Tag Archives: memory

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: https://pilgrim-spb.livejournal.com/7887.html

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 (https://socialist.memo.ru/) 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.

Covid field tales – Part One: Moscow ends lockdown, and fragrant flashbacks


 (Post)lockdown cityscape. Image by Galina Orlova

This is the first of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. There will be 3-4 texts  on different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These will be based on one long text that will appear shortly in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid despatches – they are openaccess –  so please check it out. Space in those despatches is very limited, so here on the blog I will take a little bit more of a circuitous route.


On June 8, Moscow’s Mayor announced the early cancellation of self-isolation. It had featured digital passes and “Moscow walks” by strict schedule according to address. Transport cards for the risk group 65+ were unblocked. Traffic jams, urban noise, and children’s voices returned. Taxi drivers no longer asked for QR codes from passengers. Hairdressers re-opened, benches and playgrounds were freed from striped tape, a visible materialization of the lockdown city-scape.

Online, people have responded to the “fall of self-isolation” sarcastically, with an untranslatable pun on the words ‘get well’ (after the coronavirus) and ‘amend’ (the Russian Constitution): (“Strana poshla na popravki”). Public health concerns have been replaced by a grim focus on the political regime’s diseased mutation. The fact is, Moscow’s hybrid practices of biopolitical care – the domestication of “the great imprisonment”, with biosecurity testing, buggy digital technologies augmented by direct police control, and interventions into urban rationalities in the spirit of Soviet nonconformist art – were abruptly and prematurely curtailed by the Leader’s whim for his plebecite.  Epidemiologists and political experts agree that the end of self-isolation in Moscow was due to Vladimir Putin’s desire to push ahead a national vote on July 1. Nonetheless, this ‘successful’ roadtesting of biosecurity control tells us a lot about the tendencies of late Putinism moving forward; after all, it was called an ‘experimental regime’.


 ‘ Walking regime for our building’. Instructions for an experiment in governing everyday routines from Moscow City Hall. Image by Galina Orlova

The capital of the epidemic

Many have paid attention to the urbanness of patterns of infection in different places.  In a metropolis where around 10% of the population lives, by the end of self-isolation, 40% of Russians who had been infected were in Moscow. Whereas people arriving in the capital from at-risk countries faced 14-day quarantine, in the Russian regions those who arrived from Moscow were put in isolation. An open secret of the spread of the disease has been the exodus of Muscovites to dachas in all directions from Moscow out to a distance of 200km. Right now this is still a hot topic. Every few days on my Facebook feed I see pictures of get-togethers of many people at their country cottages. Sure most are outside, but they are not social distancing. In addition, to get there, you have to travel for perhaps hours in enclosed transport. Amazingly I see desperate acquaintances hire taxis for 4-hours journeys. Also, many old people are shipped out for the summer to these places, so they are relatively full of higher-risk groups. I think it is worth talking about the false sense of security the ‘country cottage’ summer life presents to people. My main group of research participants are people living in a small, relatively isolated town 200km from Moscow. They complained a lot in June of the Muscovite invasion to the cottages. The influx to them is noticeable because the ‘tourists’ travel by car to the supermarkets in the small town. To underline the potential of tourism in Russia and the still underdeveloped infrastructure, I have received fantastical offers of money from enterprising individuals to rent to them my empty little shack there: in face for twice the rentable value of my house in England (that’s taking into account the devalued ruble). Many of the vacant plots that had gone unsold for years were snapped up – even though they lack planning permission. The local chalet owner has upped his prices by 300%. Some data here on the early peak in demand for summer houses. More here about the wider implications on the housing market but focussing on St Petersburg area.

The next post will be about the hybrid ‘Soviet Sanitary’ and ‘neoliberal’ responses by the city authorities. Does every country have a memory-triggering ‘sanitary aromascape’? Personally I get fragrant flashbacks more for cleaning products than for biscuits (or should that be cakes?). Later I will post about the ‘not-so smart’ city that Moscow is, and the politics of reopening.

Why do 66% of Russians regret the collapse of the USSR?

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I was asked today to answer this question by a journalist, so I thought I’d share my responses. Thanks to Jesper Hasseriis Gormsen for asking it. And check out his [Danish language] podcasts on Russia http://intetnytfravestfronten.dk/

This is a really tricky question, but what I want to stress is two things – like many other polls, the answer might not be telling us what we think it is. The answer might be to a different buried question in the mind of the answerer. That question (among others) might really be ‘why do so many people live so badly now, when in the USSR they did not (or at least everyone was in the same boat, more or less)?’  Thus eliciting the answer: ‘Yes, I do regret the collapse of the USSR.’

Note (and I guess it needs saying), that this is not my opinion of what the USSR was like (as if there can be a single ‘reality’ of lived experience of an incredibly diverse state that existed for 70 years), just an interpretation that might well be ‘real’ to the person who is asked the question.

The second thing is that poll answers are overly and frustratingly simplistic answers that actually express (or, as I have just said, obscure) very complex feelings and values of the people they are asked of. It is amazing that when I talk to political scientists, they often don’t really believe this in their heart of hearts. Take for instance Brexit or Trump. These ‘answers’ are not merely, or even mainly, about ‘immigration’ or ‘racism’.

