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Russian school children interrogated by FSB for writing truthful history essays about Soviet past

Halya Coynash
Probing the darker pages of the Soviet past is becoming increasingly dangerous in today’s Russia, even for schoolchildren

Probing the darker pages of the Soviet past is becoming increasingly dangerous in today’s Russia, even for schoolchildren.  The winners of the International Memorial Society’s history essay competition for schools have been summoned for questioning, together with their teachers, by people identifying themselves as employees of Russia’s FSB or security service.  The children are petrified, which was, it would seem, the aim of such summonses, during which the children were “strongly advised” to keep away from the Memorial Society.    

Memorial – the International Memorial Society, as well as some linked organizations like the Memorial Human Rights Centre – have all been under fire for a long time. The Russian Justice Ministry first tried to get Memorial dissolved back in 2014, though it backed off after considerable international outrage. Then in October 2016, it declared the International Memorial Society to be a ‘foreign agent’, with the four grounds cited including the fact that Memorial had publicly called Russia’s actions in the East of Ukraine military aggression.  The decision directly contradicted a Constitutional Court directive stating clearly that NGOs registered as international cannot be ‘foreign agents’. 

While Memorial’s position on recent events was clearly a major factor, its vital role in helping to name and ‘rehabilitate’ the victims and the perpetrators of Soviet crimes, especially under Joseph Stalin, is almost certainly another reason for the major offensive against it.  Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, there has been a steady move towards whitewashing the bloody dictator and saying as little as possible about his victims.

According to Memorial’s Iryna Shcherbakova, the competition is the largest of its kind in Europe, and gets the largest number of entries of any competition in Russia.  The children do their own research, including in the archives, with some of them writing about the history of victims of repression within their families.

Although the theme is broad, and the works of many students do not touch on ‘sensitive’ subjects, it was probably only a matter of time before the school competition came under attack.  This was first from radical organizations notorious for acts of thuggery against the political opposition, independent artists, etc., and now from the FSB and authorities.

In a statement issued on 4 June, the International Memorial Society explains that it has been holding an annual competition for senior school students for the last 20 years.  The competition is for investigative work on the theme of The Individual in Russian History in the XX Century, with the aim being to stimulate interest in Russian history, including the history of the school students’ own families and circles. Around 50 thousand students have taken part over the last two decades, with prominent writers among members of the jury in any given year.

“Since 2016, the competition has come under attack from activists of the radical organizations NOD [‘National Liberation Movement’] and SERB, which are given publicity by the federal TV channels REN-TV and Rossiya 24. This year, on the even of the twentieth prize-giving ceremony, Rossiya 24 broadcast a defamatory feature about the competition itself and its participants. The competition’s organizers were labelled “modern Judas”, all in the worst traditions of Soviet propaganda. Accusations of being “anti-patriotic” and “rewriting history” were directed not only at the organizers, but at the school students themselves, and their teachers.”

Worse was to come, however.  Memorial reports that since 6 May they have been receiving information indicating that in most of the 24 regions where the award-winners live, teachers have been summoned by the school heads to meet people who claim to be from the FSB; local education departments or regional administrations.  

Teachers have been asked how information about the competition is circulated  and told to show the students’ work.  The prize-winners themselves have sometimes also been summoned to these ‘meetings’ where they are ‘strongly advised’ to end any cooperation with Memorial. 

The fact that these summonses and the ‘conversations’ have been similar and synchronised throughout Russia leads Memorial to assume that this is no local initiative, but based on central orders.

“We view these actions not only as efforts to discredit the educational work carried out over many years by Memorial, but also as an attempt to intimidate school students and teachers and to introduce censorship. We consider such attempts to put pressure on participants in the competition to be unacceptable and hope for support and solidarity”. 

The offensive against Memorial has been taking place against a background of increasingly aggressive efforts to rewrite Soviet history and to rehabilitate Stalin.  According to the Levada Centre’s poll in March 2019, 71% of Russians have a positive attitude to Stalin’s role in their country’s history, with just over half the population saying that they view a dictator responsible for the death of millions “with respect” or “liking”.

There have been some outrageous attempts over the last decade to rewrite history and to justify such shameful chapters as the Molotov – Ribbentrop secret protocols on carving up Poland between Stalin and Hitler.  This has resulted in court trials of stunning absurdity, such as the conviction of Vladimir Luzgin for reposting a text which rightly stated that the Soviet Union had invaded Poland, as well as the Nazis (details here). 

The most disturbing, however, are the evident efforts to discredit Memorial which began almost immediately after the arrest and ongoing imprisonment of profoundly flawed charges of Yuri Dmitriev, the renowned historian and head of the Karelia branch of Memorial who discovered and documented the mass graves of victims of Stalin’s Terror at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia. 

Within a month of Dmitriev’s arrest, Rossiya 24 had, in clear collaboration with the FSB ‘investigators’, produced a scurrilous program aimed at discrediting both Dmitriev and Memorial.  There are strong grounds for also linking the prosecution of both Dmtirev and a fellow historian, Sergei Koltyrin, with efforts to push the entirely implausible claim that the mass graves at Sandarmokh are not of victims of Stalin’s crimes, but of Soviet soldiers killed by the Finnish Army. 

We can hope that efforts to rewrite history are ultimately doomed to failure, however intimidation and terror can go a long way.  Koltyrin’s arrest on 2 October 2018 came a month after he condemned excavations at Sandarmokh by those touting the claims about the Finnish army.  The charges in his case, like in Dmitriev’s, were purportedly non-political, however many were clearly unconvinced and a public discussion, scheduled for a week later, on the same claims that Koltyrin had criticized, was cancelled following Koltyrin’s arrest.

More details here:

Historian of the Soviet Terror jailed for 9 years in Russia

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

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