Vienna, June 17 – Just as Vasily Grossman foresaw in his classic work, “Forever Flowing,” Russian politicians who openly admire Stalin are now the very people calling for a minute of silence or a monument to his millions of victims, an act of hypocrisy that does no honor to the former and insults the memory of the latter.
Last week, “Novaya gazeta” featured an article suggesting that the Russian government may at long last be prepared to build a monument to the victims of communism in that country, thus ending what the article’s author, Vladimir Ryzhkov, suggested is an anomalous and even dangerous situation (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/41/28.html).
Russia today, he noted, “remains almost the only country in the former socialist camp” where there is not a national memorial to the victims of communism. That shortcoming “ puts Russia in a hypocritical position: making it appear that we are shamefully justifying the crimes of Stalinism and even in part acting as successors of [his] criminal regime.”
But now, Ryzhkov continued, this situation is changing. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has raised the issue twice. Various fractions of the Duma have called for a memorial. And now Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Duma and the number two official in the ruling United Russia Party, is backing the idea.
Such “growing support for the initiative of establishing a memorial center,” Ryzhkov concluded, “offers hope that in the near future it will be possible to achieve all the necessary political and organization decisions and include the forces of both society and state in the creation of a monument, memorial and museum worthy of the victims and of the new Russia.”
In an essay posted online today, however, Moscow historian Irina Pavlova argues that Ryzhkov’s upbeat stance is misplaced for at least three reasons. First, she notes, the politicians pushing the idea of a memorial to the victims of Stalin are admirers of the dictator, a combination that insults the dead and the living (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.137810.html).
Second, she points out, these same politicians are interested in using such a monument to legitimate the regime of which they are a part rather than deal honestly with the crimes of their predecessors, again a travesty against the memory of the millions upon millions of people who suffered under Soviet rule.
Indeed, she writes, “the establishment of a memorial to the victims of Stalinist repression today would serve only one thing – the legitimation of the current powers that be that in essence have reproduced the Stalinist mechanism of administration under the cover of ‘sovereign democracy.’”
And third, Pavlova suggests, the Russian government is trying to hijack the construction of such a memorial, to reduce to a minimum the role of society and thus to gut the meaning of such a monument for the population as a whole even while the regime seeks to use it to present itself as having “overcome” the past.
It is this last point that clearly concerns her most. Involved with the collection of memoirs of the victims of Stalin’s rule for more than 20 years, Pavlova a decade ago published an article arguing that the time was not yet ripe for such a monument because it would be “an indulgence” for the regime and elicit only feelings of “anger, regret, and protest” among the population.
Today, the Moscow historian says, “the atmosphere in the country is worse than it was ten years ago,” with the current regime “having cultivated the image of Stalin as an outstanding statesman,” a view that public opinion polls show has had a serious impact on the views of the Russian people.
Ryzhkov is of course correct, Pavlova says, when he suggests that Russia is “just about the only country in the former socialist camp” without such a memorial. But he is profoundly wrong when he suggests that such a situation risks creating the impression that Russia is today “a successor of [Stalin’s] criminal regime.”
That is not an impression, she says; it is a reality. To give but one example: the FSB has not declassified many of the documents about that period in violation of Boris Yeltsin’s order of August 24, 1991, and historians working for the organs continue to churn out books and articles celebrating Stalin and his contributions to the country and the world.
Moreover, she asks, “why should we be talking about a memorial to the victims only of Stalin and not of all political repressions? Even in the time of perestroika, the question was framed more broadly. And why should this memorial complex be hidden in the Butyrka prison [as some have proposed] and not stand before FSB headquarters?”
As many have forgotten, Nikita Khrushchev first raised the idea of a monument to Stalin’s victims in the party and government at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, and at the 22nd CPSU Congress in 1961, he called for the construction of a memorial to them in Moscow itself.
Twenty-seven years later, at the 19th All-Union Party Conference, the issue was raised again and broadened to include all victims of Stalin. And at that time, efforts to rehabilitate the dictator’s victims were resumed after a hiatus of more than a generation. A Memorial was created – but it was and remains an informal organization rather than something else.
Had a monument to Stalin’s victims been erected in 1988-89, a time when there was unusual popular attention to the past, that act alone would “not only have united society but had a powerful influence on the future course of the development of the country. But that did not happen, she notes, and it could not happen for reasons that are “now clear.”
The emerging political elite wanted to draw on the past rather than condemn it, and in March 1996, on the 40th anniversary of Khrushchev’s secret speech unmasking Stalin, no more than ten members of the Duma were prepared to support the late Sergey Yushenkov’s proposal to honor the victims by standing up for a moment of silence.
Beyond any doubt, Russia needs a monument to those who were repressed by Stalin and by others, Pavlova concludes. But it must be one created by the Russian people who fully recognize and understand the crimes of the past, not one “put up with the permission of the current powers that be – the heirs of the very organs which carried out the repressions.”