Vienna, February 24 – Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s emergency situations minister, told a group of Stalingrad veterans today that he would like to see the Duma make the denial of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II a crime in order to ensure that “the presidents of certain countries who deny this won’t be able to visit our country without punishment.”
He said that such a law, should the Russian legislature adopt it, would be valuable in yet another way. It would cause “the mayors of certain cities [both in the Russian Federation and beyond its borders] think several times before tearing down monuments” to that victory (http://www.regions.ru/news/2197949/).
Shoigu’s idea appears to be modeled on laws in more than a dozen countries which make the denial of the Holocaust a crime and reflects at least in part a Russian response to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s proposal to make the public denial of the terror famine in Ukraine a crime there.
Beyond any doubt, many of the veterans the emergency situations minister was speaking to would support this idea as would many Russians more generally. But it is not clear whether anything will come of this idea, given the opposition it will certainly generate and the problems such a “criminalization” of history could entail in today’s Russia.
On the one hand, free speech advocates and some members of the Duma may not believe that the best way to deal with historical issues is through the legal code. As some deputies have said, Holocaust denial is “a stupidity but not a crime” (www.regions.ru/news/2070829/) --
even though these same people may feel differently about anything directly linked to Russia
And on the other, some who may be less interested in media freedom may fear that once the government gets involved in declaring what is true, there will be no end to it, something that they might like to use in this case but that could work to their disadvantage in other situations, raising the profile of issues like Stalinist crimes that they would like to play down or ignore.
But whatever the fate of Shoigu’s proposal, whether it turns out to be rhetoric intended to please a particular audience or it becomes the law of the land, his making it is part of what Moscow historian and publisher Gennady Bordyugov calls “the war of memory” in Russia and the other post-Soviet states (www.rian.ru/analytics/20090220/162735002.html).
In this “war,” he notes, many “residents of the post-Soviet space” are finding it difficult to comprehend why those they believed were heroes are now viewed as bandits and those they saw as bandits have now become heroes, shifts that he argues makes the careful study and publication of documentary evidence particularly critical.
Unfortunately, Shoigu’s plan to use the legal code to define history so that it meets current requirements is only one of them – and certainly not the most dangerous. Many bureaucracies are closing access to archives, as Bordyugov says, and some Russian officials are prepared to seize documents that may have somehow gotten beyond their reach.
One of the most serious of these latter efforts was the December 2008 raid on the St. Petersburg office of Memorial, “a special operation” in which security officials seized and carted off a large quantity of historical documents in an effort to ensure that the government and not independent scholars would define the past.
In an essay posted on Polit.ru last week, historian Tatyana Kosinova argues that this action, which is now the subject of a protracted court case, has less to do with Memorial than it does with Russia as a whole, as a demonstration of “much that is interesting but little that is new” in that country (www.polit.ru/analytics/2009/02/19/memorial.html).
But what happened is new in this sense, Kosinova continued: One must go back to “pre-perestroika” or even “pre-thaw” times to see an official action of this kind. In its 20-year-long history, she writes, Memorial had not experienced anything like this “even in [the organization’s] offices in Chechnya and Ingushetia.”
Indeed, the last time, Moscow’s special services seized as much at any one time was in the summer of 1965 when they confiscated the archive of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had assembled enormous materials on the Soviet and Russian past in the course of research on “The GULAG Archipelago” and “The Red Wheel.”
But Kosinova insists that the authorities have miscalculated. They haven’t harmed Memorial’s reputation but only their own, and their action by its brazenness has attracted the attention of the US State Department, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as well as historians and archivists in Russia and throughout the world.
She expresses some hope that Russian courts will agree, even though she is certainly aware that the Russian officials behind the action against Memorial will then seek and win credit in the West as supporters of “the rule of law” even while they are confident that most people who live in Russia will remain intimidated by what these Moscow officials did in December.