Aleksandr Daniel: “Do Not Expect Memorials to Freedom Fighters”

posted 19 Nov 2017, 08:58 by Website Service   [ updated 22 Nov 2017, 07:52 ]
1 November 2017

From a speech by Aleksandr Daniel, co-chair of Petersburg Memorial Society, at the Solovki Stone in St Petersburg, on 30 October 2017 

Source: [original source: Cogita!

At this moment in Moscow the Wall of Sorrow is being dedicated in the presence of the President, the Patriarch and other important figures. It is the first official monument in the Russian capital dedicated to the victims of State terror.

The sculpture by Georgy Frangulyan commemorates the Victims of Political Repression in Russia. While it is dedicated to the victims of terror of the entire Soviet period, society mainly perceives it as the symbolic tombstone of those who perished during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. It is not by chance that the opening of this memorial took place in 2017, 80 years after one of the greatest and, without question, bloodiest campaigns of slaughter perpetrated by the Communist regime.

More than a quarter of century has passed since that regime ceased to exist. A great many people still miss it. The leadership of the Russian Communist Party, obtuse bureaucrats who look and behave like the employees of a local housing office, are too weak to restore the Soviet regime. They are even less capable of creating a new and modernized version of dictatorship. There are others, however, who are less weak and have been working towards that goal with some success.

Updating the dictatorship

To understand the present, let us turn to another great anniversary that will take place next week — the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution, that is, of the violent Bolshevik coup d’état. For some reason the public is more indifferent to that centenary than to the 80th anniversary of the Great Terror. Perhaps that is not surprising.

Let us look at what happened in Petrograd on November 7 (25 October, Old Style).

The poet Mayakovsky put it as follows: “Cars and trams rolled up and down Troitsky Street.” To put it prosaically, automobile traffic was not disrupted, and public transport also continued to function. The main event in the city at that moment, it seems, was the premiere of Verdi’s opera “Don Carlos” at the People’s Theatre. People flocked to hear the great opera singer Chaliapin.

Gangs of armed hooligans ran through the streets, seizing official buildings, arresting everyone in sight, and even fired off cannons. After eight months of revolution Petrograd was already accustomed to that. What did it matter if one left-wing group displaced another, and People's Commissars replaced the government ministers? It was only a Provisional Government and soon the Constituent Assembly would gather and sort everything out.

What if some ridiculous creature hatched then, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets), a little dragon with something sympathetic about it. Promising good things to all, an end to the war and abolition of the death penalty.

Vicious lynch mobs were greatly on the increase, it is true: What could one do? These were just the excesses of the revolutionary masses.

On the third day, it is true, the new government released a Decree on the Press, which restricted -- only temporarily, of course -- freedom of speech and shut down a great many newspapers. But, after all, the country was at war.

At the end of November, it is true, the Bolsheviks issued decrees declaring their political opponents, the Cadet party, the party of “enemies of the people” and its leaders subject to arrest. In the end, however, this was all a kind of political game. It didn't much affect us, the city’s peaceful inhabitants.

The birth of the Cheka

And in the offices of the new regime there hatched another little creature. Its centenary will be solemnly celebrated on Moscow on 21 December. This little dragon, the Extraordinary Commission or Cheka, adorned itself with a shield and sword and soon began to brandish them, left and right [t
he “All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” or Cheka, for short, was established on 5 December 1917, with Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926) as its director - ed.].

In autumn 1918 the “Red Terror” began. In 1930, the Great Breakthrough took place: the dekulakization of the peasantry and the death of the Soviet countryside. In 1937, there was the Bolsheviks' great purge, known as the Great Terror. I have named only three major events among the numerous terrorist campaigns conducted by the Chekists under the leadership of the Communist Party’s Politburo. All these campaigns were directed against peaceful citizens, the “innocent victims” to whom Frangulyan dedicated the Wall of Sorrow.

Russia’s most important leaders will most definitely be present at the Cheka’s centenary this December, the very people who are now attending the opening of the Wall of Sorrow in Moscow. I can't vouch for the Patriarch, but the president will certainly be there.

Do they see anything contradictory in this?

