The Derailment of Memorial’s Goals – For Now

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Three decades have now passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but the Soviet legacy continues to thrive in Russia. On the orders of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday ordered the dismantling of the country’s two Memorial organizations: Memorial International, which systematically documented the deadly atrocities perpetrated in the USSR by Joseph Stalin, and Memorial Human Rights Center, which has promoted respect for human rights and the release of political prisoners in post-Soviet Russia.

The forced closure of Memorial, after statements by prosecutors dating back to the Stalinist era, provides worrying confirmation of Russia’s return to authoritarianism under Putin.

The campaign against Memorial comes amid Putin’s widespread crackdown on his political opponents and on activists who support democracy and human rights.

Through vigorous repression and manipulation of the Russian legal system, particularly of the “foreign agent” and “extremism” laws, the Kremlin has shattered almost all guarantees against the resumption of Soviet-style abuses.

The Supreme Court’s verdict against Memorial was preordained after Putin publicly expressed his contempt for the organization’s efforts to strengthen public memory and protect human rights.

Memorial began as an experimental movement at the end of the Soviet era when the sweeping reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev prompted a small group of prominent dissidents and intellectuals in the USSR to create an organization that would pursue the responsibility of crimes of the Stalinist era. The idea of ​​introducing accountability for abuses committed by political leaders was a radical change for the USSR, whose leaders had committed terrible crimes with impunity.

Soviet officials initially wanted to derail Memorial, but eventually gave in and allowed it to be officially registered in 1989. During the remainder of the Soviet period, Memorial quickly gained influence, establishing itself as one of the most respected organizations in the world for the advancement of humanity. rights and historical calculation.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Memorial survived and continued its work, connecting Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Center. During the period of relative freedom in the 1990s, Memorial pushed for the declassification of crucial documents, published thick volumes of transcribed documents, and compiled databases of information on millions of people killed under the regime. Stalin. The scale of Stalin’s crimes made it impossible to take a full picture of the past, but Memorial did more than ever thought possible to ensure that the Russians would have access to information about the mass atrocities perpetrated by the Soviet regime.

Memorial also sought to ensure that public officials in Russia would no longer be able to engage in violent abuse without accountability. The organization publicized the cases of political prisoners, opposed restrictions on rights and freedoms and denounced the atrocities committed during the two Russian wars in Chechnya.

But even as Memorial continued its invaluable work, obstacles gradually arose. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Soviet citizens were eager to learn more about Stalin’s crimes. But in post-Soviet Russia, the trend was less favorable. Public interest in the Stalinist era waned and was gradually replaced by fatalistic apathy.

One of the main reformers under Gorbachev, Aleksandr Yakovlev, who became a strong supporter of Memorial’s work, commented in early 2001: “When I read all these documents on Stalin’s terror, I was dismayed to see that the Kremlin rulers were so cruel and destructive to their own people. But what worries me even more is that the vast majority of the inhabitants of this country {Russia} today are totally indifferent to this information. “

The decline in the level of public interest was reinforced by Putin’s rise and the return to an authoritarian state of mind in the Kremlin. Shortly after taking office, Putin rekindled the symbols and characteristics of the Stalinist era. In his speech to the Federal Assembly in April 2005, he declared that the disintegration of the USSR at the end of 1991 “was the greatest geopolitical disaster in the world. [20th] century.”

Over time, he tried to prevent condemnations of the Stalinist-era repressions, and some of his main collaborators even defended the abuses.

In December 2017, Putin’s longtime foreign intelligence chief Aleksandr Bortnikov argued that Stalin’s crackdown millions had been largely justified because “the enemy was trying to defeat us, either in open battle or by relying on traitors inside the country, and with their help, causing trouble, dividing the people and crippling the state’s ability to respond in a timely and effective manner to emerging threats.

Bortnikov insisted that “archival documents show that there were objective motives for a significant percentage of criminal cases” during Stalin’s Great Terror.

Putin didn’t go as far as Bortnikov in whitewashing Stalin’s record, but his obscurations of Soviet-era crimes have grown bolder since Russia went to war with Ukraine.

In a nationally broadcast speech announcing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Putin used Stalinist terminology, lambasting “traitors” and “fifth chroniclers” in Russia who were supposedly trying to thwart his attempt to restore Russian glory.

Two months later, Putin enacted a bill banning criticism of the role of the Soviet Union in World War II.

In the years that followed, official images of Stalin as the “great leader” who spearheaded the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany sidelined attempts to commemorate tens of millions of victims of Stalinist repressions. . Putin has made it clear on several occasions in recent interviews that although some “excesses” took place during the Stalinist era, these should not detract from the “immense pride” that he and other Russians feel in the “national greatness” of the state built by Stalin.

The revival of Stalinist phraseology was blatant this week during court hearings that liquidated Memorial. State Prosecutor Aleksei Zafyarov accused Memorial of committing “gross violations” of the “foreign agents” law, but most of his comments did not focus on the law or the alleged violations, but on Memorial’s work to document the Stalinist past. His scathing assessment of Memorial’s work and motives was reminiscent of the invectives used by Stalinist-era prosecutors in the 1930s and 1940s:

It is evident that “Memorial”, having capitalized on the theme of political repressions in the 20th century, created a deliberately false image of the USSR as a terrorist state and laundered and rehabilitated Nazi war criminals whose hands are bloodstained from Soviet citizens.

Why should we, as descendants of the victors of this war, now feel obligated to see to the rehabilitation of national traitors and Nazi accomplices?

Addressing a theme that Putin has championed in recent years, Zafyarov stressed that “we, the descendants of the victors, do not need to repent or be embarrassed. We should be proud of our glorious past!

Although Memorial is appealing the court’s decision, there is little chance of success in such a high-profile case. But even though Memorial as a legal entity is now gone, the guiding force behind the organization since 1989 – the desire to understand why so many millions of people have been unjustly killed, tortured and imprisoned in peacetime at the hands of their citizens. own leaders – persist without a doubt.

Putin’s efforts to curb the scrutiny of the Stalinist era may succeed in the short term, but the years of research undertaken by Memorial cannot simply be erased from the historical record. While a new push for historical accountability may be infeasible until Putin takes the stage, a new generation of Russians will at some point want to know why so many innocent people died under Stalin’s rule.

Memorial’s work will give crucial impetus to such a quest for understanding.

The opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.


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