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1937 and the present day


Seventy years ago, following a decision by the top Party bodies in the USSR another bloody “purge” began. It was to last for two years. Historians often refer to this campaign as the “Great Terror”, while ordinary people call it simply “Thirty Seven”.

The communist dictatorship was always – before and after 1937 – associated with political repression. However it was specifically Nineteen Thirty Seven that has become fixed in people’s memory as the terrible symbol of a system of mass murder organized and carried out by the State. This is evidently due to some exceptional features of the Great Terror determining its particular place in history as well as to the enormous influence which it exerted and continues to exert on the fate of our country.

Nineteen Thirty Seven was the massive scale of repression engulfing all regions and all layers of society without exception, from the leadership of the country to peasants and workers infinitely removed from politics. More than 1.7 million people were arrested on political charges from 1937-1938.  If one adds the victims of deportation and those convicted as “socially harmful elements”, the number of those repressed came to over two million.

It was the extraordinary brutality of the sentences, with more than 700 thousand of those arrested being executed.

It was the unprecedented planned nature of the terrorist “special operations”. The entire campaign was carefully thought out in advance by the top political leadership of the USSR and carried out under their constant supervision.

The NKVD secret orders stipulated the time periods for carrying out particular operations, groups and categories of the population liable to “purging” and also “limits” – the planned numbers of arrests and executions for each region. Any changes, any “initiatives from below” had to be agreed with and approved by Moscow.

Yet for the vast mass of the population who didn’t know what the orders contained, the logic behind the arrests seemed mysterious and inexplicable, defying commonsense. For the people of that time, the Great Terror seemed like a massive lottery. The almost mystical incomprehensibility of what was happening filled people with particular terror and made millions uncertain of their own fate.

The repressions particularly affected representatives of the new Soviet political, military and economy elites. The reprisals against people whose names were known throughout the country (and newspaper first reported their fate) and whose loyalty there had been no grounds for doubting, intensified the panic and exacerbated the mass psychosis. This even resulted in the myth that the Great Terror was directly exclusively against old Bolsheviks and the Party and State hierarchy. In actual fact the overwhelming majority of those arrested and shot were simple Soviet citizens who did not belong to the Party or to any elite.

Nineteen Thirty Seven was a scale of fabricated charges unprecedented in world history. In 1937-1938 the likelihood of arrest was largely determined by whether one belonged to any of the categories of the population indicated in one of the NKVD’s “operational orders” or on the basis of links, work-related, family or friendly ties, with people arrested earlier. Formulating individual “guilt” was up to the criminal investigators. Therefore hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of those arrested were presented with absurd charges of “counter-revolutionary conspiracies”, “espionage”, “preparing terrorist acts”, “sabotage” and so forth.

Nineteen Thirty Seven was the revival in the twentieth century of the norms of the medieval Inquisition with all its traditional features of people being tried in their absence (in the vast majority of cases), quasi-judicial procedure, the lack of defence and the effective merging within one department of the roles of the investigator, prosecutor, judge and executioner.

Once again, as during the Inquisition, the main proof was the ritual of “confessions” by the accused themselves. The endeavours to gain such confessions, combined with the arbitrary and absurd nature of the charges led to the mass use of torture. In the summer of 1937 torture was officially sanctioned and recommended as a method of running the investigation.

Nineteen Thirty Seven was the extraordinary and closed nature of legal proceedings. It was the mystery which enveloped the exercising of “justice”, the impenetrable secrecy around the places where people were executed or where their bodies were buried. It was the systematic official lying over many years about the fate of those executed. At first this was with the fictitious “camps without the right of correspondence”, then with their death supposedly due to some illness with false dates and place of death given.

Nineteen Thirty Seven was the collective responsibility with which the Stalinist leadership tried to bind the entire population. Throughout the entire country meetings were held at which people were forced to energetically applaud the public lies about the exposed and neutralized “enemies of the people”. Children were forced to denounce their arrested parents, wives – their husbands.

