Archive for July 3, 2009

The Embrace of Stalinism – Books of Memory (Part III)

The Embrace of Stalinism by Arseny Roginsky

16 – 12 – 2008

Books of memory

Books of memory are one reference point about the memory of Stalinism. These books, published in the majority of Russian regions, form a library of almost 300 volumes. They contain a total of over one and a half million names of people who were executed, sentenced to imprisonment in camps, or deported. This is a serious achievement, especially if we recall the difficulties in accessing many of our archives which contain materials about the terror.

However, these books do almost nothing for the formation of national memory. Firstly, they are regional books, and the contents of each one individually do not form the image of a national catastrophe, but rather a picture of a “local” disaster. The regional compartmentalization is matched by methodological discrepancies: each book of memory has its own sources, its own principles of selection, its own size and format for presentation of biographical information. This is because there is no common state program for publishing books of memory. The federal government also balks from its duty here.

Secondly, these memories are hardly a public matter: only a small number of copies are printed, and they are not even always received by regional libraries.

Memorial has posted a database on the Internet which unites the data base of the books of memory, supplemented by data from the Russian Interior Ministry, and also from Memorial itself. Here there are over 2,700,000 names. In comparison with the scale of the Soviet terror, this is a very small figure, and if work continues at this rate it will take several decades to compile a complete list if work.

Museums of terror

Museums. Here things are also not as bad as one might expect. True, Russia still no national Museum of state terror which could play an important role in crystalising the image of the terror in popular consciousness. There are fewer than ten local museums dedicated to the subject of the terror. But still, according to our information, the topic features occasionally in the exhibitions, and mainly in the archives, of around 300 museums across the country (mainly regional and city museums of local studies).

However, the common problems of memory of the terror play their part here too. In the exhibitions, the theme of the camps and labor settlements are usually embedded in displays about the industrialization of the region. The repressions themselves – arrests, sentences, shootings – are generally consigned to biographical stands and window displays. On the whole, the terror is represented in a very fragmented way, and only included in the history of the country in a provisional way.

Memorial places

Memorial places connected with the terror. Today these are mainly burial sites: mass graves of people shot during the Great Terror, and large camp cemeteries. But the secret surrounding the shooting was so great, and so few sources have been found on this topic, that today we only know of around 100 burial sites of people shot in 1937-1938 – less than a third of the total, according to our calculations. For example, despite much searching, it has not been possible to find even the graves of the victims of the famous “Kashketin shootings” near the Brick Factory by Vorkuta. As for camp cemeteries, we only know a few dozen of the several thousand that once existed.

In any case, the cemeteries are again only a memory of the victims.

Buildings connected with the terror in cities do not become places of memory – regional offices a d buildings of the OGPU/NKVD, prison buildings and camp offices. Industrial objects built by political prisoners also do not become places of memory – canals, railways, mines, factories, combines and houses. It would be very easy to turn them into “places of memory” – simply by hanging a memorial plaque by the entrance to the factory, or at a railway station.


Another means of furnishing popular consciousness with historical concepts and images is mass culture, primarily television. Television programs about the Stalinist era are quite numerous and diverse: glamorous pro-Stalinist kitsch such as the TV series “Stalin-life” compete with talented and conscientious screen adaptations of works by Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn. Viewers can choose their own preferred vehicles for reading the era. It would appear, alas, that the number of viewers who choose “Stalin-life” is growing, while the number who choose Shalamov is shrinking. This is inevitable. Those whose world outlook is formed by anti-Western rhetoric and endless rants by TV political analysts about this great country that is surrounded by enemies on all sides hardly need to be told which image of the past best accords with this outlook. And no amount of Shalamovs or Solzhenitsyns are going to change their minds.

School history curriculum

Finally, the most important institution for controlling collective ideas of the past is the school history curriculum. Here (and also to a significant degree in journalism and documentary television programs), the state’s policy on history, unlike in many areas discussed above, is pro-active. This has the effect of making one appreciate that neglecting historical memory is not as dangerous as using history as a political tool.

In the new history textbooks, Stalinism is presented as an institutional phenomenon, even an achievement. But the terror is portrayed as a historically determined and unavoidable tool for solving state tasks. This concept does not rule out sympathy for the victims of history. But it makes it absolutely impossible to consider the criminal nature of the terror, and the perpetrator of this crime.

The intention is not to idealise Stalin. This is the natural side-effect of resolving a completely different task – that of confirming the idea of the indubitable correctness of state power. The government is higher than any moral or legal assessments. It is above the law, as it is guided by state interests that are higher than the interests of the person and society, higher than morality and law. The state is always right – at least as long as it can deal with its enemies. This idea runs through the new textbooks from beginning to end, and not only where repressions are discussed.

Conclusion: our historical memory is divided, fragmentary, passing away. It has been pushed to the periphery of popular consciousness. Those who hold onto the memory of Stalinism in the sense that we use these words are very much in the minority today. Whether or not this memory can become embedded nationwide; what information and what values need to assimilated by popular consciousness, what needs to be done here – this is the topic for another discussion. Clearly, society and the state need to work together on this. Clearly, historians have a special role in this process. They bear a special responsibility.

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

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