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The forbidden theme of repression: History in the service of authoritarian politics

The Kremlin is striving to erase any historical discourse that undermines the official narrative that Russia must be ruled by an authoritarian system of government. History is rewritten, its dark chapters are glossed over, and independent historians are repressed. This is not just a whim of the former KGB officers who rule the country. Their goal is to perpetuate practices that strengthen Russian authoritarianism, which is based on systemic violence against the country’s citizens.

November 30, 2021 - Maria Domańska - Articles and Commentary

A monument to the victims of totalitarian regimes in a Moscow park. Suffering stone faces remind of the Soviet gulags and repression. Photo: Catenca / Shutterstoc

On November 11th, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation petitioned the country’s supreme court to liquidate the International Memorial Society, along with its other constituent entities. The prosecutor’s office cited the organisation’s “repeated violations of the law on foreign agents”. Memorial has been accused of “concealing” its status as an “agent” due to a lack of proper labelling on its printed materials and online publications.

At the same time, the prosecutor’s office for the Moscow region issued a similar request for the liquidation of the Human Rights Centre “Memorial”. This body was also accused of “justifying extremism and terrorism”. The Memorial Centre’s engagement with defence of political prisoners’ rights appears to have provoked these accusations. For example, the centre has documented the political persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses and alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist, fundamentalist party that nevertheless consistently employs peaceful methods of political struggle. Both groups and their organisations have been proscribed under Russian law.

The threat to liquidate Memorial sparked outrage within Russian civil society and abroad. Over 86,000 people have so far signed a petition in its defence. Street protests have also been organised outside Russia, including in Warsaw and Berlin. Among others, the authorities’ actions have been criticised by the Council of Europe and the European Commission.

The International Historical, Educational, Charitable and Human Rights Society “Memorial” has existed since 1989. It is the oldest independent organisation dedicated to defending human rights and documenting Stalinist crimes in Russia. It is renowned for, among other things, documenting the Katyń massacre in cooperation with Polish researchers. It also documents cases of political repression in contemporary Russia.

Memorial is an umbrella organisation with dozens of autonomous entities across the Russian Federation, including some 50 regional branches and the Memorial Human Rights Centre. The centre was placed on the government’s list of “foreign agents” in 2014 and the same happened to the International Memorial group itself in 2016. This status was also imposed on some of Memorial’s regional branches. The goal was to impede the activities of these organisations and discredit them in the eyes of the public.

In recent years, Memorial (and other affiliated entities) has repeatedly been targeted by ‘patriotic’ groups and state propaganda. Activists have been physically attacked and some of the organisation’s offices have been vandalised. The most recent incident of this kind occurred on October 14th, when around thirty masked people broke into Memorial’s Moscow headquarters. Their aim was to disrupt a screening of Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones, which was organised in cooperation with the Polish embassy (the film tells the story of the mass famine in Ukraine or the Holodomor). The young ‘patriots’ claimed that they were protesting against the “falsification of history” and chanted various slogans at those present: “Fascists”, “Traitors, get out of Russia!”, “We will not forget, we will not forgive” and “Hands off our history”. The group was accompanied by a crew from the state television channel NTV, which is known for its propaganda aimed against the Russian opposition and civic activists.

The police and national guard officers soon arrived on the scene at Memorial’s request. However, instead of pursuing the perpetrators, they carefully took down the details of those present at the event and questioned them. Among other things, they asked how they had got there and whether they had a criminal record. Memorial’s front door was locked with handcuffs while the officers were present. A photo of the ‘arrested’ door circulated throughout independent Russian media as a telling symbol of the state’s struggle against “enemies of the people”.

It is doubtful that the Kremlin will bow to public and international pressure. As a result, it seems that the liquidation of Memorial is highly probable. This is part of a growing campaign against independent milieus, as well as a campaign focused on “defending historical truth”.

Chekists rewrite history

Russia’s politics of memory is increasingly determined by the current interests of the Putin regime, in which former officers of the Soviet secret services (including the president himself) play a crucial role in decision making processes. The more the ruling elite are made aware of their waning legitimacy in the eyes of the public and Russia’s socio-economic backwardness, the more they utilise history to justify their authoritarian grip on power. Moscow is now eager to suppress “hostile ideologies” and especially those connected with liberal democracy. Criticism of totalitarianism – such as Stalinist repression – is often equated with criticism of the modern Russian state and a lack of patriotism.

The government’s narrative of memory is meant to promote authoritarianism as the best political system for Russia and justify a state-society relationship that best serves the Kremlin’s interests. This is all based on a culture of obedience and state violence. The Russian authorities view political repression – a particular manifestation of the state’s monopoly on institutionalised violence – not as a blatant violation of the social contract but as a means of restoring order. This approach assumes an artificial community of interests between the rulers and the ruled and denies any of the authorities’ responsibility for the wrongs inflicted on citizens.