Thirdly, the devil is in the detail of the question. It’s well known that survey questions can be phrased and ‘hacked’ to significantly change the result – and pollsters know this (or should do). I don’t think that’s the case here. However, Levada, by using the term ‘collapse’ [raspad] does set out a particular ‘framing’ inadvertently, of the ‘ending’ of the state called the USSR in 1991. One that sets up in the mind of the person answering it, even if they are too young to experience it themselves, the trauma of postcommunist transition. Here we might add – why wouldn’t someone sensitive to the past, or lacking clear ideological support for ‘actually-existing capitalism’ answer: ‘Yes, I do “regret” the passing of the USSR, the state I was born in, or that my suffering parents were born in and worked hard all their lives for.’

Let’s turn the phrasing around. If Levada asked: ‘Do you regret the founding of the Russian Federation in 1991?’ I’m pretty sure the majority would say ‘no’ and so the poll would in a way be reversed.

Here’s the poll in question.


Note the fluctuation since 1999 of around 20 % of the ‘regret’ vote (however, most ‘regrets’ are in a band between 53% and 65% since 2005). (Don’t look at the graph, look at the table). This fluctuation could be to do with people with direct experience of the USSR (positive or negative) dying along with people with no personal experience thinking in more rosy terms about the period – hence a kind of up and down wave effect.  But, you would also expect nostalgia to rise according to periods of crisis. When people feel their lives are not going to plan they might well look back to a ‘simpler’, more ‘stable’ time with nostalgia.  That’s plausible for the figures in 1999, 2000, and 2001 when people took a massive cut in living standards due to the Defolt. However, that is not borne out by the data here when taken in terms of trends over time since then. So perhaps there is not clear answer as to ‘why’ the numbers fluctuate. Here we could have an aside about polling most often telling us ‘nothing’ directly related to the question.

Now to the question of the meaning of nostalgia.

In her wide-ranging book The Future of Nostalgia, the wonderful Svetlana Boym identifies two distinct types of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ nostalgia and ‘reflective’ nostalgia.  Restorative nostalgia, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.”  Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “dwells in algia(aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”

Boym was first and foremost a Russian cultural scientist with a deep commitment to the personal insights lived experience provides for research. We can ‘read through’ her descriptions to suppose that both forms could be operative for nostalgia towards the Soviet Union. And as their psychology origins suggest, nostalgias can be personal quirks, irrationally warm ‘affective’ feelings, passing infatuations, or indeed pathologies bordering on madness. I suggest that all these are operative in different people at different times in the last three decades.

Lastly, we can break down nostalgia into a scale of more ‘rational’ interpretations by people. I rank these not in order of importance, but in terms of macro-to-micro social scale. All, some or one may be simultaneously operative in a person’s mind when they answer the pollster’s phone call – in fact none of them might be operative and the person getting the call might just want to get the pollster off the line!

  1. Nostalgia for Great Power status (empire and the respect for the geopolitical might of the USSR). See Mazur below (and Kustarev) on the ‘myth of achievement’ and the ‘myth of power’.
  2. Political order (totalitarian as a system that ensures a lack of political and civil strife, that obviates the need for the citizen to perform any political roll – relief at this and thankfulness – particularly effective in those that see the 1990s as ‘chaos’). See for example, ‘We grew up in a normal time’ – the title of a chapter in a book by Don Raleigh on Soviet baby boomers.
  3. Social order (“to each according to his needs”) – the Soviet social contract (which Linda Cook shows was failing in large part by the 1980s). Related to this, as in the West, a period of sustained social mobility. See, for example, Liudmila Mazur’s ‘Golden age mythology and the nostalgia of catastrophes in post-Soviet Russia’, although her polling data paints a more complicated picture of the ‘myth of prosperity’.
  4. An emphasis on the sincerity in personal relations, the intensity of personal trust and reciprocity given the ‘heartless system’ of the USSR – note how this is contradictory to point 3, yet perfectly possible to hold this belief at the same time as number 3. People are like that.
  5. Nostalgia for the time of one’s youth (probably universal – hey, I think the early 1980s in the UK were great, but ask a miner or other person from the North that). Nostalgia for personal and more widespread idealism (the BAM-romanticism factor) that accompanied this. See Mazur on the ‘myth of achievement’.
  6. Recognition of Labour(due recognition given to labour as the primary factor of production). Not that I am not saying that work was more ‘dignified’ or better paid than in the West during the Fordist period after WWII. Merely, and this is what most of my research interrogates, many working-class people feel nostalgia for what they perceive as a better time before the present. They highlight particularly, relative lower inequality (everyone was paid badly!), relative degrees of social compensation for labour (the social wage and labour paternalism included subsidised childcare, faster routes to social housing for workers, subsidised food), the team-level autonomy of work given the dysfunctional industrial system – bottle-necks, old equipment, distant management, shortages – all these led to a large degree of control over work, as enterprises looked to individuals and teams to find quick and dirty hacks to solve these otherwise intractable structural problems with the Soviet economy. Another way of looking at this is to say that workers had little or no political or associational power in the USSR, but they did have structural (work-place bargaining, or ‘contingent’ power).

Also operative are the answers that regret ‘loss of homeland’, ‘destruction of kinship and other ties’ – these are offered as options in the more detailed poll question. However, I think my 6 are more heuristically persuasive than the dry promptings of Levada, including the most important one: ‘the destruction of a united economic system’, although my points 2, 3, and 6 could be version of that.

Note that nowhere do I find it persuasive that there is nostalgia for the overly abstract notion of ‘communism’ as a system or the ‘communists’ as a ruling party… I intended to reference this piece on the mythology of the Soviet Past by Kustarev, but didn’t have time in the end. I highly recommend it. Александр Кустарев, Мифология советского прошлого «Неприкосновенный запас» 2013, №3(89)