Russian public memory of Gulag and Terror will never be adequate. But that’s not forgetting

The entrance to Levashovo memorial site to a mass grave. Source:

People are mourning the imminent closure of the Russian NGO Memorial today and so am I. Yes it is a symbolic blow to a symbolic human rights organization. Yes, it does important work on Terror and Gulag victims and perpetrators as well as other work. It is best known for collecting copies of state documents about the Gulag that were first publically available in the early 1990s. However, it’s work was only every a drop in the ocean and could never substitute for a truth and reconciliation commission from the top, or even lustration, as was carried out in some other former communist countries.

For years, Memorial has been losing ground to other groups, including the Church. On the topic of the Terror, Putin even seems out of step with public opinion in his comments by calling it a ‘tragic period’. For most Russians today the operative word would be ignorance. Cultural practices of memory ‘are inadequate to these losses’, as Alexander Etkind writes [opens as pdf]. But are they anywhere? Indeed, in his next sentence Etkind remarks that in contrast to an ‘amnesia’ thesis, Russians remember Soviet terror all too well. One of the reasons being the enormous and expanding arbitrary punitive power of the state today. Something I wrote about in relation to cultural politics recently.

What has happened is that the Russian Foreign Agents Law has enabled the prosecution of any organisation that takes grants from abroad on paper-work reporting technicalities – a bit like if you’re late with your tax return, but with rather more serious results. Once on the statute book these laws take on a life of their own in a country where there are political entrepreneurs at all levels aiming to show ‘loyalty’, find enemies of the regime and root out foreign influence. They might not even be ‘political’ in reality – instead getting a Foreign Agent punished could get you a nice promotion or a posting in Moscow. And here is also part of the truth of the Stalinist Terror – some of it was about social mobility and the rise of a security ‘middle-class’.

But it’s exaggerating to argue, as Tanya Lokshina does today in the Moscow Times, that Memorial is the country’s moral conscience and the backbone of the human rights community. That might have been true in the past, but this view does not do justice to the many lawyers and activists who are not affiliated with any human rights org, but who defend individuals and organisations, sometimes at significant personal risk. These are often professional (and paid) services but they’re still human rights work (For example the Military Bar Association). And then there’s the new ‘political’ society actors that Regina Smyth and I are writing about along with Russian authors (book comes out next year). These actors make claims about entitlements and worthiness to the Russian state and engage in dialogue and pressure, as much as they articulate a ‘rights’ dialogue. This relates to a scholarly take on activism and contention that is suspicious of the ‘civil’ in ‘civil society’, especially outside of Europe and the US. It’s partly inspired by approaches like that of Partha Chatterjee on ‘popular politics’  in the most of the non-Euro-American world.

Similarly, Lokshina’s view perpetuates a dangerous misinterpretation about Russia – that there is an intellectual class in opposition to authoritarianism. This is obviously false on two counts. As I frequently remark in this blog, there’s nothing particularly progressive about Russian self-appointed ‘intellectuals’ or ‘intelligenty’, just as there’s nothing particularly progressive or liberal about the metropolitan bourgeoisie in Russia. By the same token, much ‘activism’, ‘resistance’, and indeed, thinking about a different future for Russia (even if only a little-bit-different) comes to me from ordinary people and organic intellectuals.

When it comes to the Terror, there is shameful ignorance, for sure. ‘They didn’t kill people that didn’t deserve it.’ Is something I hear all the time.  But when it comes to the Gulag, I don’t think this is something that’s in danger of being forgotten, nor of being instrumentalized by the Russian state. There’s so many millions of living Russians whose ancestors were arrested that it’s still a ‘living’ traumatic memory and an important part of oral history. There’s an excellent book edited by Khanenko-Friesen and Grinchenko on how oral history in Russia has made important contributions to the ‘pluralisation’ of society – providing different accounts of traumatic experience, including of the Gulag. In my experience, oral history is in no danger of failing to pass on the horror and injustice of Gulag victims. But with pluralization comes fracturing of meaning. Many times it remains personal, or is politicized in unpredictable ways. It’s perhaps naïve to think there could ever be a socially-shared meaning of these events and comparisons to Germany ignore how shallow the public discourse there remains, perhaps precisely because it is an ‘officially sanctioned’ form of remembering and ascribing blame and victimhood.

Maybe Putin is aligned with public opinion after all. Most people I talk to agree with his comments, perhaps more sincerely than they were intended. Remembering ‘does not mean settling scores. We cannot push society to a dangerous line of confrontation yet again. Now, it is important for all of us to build on the values of trust and stability.’ Legal recognition and symbolic compensation to the victims of political repression remains, if not more substantial recompense. A good primer on the issue of public memory is here, by Elisabeth Anstett and there are other important scholarly and documentary works by the SciencesPo Paris Mass Violence and Resistance Research Network.

EDIT: A Facebook commenter makes a valuable counter argument: “Memorial is an important piece of civic infrastructure, and one that has been much more welcoming to all sorts of political opinions and trends (inc on the left) than hardcore liberals. I am also not a fan of the moral conscience language, personally, but I worry that we miss Memorial’s contribution, too, here.

They have also collected info on what happened to the Left Opposition ( and as Ilya Budraitsksis mentioned, they were one of the only orgs to really try and investigate what happened in Oct 93 (and have held exhibitions on the topic which are fantastic). They host events where democratic left folk appear AFAIR, and obvs on human rights issues collaborated with people like Stanislav Markelov, too. That’s very brief and someone more knowledgable could jump in to give a fuller picture I’m sure, but I guess I have always appreciated that lack of dogmatism. I also think they have been incubators, in effect, of so many important initiatives – though your point in the article on those actors that don’t fit into this paradigm is well taken.

3 thoughts on “Russian public memory of Gulag and Terror will never be adequate. But that’s not forgetting

  1. Lytenburgh

    I’m sorry… why the lamenting? Was not “The Memorial” a foreign agent organization in all meanings of this word? Do they not getting a just ending for ignoring Russia’s legislation?

    How come, that it is precisely the Westerners and westernized cargo-cultish “liberals” who decry most loudly “the legal nihilism In This Country”, and yet they are the first ones to resort to the “phone-call justice” when one of their darlings gets into trouble.

    “Memorial” should have been destroyed 20 years ago, for all their BS done during both Chechen war alone, not to count outright falsifications and attempts to pass Banderites, Nazi collaborateurs and ordinary criminals as “Victims of the Regime”.


  2. Pingback: The Banning of Memorial: Liberal Says Liberals To Blame | IRRUSSIANALITY

  3. Pingback: IRRUSSIANALITY: The Banning of Memorial: Liberal Says Liberals To Blame - Russia News Review

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