Russia. Historian, Co-founder and President of the human right organization MEMORIAL
This article is a speech given at a conference of the joint Nordic Embassies in Berlin, March 2009. Title of the conference: “The Cold War Period. International understanding. The role of the storytelling sites where events took place.“
The human right organization MEMORIAL is:
- a movement which arose in the years of perestroika. Its main task was the awakening and preservation of the societal memory of the severe political persecution in the recent past of the Soviet Union.
- a community of dozens of organizations in different regions of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Georgia.
- a group of specialized research, human rights, and education centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other cities.
- a museum, a repository of documents, and a number of specialized libraries.
- dozens of books, newspaper and magazine articles, radio programs, and exhibits dedicated to the tragedies of the past decades and to the current attempts to limit the freedoms and dignity of citizens of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
- the Law on Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression. It was passed in 1991 and reinstated civil rights to tens of thousands of living Russian citizens and to tens of thousands of those who had already passed away.
- a number of regional associations of former prisoners of political prison camps and members of their families. This encompasses tens of thousands of direct and indirect victims of political repression. It is adequate assistance – legal, and sometimes also material – needed by the elderly who emerged from the hell of Soviet prisons and political prison camps.
The Gulag Camps and Other Memorials from the Communist Period: Information and Protection
“From the 1920s to the 1950s alone, there existed ……. in the USSR .…… at least 10,000 camp units, each of which was encircled by barbed wire. If we add the prisons, corrective labor colonies and … the special settlements for seven million deportees, we arrive at no less than 15-17,000 sites where people were deprived of their freedom”.
First of all, one has to address the question of what the correlation between the terms Gulag and Cold War is. I think it is a very direct one. That is, of course, if by Gulag we refer not only to the camps, but the entire Soviet system of political terror, and in particular, the way it was targeted.
For the USSR the Cold War did not begin in 1946. Rather, it was an integral part of the Great Confrontation between Soviet Russia and the rest of the world, which – in the forms typical for the Cold War – began no later than at the end of the 1920s. Its main feature was: our country is a ”besieged fortress”, beyond our borders are the enemies, within the fortress there is a fifth column at work. This model existed until the war and was revived immediately after it.
The Great Terror of 1937-1938 was the peak of the pre-war stage of the Cold War. Hundreds of thousands of citizens were shot, other hundreds of thousands were sent to camps on charges of causing damage to the USSR, spying, or engaging in sabotage upon the orders of foreign countries. The state border was viewed as the front line, all foreigners as enemies, cross-border correspondence was practically prohibited, and visiting foreign countries was simply unthinkable. It was in those days that the Iron Curtain fell, not a decade later. It was in the 1930s that Soviet propaganda, supported by the Terror, planted the virus of suspicion against everything foreign in the mass consciousness. And it was those years that saw the formation of the stereotypes about the capitalist countries’ desire to conquer, enslave and subjugate us.
The war muddled those stereotypes and did much to shatter them, particularly among those who fought in it. But the propaganda campaigns of the early post-war years immediately brought back and strengthened the old stereotypes. Of course, these stereotypes altered as the years went on. First, the Cold War soon lost its ideological stuffing. It transformed into a conflict of civilisations, yet another stage of the age-old confrontation between Russia and ”the West.” Second, beginning in the 1940s the besieged fortress had an additional fortified line, the ”socialist camp”. Third, propaganda positioned the USSR not so much as a party to the cold war but as a force resisting it. We wanted to see ourselves and we did see ourselves not as combatants in the Cold War but as fighters against it, as apostles of peace.
The perception of the Cold War in Soviet Russia did not change in its substance after that.
And over all that time the Terror remained. Under Stalin and after his death, when the Terror was no longer so massive in scale, propaganda presented those arrested as the proponents of a hostile Western ideology who were acting at the orders of Western anti-Soviet centers.
These stereotypes began to disappear only during the era of the “new thinking” proclaimed by Gorbachev, very quickly and without visible resistance.
Polls conducted in the late 1980s showed unusual results: they revealed obvious friendliness on the part of the Soviet (and also Russian) citizens towards that same West which only yesterday had appeared to be an eternal enemy.
The Wall in Berlin came down, the rule of the Communist Party was coming to an end, the Soviet Union collapsed, and it seemed to us that the Cold War was over.
