Why is Russia romanticising the memory
of Stalinism, enquires Memorial's founder Arseny Roginsky,
when its defining feature was the use of terror?
The memory of Stalinism in contemporary Russia raises problems
which are painful and sensitive. There is a vast amount
of pro-Stalinist literature on the bookstalls: fiction,
journalism and pseudo-history. In sociological surveys,
Stalin invariably features among the first three "most
prominent figures of all times". In the new school
history textbooks, Stalinist policy is interpreted in a
spirit of justification.
There are also hundreds of crucial volumes of documents,
scholarly articles and monographs on Stalinism. The achievements
of these historians and archivists is unquestionable. But
if they do have any influence on the mass consciousness,
it is too weak. The means of disseminating the information
have not been there, and nor in recent years has the political
will. However, the deepest problem lies in the current state
of our national historical memory of Stalinism.
I should explain what I mean here by historical memory,
and Stalinism. Historical memory is the
retrospective aspect of collective consciousness. It informs
our collective identity through our selection of the past
we find significant. The past, real or imaginary, is the
material with which it works: it sorts through the facts
and systemizes them, selecting those which it is prepared
to present as belonging to the genealogy of its identity.
Stalinism is a system of
state rule, the totality of specific political practices
of the Stalinist leadership. Throughout the duration of
this system, a number of characteristic features were preserved.
But its generic feature (which arose from the very beginning
of Bolshevist rule and did not disappear with Stalin's death)
is terror as a universal instrument for solving
any political and social tasks. It was state violence
and terror that made possible the centralization of rule,
the severing of regional ties, high vertical mobility; the
harsh introduction of an ideology which could be easily
modified, a large army of subjects of slave labor, and many
Thus, the memory of Stalinism is primarily the memory
of state terror as the defining feature of the age. It is
also what links it in so many respects with today.
Victims, not crimes
Is that really what the memory of Stalinism means in today's
Russia? I'd like to say a few words about the key features
of this memory today. Firstly, the memory of Stalinism in
Russia is almost always the memory of victims. Victims,
not crimes. As the memory of crimes it does not register,
as there is no consensus on this.
To a great extent this is because popular consciousness
has nothing to hold onto from a legal point of view. The
state has produced no legal document which recognizes state
terror as a crime. The two lines in the preamble to the
1991 law on the rehabilitation of victims is clearly insufficient.
There are no legal decisions that inspire any confidence
- and there have not been any trials against participants
of the Stalinist terror in the new Russia, not a single
There are other reasons too.
We killed our own people
When popular consciousness has to come to terms with historical
tragedies, it does so by assigning roles of Good and Evil.
People identify themselves with one of the roles. It is
easier to identify oneself with Good, i.e. with an innocent
victim, or better still with a heroic battle against Evil.
Incidentally, this is why our Eastern European neighbors,
from Ukraine to Poland and the Baltic States have no serious
problems with coming to terms with the Soviet period of
history, while in Russia, people identify themselves with
victims or fighters, or with both at the same time. Whether
or not this has anything to do with history is quite another
matter - we're talking about memory, not knowledge.
It is even possible to identify oneself with Evil, as the
Germans did (not without help from the outside), in order
to distance oneself from this evil: "Yes, unfortunately
we did that, but we're not like than anymore and we'll never
be like that again".
But what can we do, living in Russia?
In the Soviet terror, it is very difficult to distinguish
the executioners from the victims. For example, secretaries
of regional committee in August 1937 all wrote death sentences
by the bundle, but by November 1938 half of them had already
been shot themselves.
In national, and particularly regional memory, the "executioners"
- for example, the regional committee secretaries of 1937
- are not unambiguously evil: yes, they signed execution
warrants, but they also organized the construction of kindergartens
and hospitals, and went to workers' cafeterias personally
to test the food, while their subsequent fate is worthy
And one more thing: unlike the Nazis, who mainly killed
"foreigners": Poles, Russians, and German Jews
(who were not quite their "own" people), we
mainly killed our own people, and our consciousness refuses
to accept this fact.
In remembering the terror, we are incapable of assigning
the main roles, incapable of putting the pronouns "we"
and "they" in their places. This inability
to assign evil is the main thing that prevents
us from being able to embrace the memory of the terror properly.
This makes it far more traumatic. It is one of the main
reasons why we push it to the edge of our historical memory.
Arseny Roginsky will deliver a lecture The
Anatomy and Scopes of Stalin’s Terror within the framework
of YABLOKO’s lectures.