25.05.2009 | Halya Coynash

Where are the graves?


It is hard now to imagine the effect that the film by Georgia’s Tengis Abuladze “Repentance” had on people in 1987. The Soviet intelligentsia enthusiastically seized a new catchphrase and endlessly sought original things to say about all roads leading to the church, and of course about whether or not the Mayor was to be seen as Stalin. Other memories have remained for me. Pain, at times almost unendurable. Then sick horror as the village teacher, with the fanaticism which kills, sings Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Years it took before I could listen to the Ninth Symphony again. 

And then the wildly triumphant exultation from the words of the daughter of victims of the deceased (Mayor, Stalin, as you wish) who has been caught as, for the third night in a row, she dug up the fresh grave. You’ll have to imprison me, she tells the court, for while there’s life in me, that man will find no resting place on this earth.

The pain and horror remain however there are more and more problems with triumph. In fact, there was twitchy discomfort even then when the Mayor’s grandson, having discovered the truth, flings the body into a ravine. Just a metaphor? Well that depends - for me, no, not then and not now. For those who have no graves it cannot me.

There were no graves and yet they said nothing while shamelessly lying. That was the source of exultant triumph at the words of the film’s heroine and desecrator of one specific grave. She was speaking for us all.

Yet who speaks for us now when it is politicians who are trying to take up the theme? When there are those among them who can seriously suggest moving the graves and monuments to soldiers who died in the War?

Were they really not sickened by decades of foul lies about soldiers fighting “for Stalin”? Among them were the fathers and grandfathers of Ukrainians who fought not for a bloody dictator, but for their own ravaged land. Or they fought because they were given no other choice. Who would hurl the first stone? 

And very many of them died.

They were used then, and any politicians who try to win some points for themselves out of the endlessly complex history of those times are betraying them once again. We have no right to encourage them. Yes, it is all controversial and we can give any number of examples exposing the bitter aftertaste of the word “liberator”. Those young lads didn’t survive.

On 9 May this year a report appeared on the Russian radio station “Echo Moskvy” about the desecration of a memorial cemetery for Soviet soldier – liberators in Warsaw. . “Echo Moskvy” quoted the Russian agency ITAR-TASS which in its turn quoted the Russian embassy in Poland. I wanted to know more and found a report in the Polish newspaper “Wyborcza”. That gave the same information, quoting “Echo Moskvy”. In the Ukrainian media, as is the way, by the next day they were reporting the desecration of graves with no reference at all. I can’t check, and maybe something really did happen, although the somewhat circuitous route of the information channels, to be honest, makes me wary. From my own experience I know only that however difficult it may be to find Poles who see the Red Army as “liberators”, on all Remembrance Days there are flowers and lit candles on the graves of Soviet soldiers.

I got hopelessly overwhelmed by the labyrinth of generations in the novel “One hundred years of solitude”, however one image remains. A woman consoling her husband after their plans have yet again failed, tells him: “we can just leave, after all nobody is buried here”.

Thank you to Vladimir Sarishvili who confirmed that in Georgia there could be no question of moving or dismantling monuments to the war dead. “Confirmed” because we are people and we understand that.

Until politicians get in on the act.

Who started a fight is always difficult to ascertain. It is no easier to determine whose diseased fantasy is generating new outbreaks of psychosis. The Kremlin’s faithful have drawn up a new draft law which envisages criminal liability for denying the victory of the USSR over the Nazis. Total absurdity of course however there is so little humour in the situation that we should be shouting to the world. Anniversaries are approaching which will be commemorated by the leaders of all democratic countries. Seventy years ago, on 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland with this directly leading to World War II. They will also be remembering 17 September when the USSR, as Hitler’s ally, invaded what was then part of Poland. Historians can provide a huge number of dates and details which did not get into the arsenal of Soviet propaganda about the War.

Do they really hope in the Kremlin that such a law will force everybody to tremble and avoid “indelicate” facts? As if anyone in their right mind would deny the crucial role placed by the USSR in the victory, however if you read the draft law carefully, it is clear that its scope is much broader.

I recently came upon the following phrase: “Memory about millions of victims is a key element in State creation.” Winced, I can’t deny, and the mere thought of substituting for the first part either Holodomor or the Holocaust makes me feel very sick. There was similar squeamish disgust at how the Soviet regime plugged its propaganda version of the “Great Patriotic War”, trying to conceal its ideological nakedness and bankruptcy. It is galling that the Kremlin has decided to drag Russia along this lie-ridden path.

If we are speaking of those in Russia for whom Soviet has long meant Russian, and both are inimitably positive, then all is clear. However when some political forces in Ukraine, instead of offering specific measures to put the country out of permanent crisis try to win votes by playing on old bitterness, and using monuments to the dead for their games, then it is worth considering precisely what their motives are.

If such politicians wish to serve their long-tormented country, let them spend less time trumpeting about the transfer of monuments to the fallen, and instead look for the graves their Soviet counterparts lied about. 70 years after the Terror we still have no graves on which to lay flowers and light candles of remembrance.

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