To what happened later I will return in a moment. Let me turn now to the memorialisation of the sites of the GULAG. How many sites were there?
One of the first objectives of Memorial, the NGO that I represent, was to make a map of the GULAG. Twenty years ago, when Memorial was established, we understood GULAG to refer to the camps, not to all sites of the Terror. We soon found that it was almost impossible to make such a map. Instead, we drew a map of the camp administrations. From the 1920s to the 1950s alone, there existed over 500 of them in the USSR. Every administration had several divisions, and the divisions were further broken down into camp units. Even if we assume an avarage of 20 units per administration, this adds up to at least 10,000 sites, each of which was encircled by barbed wire. If we add the prisons, corrective labor colonies under local jurisdiction and, last but not least, the special settlements for the about seven millions deported persons, we arrive at no less than 15-17,000 sites where people were deprived of their freedom. Should these places, where people suffered and perished, have commemorative signs? Ideally, yes. In reality, we do not even know how to approach this problem. Because many of these camps have been irrevocably lost: forests have grown where some once stood, asphalt and residential houses or factories have taken the place of others, and some camps have been rebuilt into today’s penal institutions and scarcely resemble their predecessors.
Only two places of confinement can be viewed as having truly been memorialised. One is a camp for political prisoners 100 kilometers from Perm (Ural); the other is a prison cellar in Tomsk (West Siberia). Both have been turned into museums thanks to the efforts of their surrounding communities, including those of the local offices of Memorial.
But what should be done with the camp cemeteries? Sometimes prisoners were buried in cemeteries belonging to neighboring villages, but the camps almost always had their own cemeteries. There were small cemeteries and there were very large ones located next to camp hospitals or camps for invalids. There were thousands of camp cemeteries. So far, we have managed to find perhaps one percent of them.
And the sites where people who were shot were buried? From the early 1920s, official instructions required that everything related to the executions, the shootings, must be kept top secret. The locations of the sites where the shootings took place are kept secret, as are the burial sites. From 1937 to1938, about 1.7 million people were arrested on political charges, and 725,000 of them were shot. After many years of searching, we have learned about only 100 of the burial sites of people shot in those two years alone. According to our calculations, this is less than a third (perhaps a quarter) of the total. The share of identified burial sites dating to other periods is even smaller. As a result, millions of our fellow citizens do not know where their parents or grandparents are buried – those who were shot or died in a camp.
We might have had much more success in tracing the sites of former camps and burial sites had we been able to work in the archives without restriction. Alas, we do not have access to many of the documents that are necessary for our research. This is due to Russian legislation and, more importantly, due to the ‘reality-in-practice’ in our country.
Our regional activists, as well as the descendents and local compatriots of the victims, undertake expeditions to the fomer sites of camps and special settlements, and search for camp cemeteries and the sites of shootings, and then erect commemorative signs on their own initiative. The problem is that these sites, with very few exceptions, do not receive any official status. Neither the Prosecutors’ Offices nor the local authorities want to investigate or provide official documents.
But camps, prisons and cemeteries are not the only sites of the Terror. There are also the products of forced labor – plants, mines, buildings and thousands of kilometers of rail tracks. A year ago, Memorial contacted the current owners of all these business assets with a simple request: to recall how their prosperity began and do something about it. For example, to hang a memorial plaque by the entrance to the factory, or at railway stations. To tend the neighboring cemeteries of prisoners. To arrange a display for employees. We did not receive a single response to our proposals. Still, some electric power stations did hang memorial plaques last autumn. Not many, but at least it is something.
The federal government has consistently balked from taking any steps towards commemorating the sites of the Terror. Russia still has no national Museum associated with the Terror or a national monument to its victims. This is not solely due to the federal government’s policy, because Russia does not have a national memory of the Terror. The memory we do have is a regional one, a memory about local victims, and the memory held by religious, ethnic and professional groups about their victims.
Still, there are at least 700 signs commemorating the Soviet Terror in Russia (including memorial plaques and monuments). This is a very small figure in comparison with the scale of the Soviet Terror. Commemorative signs have been erected thanks to the efforts of communities and local administrations. All of these sculptures, chapels, crosses and memorial stones immortalize the memory of victims. Their inscriptions usually say that they commemorate “victims of political repression.” To the people in Russia this language is barely understandable. What historical images does it promote? Ones similar to those held by the contemporaries of the Terror: images of a natural disaster, something like a plague or an earthquake that descended on the country, taking many lives. In this memory there is no image of the crime, or the criminals.
