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Stalin-Era Files Raided
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Subject: Stalin-era files raided
Stalin-era files raided
By Charles Clover in Moscow
Published: December 26 2008 19:36 | Last updated: December 26 2008 19:36
One hundred thousand witnesses to the terror of Joseph Stalin's rule are
stored on 12 computer hard disks compiled by Memorial, a Russian human rights
group based in St Petersburg. Several terabytes of data include thousands of
hours of audio histories, digital versions of faded photographs, video evidence
of mass graves. With a few computer keystrokes, one could retrieve a faded
denunciation written by a son against a father, or hear a ghostly voice
reciting a forced confession or naming her "co-conspirators".
It is the most complete public record of one of the most terrifying periods
of modern human history, and mysteriously, it was also the target of a raid
by Russian police on Memorial's headquarters on December 4.
Irina Flige, director of Memorial's office, says the police raid was not an
accident or a case of mistaken identity. She believes that the work of her
organisation in exposing and publicising Stalin's crimes has become the target
of a government effort to whitewash the past and justify in theoretical terms
the continued existence of a strong authoritarian state. "It is a war over
memory," she says.
"The front line" between despotism and democracy in Russia, she adds, "runs
through the past".
St Petersburg police have still made no public statement on the Dec 4 raid.
At noon that day, nine policemen, including two wearing black face masks,
came to Memorial's headquarters and stayed six hours combing through the office.
Police said they were after information about an article that was published
in an extremist newspaper, which Ms Flige says her organisation had nothing
to do with. Police have not responded to requests to clarify their motives.
Ms Flige says the only thing the police were interested in was the
computers. "They knew what they were looking for," she says.
She says she has no proof that the raid was a deliberate attempt to
intimidate her organisation, only a series of coincidences: it happened the day
before a three-day conference in Moscow devoted to Stalin's memory, the first ever
in Russia, which was organised jointly by Memorial and the Yeltsin Fund, set
up in memory of former president Boris Yeltsin.
It also coincided with an unprecedented public offensive against groups such
as hers by Kremlin-backed intellectuals who charge Memorial with distorting
Russia's history in order to undermine Russian patriotism. In the Dec 9 issue
of Russkiy Zhurnal magazine, Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-backed political
scientist, attacked Memorial as "an unsuccessful attempt at political memory" and
complained that Russia was vulnerable to "foreign" conceptions of its
"Russia, not having a memory policy, has become defenceless before
defamatory projections and aggressive phobias. Not having become a subject with its
own memory, Russian society stands before the threat of becoming an object of
foreign projections," he said.
Russia's government has never officially undertaken the project of finding
the dead and marking the mass graves of Stalin's terror. At its height, in
1937-38, between 600,000 and 2m are estimated to have died. Unlike other
post-communist counties in Europe, which opened secret archives to all who wanted to
view them, Russia only sporadically allowed experts into the inner recesses
of its secret police files.
Now, according to Ms Flige, whatever openness there was is being rolled
back, and the task of keeping the memory alive has fallen to private groups such
"Memorial pioneered the history of the Stalinist repressions," says Orlando
Figes, a University of London historian who worked with Memorial to do the
research on his recent book The Whisperers, an account of the private lives of
several families during the years of Stalin's reign. "It's not so much the
loss of an archive, which is replaceable. Most of it is backed up. It's the
signal that it's sending out to intimidate Memorial, to intimidate the public.
Because they're dependent on people coming forward to volunteer their
Mr Figes said he believed the raid was meant to intimidate the organisation.
"It's a sign, not necessarily of a concerted campaign, but there are clear
signals coming from the top echelons of government that there is a new
official view of the Stalin era as something basically positive, and unofficial
memories that challenge this are seen as somehow unpatriotic."
Echoes of Stalinist rhetoric are still to be found every day in Russia, such
as on Dec 14, when the government announced it would seek to expand the
legal definition of treason. The next day, the daily Kommersant newspaper ran a
blisteringly ironic headline, announcing "Betrayal of the Motherland is
The article reported that the changes to the law could be construed in such
a way as to widen the definition of treason "to include anyone who criticises
Critics charge that the Russian state under Vladimir Putin, the former
president – now prime minister, has begun to rehabilitate the dictator, as part of
its attempt to roll back democratic freedoms. A 40-part documentary film
released last year, for example, presents a whitewashed view of the Stalin era,
and a new teaching manual, by historian Aleksander Filipov, glosses over the
horrendous death toll of Stalin's reign and describes him as an "effective
manager" without whom Russia would not have won the second world war.
In a widely publicised meeting with history teachers last year, Mr Putin
made it clear that Russian history should be taught in a positive light. He said
Russia's history "did contain some problematic pages. But so did other
states' histories . . . We have fewer of them than other countries, and they
were less terrible than in other nations. We can't allow anyone to impose a
sense of guilt on us."
Describing how the battle over history intersects with the modern-day
confrontation over freedom and civil liberties in Russia, the authors Dmitri Furman
and Pavel Palazchenko wrote in the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta
recently, "The ideology of the strong state has constructed its own 'historical
narrative': Russian history is seen as a set of long periods of power and
stability under strong central authority, broken up by short periods of chaos,
after which the country is rebuilt by a strong regime."
Memorial's 12 hard drives are essential for any attempt to reject this
thesis, increasingly prevalent in government and intellectual circles in Russia.
Jana Howlett, who teaches history at Cambridge university in the UK,
participated in the Dec 5 conference on Stalin's memory. She said: "At the conference
there was a very real sense that what we were talking about was not just
Stalin, what we were talking about is today, that the thirties are just around
the corner again."
Joseph Stalin, one of history's most murderous dictators, ruled the Soviet
Union from 1922 until 1953. He oversaw the collectivisation of agriculture and
the mass industrialisation that brought huge gains in Soviet productivity,
but at an immense price in human suffering.
He executed millions in the Great Terror of the 1930s when the Communist
party was purged of "enemies of the people". The exact number of his victims
remains controversial but most historians give a consensus figure of at least
Stalin led his people to victory against Nazi Germany after which the Soviet
Union expanded its empire. Many elderly Russians look back to his rule with
nostalgia, as a time when the country was powerful and law and order
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008