It was millions of families destroyed. It was the sinister abbreviation “ChSIR” –  “family member of a traitor of the Motherland” which served in itself as a sentence to imprisonment in special camps for the twenty thousand widows whose husbands had been executed on the ruling of the Military Collegium [Voennaya Kollegiya] of the Supreme Court.  It was the hundreds of thousands of “orphans of Nineteen Thirty Seven – people whose childhood was taken from them and whose youth was crippled.

It was the ultimate devaluing of human life and freedom. It was the cult of the Cheka [the Secret Police], the romanticizing of violence, and the deification of the idol of the State. It was a time of the total distortion in the national consciousness of all legal concepts.

And finally, Nineteen Thirty Seven was the absurd combination of a bacchanalia of terror with an unrestrained propaganda campaign singing the praise of the world’s most developed Soviet democracy, the world’s most democratic Soviet Constitution, the great achievements and labour feats of the Soviet people. It was specifically 1937 that saw the end to the forming of that characteristic feature of Soviet society – double-think, the result of a split in reality, imposed by propaganda on the public and individual consciousness.

* * *

And now, seventy years later, one clearly sees in the stereotypes of social life and State policy of Russia and other countries arising from the ruins of the USSR the fatal influence both of the catastrophe of 1937-1938 itself, and of that entire system of State violence, the symbol and quintessence of which were epitomized by those years. The catastrophe penetrated the mass and individual subconscious, exacerbated the obsolete ills of our mentality, passed down from the days of the Russian Empire and gave rise to new and dangerous complexes.

The sense of the worthlessness of human life and freedom before the giant Regime, this was the yet to be overcome experience of the Great Terror.

The habit of “managed justice”, law enforcement bodies who act not in accordance with the law, but obeying the orders of the leadership, it is these that are the clear legacy of the Great Terror.

The imitation of democratic processes in simultaneously emasculating fundamental democratic institutions and showing open disregard for human rights and liberties, violations of the Constitution committed to the accompaniment of oaths of unfailing allegiance to the constitutional order, this is the social model which was first successfully tested during the Great Terror.

The reflex-level hostility of today’s bureaucratic apparatus to independent public engagement, the never-ending attempts to place all under strict State control are also the result of the Great Terror when the Bolshevik regime put the last touches to the long history of its struggle with civic society.

By 1937 all collective forms of public life in the USSR – cultural, scientific, religious, social, etc, not to mention political – had already been crushed or replaced by imitations and pretence. Following this it was possible to destroy people one by one, at the same time driving out of the public consciousness any sense of independence, civic responsibility and human solidarity.

We are seeing the restoration in contemporary Russian politics of the old concept of “hostile surroundings” – the ideological base and propagandist backup for the Great Terror, suspicion and hostility to all that is foreign, the hysterical search for “enemies” abroad and a “fifth column” within the country, as well as other Stalinist ideological stamps reemerging in the new political context. All of this demonstrates the undefeated legacy of Nineteen Thirty Seven in our political and social life.

The ease with which nationalism and xenophobia arise and flourish in our society have undoubtedly come to us in part from the “national special operations” of 1937-1938, the deportations during the War of entire ethnic groups accused of treason, from the “fight against cosmopolitanism”, the “Doctors’ plot”, as well as the propaganda campaigns attached with all of this. Intellectual conformism, the fear of being different in any way, being unaccustomed to any free and independent thinking, the susceptibility to lies are in many ways the result of the Great Terror. Unlimited cynicism is the other side of double-thinking. Wolf pack labour camp morality (“you’ll die today and I tomorrow”) and the loss of traditional family values, these are also ills for which the Great Terror and the Gulag school are to a large extent culpable.

The catastrophic lack of connection between people, the herd instinct replacing collectivism, the serious shortage of human solidarity are the result of repression, deportations, forced resettlement. They are the result of the Great Terror the aim of which was after all to divide up society into atoms, to turn the people into the “population”, into the crowd which it’s easy and simply to control.

* * *

Obviously today the legacy of the Great Terror is not reflected in mass arrests, nor is it likely to be so, since we live in an entirely different age. Yet this legacy, which has not been understand by society, and which is therefore not overcome could easily become a “skeleton in the cupboard”, the curse of the present and future generations, spilling out whether it be in State megalomania, bursts of spy paranoia or regressions into repressive policy.

