RIA Novosti carries an opinion piece by Maxim Krans which examines Russia’s relationship with its Soviet past. Krans condemns an equivocal attitude towards the darker aspects of the USSR which has become increasingly prevalent as 1991 recedes into distant memory. In particular he is critical of the rehabilitation of Stalin which has crept into Russian textbooks and the teaching of history under Putin’s regime. Notably RIA Novosti is a state owned news agency and the article is published not only on the English language site, but also within the opinion section of the Russian language site.
The debate has arisen as Mikhail Gorbachev and others have appealed for a ‘national memorial’ to be established in memory of those who lost their lives in Stalin’s purges. In addition Gorbachev has suggested that Lenin’s embalmed body be removed from the mausoleum on Red Square and buried in accordance with his own wishes. Although the commentator is rather disingenuous in implying from this a wish on Gorbachev’s part to bury the legacy of Lenin. The embalming of Lenin was Stalin’s initiative and one which the man himself would have deplored.
Certainly it is remarkable how little public acknowledgment of victims of Soviet oppression exists in Russia. Organisations like ‘Memorial’ have lobbied for public remembrance of those who perished or suffered in the Gulag, and have enjoyed some success, but in general any attempt at remembering such events has been extremely modest.
Much has been written contrasting Germany’s perceived successful efforts to remember and reconcile its past, with Russia’s perceived failure to acknowledge or even disclaim the dark legacy of its own repressive regimes. There are reasons for this apparent disparity and some of them are valid. Clearly Germany’s 12 year period of Nazi rule cannot compare to Russia’s 74 year experience of Soviet communism. Successive generations were implicated in a political project which encompassed vast variations in its oppressive character. Stalin can clearly be compared to Hitler without difficulty, but Russians must wrestle with a much more equivocal sweep of history in their consideration of the Soviet Union as a whole, and naturally their feelings about the past will be somewhat ambivalent.
However Krans, and Gorbachev too for that matter, are quite right to maintain that remembering the wrongs of the past is important, not only in order to respect the victims of those wrongs, but also to avoid repeating similar mistakes in the future. To this end there are certainly events which it is possible to remember and condemn without ambiguity. The execution of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn in 1939 is one such event and the extremity of Stalin’s purges is another. The new president should look urgently into a fitting national memorial to these events.