Aleksandr Cherkasov: The long shadow of 1937

posted 13 Nov 2017, 04:51 by Website Service   [ updated 13 Nov 2017, 05:45 ]
30 October 2017

Source: [original source: Vedomosti]
Photo: Aleksandr Cherkasov

"[…] Is the task set 30 years ago accomplished? The task of preserving the memory of the victims, so the totalitarian past would not be repeated? Hardly […]

Thirty years ago, in November 1987, a few young people – activists from the Memorial group – gathered on the Arbat to collect signatures for a petition to create a memorial complex for the victims of political repressions.

Their plan was for a research centre, which would have included an archive, museum and library. Then there was a popular mass movement, and an account was opened to receive donations to the monument.

On 30 October 2017, at the intersection of the Garden Ring and Academician Sakharov Prospekt in Moscow, a memorial to the victims of repression was opened: “the Wall of Sorrow”. One sixth of the monument was financed by private donations.

“We have been trying to get this monument built for thirty years. Now it’s being opened by state leaders and those acting on behalf of the state, The state is saying: ‘Terror is a crime, mass murder is a crime,’” says Elena Zhemkova, executive director of the International Memorial Society.

But is the task set 30 years ago accomplished? The task of preserving the memory of the victims, so the totalitarian past would not be repeated? Hardly.

Stalin, the symbol of the terror, is now the “name of Russia” and an “effective manager”. Soviet history and politics are the glorious past and a model for “what we can repeat.” The scope of freedom is shrinking: the last Soviet political camp, Perm-36, which became a museum, was raided, essentially captured, and many memorial organisations are being declared “foreign agents.”

Lists of political prisoners have become a common feature of the landscape, against which background the bronze Wall of Sorrow is opened by the man who has spent eighteen years building that landscape.

Yet a monument can become a significant symbol if there is something significant behind it.

A significant date: in 1974 political prisoners in the Mordovian camps decided to mark 30 October as Political Prisoner Day in the USSR, a day of solidarity and protest. From 1991 this was made the official memorial day for victims of political repression.

The Solovetsky stone on the Lubyanka Square – a modest sign set there by the Memorial activists and opened on 30 October, 1990 – has become significant. This is a place of people’s personal, direct contact with history.

For eleven years, on 29 October, the eve of the official date, the “Return of Names” has been taking place: all day people file by, name those shot in the years of the terror, and light candles. They stand for hours in the wind and cold, but from year to year there are more and more people. This action now takes place in forty-six towns – in Russia and beyond its borders.

Since December 2014, in Moscow and other Russian cities more than five hundred plaques bearing the “Final Address” have appeared on apartment blocks. Behind each plaque is not only a person who was taken to their death, but another who made efforts to preserve their memory.

Since 1999 a historical competition for schoolchildren called “Man in History: Russia, the Twentieth Century” has been running. Over the years it has collected more than 37,000 works, studies of family or local history, a significant proportion of them related to the history of Soviet repression. In 2016, the competition was attacked by “patriotic” hooligans and television propagandists, but this only increased people’s interest: the following year it received even more entries.

One could cite many examples of the growth not merely of interest but of active participation in the preservation of the memory of the victims of terror. In 2017, there was a great response to the investigation conducted by Denis Karagodin to restore the name of his grandfather and find his executioners.

Just a week ago a monument was opened in the town of Rublevo, near Moscow, where from 1922 to 1946 Chekists regularly “uncovered conspiracies” at the water plant: forty people were shot.

And these signs of mass interest and participation at “grass roots” level in preserving the memory of this aspect of the Soviet past are obviously connected with changes in thinking about the issue.

In March 1953, after Stalin's death, the chief editor of the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta Konstantin Simonov wrote that the main task of Soviet literature henceforth would be to understand Stalin's role in Russian history. He had no idea how right he would be!

It was literature that fostered the growth of interest in history at the end of the 1980s: memoirs and fiction, from Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn to Iskander and Rybakov; works published internally as samizdat and as tamizdat abroad that later spilled onto the pages of the literary journals of the perestroika era. The time for historians would come later.

In 1976-1982, a series entitled Pamyat (Memory) appeared as samizdat within the Soviet Union. It was a worthy attempt at an academic level to restore the history of a country where all archives were closed, and something for which, Arseny Roginsky, now chairman of the Memorial board, was sent to a penal colony for four years in 1981.

A partial opening of the archives in the early 1990s led to the publication of hundreds of papers and books on the history of Soviet repression. Today, Books of Remembrance have been published in many parts of Russia [listing the local victims of those years]. Their contents have been assembled by Memorial into a single database [in Russian], containing about 2.7 million names, i.e., almost a quarter of the 12 million victims who are covered by the terms of the Russian Federal Law "On the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression" (18 October 1991)].

Even something as simple as this helps prevent a tragedy from being reduced to statistics. In any small town or village today, a schoolteacher can instruct his or her students to trace their immediate forbears: "Here -- these are your fellow countrymen and women."

Then …

Last year, Memorial published a different database [in Russian] containing the names of 40,000 people, who served from the mid-1930s onwards at the Main Department of State Security at the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (the NKVD). At such a pace it will require many more decades to complete this work.  Now, any scrawl in the cases of the Great Terror acquires an individual name. One may also call to mind other collections of documents that have been published: Stalinist execution lists [in Russian], materials concerning the mass killings at Katyn, and so on.

After all that evidence it would seem no longer possible to deny the obvious. But, as it turns out, it's possible. The facts are one thing, society's readiness to recognize and understand them are quite another.

In the late 1980s it seemed that political repression, which not only preserved the political and social systems in the USSR, but served as the very framework of its existence, would become a thing of the past. Sometimes, however, it returns.

… and Now

In Karelia, Memorial member Yury Dmitriev [in Russian] is being tried on fabricated charges.

Dozens of people have already been sentenced as part of the Bolotnaya Case [in Russian]. The most recent is the case of Dmitry Buchenkov, who wasn't even in Moscow on 6 May 2012. In the photographs used as evidence in the case against him, it's clear that the person they are trying to pass off as Buchenkov is someone else entirely. The defendant was barred from producing evidence, however, and now, according to the prosecutor, "we are able to cite only materials that confirm culpability."

On 25 October 2017, two political prisoners, Crimean Tatar activists Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz, were freed and released to the Turkish authorities. The news recalls the 1970s: the persecution of the Crimean-Tatar nation was a longstanding Soviet tradition.

There is no rush to free Ukrainians Nikolai Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh. The sentences they received are Stalinist in length -- twenty years and more. The charges also echo the Stalin era. In winter 1995, Russian soldiers were supposedly tortured and killed in the Chechen capital Grozny [with the involvement of the two men]. The soldiers did not actually die there or then, and met their end under different circumstances from those described in the case. Karpyuk and Klykh were not in Chechnya at that time. The key point is that they confessed during interrogations that were carried out using Stalinist methods.

30 October 2017

Today there are over one hundred prisoners of conscience in the Memorial lists [in Russian]. That’s not very many, you may say. Political repression, however, has again become a routine method of running the country. 30 October, the Day of Political Prisoners, is not a matter of history. The past is just outside the window, here and now.

You can’t miss the new Wall of Sorrow, a vast bronze structure, as you drive along Moscow’s Garden Ring. It reminds us not just of what has “been and gone," but what is “here and now."

Aleksandr Cherkasov,
Board member, International Memorial Society

Thanks to Anna Bowles for assistance with the translation of this article

Note: On Arseny Roginsky, see:  (The trial of Arseny Roginsky, pp. 22-28); (The trial of Arseny Roginsky); (news item 14, Roginsky sentence)