What needs to be done to understand and overcome the destructive experience of Nineteen Thirty Seven?

The last decade and a half have shown the need for a public review from the legal point of view of the political terror of the Soviet period. The terrorist policies of the then leaders of the country, first and foremost, the general ideologue and supreme organizer of the Terror – Joseph Stalin, and the specific crimes they were guilty of, need to be given clear juridical assessment.  Only such an assessment can be the starting point, the cornerstone of legal and historical consciousness and the foundation for further work with the past. Otherwise, the public attitude to events of the age of Terror will inevitably oscillate depending on changes in the political climate, while the spectre of Stalinism will periodically come to life and turn either into busts of the dictator on the streets of our cities, or in repeat attacks of Stalinist political practice in our life.

It would probably be wise to create a special judicial body to carry out such a full examination. There is no need to point to the precedents for this in world legal practice. Unfortunately, for the moment we see an opposite trend: in 2005 the Russian Federation State Duma excluded from the Preamble to the Law on rehabilitation from 1991 the only mention of “moral damages” inflicted upon the victims of Terror in Russian legislation. It would be redundant to plunge into a moral and political assessment of this step, since the conclusions are obvious. It is simply necessary to reinstate the words about moral damages in the text of the Law. This needs to be done also in order to atone for the insult to tens of thousands of elderly people – survivors of the Gulag, and hundreds of thousands of relatives of victims of the Terror.

However a legal assessment of the Terror, while important, is not in itself sufficient.

We need to ensure the right conditions for the continuation and development of investigative study into the history of State terror in the USSR. This involves first and foremost removing all the present artificial and unwarranted limitations on access to archival material connected with political repression.

Contemporary historical knowledge about the period of terror needs to become commonly known. School and higher education history textbooks are needed in which the subject of political repression, in particular, the Great Terror, receives the attention its historical significance demands. The history of the Soviet Terror must become not only a compulsory and considerable part of school education, but also the subject of serious efforts in public awareness-raising in the broadest sense of the word. Educational and cultural programmes are needed on State television channels, and there should be State support for publishing projects for academic and educational works, as well as memoirs, on the age of terror.

We need a National Museum on the History of State terror, fitting in its status and level to the scale of the tragedy, with this become a methodological and academic centre for museum work in this area. The history of the Terror and Gulag must be presented in all history and local area museums in the country, as with, for example, the other massive historical tragedy – the Great Patriotic War [the Second World War].

And finally, we need a national Memorial in Moscow to those who perished. This must be erected by the State and in the State’s name.  We have been promised such a Memorial now for 45 years and it is time to keep that promise. This however is not enough: such Memorials to the Victims of the Terror must be erected throughout the country. Unfortunately, in many cities the immortalizing of the Memory of the Victims has still not moved beyond the foundation stones laid 15 – 18 years ago.

Throughout the country there should be memorial plaques and signs marking places linked with the infrastructure of the Terror, the remaining buildings once used as investigation and transit prisons, the political isolation [detention] units of departments of the NKVD, Gulag, etc. Memorial signs, plaques and information boards should also be established in the places which held huge camp complexes, in enterprises created with the labour of prisoners, on roads leading to the remaining ruins of labour camp zones.

The names of streets, squares and of populated areas named after state figures that organized or took an active part in the Terror must be changed. Place naming must cease to be a way of immortalizing the memory of criminals.

A State programme is needed for putting together and publishing in all parts of the Russian Federation Books in Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression. At the present time such Remembrance Books have only been published in some regions of Russia. According to approximate estimates, the overall list of names in these books is no more than 20% of the totally number of victims.

A nationwide or even inter-governmental programme for searching out places where victims of the Terror were buried and ensuring that these are honoured as befitting is urgently needed. This is not so much an education and awareness-raising issue, as a moral question. On the territory of the former USSR there are hundreds of pits and common graves where those executed were secretly buried. There are thousands of camp and special settlement graveyards, destroyed or semi-destroyed. Some bare only the traces, while in the case of thousands of graveyards, no trace remains.

