Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Despite Patriarchate’s Efforts, Fewer Russians Thinking about the GULAG

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 26 – Ever fewer Russians display much interest in Stalin’s system of camps, the notorious GULAG through which millions of their ancestors passed and in which a large number died -- despite new efforts by the Orthodox Church to encourage their attention to and repentance of one aspect of that tragic chapter in their national life.
But the Church, from Patriarch Kirill on down, Boris Kolymagin, a poet and specialist on Russian religious life, argues in an article in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” is almost exclusively concerned with memorializing Orthodox hierarchs, priests and believers who perished in the GULAG than about recalling all those who suffered from Stalin’s crimes.
On the one hand, he suggests, speaking about “the victims of Stalinism” now is so uncommon that anything the Church can do in this area is important. But on the other, Kolymagin says, the Church’s focus on its own to the exclusion of others not only further distorts history but implies that some victims are more worthy of recollection than others.
Moreover, he continues, much of the Church’s activity seems more directed at attracting media attention than at increasing the attention of Russians to what happened in the past, features of the Patriarch’s campaign that were much in evidence at a recent event where a stone from the Solovetsky camps was brought to Moscow and an eternal flame lit.
Not only did participants in this action have to pass through a militia line to take part, but the “selectiveness” of the leaders of the groups involved was highlighted both by the suggestion that an Orthodox Church should be put in front of the Lubyanka where the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky used to stand and by the content of the speeches at the meeting.
Speaker after speaker, Kolymagin notes, “recalled only Orthodox believers” in speaking about those who suffered and often died in Stalin’s camps. “Not a word was said about the other victims of the GULAG and about remembering them” or about the need for “popular repentance” for what had happened (
Moreover – and this may be the most disturbing feature of all given the current ideological climate in Russia – nothing was said about those who committed the crimes in Stalin’s times but only about the victims of those crimes, as if they somehow suffered but no one was really guilty or needed to be held responsible.
But despite these limitations, at a time when “ever fewer people are reading [Solzhenitsyn’s] ‘GULAG Archipelago’ and when President Dmitry Medvedev’s creation of a commission to fight “the falsification of the history of the fatherland” makes it likely that even fewer will do so in the future, the actions of the Church are important, Kolymagin suggests.
The Church’s activities in this regard have taken two forms, one very public and one less noticed but perhaps ultimately more influential. The public form includes the much-discussed “anti-Stalinist” interview of Archbishop Ilarion, who now heads the external affairs department of the Patriarchate, and the statements of Patriarch Kirill himself.
When Kirill visited Ukraine, for example, the patriarch spoke at the memorial to the victims of the Stalin-era famine in that country in terms that left little doubt that he viewed these as crimes against humanity. In the face of criticism in the wake of the OSCE’s equation of Stalinism and Nazism, he retreated. But Kolymagin suggests, the reason for that is obvious:
In the first case, he was speaking “as a man of the Church; in the second, as a politician.”
At the same time and as his visit to Solovki showed, Patriarch Kirill has engaged in a more personal and private dialogue in which he and his hierarchs talk about their own parents and grandparents who died in the GULAG, thus adopting “a tone which is very important in conversations with young people” who often view the 1930s as ancient history.
During one meeting recently organized by the Church, participants “spoke about their relatives who had lived through the horrors of the 20th century or died as a result.” It turned out, Kolymagin notes that their relatives included three priests, two of whom had been shot under Stalin, and a third who had died in prison.
Unfortunately, Kolymagin concludes, this focus on Orthodox victims of Stalin’s crimes while important has the effect of ignoring the thousands, even millions of others who suffered and died as well, something that is morally significant and politically important given that there are now some 800,000 relatives of victims who cannot secure even now information about them.
But perhaps the most important comments in Kolymagin’s article about both the importance and the limitations of what the Orthodox Church is doing were offered by the grandson of Father Pavel Florensky, the great Orthodox philosopher who died in the Solovki camps.
On the one hand, he said, Russians now should remember that “even in the most extreme conditions, the individual as a personality [and not just as a religious actor] could survive.” And on the other, if Russians now refuse to learn from the past, then “there will be new political and religious repressions and persecutions.”

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