The Future of Unwanted Histories

Fashioning of a good future out of a bad past through constructing a ‘usable past’ for the national narrative is not unique to Russia. But in Russia 'de-Stalinization' is its acutest problem at the moment. So, the efforts of civic initiatives like Memorial and the Free Historians Society – and the resistance to them – draw attention to the challenges Russia faces in moving past its Stalinist past, writes Nanci Adler in a reflection on Greg Yudin’s essay ‘Russia’s Two Memories and Multiple Pasts’.

by Nanci Adler

Russia has a long history of managing national and public memory by repressing, controlling, or even co-opting the memory of repression. The dominance of the state-sponsored narrative over the victims’ accounts reflects the persistence of a post-Communist repression (authoritarian entrenchment, as Greg Yudin aptly terms it) and totalitarian culture long after its formal demise. However, despite the politically expedient trend of imposing a national amnesia, important civic initiatives like Memorial, and now the Free Historians Society, are investigating and publicizing a counter-history to the state-sponsored narratives. Their efforts – and the resistance to them – draw attention to the critical challenges Russia faces in moving past its Stalinist past.

A more complete recognition of victims, crimes, and perpetrators would be a good start to the process, but there has long been an apprehension that a fuller history of the repression could undermine the legitimacy of the regime. In consequence, revision of the past became the short-term remedy to circumvent undertaking the wrenching process of self-judgment in post-Soviet Russia.  To this end, twenty-seven years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia crafted an approach to its Stalinist history that burnishes its national image -- its citizens are encouraged not to focus on the crimes that took place under the Soviet regime, but rather to look to the ‘bright past’ of national achievements.

Judging by the state’s memory policy, an accurate account of the victimizations under seven decades of Soviet rule could not be comfortably included in a Soviet history that Russians would be proud of – unless this disclosure was coupled with pride in the government’s pledge to deal with the damage wrought by Stalin. The expedient solution was to construct a purposively incomplete history that marginalized the repression. This strategy permits the current government to condemn the terror and control history at the same time by co-opting some of the tasks of civil society. 

Victory Day 2016 in Moscow. Photo by Nanci Adler

Usable Past

The fashioning of a good future out of a bad past through constructing a ‘usable past’ for the national narrative is not unique to Russia. It characterizes numerous post- and still-repressive societies that have been unable, unwilling or resistant to embrace so-called ‘transitional justice’ measures. In Russia, this process has been accompanied by a present patriotism that calls for Western franchises like McDonald’s to be replaced by ‘Edim Doma’ (Eat at Home), and museum exhibitions that showcase Soviet interpretations of history, like the 2015 ‘History of the Return of Crimea’ on display at the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow. It has also come to include publications like Words that Changed the World, a volume of Putin’s collective wisdom edited by a youth group.  

A Soviet-era adage proclaimed that: ‘Lenin is always with us’. It alluded to the omnipresence of the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in public and private spaces.  Lenin -- though still physically with us as he lays embalmed in a mausoleum on Red Square -- has now been relegated to the Communist past.  The reviled and revered Stalin has not.  Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the history of the crimes of Stalin and Stalinism, already officially revealed under Khrushchev and Gorbachev, has been so successfully glossed over that nationwide polls show his popularity edging back toward its pre-de-Stalinization levels, and gaining momentum.  It is certain that Stalin is always with us.

Stalin and de-Stalinization

In a 2014 Russian survey, half the respondents rated Stalin’s role in the country’s history as positive. In a 2015 poll, 38% of those asked responded positively to the question of whether the Soviet peoples’ sacrifices during the Stalin era were justified by the high goals and results that were achieved in such a short period. And finally, regarding Stalin himself, 40% polled this year did not consider Stalin a state criminal, and the Stalin era was associated with more ‘good’ than ‘bad.

