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Russia’s ’new approach’ to Stalin and extended secrecy about his victims

Halya Coynash
On Russia’s new museum, bust and all, dedicated to Joseph Stalin, the Russian Culture Minister’s “new approach to history” and the effective blocking for another 30 years of virtually all documents about the Soviet secret police and their crimes

  The bust to Stalin  (Photo: Yury Surin)

Marking the opening in a Russian village of a museum and bust of Joseph Stalin, Russia’s Culture Minister has spoken of the place the dictator holds in the country’s history and historical memory. His claim that all of Russia’s history must be revealed, “without anything removed” clashes badly with an official move classifying for a further 30 years virtually all records regarding the KGB and its secret police predecessors.  

As reported, the plans to open a museum were first announced in March this year.  The house-museum is in the village of Khoroshevo (Tver oblast) where Stalin stayed one night in August 1943 on his way to an area within safe distance from the front.  The proposal to create the museum which was supposed to be opened in time for the 70th anniversary of Victory Day (on May 9, 2015) came from the Russian Military History Society.  This body was created by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Dec 2012, in order to “consolidate the forces of state and society in the study of Russia’s military-historical past and counter efforts to distort it”.  It is headed by Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. 

Medinsky’s article in Izvestia was timed to coincide with the opening of the Stalin museum.  The title reads: “We must stop laying all our problems on Stalin”, ( )with the subtitle: “The Head of the Russian Military History Society – about how the leader’s place is in history and historical memory.”

Medinsky writes that he wants to avoid both “accusations” and “justifications”, and proposes a different approach to “the history of our country”.

There is Stalin who is the object of academic research and “history gives assessments based on the real situation of a specific era, and doesn’t apply today’s views on what is beautiful”.   Then there is Stalin “as a state figure, commensurate with the gigantic scale of our terrible and equivocal era. His achievements, his mistakes and failures are our historical experience.”  This Stalin, he says, should be left to those bodies responsible for drawing up political decisions.

And then there is the historical age itself, in which Stalin is inevitably included.

In this age “there is a great people and great deed. And there is Stalin. They – it turned out that way – are not separate one from the other, not “thanks to” and not “despite”. Everything together and nothing removed – that is our history”. This, he says, is for all of us, “this is all our history..  We will not, thank God, change it, and we don’t anyway need another. This is what does not divide us but, on the contrary, unites”.

It is even good, he asserts, that “there is Stalin in this history, arousing such conflicting assessments”.  What they must do, however, is to “put an end to the ’cult of personality’ lingering in some heads and stop laying all our present problems and disagreements on Stalin. After all Stalin will not do anything for us now, will not build anything and will not send anybody to the GULAG – he died 62 years ago. Stalin’s place is in history and historical memory”.

This one word ‘GULAG’ is the closest that Russia’s Minister of Culture gets to mentioning Stalin’s Terror and the millions of his victims.   There are ‘conflicting assessments’ of Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt.  We would be stunned to hear Germans talking about ‘conflicting views’ of Adolf Hitler. 

With respect to different assessments, it is worth noting that Medinsky ends in a quite different key.  He effectively praises the reinstatement of this house without state funding and expresses the Military History Society’s willingness “following this example, to take under protection, restore and do up other houses – places of memory where other military commanders of very different eras of our great History lived, fought and died for their Fatherland”.

Now that’s put Stalin in the place the present regime wants him.

Despite Medinsky’s words, the same regime has put the archives of all the secret police [officially ’state security’] bodies (Cheka, NKVD, KGB, etc.) under lock and key for another 30 years.  The civic initiative Kommanda 29, headed by prominent human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, recently sounded the alarm over a decision of the Inter-departmental Commission on State Secrets, dated March 12, 2014 to keep the majority of Soviet secret police classified as secret for a further 30 years.  This includes the vast bulk of material regarding the Great Terror of 1937-1938. 

For very many people, the political changes under ’Perestroika’ in the late 1980s and after the collapse of the USSR meant the opportunity to finally learn what had happened to their parents and grandparents.  The greater openness began disintegrating under former KGB officer Putin and last year’s decision will mean that hundreds of thousands of victims remain nameless.

Kommanda 29 explains that the period during which documents can be classified as state secrets is restricted by law to 30 years.  A presidential decree under Boris Yeltsin in 1992 demanded that all material pertaining to repression and human rights violations be declassified. “Despite this, access to the archives is virtually closed to members of the public. Almost half a century has passed since the collapse of the USSR, yet the FSB, the successor to the Soviet state security bodies are continuing to guard their secrets creating fertile ground for falsification of our country’s history.”

There are 23 types of information which are now to remain classified until 2044 regarding intelligence work, counter-espionage and investigative operations, as well as information about informers, secret agents, or even simply identifying specific people as working within a loose range of areas.  In fact, Kommanda 29 says, the decision makes it possible to keep virtually any document from 1917 – 1991 ‘secret’ and unavailable to the public.

They point out that this not only harms society, but is also a drain of public resources since FSB officers get extra pay for work with secret documentation, as well as significant pay outs for their military rank.

All talk of ‘historical memory’ is meaningless if by blocking access to  information about the Terror and repression, and the work of the state security police, the regime is making this memory selective. 

A petition has been launched and has already received almost 11 thousand signatures.  Nobody expects the authorities to heed the petition, but it can serve, the initiators hope, to highlight the very real problem.  

If for many, there was a personal reason for wanting the archives to be opened, for the country as a whole this was vital in order to fully understand the Soviet Union’s darkest legacy and crimes .  Instead a referendum is soon to be held on reinstating the monument to the first head of the notorious Cheka secret police, Felix Dzherzhynsky, and a monument and museum in the Tver oblast now immortalize a mass murderer responsible for the death of millions. 


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