Our political elites have long yearned for authoritarianism. Or is it even more than that? Totalitarian tendencies? “In today’s Russia, people are told what to think. There is no freedom of opinion left. And this is totalitarianism,” says Nikita Petrov, Deputy Chairman of the Memorial Association, in an interview with Małgorzata Nocuń.
Małgorzata Nocuń: For a long time the political elites in Russia have been promoting their ‘own’ version of history. They played down the evil done by the Soviet Union. They emphasized the importance of the Soviet victory over Fascism. Why exactly have they now decided to ‘liquidate’ Memorial—an association that, among other things, defends human rights and investigates Stalinist repression?
Nikita Petrov: This unpleasant situation is not only about our association. The Kremlin has decided to liquidate all organizations that it cannot manage itself. Independent foundations and associations have long irritated him. They cannot be kept in check, they are getting out of control. So the war declared against Memorial is part of the fight against civil society. To this end, in 2016, a law on “foreign agents” was passed—according to it, all organizations that use foreign sources of funding are required to describe themselves precisely as “agents of foreign influence”. The Kremlin cannot afford to have financially independent organizations active in the country. So the authorities have targeted all the foundations which prevent the state from inculcating the “only correct” way of thinking in society. De facto, as in the Soviet times, the party ideology has become mandatory.
The study of Soviet history is not the most important sin of Memorial. The authorities did not like the fact that the association engages in the defense of human rights. Memorial criticizes the regime for violations of individual rights, for repression. The decision to liquidate the association cannot be considered in isolation from foreign policy. Today, Moscow is at war with the whole world. It engages in displays of military power (the concentration of troops on the border with Ukraine, issuing various ‘ultimatums’ to Western capitals). Its goal is to force the West to recognize its spheres of influence, more or less coinciding with the territory of the former USSR. An important role is played here by information warfare, in which our country has specialized. Russia uses it to try to break the solidarity of Western countries. It also plays on the differences in opinions of individual members of the EU. In domestic policy, the Kremlin has long since adopted an authoritarian course. If fear is played with domestically, the same should be done in external politics. In this context, Memorial also has its ‘sins’. As an association, it has always opposed the policy of force in international relations. This was the case in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of Donbass. At the initiation of armed conflicts, we protested against their escalation in places of fragile truce.
Memorial was founded in the 1990s. You, as a historian, participated in the process of handing over the archives of the KGB and the Communist Party of the USSR to the newly created Russian state. It must have been an extraordinary time. Suddenly, you could begin to study the history of your country and the countries that were in Moscow’s orbit of influence for seventy years.
In the Soviet era, studying the history of Russia and the countries that were part of the USSR was simply impossible. It was an ideological dictatorship. History could be studied only at state-run research centers, where, as you know, ‘party discipline’ prevailed. Some subjects were blacklisted. They simply became forbidden. Alexander Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago in the West because the truth about Soviet history was not accepted by Soviet Russia. Memorial was created as a reaction to the prevailing untruth in historical research. We built our archive, our library. We began to compile lists of people repressed in Soviet times. We documented hundreds of thousands of such cases. The numbers we gave at that time could not be heard by the public opinion even in the era of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. We studied the activities of the Soviet structures responsible for the policy of terror. That is why Memorial became my place.
The 1990s were extraordinary times, with expert seminars and opportunities to work in the archives. We felt that we would succeed in presenting the history of our country to the public.
To put our history to the fore. This is not an easy task. Unfortunately, the history of the post-Soviet countries is full of dark pages. I had been passionate about history long before Memorial was founded. I had researched the history of the USSR in the underground. I used unofficially published books and newspapers. Sometimes the official press also helped—even Soviet textbooks omitted what it reported.
Our political elites have long longed for authoritarianism. Or is it even more than that? Totalitarian tendencies?
In today’s Russia, people are told what to think. There is no freedom of opinion left. And this is totalitarianism.
In addition, such a policy violates the Russian Constitution—according to it, there can be no ideology that is binding for the citizens.
This ideology is euphemistically called patriotism.
That’s right. So the question arises: “Who are the researchers of dark pages in the history of our country and the period of Stalinist terror? Are they acting against Russia?” As a historian, I know that silence and hiding the truth always backfires. In our country, remembrance sites for the victims of Soviet totalitarianism are being funded. Even Vladimir Putin once said, “Nothing can justify the deaths of these people,” but at the same time nothing is said about the Soviet Union’s policy in the ‘brotherly’ Soviet republics and satellite countries. Exactly the same mechanisms of repression were used in their “national democracies”. Information about the NKVD operations in Poland and Germany in the 1930s are taboo. The term “forbidden subjects” was coined. They simply should not be brought up among historians. “We don’t talk about it, because it is anti-Russian,” the argument goes. The Russian Foreign Ministry, commenting on the allegedly “anti-Russian interpretation of history” held by researchers in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany, uses rhetoric straight out of Soviet times: “It was we who liberated you in 1945, and you are so ungrateful. You have chosen the wrong friends.”
The prosecutor justifying the verdict on the liquidation of Memorial said that the association “makes the USSR a totalitarian state”. If the USSR was not a totalitarian state, how else could it be defined?
The Russian state does not want to use the word ‘terror’ when defining the legacy of the Soviet Union. They say: “Yes, the history of the USSR is a tragic story, but after all, there are also things in it that deserve respect, such as the victory in World War II.”
