Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Solzhenitsyn and historical memory

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read any Solzhenitsyn. The articles which have paid tribute to his work following his death have sharpened my resolve to do so. Open Democracy’s Russia site carries a particularly pertinent piece on behalf of Memorial, which since 1992 has campaigned for a public space in countries of the former USSR, to remember the victims of totalitarianism there and to retain an historical focus and contemporary understanding of the wrongs which were committed under oppressive regimes in those states.

In June I wrote about historical memory in Russia, highlighting the importance of Memorial’s aims. Mikhail Gorbachev had offered his support to a campaign seeking to establish a ‘national memorial’ to the victims of Stalin’s purges, an initiative which a fine article in RIA Novosti had commended. On Three Thousand Versts I commented,

“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.”

Memorial’s piece on Open Democracy echoes this theme and emphasises the important role which Solzhenitsyn played in presenting an untrammelled account of the Gulag and state oppression. In particular the importance of Gulag Archipelago is stressed,

“It made the crucial importance of understanding the past for the sake of the future clear to many people. At first such people could be counted in their tens, then in their hundreds, then thousands”.

At a time when in Russia the worst excesses of the Soviet regime, and in particular the regime of Stalin, are being reinterpreted in an equivocal fashion, Solzhenitsyn’s work remains especially relevant.

One of my few disappointments in visiting Russia was confirming how little public space, either in discourse or monument, is devoted to remembering those who were victims of totalitarian regimes. Memorial's article points out that whilst Solzhenitsyn is still read, his legacy will be that those victims are not completely forgotten.

“Now people have started talking about ‘the end of the Solzhenitsyn era'. We categorically disagree with this view. ‘The era of Solzhenitsyn', the era of recovering historical memory, is not going to end with his departure. “

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