Russian authorities want to rehabilitate some of the worst figures of the Soviet Union, but not everyone is convinced.
The closure of the civil society organisation International Memorial, which documented historical abuses of the former Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin‘s purges of dissenters against his regime’s brutal rule, has ignited a fierce debate around remembering the past crimes of what many called the Red Empire.
The closure of the human rights organisation, which has long been a thorn in the side of Russian officials, was found guilty, which requires nongovernmental organisations (NGO’s) to register as foreign agents for receiving foreign donations.
Critics, however, point to the fact that the International Memorial often contradicted the official narrative on Soviet history, which in recent years has sought to whitewash crimes committed during the reign of Stalin in particular.
Set up in 1989, the NGO set itself the task of compiling a database of the “Victims of Political Terror in the USSR.”
Its first edition, released in 2001, included more than 130,000 names of victims of the Soviet purges who would end up in a vast industrial system of gulags, where many died.
In its latest edition of the victims of the Soviet purges, International Memorial has compiled a list of more than 3 million people, many from family accounts or piecing together official records.
On the website, the organisation estimates that the latest figures represent “no more than a quarter of the total number of victims of political terror.”
“Russia still does not have a state program to perpetuate the memory of victims of political repression,” said the body. And there is a good reason for that.
In recent years the Soviet dictator has experienced a resurgence in popularity.
A poll in 2019 found that a majority of Russians viewed the Soviet leader positively.
Following Stalin’s death in 1956, the Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev, in a secret speech to the party faithful, denounced Stalin’s cult of personality and his brutal reign. Thousands of political prisoners were freed from Stalin’s labour camps for a brief moment.
But as the true scale of the Soviet purges came to light, authorities saw it as a threat to the legitimacy of the whole communist enterprise and covered up the crimes.
So why now?
In recent years Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has called on the international community to acknowledge the role and the price paid by Russian’s in defeating Nazi Germany.
The Soviet victory over Adolf Hitler’s Germany is a source of national pride for many in the country. Nazi Germany’s retreat in the face of Soviet resistance was a turning point during World War II.
In an essay titled “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II,” Putin spoke of the need to remember the “epic” and “crushing victory over Nazism” as a result of the Soviet Union.
Soviet resolve over the Nazis had “saved the entire world,” Putin boasted while decrying western powers of forgetting the historic debt.
Speaking about the role Stalin played, Putin said that “unlike many other European leaders of that time, Stalin did not disgrace himself by meeting with Hitler who was known among the Western nations as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals.”
The difficulty for Russian authorities today is how to square Stalin saving millions of lives worldwide with Soviet dictators’ concentration camps inside the communist bloc, which saw millions perish.
It’s against this backdrop that the the Russian historian Yuri Dmitriev saw his prison sentence climb to 13 years on what his supporters say are trumped-up charges of sexually abusing his adopted daughter.
Dmitriev spent years uncovering mass graves of Stalin’s gulags, now some think he’s paying the price for going against the official narrative that seeks to sanitise Soviet history.
Russian officials have accused people like Dmitriev and those behind the International Memorial of seeking to create a “false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and denigrates the memory of World War II.”
What are people saying?
Following the rulings by Russian authorities, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum director, Piotr Cywinski, said that “A power that is afraid of memory will never be able to achieve democratic maturity.”
Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director, Marie Struthers, said that “International Memorial is a highly respected human rights organisation that has worked tirelessly to document the atrocities and political repression carried out under the rule of Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders. By closing down the organisation, Russian authorities trample on the memory of millions of victims lost to the Gulag.”
Whereas another human rights activist said that while Russian authorities were going after individuals for uncovering Soviet crimes in the “Great Purge” of the Stalinist era, “no prosecutions have ever been brought against those personally responsible for the disappearances and killings of the gulag.”