“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!” writes Alexander Cherkasov.
“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 [R], containing about 2.7 million names, i.e., almost a quarter of the 12 million victims who are covered by the terms 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.”
Last year, Memorial published a different database [R] 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 [R], 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 is quite another.
In the late 1980s it seemed that political repression, which not only preserved the political and social system of the USSR, but served as the very framework of its existence, would become a thing of the past. Sometimes, however, such methods return.
… and Now
In Karelia, Memorial member Yury Dmitriev [R] is being tried on fabricated charges.
Dozens of people have already been sentenced as part of the Bolotnaya Case [R]. The most recent was 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 [R]. 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.”
Alexander Cherkasov is a board member of the International Memorial Society