Victims of Stalin’s Terrors: If we don’t remember, history may repeat itself.

October 30, 2018

Today marks the annual day of remembrance for the victims of Stalin’s purges and persecutions that defined his rule in the 1930s. Relatives and friends of victims have been attending memorials in many Russian cities to commemorate their persecuted love ones.

Scenes from the Remembrance Event at Lubyanka Square, Moscow

One of the most notable memorial services took place yesterday at Lubyanka Square, Moscow, where the HQ of the Russian Federal Safety Service (FSB) is located. During the Soviet period this building was occupied by the Soviet equivalent – the KGB. Those attending the service read out the names of Stalin’s many victims to ensure that this dark corner of Soviet history is remembered for what it is – a period of state-sponsored terror.

Today activists from the Open Russia movement have been busy putting up lists of names of the victims of the Great Terrors in Chelyabinsk. Under Stalin state security institutions took an extremely hostile approach towards citizens of the Russian Soviet Republic; they imprisoned and deported indiscriminately. Members from all layers of Chelyabinsk society were persecuted during this period.

However, it is deeply disconcerting that the work Open Russia activists is being hindered by the Chelyabinsk anti-corruption department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Activists have been putting up small placards with the names of victims engraved on them next to the department building. The placard had been missing since the early 2000s (the beginning of Putin’s presidency), and Open Russia activists saw it just to keep the names of victims in living memory. According to a statement from the department, “the content of the placard text may support unfounded ideas citizens have about the activity of representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” Despite repeated attempts from authorities to remove the placard, activists from the Chelyabinsk Open Russia movement have vowed to make sure there will always be a dedicated placard to the victims of the Great Purge.

The building that stood here was the place where the mass repressions of the 1930-40s were planned. The plans agreed upon the execution of innocent civilians, who were the victims of political persecution.
The Placard from Open Russia activists

It is worrying that any government would take measures to suppress such emotional and justified commemorations. In this instance, the Chelyabinsk officials seem to be justifying this suppression on the premise that they do not want citizens associating the current regime with the actions of Stalin and his accomplices. But, as Radio Liberty reported, the municipal government in the historic city of Vladimir have gone a step further, publicising and supporting the actions of Stalin’s secret police officers. Throughout the city bus stops displaying posters promoting the identity of these officers were spotted. Such advertising spots are usually reserved for celebrities and product adverts. The posters state that “They served the Chekha” – the shortened name for Soviet secret police. This is a bizarre endorsement of people who were essentially complicit in genocide.

Though it can be difficult to quantify the effect that such policies can have in dampening public perception of the severity of the persecution of an estimated 20 million Soviet citizens, a study from the All-Russian Centre for the the Studies of Societal Opinions shows that 47% of young Russians (18-24) have no knowledge of the Great Purges. This is compared to 89% of Russians over 60 who are aware of the repressions. Also, a Levada Center study highlighted that of those Russians who do know about the Purges only 39% believe them to be crime in the context of rapid industrialisation and World War Two.

A state-sponsored poster in Vladimir, Russia supporting agents of Stalin’s Purges. Courtesy of RFE/RL

This means that Kremlin policy is genuinely influencing the way the new generation of Russians perceive their past. Some academics in the West put this down to the ideological commitments of many of Putin’s policy advisors and election experts. In his book Fortress Russia historian Ilya Yablokov argues that Gleb Pavlovsky – and important policy figure in the Kremlin administration – has an extremely comprehensive knowledge the political rhetoric used by the Stalin regime. And the current relationship between the Kremlin and the Stalin regime is such, that it appears the Kremlin wants not to forgot, but instead reinterpret and minimise discourse around the Stalinist period.

The goals of this are unclear. But perhaps, in suppressing and manipulating the historical facts of Russia’s past, the Kremlin is making available to itself the political tools used during the Stalin period. For, if Russians have forgotten which political tools were fundamental to the mistakes of the past were made, then it is unlikely they will spot these tools, should they be used again.