Speaking out or remaining silent: engaging with the legacy of Stalin

(English translation of Kessler's start of the debate)

For more than a quarter of a century Joseph Stalin ruled over Soviet Russia. Eighty years ago the terror he unleashed over his own country culminated in the mass arrests and show trials of 1937-38. Millions of families were torn apart in those years. For decades they remained silent. These days the Stalinist terror is commemorated. But there is little ‘real’ engagement with its legacy, comparable to the ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ in Germany. Isn’t that logical in a country where victims and perpetrators still live side by side? Dutch historian Gijs Kessler defends the right of their descendants to remain silent.

by Gijs Kessler

The year 2017 was the centennial of the Russian Revolution. But in Russia there was no official commemoration of the date. The anniversary posed a dilemma for Putin. On the one hand the legacy of this revolution, the Soviet system, is in essence seen as positive by Putin and his electorate. On the other hand, the last thing Putin desires is to give the population the idea that revolutions are worth pursuing, as this could pose a challenge to his own power. And for that reason he chose to remain silent about the issue.

2017 also marked the anniversary of another important date in Russian history – the year 1937, symbol and peak of the Stalinist terror that took the lives of over a million, largely completely innocent, Soviet citizens. Between 1936 and 1938, in a number of subsequent campaigns closely orchestrated by Joseph Stalin, an estimated 750.000 people were executed, and at least as much sent to forced labour camps, many of whom would die in later years due to exhaustion and deprivation. Traces of this terror can be found in practically every family history. The exact number of victims, as well as their identities, will probably never be known.

Unlike the revolution, this political repression was officially commemorated this year. On 30 October Putin unveiled a monument to the victims of political repression, located on a prominent spot on the central Moscow ring – the Wall of Grief. It is the first national monument for the victims of political repression. Yet, Putin did not once mention Stalin’s name at the ceremony, in spite of his personal role in the terror. This would be the equivalent of an inauguration of a monument to the victims of the Holocaust at which Adolf Hitler’s name would not be mentioned. How can we understand this? How does Russia deal with its traumatic past?

Dutch documentaries

Two Dutch documentaries recently addressed this question – Love is Potatoes by Aliona van der Horst and The Red Soul by Jessica Gorter, both launched at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Both films were also screened in December in Moscow at the largest Russian documentary film festival – ArtDocFest.

The two films tackle the subject from very different angles. Love is Potatoes is a very personal quest into the way a family deals with the traumas of the past. In The Red Soul director Jessica Gorter adopts a wider perspective and starts from the gradual rehabilitation of Stalin that seems to take place in Russia in recent years. This is frequently presented in the western press: Russians put flowers on Stalin’s grave on his birthday; Stalin is named as the most influential figure in Russian history; Stalin outstrips Putin in popularity.

This rehabilitation of Stalin is a complex phenomenon. Many Russians see Stalin as a leader who transformed Russia into a powerful state, held in awe in the world. This is a popular view in the current patriotic atmosphere, that substituted the inferiority complex of the morally and economically bankrupt 1990s.

An equally important role plays the fact that Stalin led the country to victory in the murderous confrontation with Nazi Germany during the war. All the more so because Putin, in search of a new national myth, has built up a veritable cult around this victory over the last fifteen years. Finally, in the eyes of many Russians, Stalin, despite his vices, favourably compares to the corrupt Russian leaders of the past twenty years, who are generally seen as pursuing exclusively their own personal gain, rather than heeding the interests of their country, or indeed the interests of the population.

No time for denunciation

An open denunciation of Stalin does not fit into such a political climate, and this explains why Putin did not even mention Stalin’s name at the ceremony where his victims were commemorated. By many it is interpreted, though, as effectively smoothing over, or even condoning Stalin’s crimes, and therefore as a tell-tale sign of a problematic relation to the past. Explicitly or implicitly such interpretations usually start from the assumption that the absence of a public debate on the issue is an obstacle to a process of ‘digestion’ and acceptance, and therefore undermines a healthy future development of society.

This assumption is based on the sole model we have for understanding the way a society deals with a traumatic past – the model of post-war Germany, which embarked on a painful process of introspection, confronting and renouncing its past. An impressive precedent, which, as I will argue, influences our perception to the extent as to make us blind for the mere possibility that a society might process a traumatic past in any other way.

The model we rely on stems from trauma psychology, and hinges on a sequential order of confrontation, analysis and ‘digestion’. When the first phase of confrontation fails to occur, this blocks the way to the further phases downstream. Remaining silent thus turns into a cover-up. And a suppressed traumatic experience will sooner or later resurface and cause trouble, we all agree. But is this really true?

From ‘Thaw’ to Glasnost

Russia confronted its past in two episodes. After the death of Stalin, the excesses of his reign were condemned by his successor Nikita Khrushchev and many of the victims were rehabilitated. Two decades of silence followed, and only during Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost of the late 1980s, a second period of confrontation started. This time there was widespread, and increasingly free discussion of the issue in press and print, archives opened up and the personal role of Stalin in the planning, execution and termination of the terror was indisputably established.

This public debate of the late 1980s, however, tacitly vanished during the economic and social turbulence of the chaotic 1990s, when the country was transformed from a centralised planned economy into a market economy and a (fragile) democracy. The issue never entirely disappeared from the agenda, but other, more pressing concerns, pushed it to the background.

This also had to do with the fact that the Russian state never took what would have been the logical next step according to the German example – addressing the question of guilt and responsibility. It was not that they wanted to deny or cover-up Stalin’s crimes. It rather provoked the fear of opening up a Pandora’s box in a society in which half of the population are descendants of those who killed the parents and grandparents of the other half.

The Red Soul powerfully illustrates this in a scene shot during a classroom discussion on the terror in the town of Severodvinsk in Karelia, built by forced labourers of the Gulag. Most of the teenagers in the class-room are blankly staring at their desks. The discussion leads nowhere, until Danya speaks out, a somewhat corpulent, carefully formulating young lad. His grandfather participated in building the town during the 1930s, he says, but as a volunteer, so, well, you know, ‘his role was a little bit different’. Do you mean to say, Danya, the teacher asks, who has discussed this with him before, that your grandfather was a guard in the camp? Yes, indeed, miss, that is it, he was a guard there.

Individual or collective guilt

In the sixties Khrushchev put the blame for the terror squarely and exclusively on Stalin. Putin does not want to do the same for internal political reasons, but this effectively blocks posing the question of guilt, because if Stalin was not responsible for the repression, then who was? Logically speaking, the only possible answer to this question can be: all perpetrators. And that is a conclusion which would diametrically oppose victims and perpetrators, a confrontation which Russia apparently seeks to avoid, because it is too disruptive and destabilising.

In this respect comparison to the German example is false as well. The victims of the Holocaust and their descendants largely did not (any more) belong to post-war German society. Repentance for the crimes of Nazism therefore took place in the absence of the victims. This makes it very different from repentance in the face of neighbours, colleagues, friends and relatives.

Indeed, another German example might be more relevant. Opening up the Stasi-archives in the former DDR proved to be a very painful process, as people were confronted with the names and identities of those who had been reporting them to the secret police. And this in a situation when the reporting concerned had for the larger part not even resulted in the physical destruction of the victims.

Remaining silent therefore might be a right one should not deny people. Remaining silent until an unspeakable trauma has been forgotten and a society can move on is something essentially different from concealing or hushing-up. And what is more, it can well be the only option, if the alternative of speaking out is simply too disruptive and too painful.