Independent historians are repressed in Putin’s Russia, as are ordinary citizens who dare to promote narratives that run counter to the ‘canonical’ propagandistic version supported by the Kremlin. The most spectacular manifestation of this issue remains the case of Yury Dmitriev, the head of the Karelian branch of Memorial and a researcher who exposed mass graves of NKVD victims. He devoted many years to identifying both those buried and the crime’s perpetrators. In 2020, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison on highly questionable charges of child abuse. This was clearly meant as a warning to the entire community of historians and activists.

The Russian authorities increasingly praise or even glorify the state security bodies, which openly declare themselves to be heirs to the Soviet security apparatus. The positive image of the KGB, NKVD and Cheka is promoted by top state officials. In one notorious interview published in 2017, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service or FSB, offered an idealised history of the security agencies since 1917. This was done to mark a century of ‘patriotic struggle’ against foreign agents, terrorists, bandits and enemies of the state. His narrative directly connected the history of the FSB with that of the NKVD and Cheka and whitewashed the Soviet agencies’ role in mass terror. The interview was interpreted by scholars and human rights defenders as the first attempt to justify the mass repressions of the 1930s and 1940s by a senior public official since the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956.

The image of the ‘noble Chekists’ is also widely promoted in pop culture, both in relation to the Soviet era and the present day. Movies and TV programmes glorifying the Russian and Soviet secret services and law enforcement bodies are very popular in the country. Recent series include Where Homeland Begins (2014) and Sleeper Agents (2017). Their message is part of the government’s propaganda that portrays Russia as a ‘besieged fortress’ under constant attacks from Western secret services, which allegedly strive to orchestrate a ‘colour revolution’ in Russia in collaboration with a ‘fifth column’ made up of the democratic opposition, liberal intelligentsia and human rights defenders.

Victims of repression – guilty or missing

The Russian authorities try to anonymise the victims of mass crimes. Their primary aim is to devalue the role of individuals relative to the state and government and to demonstrate their powerlessness in the face of history: an anonymous citizen has neither identity, nor rights. Denying the identity of victims also leads to the anonymity of the executioners and, above all, the facelessness of the institutional system of the state that was responsible for these crimes.

In this context, declaratory condemnation of repression at the official level should not be viewed as anything more than a political move. Actions such as Putin’s unveiling of a monument to the victims of mass repression in 2017 in Moscow, or the adoption of the Concept of State Policy on Commemoration of Victims of Political Repression in 2015, are little more than symbolic gestures intended to put an end to an inconvenient topic within public debate. The Concept does not say anything about the need to identify and punish (or even symbolically condemn) individual perpetrators. In fact, its adoption has led to neither an increased availability of terror-related archives, as called for in the document, nor to a credible programme of teaching about the Stalinist terror in schools. The work needed to find the burial sites of victims has also not been carried out. The restoration of memory through the publishing of lists of those executed depends on whether a relevant initiative emerges at the regional level. Moreover, the authorities do nothing to prevent unofficial or semi-official initiatives to commemorate Stalin. Putin himself has failed to condemn the Soviet leader unequivocally. In 2017 the president stated that Stalin was a complex figure and a product of his era, and that his “excessive demonisation” is one of the ways that the country’s enemies attack the USSR and Russia.

At the official level, the theme of mass repression is generally passed over. Facts about these events are distorted and it is not uncommon to see the government look for a “legal basis” for the terror inflicted on those persecuted by the state. For instance, Russian propaganda has claimed that those executed as part of the Katyń crime and buried in Mednoye were not Polish prisoners of war from 1939 murdered by the NKVD. Instead, they were “Poles tried and executed for criminal offences”. In the case of the mass graves found by Yuri Dmitriev in the Sandarmokh area of Karelia, those buried are presented not as victims of Stalinist terror but as Soviet prisoners of war murdered by the Finns during the 1939–40 conflict. The Katyń massacre is implicitly justified as a ‘just’
retaliation for the spurious extermination of the Soviet prisoners of war in Polish POW camps in 1919–21. Moreover, the long-refuted lies of Soviet propaganda regarding Nazi involvement in Katyń are once again appearing in public discourse. For example, the state agency RIA Novosti made such a suggestion on March 5th 2020. This date marked the 80th anniversary of the order to execute Polish prisoners of war issued by the Soviet Politburo.

Instruments for defending “historical truth”

Laws, archives, and the entire system of education have all been harnessed to promote the Kremlin’s desired version of the past. Russian memory laws, unlike those adopted in the West, aim not to defend the victims of mass crimes but to guarantee impunity for the executioners. The 2014 amendment to the Criminal Code (article 354.1) prohibits the “exoneration of Nazism”. This is defined not only as any attempted rehabilitation of Nazi crimes but also as the deliberate public dissemination of “false information” about the USSR’s actions during the Second World War. This ‘crime’ carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. However, so far the law has aimed above all to have a chilling effect on debate and induce citizens to self-censor. Until now, these provisions have not been applied on a large scale and no one has been sentenced to prison time. Last year’s amendments to the constitution introduced an obligation to “defend historical truth” and a ban on “belittling the nation’s achievements in the defence of the homeland”. Further amendments to the law were adopted this year. It is now illegal to “deny the decisive role of the Soviet people in the victory over Nazi Germany and the humanitarian mission carried out by the USSR during the liberation of European countries”. The government’s Commission on Historical Education, created in 2021, has also been tasked with “counter-propaganda activities”. This involves analysing the actions of “foreign entities” that seek to “harm the national interests of the Russian Federation in the sphere of history” and adopting relevant counter-measures. 

