Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Continuing 1937 Problem

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 30 – Nearly half of all Russians cannot identify 1937 as the year of Stalin’s Great Terror and only a relative handful can give the name any of the Soviet dictator’s most prominent victims despite the continuing efforts of Russian human rights groups to keep the memory of those times alive, according to a recent poll.
The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) earlier this fall asked a representative sample of Russians both what references to the year 1937 brought to mind and whether they could give the name of any of Stalin’s most well-known victims (http://www.nr2.ru/society/144892.html).
Only 44 percent correctly linked that year to the Great Terror, and fewer than one in four could identify any of Stalin’s specific victims, VTsIOM found. The remaining Russians either could not say what 1937 stood for or name any of the most prominent victims.
Instead, some of them linked to 1937 events that happened in other years – such as collectivization and the industrialization of the country – while others listed the names of those who fell victim to the Stalinist campaigns in other years entirely – such as Lev Trotsky, Sergei Kirov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
On the one hand, this pattern reflects the simple ignorance of the Russian population and especially its younger members about the past. But on the other, it is the product of official efforts both in the past and now to portray Stalin in a positive light and downplay his crimes.
Nonetheless, such results are striking especially given the efforts of human rights activists throughout the country to keep the memory of Stalin’s crimes alive lest anyone in the Russian Federation be tempted to think that the country would benefit from a return to his style of rule.
Sometimes, these efforts are local ones and attract little attention. Last Thursday, for example, activists in Irkutsk pointed out that during 1937-38, the Soviet government killed its own citizens at a greater rate than Hitler’s invading armies did in the course of the second world war (http://babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=40668).
But last week, the Memorial Human Rights Society announced the release of a CD containing the names of 2,614,978 who fell victim to “state terror” in the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine between 1918 and 1985 (http://www.kavkaz.memo.ru/newstext/news/id/1200292.html).
On the one hand, this listing covers a far larger sweep of time than just the peak of the Great Terror in 1937, but on the other, it is incomplete geographically – many of the former Soviet republics and occupied Baltic states are not included – and because documentation concerning additional victims is not available for one reason or another.
In presenting the new compilation, Memorial’s Arseniy Roginskiy acknowledged that it was incomplete and said that the Russian government and Russian society should devote as much attention to collecting the remaining names as they do to recalling “the fall of the Great Fatherland War.”
Others participating in this release, timed to mark the 70th anniversary of the horrors of 1937, were equally blunt about the need for Russians and all other people of good will to remember what had taken place in the Soviet Union at that time lest someone be tempted to repeat it.
Vladimir Lukin, the government’s human rights ombudsman, said that it was “absolutely essential” that Russians remember what had occurred lest “new generations [be] condemned to starting from zero.” And Yabloko leader Grigoriy Yavlinskiy was even more impassioned about the need to recall what Stalin had done.
“We are speaking about state terrorism,” he said, “and its difference from international terrorism about which many now speak is that those who died from it were not people who suffered by accident but rather “the best, the most notable, and the most honest.”
Given that at least some of Stalin’s victims in 1937 were themselves torturers and the murderers of others, many will disagree with Yavlinskiy on that last point. But given the ignorance of the past highlighted by the findings of the VTsIOM poll, few will dispute that those concerned about the future of Russia need to remember this past.

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