The prosecutor who appeared in the Supreme Court broke Russian law. The case against Memorial was brought because the organization was obliged to present itself as a “foreign agent” and did not do so. So why did the prosecutor touch on political issues in his speech? Why did he dwell on how Memorial views the legacy of the Soviet Union? What is more, the prosecutor said that the organization presented the USSR in a “negative light,” described it as a “terror state.” The question which comes to mind is, “What kind of state was the USSR if it was not a terror state?” After all, terror was used there on a massive scale. It affected practically every family. The prosecutor also forgot about the still valid “law of vindication of the victims of the Soviet regime”. According to this law, the Soviet system is defined as “based on violence”. The same wording is to be found in the decision of the Constitutional Court concerning the evaluation of the actions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The prosecutor is obviously aware of all these ‘nuances’. However, he tries to create the impression that they are of no importance. He is concerned about the image of the USSR, because contemporary Russia is its legal successor.
Will the formal liquidation of Memorial affect research on the history of Eastern European countries?
It should be emphasized that the history studied by Memorial is not only about repressions against Russian citizens. We are studying such events as the referendum in Poland in 1946 (which was in fact about the establishment of Communist power and was rigged), the intervention of Soviet troops in Hungary in 1956, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR in 1968. This is also part of Soviet history. The attack on Memorial is an attempt to erase these events from the pages of our history. When this issue is taken up by Polish, Hungarian, or Czech historians, the Russian Foreign Ministry can always say, “They have bad sources of information there.” But when we in Moscow do so, we spoil the prevailing image of the USSR as a liberator state. Of course, Russian political elites are aware of the sins committed against the peoples of Eastern Europe. But they believe that we should keep silent about it.
Our work will be more difficult. However, I want to emphasize that historians associated with Memorial will keep on working. Memorial cannot be liquidated. We will study history in a fashion similar to what we did in the Soviet times. We have our own structure. We have our headquarters, a library, archives, all of which we need to conduct research. And here a problem may arise. What to do with these things?
Access to state archives is also difficult.
Euphemistically speaking, the archives are not very welcoming to researchers. Some materials available a dozen or so years ago are no longer available. But there is also the other side of the coin. During the last years in which the archives have been open (although never completely), a huge number of texts have been published containing documents on the Sovietization of Eastern and Central European countries. These studies are available in print and electronic form. So the question arises, “If we close the archives and don’t let anyone into them, will our knowledge change?” No.
We know the mechanisms of Soviet repression. Of course, there are still documents in the archives that would enrich our current picture. They would allow us to present certain processes in more depth.
For example, they would help to complete the portraits of the leaders of the Soviet bloc countries who were de facto Kremlin puppets. Like Bierut in Poland, or Rákosi in Hungary. However, the genie can no longer be put back in the bottle. We know what the post-war history of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries looked like. Sometimes we just miss some details. For example, my book on the role of Soviet power structures in the Sovietization of Eastern Europe has already been published. It contains chapters on Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries and each with footnotes referring the readers to specific documents deposited in archives (including the archives at Lubianka).
The authorities are probably aware of this. They know that Memorial will continue to operate despite the official order for its liquidation.
The court banned an organization which had functioned for over thirty years. And it was located not only in Russia. It also had its branches in Belarus and Ukraine. It had become part of our reality. This legacy cannot be erased. It is also worth noting that one of the founders of Memorial was Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet dissident and human rights activist. Last year, Russia celebrated the “Sakharov Year”. A lot was said about him. He was honored and called the “conscience of the nation”. It was pointed out that he “fought for the rights of others”. And suddenly, Sakharov Year is over and the regime decides to destroy his work.
Yes, schizophrenia is a disease from which the Russian government suffers. It is even a symbol of modern Russia. But there is also something to be happy about. Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens signed a petition in defence of Memorial. During the trial, people stood outside the court in solidarity with the organization. And all this happened at a time when society is being strongly intimidated. The war rhetoric that the Kremlin continues to use arouses fear. We are sinking into apathy. People are becoming afraid to speak out in public. They tend to conceal their views. They share them only with people they trust, and usually at home. The authorities fight against any form of opposition. Even small pickets are dispersed. The penalty for such a form of protest is fifteen days in jail. So those who stood in solidarity with Memorial had to overcome their fear.
Every member of Russian society should care about the fate of Memorial and its research. For everyone is a descendant (direct or indirect) of people who suffered as a result of Stalin’s repressions.
Until Perestroika, that is, until the mid-1980s, this knowledge was taboo in many families. The intelligentsia cultivated memory, and it was memory that became the link between generations. In many homes, however, people were afraid to share terrible memories with their children or grandchildren. Supporters of official policy are precisely the people who are unaware of the history of their own family. When they are told, “But after all, your grandfather also fell victim to Stalin’s policies,” they reply, “I will remember my grandfather, but Memorial should be liquidated.” There are also people who deliberately work to discredit the research work of Memorial. In their opinion, history “looked different”. They believe that when discussing the legacy of the USSR, the policy of repression should be separated from the Soviet state. This is another manifestation of schizophrenia. Modern Russia is the successor and legal heir of the USSR. Russia’s political elites cannot therefore agree, for example, with the statement that “the Soviet Union was co-responsible for the outbreak of World War II”. Our Foreign Ministry would never sign such an interpretation of the facts. The same applies to 1945. The Red Army can only function in the official discourse as one that brought freedom. We, on the other hand, want to study the repressions which the Soviet Union committed against all the nations of Eastern Europe, also after 1945, when “that freedom” came.
We cannot compare the fate of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe today with what is happening in Russia, but we have been encountering authoritarian tendencies in Poland and Hungary for many years.
I hope that these are childhood diseases that Central Europe has to go through. We must be careful, however, as Russia is doing everything it can to undermine the unity of the European Union, using its secret services, information warfare, historical policy, xenophobia and advances to the extreme right. May I offer a warning?
Any concessions made to Moscow by Brussels could become the end of the European Community.
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