I don't know. In any case, the Wall of Sorrow, a monument to the millions of unknown innocent victims of State terror or, if we are to put things simply, people murdered by the Cheka and its successors is officially called a memorial to the victims of “political repression” that no one understands or explains who were its instigators and perpetrators.

As for the murderers themselves – not a word. The Cheka, the OGPU, NKVD, MGB and the KGB: these organisations are sacred, and cannot be touched. For today, the spirit of the Cheka is the quintessence of the Russian government which looks more and more like an appendage of the special services. The highest-ranking Chekists, the organizers of the “Red Terror” in 1918, are the precursors of those who today rule Russia. It would be most uncomfortable, of course, to honour the memory of Yezhov or Beria, but the Russian leaders turn most willingly to the memory of Dzerzhinsky. 

There will be no such memorials...

For the past several years, Memorial, other public organizations, and the Petersburg intelligentsia have had a lot to say about the necessity of putting up a monument by the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress’s Golovkin bastion, where Russian citizens executed by first-draft Chekists lie.

I assure you, there is not going to be a monument or even a memorial plaque. These executions were organized not by Nikolai Ivanovich or Lavrenty Pavlovich but by the Cheka’s founder, the revolution’s knight, “Iron Felix,” the man the head of the Russian state fashioned his life after.

But not only because of that. It’s also because the majority of those buried by the Golovkin bastion walls are not only “victims” but also fighters, people who immediately recognized in the fledgling that emerged from its shell in Petrograd on 25 October 1917, a monster that would gobble up millions and cripple the fates of tens of millions, as well as the fate of our country and of many other countries.

First to lie down in the Peter and Paul execution pits were the cadets from the Petrograd military academies who as early as 29 October came to the defense of the homeland and the revolution against the usurpers; last, evidently, were the Kronstadt sailors who in 1917 safeguarded the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks but in March 1921 came to their senses, realizing that what they had done was wrong and attempting to put things right. But it was too late. The dragon had already drunk its fill of blood and was strong.

Nor will there be next January, on the corner of Kirochnaya and Liteiny, a monument to the citizens of Russia who came out on 5 January 1918 for a peaceful march to the Tauride Palace in defence of the Constituent Assembly — the dream of several generations of freedom fighters. This demonstration was mercilessly fired upon by the Bolsheviks.

Don’t get your hopes up. There will be no such monument or even a memorial plaque. The dragon is prepared to honour the memory of those it gobbled up for dinner—but it will never agree to allow the perpetuation of the memory of those who threw down a challenge to it.

The dragon understands that peaceful demonstrations are even more dangerous to it than armed resistance, for peaceful demonstrations are the voice of civil society, and the dragon can’t digest civil society: its stomach can’t handle that kind of food. Civil society can only be eradicated. Therefore it knows exactly how to deal with peaceful demonstrations.

There will be no such monuments in present-day Russia. Don’t hold your breath.

And as long as there won’t be these monuments — to the Petrograd cadets, the Kronstadt sailors, the executed participants in the demonstrations in support of the Constituent Assembly, and all the fighters for freedom and against tyranny during all the years of Soviet power — the Mourning Wall in Moscow will mean not a step toward a nationwide understanding of Russia’s great and terrible history in the twentieth century but the final word on any discussions about the Soviet past.

We cannot surrender

This refusal to understand the past and this reluctance to know and understand our history are supported by the majority of our nation. Neither Memorial nor the other civil society forces trying to make sense of Russia’s historical experience in the twentieth century has been able to break this reluctance. As of today, we have suffered a catastrophic defeat in the struggle for national memory.

I call on all of you to be clearly aware of this defeat — and not to surrender. Not because we have any chance of winning, but because we cannot surrender, because surrendering is shameful and senseless and will not protect anyone from anything.

It is quite likely that twenty years on from 2017, there will be a 2037. There also may not be. It is quite likely that Russia will simply not withstand a second turn of the squirrel cage wheel. In this aspect, the Moscow Mourning Wall — specifically as a monument to the victims of the Great Terror — is today already an important symbol: a sign and portent of the fate of “peaceful inhabitants,” those who surrendered or who never wanted to fight at all. 

Translated by Rose Glickman and Marian Schwartz