All of this would help in restoring the memory of one of the most terrible human catastrophes of the twentieth century and contribute to building a firm immunity against the totalitarianism stereotypes.

The above applies in the first instance to Russia – the successor to the USSR, the largest of the former Soviet republics, the country whose capital held the centre for planning and launching terrorist campaigns, and for controlling the mechanisms of terrors, and the country which contains the main part of the empire which was the Gulag.

However very much of what needs to be done should be over the entire expanse of the former Soviet Union, preferably through the joint efforts of our countries. The history of the Terror is remembered and treated differently in the various post-Soviet republics. This is only natural. However it is of fundamental importance that dialogue emerges from out of this variance. Dialogue between the national memories of different peoples is an integral and necessary element in coming to terms with historical truth. It is only negative when it turns into wrangling, into attempts to avoid historical (and therefore civic) responsibility by laying it on the “others”. Unfortunately, very often it is precisely the history of the Soviet Terror which becomes an instrument of fleeting inter-State arguments, while honest joint work on a shared past is replaced by attempts to present accounts of mutual grievances, scores and claims.

A wide-reaching and comprehensive programme on the tragic experience of the past probably needs, therefore, to be international and intergovernmental. This applies to historical studies, publishing Books of Remembrance, ensuring that places where victims lie buried are probably marked and remembered, and much more, including perhaps the preparation of school textbooks. Memory of the Terror is the common memory of our nations. This memory does not divide us, but rather unites us. This is also because it is not after all only the memory of crimes, but the memory of joint opposition to the killing machine, the memory of solidarity between peoples and of people helping each other.

* * *

Of course, the memory of the past is not formed through Decrees and governmental resolutions. The fate of historical memory can only be determined in broad public discourse. The urgent need for such discourse is becoming ever more apparent.

It is not only Russia, nor the countries which were part of the USSR or in the “socialist bloc”, that need to the Great Terror and, more broadly, the entire experience of Soviet history.  All countries and peoples, all of humanity need such discourse, since the events of the Great Terror made their mark not only on Soviet, but on world history. The Gulag, Kolyma, Nineteen Thirty Seven symbolize the twentieth century in the same way as do Oświęcim [Auschwitz] and Hiroshima. They extend beyond the historical fate of the USSR or of Russia, and are evidence of the fragile and unstable nature of human civilization and of the relative achievements of progress, and serve as a warning of the possibility of future catastrophic resurgences of barbarism.

For these reasons, discussion regarding the Great Terror must also extend beyond the boundaries of national issues. Just as some of the human catastrophes mentioned above, it must become the subject of general human reflection. However the initiator and focal point of this discourse must, clearly, be public opinion in the countries which belonged to the USSR, and in the first instance, Russia.

Regrettably, it is in Russia that public readiness to find out and accept the truth about their own history, which seemed at the end of the 1980s fairly strong, turned in the 1990s into indifference, apathy and reluctance to “delve into the past”. There are also forces with a direct interest in ensuring that no more discussion takes place on these issues. Both in the public consciousness and in State policy trends are becoming more pronounced which in no way contribute to free and direct discourse on our recent past. These trends are expressed in the official, albeit not always clearly articulated, concept of national history as “our glorious past”.

We are told that bringing to the surface the memory of crimes committed by the State in the past hinders national coordination (or, using the language of the totalitarian era, “undermines the moral and political unity of the Soviet people”).

We are told that this memory is harmful to the process of national revival.

We are told that we should first and foremost remember heroic achievements and feats of the people in the name of the great and eternal State.

We are told that the people do not want any other memory and reject it.

And indeed, a considerable number of our fellow citizens find it easier to accept comfortable and soothing myths than to soberly look back at our tragic history and try to understand it for the sake of the future. We can understand why this is the case: coming to terms honestly with the past places on the shoulders of present generations a huge and unaccustomed burden of historic and civic responsibility. However we are convinced that without taking upon ourselves this indeed terrible load of responsibility for the past, we will find no national consolidation and no revival.

As one of the most terrible anniversaries in our shared history approaches, “Memorial” calls on all those who care about the future of our countries and peoples to look back unflinchingly at the past and to try to understand its lessons.

  The International Memorial Society

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