Returning - or Silencing - the Names of Stalin’s Victims


In her Requiem, the poet Anna Akhmatova wrote: “I would like to call you all by name, but they took away the list.  It was Memorial, the organization which the Russian authorities are now trying to shut down, that enabled many of us to learn where parents, grandparents or others had been executed in the worst years of Stalin’s Terror.  For the last 8 years Memorial has organized a ‘Returning of the Names’ on the eve of October 30 – Day in Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression.  On Lubyanka Square near the Solovki Stone brought to Moscow in the late 1980s from the first labour camp at Solovki, people take turns to read out the names of those executed in Moscow during the Terror. 

“We read the names of those who were executed during Stalin’s Terror. In Moscow alone over 40 thousand people were killed.  We have been reading the names for many years and have not read out even half of that list. We know contemporary political prisoners as well. Thank God, the death penalty is not applied these days, and the list which needs to be read out on Lubyanka Square is not being added to”

-        Alexander Cherkasov, member of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Society.

There were victims in all Soviet republics, including, of course, Ukraine.  For many, the only records are the ‘files’ kept of each of the victims, sometimes with the dates when they were ‘rehabilitated’.

No graves, usually no indication at all where they might have been buried.

Under Vladimir Putin, access to the archives has become more difficult, and now Memorial itlself could be faced with closure.

Since 2007 there have been steady moves away from recognition of the crimes committed during the communist period, and especially under Stalin.  Talking to teachers in June 2007, Putin gave his stamp of approval to ‘positive moves’ in the presentation of the country’s history. Up till recently, he said, you could read things in history books which made your hair stand on end.  The new history textbooks by Alexander Fillipov promoted for schools presented Stalin as “one of the most successful leaders of the USSR”.  “The outcome of Stalin’s purges was the formation of a new governing class, able to cope with the task of modernization given the shortage of resources – unwaveringly loyal to the upper echelons of power and irreproachable from the point of view of executive discipline”.

In a survey carried out by the state-run FOM [Public Opinion Foundation]  people were asked who was to blame for the repression in Russia, and whether the Day of Remembrance should be marked.   The survey would probably not be worth mentioning were it not for discrepancies in reports of its findings.  Moscow News, for example, reports that nearly 50% believe that mass repressions are possible in their lifetime.

The results on the FOM page do not seem to indicate this.  Asked whether they think that mass political repression in the USSR can be justified, the answers were as follows:   October 2014:  17% said that they could be justified, against 14% in 2012;  53% (against 49%) said that they could not be justified; 6% (against 10%) denied that there had been political repression, while 23% [against 30] didn’t know.

With respect to the possibility of repression again, the confidence they will not be repeated seems suspiciously higher now than at the same time two years ago.  In 2012, 23% said the possibility was high, against 14% in 2014; 28% thought it low against 34% in 2014; 20% confidentally said that there would be no repetition back in 2012 against 24% in 2014. 

The questions are on the primitive side, and the results 2 years ago came after the mass protests against Putin’s third term as president.  2 years on, the clamps on civil society and protest may be less visible to most Russians, but they are certainly there.


Halya Coynash

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