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Oh, Russia

By       Message Ludwik Kowalski       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   7 comments

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According to a message posted on the Finish-Russian Civic Forum (1), “Masked police raided the offices of the Russian human rights organisation, Memorial, in St Petersburg on 4 December 2008. The police confiscated all hard drives from the organisation’s computers.” This “effectively paralyzed the organization’s activities.”
Additional details were provided by (2). According to this source, the masked men were from the Russian general prosecutor's office. “After a search of several hours, they confiscated its entire archive - memoirs, photographs, interviews, and other unique documents detailing the history of the gulag and the names of many of its victims.

The confiscated archive included unique documents detailing the 'Soviet terror from 1917 to the 1960s,' he [British historian, Figes] said, adding that the office was 'an important centre for historical research' and a 'voice for tens of thousands of victims of repression in Leningrad'. He said he believed the raid was 'a serious challenge to freedom of expression' in Russia: 'It is part of a campaign to rewrite Soviet history and rehabilitate the Stalinist regime.' “ That is indeed extremely serious.

What is Memorial? It is a Russian NGO (Non-government Organization) dedicated to preservation of the societal memory of the severe political persecution in the recent past of the Soviet Union. One way to learn about Memorial is to vist its webpage (3), and to follow available links. The “About Us” link, for example, tells us that “Memorial is a community of dozens of organizations in different regions of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Georgia.”  After clicking the “History” link one can see a webpage from which the following excerpt was extracted.  

“How can one find the truth in a world full of lies that obstruct our history?  And is it worth trying?  It is, after all, easy to live in a nice and simple world of illusions.  The reality of history does not lend comfort, does not lead to success and prosperity, but rather complicates everything. It creates problems of guilt and responsibility, opens old wounds, and awakes shame where only pride should exist.

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Yet leaving behind the tragic truth means abandoning one’s own memory. A society without memory will obediently play into the hands of any demagogue; people in such a society are no better than nuts and bolts in the state machine.  They are worthless slaves to an inhumane ideology that promises everyone happiness. However horrible the past may have been, forgetting it would make the future even worse.“

Why did the Russian government attack Memorial? According to one Russian blogger, this was punishment for showing a film about Alexander Litvinienko, a defector assassinated with radioactive poison in London. The author wrote “they probably decided to scare Memorial, to show who is the boss at home.”

The police raid on Memorial is disturbing. My impression was that the Russian government condemns Stalinism. During a recent business trip to Magadan, president Medvedev visited “Grief Mask,” a large monument erected to remember victims of Stalinism.  I was pleased to read that he deposited flowers at the monument. This prompted me to speculate about the possibility that the president was thinking about one of his own relatives killed in the Magadan. region.

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According to a recent New York Times article (4) “Last year, the Kremlin promoted a study guide for high school teachers that deems Stalin ‘one of the most successful leaders of the U.S.S.R.,’ while describing his ‘cruel exploitation’ of the population. Mr. Putin himself has acknowledged the losses under Stalin, but has said Russians should not be made to feel ashamed of them. ‘ We do have bleak chapters in our history; just look at events starting from 1937,’ Mr. Putin said at a meeting where the study guide was presented. ‘And we should not forget these moments in our past.’ ”  

The Russian government seems to see a conflict between promoting patriotism and  learning from mistakes made in the Soviet Union. Is this conflict real or imaginary? Why should people aware of dark pages of their history be less patriotic than people who are not aware of it? Only a person familiar with the present situation in Russia can answer such questions.

Stalinism was certainly a horrible part of Russian history. But it had one pecularity. Episodes mentioned in (5) were genocides perpetuated by one group of people, such as Turks or Hutu, against another group of people, such as Armenians or Tutsi. In such cases “forgive but never forget”on the part of victims, versus “avoid the natural tendency for denial, and promote understanding”  on the part of perpetrators, makes sense. But do such attitudes make sense in post-Soviet Russia?  

Stalinist brutality and violence was presented as a class war, i.e., Russians against Russian or Poles against Poles. The children and grandchildren of victims are indistinguishably mixed with children and grandchildren of perpetrators. And victims were not always class enemies. Nearly everyone in the Soviet Union was a victim, in one way or another. It was a war between the communist government and its own people.

The present Russian government is no longer controlled by a Stalin-like dictator. Why should it have a natural tendency to deny horrible things that happened in the Soviet Union? What prevents it from digging deeper and deeper toward understanding the tragic past?  These are also questions for someone who knows Russian society much better than I.

Note that the “http”, in my links below, were turn into “h t t p ”. Please eliminate the four blank space, after pasting the addresses into your browser’s window. Am I the only one who would welcome a pedagogically written tutorial--about composing articles--for new subscribers?

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1) h t t p :// (Posted on 12/5/08)

2) h t t p :// (posted 12/8/09)

3) h t t p ://

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Ludwik Kowalski is a retired physics teacher (Professor emeritus, Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA). He is the author of two recently-published FREE books:

1) "Hell on Earth: Brutality and violence under the Stalinist regime" (more...)

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