war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

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Positively despairing

Halya Coynash
Putin wishes to focus on “achievements” as do we. The most “positive” achievement, however, will be a society able to reject lies and disinformation, prepared to face and learn from its own history

In this seventieth anniversary of the Great Terror, the Day of the Soviet Political Prisoner on 30 October will be particularly poignant for many people in Ukraine and in Russia.  We remember the 1111 prisoners from Solovky murdered in the Sandarmokh Clearing (Karelia), the millions of other victims of the GULAG.  Many of us think too of our own relatives.

In the light of what Russia’s President Putin has approvingly labelled certain “positive moves”, these anniversaries take on a burning immediacy. Mr Putin stated that just recently one still read things about the country’s history which could make ones hair stand on end. The positive moves were clearly seen as tidying up the country’s lamentable appearance.

We will address whose history Mr Putin feels entitled to view as Russia’s own in what follows and will also reflect on different interpretations of positive progress.

  The “positive” moves in teaching history for Putin involve providing students with a “whole spectrum of views” “while at the same time giving an objective view of history, of what was done by our people, of our achievements”.  This revisionist approach to semantics is sycophantically aped by the authors of two manuals for teachers of history and social studies which won Putin’s own stamp of approval this summer. One of these manuals  -  “The Newest History of Russia. 1945-2006”, by Alexander Fillipov and xo-authors - will be tried out over the next year and available for school teachers from September 2008. In theory, this is only recommended, not compulsory, and teachers may do what they wish with it.  In practice, the President’s clear support since June 2007, and the positive steps he is now praising render freedom of choice more than usually theoretical in the classroom.

In these days which for many represent dark anniversaries, it would be difficult not to first examine this “objective” presentation of Joseph Stalin who is called “one of the most successful leaders of the USSR”. A lot is said about Stalin the man but we will endeavour to avoid subjective judgment and concentrate on the book’s presentation of his historical importance. In the chapter entitled “Arguments about the role of Stalin in history”, the authors assert: “In essence, the aim of Stalin’s domestic and foreign policy was the restoration – political and territorial of the Russian Empire”.   

“Studies by historians here and abroad confirm the fact that the priority victim of repressions in the 1930s to 1950s was specifically the ruling class. <> Modern researchers are inclined to see rational reasons for the use of force in the efforts to ensure the maximum effectiveness of the ruling elite as the main player in mobilizing society towards the achievement of impossible tasks”.

“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”.

The words, not to mention the hordes of anonymous “authorities”, are offensively difficult to pinpoint and therefore refute.  Priority for whom?   The members of my family and those of hundreds of thousands of other families may not have been the “main priority”, but victims, excuse me, they were.

During the 14 months of the 1937-1938 Terror alone, some 1.7 million people were arrested and about 700 thousand were executed. The loyalty to the upper echelons encouraged during that period and later was demonstrated by some in seeking an increase in the number of arrests and executions required for a particular area. The figures in Ukraine for example were upped by zealous functionaries eager to show how vigilant they were in rooting out “bourgeois nationalists”.

The 1111 prisoners of Solovky executed in the Sandarmokh Clearing from 27 October to 4 November 1937 were also part of a killing quota.  The 290 Ukrainian victims included the theatre director Les Kurbas, the poet Mykola Zerov, many other writers, poets, intellectuals and scientists. 

They were not simply “accidental” victims, unworthy of note by Putin’s lackey historian.  They were the victims of a deliberate policy aimed at crushing the new generation of Ukrainian intellectuals, artists, and others who saw themselves in the first instance as Ukrainians. It is not for nothing that one speaks of the “Executed Renaissance”. And where in this “positive” scale of priorities do we place the millions of Ukrainian peasants starved to death in Holodomor, a manmade famine?  Will you find a blithe excuse also for the supposed “kulaks” resettled during collectivization or the Crimean Tatars and other nations deported from their homeland?

The examples to refute these foul lies and distortions and to place in serious question the “rational reasons for the use of force” are legion.

In October 2007, it is intensely depressing to have to state the tragically obvious.  Perhaps for this reason an aphorism from the time of perestroika has been tormenting me for days now.  “We look to the past with optimism”.  In those days when people were drunk on truth so long and so assiduously concealed, the phrase raised appreciative smiles. 

It is anything but funny now. 

For better or infinitely worse, the period in question was our shared history.  We must ensure that our perspective remains sharply distinct and not hide from the merciless light of day.

Putin wishes to focus on “achievements” as do we.  The most “positive” achievement, however, will be a society able to reject lies and disinformation.

It is not only our duty before all the Victims of the Terror whom we remember during these days and months.  It is also the sole way forward and best chance of ensuring that neither our generation nor those who come after us repeat those terrible mistakes.

What is happening in Russia at the moment must be a lesson to us all, a reminder that breaking free is only one small and first step. We need to go further.

We hope that the developments which have begun in Ukraine will continue and serve as an example to our neighbours.  Let’s confront our shared history with our eyes wide open.

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