Given the recent sequestration of Memorial’s St Petersburg archive, an article by the organisation’s founder, Argeny Roginsky, examining his country’s attitude to Stalinism, is particularly apposite. He finds that Russia’s ‘historical memory’ of the dictator is both painful and ambivalent. Stalin’s crimes have not yet been confronted as they should be, because they raise insoluble questions as to who were the criminals and who were the victims during his rule, as well as interrogating the fabric of contemporary Russian identity in a manner which causes acute discomfort.
Although Russia has made some progress in coming to terms with the victimhood of those who suffered under Stalin, Roginisky argues that it has shown less fortitude in confronting the crimes implicit in that victim status. There has been insufficient legal acknowledgment of state terror as a crime and the perpetrators of Stalinist outrages have not undergone criminal proceedings. The difficulty, Roginsky contends, is disentangling the executioners from the victims. Even within Stalin’s inner circle, those who signed death warrants one day had their own signed the next. Implied guilt is cloaked in ambiguity. Russia’s suffers an ‘inability to assign evil’.
Russia’s current ambitions to reprise ‘great power’ status pose additional problems in coming to terms with the wrongs of Stalin’s era. Roginsky does not allege that the Kremlin under Putin sought to rehabilitate Stalin, but rather suggests that when the Russian population as a whole found difficulty in assimilating Yeltsinite counter-factual narratives surrounding Stolypin, or remote episodes from the distant past (Peter I), as meaningful indicators of identity, achievements from the Soviet era surfaced as a more accessible framework of identity. Putin’s regime adopted a pragmatic approach and it was difficult to repudiate Stalin unambiguously without repudiating some of the nation’s most cherished historical memory, associated with a strong Russia.
The most lucid and evocative memory of recent Russian history remains the Great Patriotic War (WW2). Whatever atrocities Stalin committed against his own people, his legacy is caught up with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Between 24 and 27 million Russians died during World War 2. The belief is that they died defeating a force of pure evil. To impugn the regime which oversaw this victory is in some respects to impugn the sacrifice and hardship which Russia underwent during this period. Roginsky believes that a simplistic narrative of this type has entrenched Russian difficulties in acknowledging the culpability of the state for Stalinist terror.
Tackling the past is a project which is taking place in Russia, albeit in the large part without state help. Roginsky highlights the 800 monuments, across the Federation, to the victims of Stalin. There are almost 300 ‘books of memory’ drawn from regions which Memorial has consolidated into a database of roughly 2,700,000 names. 300 museums in Russia contain detail about Stalinist terror.
Roginsky’s is a thoughtful essay which ends with a lament as to the quality of school curricula teaching Stalinist history in Russia. It examines problems of culture, self-conception and identity which afflict the country as it tries to come to terms with dark episodes from its past. It is worth reading in its entirety. I have expressed the belief before, and it is a belief I would reiterate, that the Kremlin can do much more in this regard. An official state museum of the terror and an appropriate state memorial to victims of totalitarianism should be provided. Organisations like Memorial have done a sterling job in the absence of state backing, but it is time that they had some official help, rather than the hindrance represented by police raids of spurious provenance.