#28 - JRL 2009-210 - JRL Home
Moscow News
November 16, 2009
Unearthing truth about Stalin
At Memorial, relatives of his victims finally learn the truth ­ but much is still buried

By Anna Arutunyan

It was long past closing time at Memorial's office in central Moscow. But for Olga Nikolayevna, now in her seventies, it was the night her father was arrested all over again.

"All my life I didn't want to tell anyone that my parents were enemies of the people," she told the group's case worker, quietly sobbing as she clung on to a stack of photocopied documents. "And you just uncovered it."

She was crying, she said, because she still remembered the ridicule her mother had endured, and for over 60 years she had chosen to bury that shame.

Like many, whether they or their families suffered in Josef Stalin's purges or not, Olga Nikolayevna is reluctant to revisit his regime's traumatic murder of millions - a slaughter that many say has not been properly addressed to this day.

Olga Nikolayevna (not the woman's real name, as she asked that it not be disclosed even now) said her father, a Protestant pastor in a village in the Orlov region, was arrested one night in the late 1930s. Police took him and his two brothers away, along with all their belongings. The family never saw them again, she said.

At Memorial, a human rights organisation and historical society that aids the victims of political repression, Alyona Kozlova and Irina Ostrovskaya help dozens of people every day find out what happened to their relatives. There Olga Nikolayevna was told for the first time that there was a way to find out what happened to her father and uncles.

Kozlova helped the woman write two letters - one to the police in the Orlov region, and another to the Federal Security Service in Moscow. Once a person has gathered documentary proof that he or she is the next of kin of a victim of Stalinist repression, he or she is allowed into the FSB archives to view the case files.

"Make sure you bring someone along, like your son," Ostrovskaya told another woman looking for evidence of what happened to her father. "You will cry, and your son will take notes."

The woman's father, a loader in a factory in the Urals, was arrested and shot in 1938, allegedly for organising a terrorist plot.

"Of course, what else could a loader be doing besides organising a terrorist plot at the factory?" Kozlova said, ironically.

The current authorities have a mixed stance on Stalin's purges, with many officials on the one hand intent on letting sleeping dogs lie, while others, including President Dmitry Medvedev, making efforts to squash any attempt to rehabilitate the dictator.

In recent years, positive images of Stalin have been making a comeback, with him being referred to as an "effective manager" and victorious wartime leader in officially-sanctioned history textbooks, while an inscription praising Stalin was recently restored to the Moscow metro. Meanwhile, a city court heard an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit brought by Stalin's grandson against Novaya Gazeta, over its coverage of Stalin's role in sending millions to the gulag and signing death warrants.

Balancing this, on Oct. 30, the day in Russia when victims of political repression are commemorated each year, President Dmitry Medvedev took a noticeably tougher stance against Stalinism, saying there was "no excuse" for such repression.

Yet despite the words of sympathy, there is little - if any - official help for victims of Stalinist repression or their relatives. At Memorial, this was the only counselling that these women would likely ever get, the staff said.

Memorial director and history scholar Arseny Roginsky puts the death toll from political repression between 1921 and 1953 at 5.5 million people. But according to some scholars, the figure could be as high as 40 million.

Many of the purge victims were chosen completely randomly, according to Memorial staff. The lists of Muscovites who were shot in the cellars at Lubyanka, the headquarters then of the NKVD (now the FSB's head office) are replete with janitors, street sweepers, and one man identfied as "a cabby with his own horse."

That randomness is part of the reason why dealing with the crimes of the past remains a psychological trauma often too painful to endure.

"People cannot fathom that their parents were shot for nothing," said Ostrovskaya. "Imagine a child who is seven or 10. His parents are declared enemies of the people, yet he goes on to grow up in a country that is 'the best in the world' and he is inoculated with Communist ideals. Now he is in his seventies. He has to justify his life and he cannot admit that all that suffering was for nothing."

Ostrovskaya recalled a case of a man who saw the order to execute his father signed by Josef Stalin himself, but refused to believe that the dictator had signed the death warrant.

Among Memorial's archives are dozens of pleading letters, addressed: "Dear Iosif Vissarionovich". They ask for the leader to "find out the truth" and get their relatives freed from prison. One such 1946 letter, by an 11-year-old girl, complained to Stalin that "they tortured my father and forced him to sign" a false confession.

For Memorial case workers, the denial that they encounter every day is hardly an adequate explanation for what appears to be happening on a wider scale.

The current trend towards weighing Stalin's crimes against his achievements is an approach that is easier to stomach for the general public, said Sergei Markov, a United Russia State Duma deputy who is part of a recently-created Kremlin commission to "counter attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests". Now is not the time to revisit the past, said Markov.

"People have relived the tragedy of the 1990s, with the deterioration and collapse in living standards and they don't want to hear anything about the past," he said. "This process will become possible when people have become accustomed to living a decent life. People are too tired. They can't even make sense of the 1990s."

Many point to the fact that Russia never had anything like the Nuremburg Trials to hold anyone accountable for Stalinist repression. But Markov, echoing a widespread official view, says it is wrong to compare Stalinist Russia to Nazi Germany.

"There is a fundamental difference between Stalinism and Nazism. Stalin committed many crimes, but he was working towards a good cause - happiness and prosperity for all. But the goal of Nazism was to create a society of slaves, with the Aryans as the master [race]. In Stalinism, murder was just a means. In Nazism, it was an end. This is an enormous difference, even though the number of deaths was huge."

The process of uncovering Stalin's crimes that took place during perestroika and the early 1990s was an "enormous step forward", said Markov, but added that it was "too hysterical" to be fully adequate. The issue should be revisited, he said, but only when people are ready to deal with it.

But for Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov, a history professor at St. Petersburg Theological Academy and Seminary who has written extensively about the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet state, the refusal to deal with the tragedy has had a snowball effect.

With former gulag prisoners and relatives of purge victims living alongside the officials and policemen who carried out Stalin's orders over several decades, it has become next to impossible to acknowledge the extent of past crimes, Mitrofanov said.

"If there had been some sort of trial, if someone was found guilty, then we wouldn't be having this problem today," he said. "We would have the names of the criminals. If the government had officially condemned Communism and Stalin's crimes, it would have become clear that those who carried out Stalin's orders were working towards an evil cause."

Like others who call for a stronger official response to Stalinist repression, Mitrofanov acknowledges just how painful it is for most people to think about past crimes. "In the late 1980s there was an avalanche of information about the crimes of Communism, when we suddenly verbalised and sounded out everything we and our parents had lived through. But it was so painful that we suddenly wanted to push it away into the periphery."

For Boris Belenkin, the research director at Memorial, the earlier process was incomplete, and people were so traumatised that they pushed the issue away altogether.

"There was no museum, no trial of the Communist Party," said Belenkin. "There was no consensus on the Stalin issue - different textbooks said different things. No one seems to have drawn a conclusion."

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