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Court in Russia allows FSB Chief to whitewash Stalin’s Terror

Halya Coynash
A Russian court has rejected a suit brought against Alexander Bortnikov over his claim, as Head of Russia’s FSB [security service], that mass executions during Stalin’s Terror were “local excesses”.

A Russian court has rejected a suit brought against Alexander Bortnikov over his claim, as Head of Russia’s FSB [security service], that mass executions during Stalin’s Terror were “local excesses”. The suit was brought by Igor Stepanov, in whose family there were at least 20 victims of the Terror.  Stepanov had demanded only the opportunity to respond to the FSB Director’s huge interview posted in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, [RG] the official newspaper of Russia’s government, yet even this was rejected. 

2017 marked two major anniversaries.  It was 100 years since the creation of the notorious Cheka or first Soviet secret police, and 80 years since the worst year of the Great Terror, which the Cheka’s NKVD successors played a major role in.  One of the Terror’s most renowned historians, Yuri Dmitriev had spent just over a year imprisoned on politically motivated charges when Bortnikov gave his interview on 17 December 2017.  Attempts to claim that Bortnikov was expressing his own opinion were essentially refuted by the newspaper itself.  Bortnikov was interviewed by RG’s Chief Editor for the official anniversary of the creation of the Cheka (20 December), with the result published under the title ‘The FSB puts things in focus”,

Stepanov was certainly not alone as interpreting the FSB Director’s words as trying to defend the mass purges and whitewash the FSB’s predecessors.  The following are just some of Bortnikov’s pronouncements .

“The enemy tried to defeat us, either in open battle, or relying on traitors within the country, and with their help stirring up trouble, dividing the people, paralyzing the state’s capacity to react in timely and effect manner to emerging threats. The destruction of Russia remains an obsession for some to this day”

“Although for many this period is associated with the mass fabrication of charges, archival material shows that there were objective grounds for a significant percentage of the criminal cases, including those of the famous open trials” [i.e. the Moscow show trials].

He claimed that purges within the NKVD resulted in people without experience being taken on “ready for the sake of their career to carry out any instructions. It was partly linked with this that “excesses” in the work of the NKVD at local level took place”

The interview aroused outrage, especially among the very many Russians, Ukrainians and others whose own parents or grandparents were executed or sent to the Gulag without any “objective grounds” whatsoever. 

Stepanov is a former investigator from the Prosecutor General’s Office.  In his civil suit, lodged with the Savelovsky District Court in Moscow, he demanded only that he be given the opportunity to express his views about the mass executions in a text of the same size and on the same pages as Bortnikov’s very long interview.

I wanted to give my assessment of that attempt by Bortnikov to justify the NKVD and to shift responsibility from the state to individual perpetrators”, Stepanov told Kommersant.

As well as trying to blame individuals for “local excesses”, Bortnikov also gave figures which are seriously at variance with this of the Memorial Society which has been tirelessly gathering evidence since 1989.  Over 1.7 million people were arrested in 1937-1938, with at least one million executed.  Memorial believes that the overall number of victims of repression may be 12 million, with the names and details known in the case of 3.1 million victims..

Stepanov brought evidence to the court of the victims in his family who were either executed or sent to labour camp.  He had asked RG to either provide proof confirming the FSB Head’s words, or to publish a retraction. 

The newspaper claimed that the interview had merely expressed ‘Mr’ Bortnikov’s point of view about certain aspects of modern history.  There was nothing at the end of the text to suggest that this was the view of one individual, which the newspaper did not necessarily share. As mentioned, the title suggested quite the contrary, that Bortnikov was speaking in his official capacity.

Since Stepanov was forced to lodge a civil suit, RG clearly refused to allow him to express an alternative point of view to that of “Mr Bortnikov”.

Stepanov was backed in court by Nikita Petrov from the Memorial Society, who is a leading specialist on the Soviet secret police.  He asserted in court that the respondents (the Head of the FSB and ‘RG’) had “violated Russians’ right to the truth”.

“There was a complete revision in Bortnikov’s interview of those views on Soviet, Stalinist repression as set out in official documents”.

Judge Svetlana Lysenko had earlier refused to call Bortnikov as witness, and on 24 December 2018 rejected the application.  Stepanov plans to lodge an appeal.

The appeal is, unfortunately, likely to meet the same fate, not least because the judges will undoubtedly be fearful of angering the FSB. Over the 18 years since former KGB agent Vladimir Putin first became President, there has been a noticeable increase in the power of the FSB, and in moves to rewrite history. 

In September 2017, a museum was ceremoniously opened  to Felix Dzherzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, with the event attended by MPs and members of the FSB.  There are also numerous monuments to him.

Still worse, there are monuments to bloody dictator Joseph Stalin and a museum to him in the Tver oblast.  Human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov has said that he often sees portraits of Stalin when he visits the offices of investigators, prosecutors, etc.  In July 2015, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky wrote in positive terms about the place Stalin held in the country’s memory, while Olga Vasilyeva, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s choice for Education Minister, is known for her specific view on Stalin and denial of the number of his victims. 

Unsurprisingly, by February 2017 a Levada Centre survey found a record number of Russian citizens with a positive attitude Stalin.  If in 2001, soon after Putin came to power, the majority of Russians were still negative in their assessment, in January 2017  46% viewed him “with admiration, respect, or liking” (4%, 32% and 10%, respectively). 

This ‘rehabilitation’ of a mass murderer, the scale of whose crimes stands with those of Adolf Hitler, is already deeply shocking.  It is, however, getting worse, since Russia under Putin is actively attacking historians of the Terror and the Memorial Society. 

Yuri Dmitriev has now been imprisoned (with only a short break) for over two years, although the initial charges were totally demolished in court.  The FSB, however, used its power to get the original acquittal overturned, and has since added new charges that are even more cynical than those already rejected.  On 2 October 2018, Sergei Koltyrin, a second historian was arrested.  He has closely cooperated with Memorial in uncovering and writing about the mass graves of victims of the Terror at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia.  The arrest came shortly after Koltyrin publicly rejected attempts to rewrite history at this site and claim that it holds executed Finnish prisoners of war.  More details here:

Russia arrests second historian of Stalin’s Terror

Russia turns to politically-motivated excavations to rewrite history of Soviet Terror after jailing one of its main historians

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