Thus, despite official measures that purport to criminalize pro-Stalin propaganda, the parallel process of rehabilitation of Stalin continues -- on busses, in monuments, in stores, in school history texts, and in the public space. One blatant example was the Communist Party’s declaration last year that 2016 was the ‘Year of Stalin’, and the ‘Stalin Spring’. This marked the 80th anniversary of the 1936 ‘Stalin Constitution’, proclaiming the primacy of the Communist Party, and several local parties developed initiatives to better educate the populace on Stalin.

So, the casual acceptance of repression has been successfully coupled with the valorization of Stalin.  His rise in popularity was accompanied by a sequence of measures, including the 2009 restoration of an ode to Stalin engraved in a prominent Moscow metro station and the creation of a state commission to guard against the ‘falsification of history to the detriment of Russia’s interests’, a move Yudin marks as the resurgence of the state’s proactivity in controlling the historical narrative. These measures prompted human rights organizations to presciently argue in 2009 that, ‘de-Stalinization is Russia's acutest problem at the moment.’

Civil society is chronically tasked to monitor the Russian government’s words and deeds

The identification of a human rights issue as Russia’s ‘problem’ is true, but the state asserts a competing truth, and prioritizes a different problem. The issue prioritized by Russia’s past and present rulers was not confronting this criminal history, but rather strengthening the stability and legitimacy of the regime. They were concerned about a de-Stalinization that might emerge uncontrollably from below, a fear that is constant and probably correct. 

The revelations regarding state-sponsored repression may not have been a major determinant in facilitating the collapse of the Soviet Union, but their importance might be assessed from the importance placed on censoring them. Accordingly, rather than following the European example of recognizing the victims and crimes of Nazism through commemoration, stolpersteine (stumbling blocks on the sidewalks in front of homes where victims of Nazism once lived), transforming campsites into memorial museums, and substantive compensation, the only museum on a former Gulag site was co-opted by the authorities to misrepresent the Gulag as a bulwark against fifth column subversives seeking to undermine the Soviet people.

The Destruction of the Museum at Labor Camp Perm

In 2002, I wrote in The Gulag Survivor: ‘postwar Europe made the concentration camps an important theme in its efforts to expose the ideology and practices of fascism. Post-Soviet Russia has the potential to do the same. The beginnings are evident…’ I went on to identify and describe the efforts to transform the labor camp Perm that Gorbachev had closed in 1987, into a museum. It was dedicated in 1995, and in subsequent years, was substantially developed. Observers and participants in those years did not foresee that the government would view it as a threat that had to be eliminated.

In 2014, as the power and water were shut off by the authorities, and the camp’s watchtower bulldozed, it was evident that Perm’s physical survival was in peril. The survival of its factual history was also imperiled by a state-run television report featuring interviews with former guards who claimed that only traitors were incarcerated in Perm. Perm had become the latest battleground for contesting the history of the repression.

Which Past to Remember?

The report Wither Past for the Russian Future admirably contributes to the Free Historians Society’s mandate to ‘protect professional historical work in the face of the rising instrumentalization of history.’ This task is enormous, because who, what, and how to remember are particularly complicated questions in post-repressive states who believe their survival depends on the careful monitoring of selected omissions.

For example, the history of the state’s mass murder and terrorization of its own citizens runs counter to the mythologized Soviet victory over the barbaric Nazi regime, a cornerstone of the state-generated narrative – a cornerstone supported by Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky. Consequently, Sergey Mironenko, Director of the State Archive of the Russian Federation, who spearheaded broad archival access for researchers including myself in the nineties, was demoted last year for publishing a document deflating the myth of the 1941 heroic defense of Moscow by Panfilov’s 28 guardsmen.  An acknowledgement of culpability in Stalinist crimes undermines much that was foundational to some citizens today, such as industrialization, the eradication of illiteracy, and other achievements of the Stalinist era. 

