On October 29, Moscovites gathered at Solovetsky Stone, a monument located in Lubyanka Square in Moscow, right across from the Federal Security Services (formerly KGB) headquarters. The stone is a remnant of the Solovki prison camp and is part of a monument built in 1990 to commemorate victims of the Soviet Gulag. A year later, on October 30, 1991, the “Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repressions” was established.
Over the past ten years, on the eve of this anniversary, a ceremony called “Return of the Names” takes place at the monument. From 10 am until 10 pm, people read aloud the names of the Soviet citizens executed by the Stalin regime in 1937 and 1938. According to Memorial, a Russian human rights organization founded in 1989 to preserve the history of Soviet repression, at least 30,000 people were executed in Moscow and 700,000 throughout the country, during those years. They are known in Russian history as the era of Stalin’s Great Terror.
Now, however, the Kremlin is attempting to control the narrative about these ugly moments in Russian history. In his latest column for The Economist, journalist Arkady Ostrovsky writes about these efforts: “In Mr Putin’s third presidential term, control over Russia’s history has become as important as control over television…”
While monuments and exhibitions glorifying Stalin appear in cities across the country, official state rhetoric focuses on glorious and positive moments, oftentimes minimizing the Great Terror’s significance in Soviet history.
As a result of this campaign, some Russians have come to believe Soviet-era crimes are a myth; or that they were not as massive as people claim; or that all those executed were actually “enemies of the people” and deserved punishment; or that without the Gulag, the USSR would have been unable to win the Second World War.
Rhetoric that justifies the Great Terror or diminishes its significance is particularly worrying, given Russia’s ongoing crackdown on civil society. Memorial, which is an organizer of the commemorative ceremony, has been one of the main targets of anti-NGO legislation in Russia, which was introduced four years ago. According to the legislation, all NGOs operating in Russia that receive foreign funding have to be registered as “foreign agents,” a term synonymous with “traitor” and “spy.” Ironically, these labels are reminiscent of the Great Terror period, when the government accused anyone remotely “disloyal” to the regime as being an “enemy of the people.”
That Memorial finds itself among those labeled “foreign agents” means the government regards it as threatening its distortion of Soviet history. In forgetting and denying Russia’s past, and reviving the idea of traitor and enemy, the Kremlin is recreating the very atmosphere of suspicion and hatred that made the Great Terror possible.