Memory of the crimes committed by Stalin and the state that he headed has transformed into a memory of those who perished as a result of those crimes. The perpetrator of the crime has been dropped from this memory, as has the crime itself. This is much more comfortable, both for the state and, regretfully, also for the public. Our country has not come to terms with the Stalinist Terror.
Of course, memorialisation of the objects of the Terror could help us to do so – it might at least promote a nation-wide debate about Stalinism, its legacy and ways of overcoming it. But it seems that outside of relatively small groups, nobody perceives such commemoration as a priority. Alas. Yet, we still hold out hope for the success of our hopeless cause.
I have much less hope when I think about the possibility of memorializing the objects related to the Cold War. There are two reasons for this. First, that would involve hanging memorial plaques on tens of thousands government buildings – not only on army barracks and headquarters (there were thousands of them), but on all buildings of the Party committees, from top to bottom, on all editorial offices of the Party and Komsomol newspapers (there were thousands of them), all KGB offices, buildings that housed censors and, most importantly, on a huge number of industrial premises – there were tens of thousands of them. In some cases not just on buildings but whole cities: we had (and still have) dozens of restricted-access towns. Almost the entire country worked for the Cold War. Still, the main problem lies elsewhere.
As I said, we decided in the late 1980s that the Cold War had been relegated to the past for once and for all. But those were illusions.
In the 1990s the situation had already begun to change. In my opinion, the most important factor is that the events of 1989-1991 very soon came to be perceived as a defeat in the Great Confrontation. This made some unhappy while for others it was cause to rejoice. But even those who were glad understood the events as a defeat of the USSR in the Cold War. Almost nobody offered any other model. This concept took firm root after the collapse of the USSR.
Putinism appeared in the context of this understanding of Russia’s historical fate. The foreign policy aspect of Putin’s doctrine, as perceived by the mass conciousness, is the following: Russia has been recovering from the defeat of 1991 and is now, once again, able to oppose “the West”, i.e. Europe and, above all, the USA. This perception is closer to the early Stalinist concept of the Cold War than to the concept that existed under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Russia is once again being perceived as a besieged fortress, again one within a ring of enemies (Georgia, the Baltic states, at times Poland and even Ukraine), and again there is a fifth column in the country (these days that is the NGOs, ”human rights advocates”, etc.). This concept includes some features of the world outlook typical for late Stalinism: the absence of an ideological component in the confrontation and the emphasis on Russia’s incompatibility with the West in cultural and civilisational respects.
As there was in the 1960s and ‘70s, there is now opposition to this understanding of history and the present, and this opposition has grown even tougher. But it lacks influence and authority. In other words, Cold War stereotypes are again taking firm root in the collective consciousness of the majority of Russia’s citizens. That being the case, can we consider the Cold War to be over? That is a question. There is another question as well: do the causes for this lie only in Russia and in the specific features of its leadership and citizens? Isn’t the West partially responsible, too? But the discussion of this issue goes beyond the topic of this conference.
What the mass consciousness in Russia completely lacks is an understanding of the Terror and the GULAG as a necessary and natural component of the Cold War. The two concepts are not connected in any way in the mind of the public. The Terror is seen as a very bad thing. People feel pity for its innocent victims. The terror is a tragedy. By contrast, many people perceive the Great Confrontation as part of Russia’s glorious history. People earnestly believe that our country has been defending peace in the world for many decades, guarding its unique identity, its system of values and its own Russian path. And they are proud of this. Therefore, how could there be any connection between our tragedy and things we are proud of? The image of the Terror and the image of the greatness of the country hardly combine in the minds of the people.
Under these circumstances, it is highly problematic to speak about memorializing the objects of the Cold War. That is, if we want to advance the message that such a war is a bad thing, not to be repeated.
What can and should we – the society – do today in the context of the problems on which this conference focuses?
First, continue the routine work of finding those sites of the terror, the GULAG, and the Cold War that deserve to be memorialized, compile lists and catalogues, map these places, i.e. help the future generations in their work.
Second, continue our efforts to promote the values of human rights, freedom, democracy and peace among our fellow citizens, i.e. values that are contrary to the ideology of the Cold War.
This is a challenging job. And a lasting one.