Yudin calls our attention to an important corrective to such ‘statocentric’ memory:  the strengthening of the individual in the historical narrative through, among others, further mining of the memories that have been passed on through families. The emergence of more such counter-histories can help facilitate the requests for which victims’ organizations have long been lobbying: that the government acknowledge the crimes of Stalinism, present apologies, and launch a federal initiative dedicated to remembering the repression. These requests have been accompanied by a call for the state to admit its culpability, and acknowledge that the whole country was ‘one big Katyn’ (the 1940 NKVD murder of thousands of Polish officers in a forest near Smolensk, denied until 1990, marginalized in subsequent years).  

Promises have been offered to create a program to eliminate the vestiges of Stalinism, but genuine official support for such an enormous mandate has been inconsistent and long in coming. For example, Medvedev was in favor of the idea of creating a data base on victims, but stopped short of supporting the request for a ‘political-legal judgment of the crimes of the Communist regime.’ He questioned what authority could condemn the former regime, and rejected the very idea that the state could admit culpability on behalf of the state by arguing that ‘legal judgments are passed by judges, not even the president or parliament’.

There are some hopeful signs though. Notwithstanding all its ambiguity, if not ambivalence regarding the Stalinist past, in 2015, the Russian government endorsed a bill on the remembrance of victims of political repression. It addressed memorialization, books of remembrance, data bases, archival access, and victim recognition and compensation.  It allowed a monument to the victims of Stalin’s terror to be placed in central Moscow, and the city of Moscow allocated a building and funds for the construction of a Gulag Museum. However, state support for a de-Stalinization program runs counter to the ‘militant patriotism’ it also endorses, so civil society is chronically tasked to monitor the Russian government’s words and deeds.

Forced labour in Perm 36. Foto

History Today

In actual history, the chronology of events moves from past to present, and historical scholarship thrives on the assumption that the past produces the present. But in Russia’s politicized history, it is the present that produces the past by choosing which parts of the past should be remembered and how they should be construed. In consequence, what could have been a useable ‘lessons learned from the past’ history of Russia has been subverted. It now takes the form of what the needs of the present require the history of Russia to be.

While integrating the story of the terror into the mainstream history of Russia is a relatively straightforward task at the level of historical scholarship, it has been frustrated by political obstacles. Overcoming them would require a fundamental shift from a system of governance that devalues human rights, toward a democratic ethos that prioritizes them, which would include undertaking transitional justice measures.  However, the Russian government’s efforts to focus attention on the material and military benefits under Stalin and de-emphasize Stalin’s crimes suggest that promoting this skewed version of history is the best mechanism available for sustaining repressive governance. In consequence, organizations pursuing an accurate history are at risk for being charged with engaging in undesired political activity, and even of attempting to overthrow the Russian government. 

Breaking the long cycle of repression, which starts and ends with the suppression of counter-narratives

The survival of civil society depends on both the survival of the state and the individuals it governs.  The narrative accounts of each should intertwine to produce the kind of ‘diversification of historical memory’ that Yudin suggests might lead to political diversification. Thus far, however, such intertwining is proscribed in a post-Soviet Russia that is attempting to relegate Stalin’s repression to the past without recognizing its impact on the present. From the foregoing, one might reasonably speculate that while the current regime may understand the national and international resistance to repression, they fear that the only alternative would be the chaos that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This approach has narrowed the field to two major narratives, or two memories, as Yudin terms it, of the repression that compete for dominance in the informal marketplace of public opinion -- the stories of the victims and survivors, still seeking recognition by and compensation from the government, and the official redacted history, aiming to both sanitize Stalin’s repression and persuade the public that the survival of the State required the suppression of individual rights – and still does. This latter message has gained the competitive edge.

If the current trend continues, the cost of Russia’s inability and unwillingness to fully acknowledge its history of repression is one that will be borne by all successor regimes. That prospect may be changing, though. Arseny Roginsky, chairman of Memorial and ardent advocate for non-violent transformation, emphasizes the importance of the story we tell ourselves and others: ‘society and the state will need to work together, and historians bear a special responsibility in this process’.  With their goal of illuminating multiple pasts, Yudin and his colleagues can make an important contribution to breaking the long cycle of repression, which starts and ends with the suppression of counter-narratives.