on November 13, 1942.
Alexeev Ivan Ivanovich
customer service engineer at Electrostal plant
executed on August 20, 1938.
Sometimes the readers’ voices break as they tack on to their name “… and my mother” or “… and my father.”
A tiny old woman, with a microphone placed too high for her to reach comfortably, broke out: “… and my father was shot in the basement of this building,” pointing at the newly painted former KGB building behind her. Her pointed finger looked more like a fist. But the building said nothing, standing quietly, like it always has. “And me and my mother lived in exile till 1958…” She fell silent then walked away. The pain in her voice was audible, the suffering of her family visible on her face. Young people in line tried to hold back tears.
Memorial estimates there are today 800,000 surviving victims of Soviet repressions, including children who lost their parents. These people are still waiting for an official apology from the state, but in today’s political climate of re-emphasising the power of the state and reviving former Soviet glories, they have little chance of receiving one. “Why do you still talk about it? It’s now common knowledge, so much has been said about it,” says a Russian friend on Facebook.
And yet even today it’s not uncommon for people to be completely unaware of the fact their own family members have been through the Gulag system. “I only found out by accident that my grandfather’s father spent seven years in a prison settlement after the war. My parents never told me because this kind of information cost people jobs,” says another Russian friend.
The civil activists of today
Not everyone wants to keep a low profile. One young couple came out publically and published their story via social media. In the quite provincial town of Arkhangelsk, some 200km from the site of the Solovki camp, Alexandr Popov, 31, head of the university digital communications lab, and Anna Zvezdina, 32, a Russian teacher, stand on the crossroads of two streets every week to protest against the detention of political prisoners still incarcerated following clashes with the police in the demonstration of May 6, 2012 in Moscow, known as the Bolotnaya prisoners.
“We started with Anna in November 2013. We always come to the same spot at 5:00pm because it’s well lit even in the dark. About 5 to 10 people come out every week, one or two people stand more than a metre away from the others with signs (since individual pickets do not require a city permission and to count as "individual" protests must stand at least 1m apart), and the rest just stand there without saying anything. Sometimes passers-by ask questions or make comments. We say that we want to raise awareness of the case; we explain how members of the public can help, for instance, by writing letters to the prisoners, and we want the town’s people to know that Bolotnaya prisoners are just citizens who fought for their civil rights”, explains Popov. “Only a handful of people come to our pickets every week but we will continue because the Bolotnaya prisoners know about us and it’s great support for them. Our town looks, quiet but after the presidential elections of 2012, some 3,000 people took to the streets, which is a lot for Arkhangelsk. These people felt like citizens then.”
When I spoke to Popov, his wife Anna was in hospital having just had a baby girl. Something told me that these new parents would be raising their daughter Sasha differently to the previous generations of Russians. They will not be hiding the truth about their country’s past and present from their child. They will not continue with the tradition of Soviet-style silence and cynicism. In fact, this family is in the process of creating a new culture for Russia, which Sasha, hopefully, will inherit, a culture of openness and social responsibility.
Yet, according to a recent poll by the state-run VTsIOM, more than 50% of Russians believe that repressions are likely to come back. Fatalism is, it seems, as strong as ever in Russia.
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