Irina Flige: “It isn’t the past, it’s still the present”

posted 22 Nov 2017, 07:37 by Website Service   [ updated 22 Nov 2017, 07:52 ]
13 November 2017

Special correspondent Sergei Dmitriev of Radio France Internationale’s Russian Service (RFI) interviews Irina Flige, director of the Memorial Research and Information Centre in St. Petersburg, about the relevance of the Soviet experience to today’s Russia. 
SourceRadio France Internationale (Russian Service), 

Source: [original source: Radio France Internationale (Russian Service)]

Irina Flige - Round dates, in my opinion, are needed for just one thing: it’s always a summing up. For Russia and for us, at Memorial, 2017 is a special year because it marks three such round dates: the centenary of the revolution, the 80th anniversary of the Great Terror, and, as it happens, 30 years since Memorial was created.

Throughout those hundred years, State terror has been an inalienable part of the regime established as a result of the October 1917 coup. If we’re going to talk seriously about memory, we need to have some point on the time continuum that divides the past from the present.

Russia doesn’t have a specific point when the terror and the GULag [Main Camp Directorate] became the past. Neither is there is any such point in the legal sense, because there were no trials after which one could say, on the basis of documents, that the terror of the Soviet State was a crime. Instead, we had rehabilitation. Rehabilitation means forgiveness. A person was shot, a person spent twenty years in the camps, and now the State finally gives him or her a certificate saying that he or she wasn’t guilty of anything. And that’s it. We cannot speak about concepts of historical memory as Germany can, for example, with regard to Nazism. This is a banal comparison, but it is the simple truth.

The question then arises: If there is no historical memory in Russia, then what is there?

In its place there is a very interesting mechanism of inheritance of that past. The Soviet legacy – the GULag, the Soviet terror, and the story of resistance to that criminal regime – has been passed on in its entirety to present-day Russia. Part has been inherited by one group within society; a second part has been inherited by another group; and a third part has been inherited by yet another group,

The first group is obvious. They are the organizers and perpetrators of the terror, from the State leaders who signed criminal orders down to the perpetrators (the investigators, executioners, and escort guards). Certain restrictions on rights and freedoms, and certain contemporary State crimes still bear recognizable features of that time. Present forms of behaviour and action (surveillance, disappearances, planting incriminating objects during searches, falsification of investigations, and prosecutions on orders from above) bear traits of the Soviet 20th century.

The second group forms the overwhelming majority in society. They display a victim complex that comes from the 20th century. The victim complex recognizes the regime’s right to terror, and expresses a demonstrative, emphatic loyalty. Such people carry within them a monstrous fear that outstrips real threats. There is a complete absence of real horizontal ties other than between close friends. It is a condition of absolute oppression, a depressive condition.

Then there is the third group, the resistance to a criminal regime. Even during the Soviet era, it was small but very significant. This resistance is not political. It is a moral movement, sometimes it is aesthetic, because aesthetically many people could not accept the Soviet regime. The movement was knowingly doomed to failure, and was ready to face punishment, though not always in the literal sense.

RFI - Why, in your opinion, was there not a tribunal in the 1990s to mark a complete break with those events?

In the late 1980s, a time usually referred to in present-day historiography as perestroika, there was a very brief period – from about 1987 to 1991, no later – when there was a consensus in Russia. This consensus was built on a simple thesis of the criminal nature of the Stalinist regime. This period ended very quickly, however.

By 1991 there was a total rejection of lustration [Of the former Soviet bloc countries it was only in the Czech Republic, after 1989, that an attempt was made at lustration, to prevent former Communist Party and KGB officials from holding public office or teaching in schools - ed.] and a law about rehabilitation was passed that was not really a law, but consolidated false formulations about rehabilitation. The phrase "victims of political repression" was utterly meaningless because again nothing lay behind it – there was no crime, and no process of lustration. There were further attempts up until 1993. These were limited to recognizing the Soviet Communist Party as a criminal organisation. They were never pursued to the end, however, because such a need had disappeared in society.

RFI - Nonetheless, we see that now there is support in society for such initiatives as “Last Address” and “Restoring the Names”. Has a new need emerged?

Wait, you’ve skipped to the 21st century.

The problem is that in the late 1980s and 1990s we believed we had to study the past for the sake of the future. But over the last few years the situation has changed abruptly: and I can even say precisely when it happened -- it was in 2014, after the seizure of Crimea and the start of the war in Ukraine. The need was transferred from the present day to the past: How was it then? how did people live in the GULag? What was life like through the Great Terror? That experience is in demand today.

How did people behave during the interrogations and searches of 1970s? How were people of a certain nationality deported? Evidently, this is needed and essential today. Everyone concerned with human rights in the Crimea cannot help but be interested in the [1944] deportation of the Crimean Tatars. It isn’t the past, it’s still the present.

That is why stunning, remarkable mass projects such as the “Last Address” have appeared in today’s Russia and, unlike the 1990s, find such support in society today. It’s obvious that this is needed and essential. How much the need has increased, as grandchildren and great-grandchildren track down the story of their grandparents’ lives! And how far the behaviour of that same criminal structure -- the Cheka-NKVD-KGB-FSB [security service titles from 1917 to present] – regarding classified materials has changed. In documents today, copied by the FSB for the relatives and loved ones [of the regime’s victims], the names of the investigators and the executioners are concealed. In the 1990s, people received the complete text, no one concealed them then. Now they’ve begun to black out the names, so the family doesn’t retain a memory of who killed their grandfather or great-grandfather. The security services believe that this will defend them in the future: they are hiding the names of their predecessors because they sense and understand that they are just like them.

The victims fit into the present-day ideology which talks about a “great country,” a “great empire,” and insists that “Russia has always vanquished”. They are numbered among the long-suffering Russian people who have always endured everything, and put up with everything for the sake of a great victory. People were dying of hunger, cold, and disease: on the other hand . . . This “on the other hand” is the most monstrous and despicable part of the State’s ideological narrative.

RFI - In Karelia today, your colleague Yury Dmitriev is on trial. You worked together, searching for Sandarmokh, the execution site of the Solovki transport, and the creation of a memorial complex there. Many people connect the prosecution of Dmitriev with his work for Memorial. Do you agree?

You know, on the one hand, everything in the world is connected. On the other hand, there is what’s called a direct connection, but here that’s not entirely how it is. To say that Yury Dmitriev worked with us to search for Sandarmokh and participated in the Days of Remembrance and that’s the reason he was arrested – you know, you can’t put it like that.

What we can say for certain today is that Dmitriev committed no crime. His friends, acquaintances and colleagues know this; his lawyer who has studied all the details of the case knows it. Yury Dmitriev is without question a political prisoner. This is not just our opinion or that of his support group – and Dmitriev’s support group is tremendous, 30,000 signatures [on a petition] have been passed to the judicial authorities [in Karelia].

The Dmitriev case is a frame-up. But as often happens, we do not know today who ordered it or how it came about. But as always happens in political trials, sooner or later the mechanism of the case’s appearance will become known.

Photo of Irina Flige:  Museum of History of the GULAG

Translated by Translated by Marian Schwartz