In 2014, the inter-ministerial Commission for the Protection of State Secrets decided to extend the declassification date of the archival collections of the Soviet security services (Cheka, NKVD, KGB) from 1917–91 for another 30 years. This move was made in direct violation of the law “On State Secrets”, which only allows for such decisions in exceptional cases. This decision directly involves the fate of documents related to the Great Terror of 1937–38. Particular attention should be paid to the meticulous protection of the personal data of the NKVD executioners and even those who had died long ago. It is not rare that their names are actually erased from archival documents. This will probably make it impossible to truly find out the details of what happened in the future. This can be interpreted as an implicit promise of the same unlimited guarantees of impunity to their successors, who nowadays persecute the Russian democratic opposition. One attempt to break this silence was made in 2016 by Memorial, which published the personal dossiers of nearly 40,000 NKVD officers.

Another field where the Kremlin is pushing its memory politics is the education system. The official version of Russian history is communicated through the content of textbooks and history lessons, as well as patriotic education programmes. Russian pupils are expected to internalise themes such as the benefits of ‘strongman rule’. There is also a clear desire to indirectly rehabilitate the Stalinist period. The shameful and dark chapters of Russian and Soviet history are presented cautiously, superficially or simply covered up. In most textbooks the Gulag system is not mentioned at all. Instead, much attention is paid to the counter-intelligence agencies, such as the NKVD and Smersh. Their activities are depicted exclusively as a fight against the “enemies of the fatherland” and their participation in crimes against the civilian population is glossed over. In this way, state-organised repression is portrayed as something akin to a “natural disaster” for which no one is responsible.

The Russian public versus history

The Kremlin’s historical propaganda seems to be bearing fruit, as the mass terror is gradually being erased from society’s collective memory. Polls conducted by the independent Levada Center in recent years have shown that half of young Russians have never heard of Stalin’s repressions. More than 40 per cent of adults justify them as a necessary price for the great achievements of the Soviet Union. At the same time, as many as 70 per cent of respondents positively assess Stalin’s role in history.

This tendency may seem disturbing at first glance. However, it is necessary to look deeper into the logic behind it. Paradoxically, this positive attitude towards Stalin is often an expression of public frustration with the direction in which Putin’s Russia is heading. Stalin is more a figure of a strong, effective ‘manager’, an ascetic leader who fights against the corrupt nomenklatura. This ambivalence is most clearly seen among the youth. On the one hand, young people (18-24 years old) are often unaware of the mass terror and as many as 50 per cent are in favour of erecting a monument to Stalin (according to the Levada Center poll from May 2021). On the other hand, anti-regime sentiment has been increasing most rapidly among this age group in recent years. This group also expresses the most sympathy for the democratic opposition.

A hint of optimism is present in the growing interest of Russians, including young people, in exploring ‘alternative memory’. This involves uncovering the tragic chapters of Russia’s history, including the Stalinist terror. Citizens may delve into the history of their own family or region, rather than that of the heroic empire, in order to find alternative points of view. Sometimes this involves unearthing difficult family secrets, as in many families there were both victims and executioners. One grassroots initiative involved in this research is the Last Address campaign. The activists place small metal memorial plaques on buildings from which victims of mass repression were taken ‘on their last journey’. As in the case of many other civil society initiatives, the internet plays an important role in restoring suppressed memory. It is a useful tool for searching for materials, building personal contacts and promoting public activities. One such example s the Immortal Barrack project, which was founded in 2015. Its website includes social media elements and a book of remembrance. On the website’s pages, anyone can post stories about their repressed family members.

A grim tradition still alive 

The Russian state is de facto siding with the perpetrators rather than the victims. This approach is dictated by the logic of an authoritarian model of government, which is increasingly based on legal nihilism and political repression. According to data published by Memorial, there are currently 80 political prisoners in Russia (separate lists include 340 people imprisoned due to religious beliefs and 535 of those persecuted for political reasons but not in jail). According to research by the Levada Center, about ten per cent of Russians have suffered physical or psychological violence from law enforcement bodies. Torture is used in prisons on a wide scale. In October, the human rights group Gulagu.net published shocking footage smuggled out of one of Russia’s prisons, which documented not only numerous examples of torture but also its systemic nature. Perpetrators act at the behest of high-ranking prison service officials and the FSB, and enjoy their protection.

Cultivating the grim traditions of the Soviet Union is supposed to deprive society of any hope for political change: the individual is expected to remain powerless in the face of the state. But are Russians willing to meekly accept this?

Maria Domańska, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.

More on Russia’s politics of memory in the recent OSW report.

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