Archive for July 2, 2009

The Embrace of Stalinism (Part II)

“The Embrace of Stalinism”  by Arseny Roginsky

This paper was read at a conference on the History of Stalinism in Moscow on 5 December 2008)

The search for a Great Russia

At a certain level, that of personal recollections, the terror is also a passing memory. There are still witnesses, but they are the last of their kind, and they are dying, taking with them the personal memories and experiences.

This leads on to my next point: memory as recollection is succeeded by memory as a selection of collective images of the past. These are no longer formed by personal, and not even family memories, but by various socio-cultural means. One significant element in determining this is the politics of history, ie the attempts of the political elite to form an image of the past that suits it.

Since the 1990s those in political power have been looking to the past to justify their own legitimacy. But if the government craved legitimacy after the collapse of the USSR, people craved identity. And both the government and the population looked for a way to make up for these in the image of a Great Russia, of which present-day Russia is the successor. The images of the “bright past”, which the government proposed in the 1990s – Stolypin, Peter the Great and so on – were not accepted by the population: they are too remote, not closely enough related to the present day. Gradually and insidiously, the concept of Great Russia came to mean the Soviet period as well, particularly the Stalinist era.

The post-Yeltsin leadership saw that people were ready for another reconstruction of the past, and made full use of it. I do not mean to say that the government of the first decade of the 21st century intended to rehabilitate Stalin. It just wants to offer its fellow citizens the notion of a great country, one which is timelessly great, one which overcomes all ordeals with honor. The image of a happy and glorious past was needed to consolidate the population, to restore the continuity of the authority of state power, to strengthen its own “vertical” etc. But whatever the intention, against the background of the newly arisen panorama of a great power, which as ever is “surrounded by a ring of enemies”, the whiskered profile of the great leader showed through. This result was inevitable and predictable.

The two images of the Stalinist era were in harsh contradiction. There was that of Stalinism, of a criminal regime responsible for decades of state terror. And there was that of an era of glorious victories and great achievements. Above all, of course, there was the image of the main victory -victory in the Great Patriotic War.

Conflicting memories of the Great Patriotic War

The memory of Stalinism and the memory of the war. The memory of the war became the foundation on which national self-identification was re-organized. A great deal has been written on this topic. I would only note one thing: what is currently called the memory of the war does not quite correspond to its name. The memory of the hardships of the war, of everyday life, of 1941, of imprisonment, evacuation, and the victories of war – this memory was extremely anti-Stalinist in the Khrushchev era. It was organically intertwined with the memory of the terror.

Today the memory of the war has been replaced by the memory of Victory. This change began in the mid-1960s. At the end of the 1960s, the memory of the terror was banned – for a whole 20 years! By the time this changed, there were virtually no soldiers left, and there was no one left to correct the collective stereotype with their personal recollections.

The memory of victory without the memory of the price of victory cannot, of course, be anti-Stalinist. So it does not fit in well with the memory of the terror. To simplify drastically, this conflict of memories goes like this: if state terror was a crime, then who was the criminal? The state? Stalin as the head of state? But we won the war against Absolute Evil, and so we were not the subjects of a criminal regime, but a great country, the embodiment of everything good in the world. It was under the rule of Stalin that we overcame Hitler. Victory means the Stalinist era, and the terror means the Stalinist era. It is impossible to reconcile these two images of the past, except by rejecting one of them, or at least making serious corrections to it.

And this is what happened – the memory of the terror receded. It has not disappeared completely, but it has been pushed to the periphery of people’s consciousness.


Under the circumstances, it is surprising that the memory of the terror has survived at all, that it has not become a Great National Taboo, but that it is still alive and evolving. Let us briefly review the means whereby we have managed to hold onto this memory.

The first and most obvious sign of the memory of historical events is the monuments. Contrary to popular opinion, there are a lot of monuments and signs in commemoration of the Stalinist terror in Russia – over 800. They were not erected by central government, but through the efforts of the community and local administration. Federal power has played almost no part in bringing this about. It has not been seen as a priority by the state. There has probably also been a certain unwillingness on their part further to legitimize this painful subject.

All of these sculptures, chapels, crosses and memorial stones immortalize the memory of victims. But there is no image of the crime, or the criminals associated with this memory. There are victims – either of a natural disaster, or of some other catastrophe, the sources and meaning of which remains incomprehensible to the popular consciousness.

In cities, most of these monuments and signs are not in central squares, but in remote areas, where the remains of the victims are buried. At the same time, many central streets are still named after the people who were directly or indirectly involved in the terror. The combination of present-day urban toponymics inherited from the Soviet era, while the memory of the victims is relegated to the outskirts – this is a clear image of the state of historical memory on Stalinism in Russia.

(To be continued)

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