Saturday, October 25, 2014

Day of the Dead Memory

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) Just recently the Russian Ministry of Justice has filed a claim to the Russian Supreme court to legally dissolve Memorial Society. The case comes up on the 13th of November and its outcome should send strongly profound reverberations through Russia. What is at stake is not only providing respect and remembrance to the victims of   repression but basic human rights to freely discuss and debate what happened in history. Second City Teacher spoke to some representatives of Memorial society.


              Autumn must be the saddest month in Russia! The weather is often forlorn, foggy, rainy and the wind is forever whistling or mourning in melancholic haunting  way. The month also ends with 'Halloween ' or 'The Day of the Dead' where the dead are supposed to surface to haunt or torment the living.

              What added to my sombre mood was an attempt to find some memorial plaques and monuments to the victims of repression. What strikes you is how inconspicuous they
are. Few Russians know of them never mind foreigners!

              Before setting off for Memorial Society I decided to visit some. Perhaps one of the most poignant and powerful monuments in Moscow with powerful images is Chubarov's
granite and metal sculpture to the 'Victims of the Totalitarian regime'. It is located in the 'Park of Sculpture just across the road from Gorky Park. The monument consists of 200 stone heads, in rows, piled on top of each other, staring at you out of barbed wire. The heads have faces which express all the spectrum of emotions; despair, joy, depression, sadness, anguish, agony, astonishment (Why me?') and even hope.

              There  are many thoughtful faces here which are  no doubt still pondering the present fate of Russia.

              Then I visited another monument near Lubansky Square known as the Solovetsky stone memorial. Near the stone one can read a plaque with the words 'During the Years of terror, over 40,000 people were shot in Moscow on groundless political       charges.' It mentions where their bodies were cremated and the two most notorious N.K.V.D. execution sites at Butova and Kommunarka collective farm. In the latter place, construction workers used to hear of the ghosts of the dead who would keep them awake through their screaming and shouting. As many as between 10,000 to 14,000 victims of repression lie buried at Kommunarka farm or dacha. Visiting this park is not straightforward.

               Since it is occupied by an Orthodox Monastery you can't always just drop in but need special permission. Therefore, this hardly represents an accessible park where people can come and lay flowers when they deem it.

               Compared to the very formidable, magnificent and huge Great Patriotic War monuments, the plaques, and memorials to the victims of repression seem scarce, small and discreetly hidden away from the public eye. It is as if Russia finds the monuments embarrassingly awkward. When Anne Applebaum was doing research for her work, 'Gulag ,A History', she discovered four main responses; one of outright hostility, 'it's none of your business,' and, yes it still matters. But the most common response was a silent shrug of the shoulders as if to confess, 'I don't know what to make of this period or how to respond to it'.


                 Whether the Russians try to ignore or forget those times, the scars are still there. The terror affected one out of eight Russians and was no mere sideshow. According to some estimates, around 25 million people were repressed by the Soviets from 1928 to 1953. Of those 25 million people, many were shot by execution squads, some were prisoners in the Gulag camps (as many as 470 camps were dotted all over Russia), some were so called 'Kulaks', some were slave labourers and others deported Crimean Tartars or the Ingush who were deported during the war, which a current exhibition at the Gulag Museum is commemorating.

                 As many as 28 million people may have passed through those camps, settlements and prisons, according to a museum leaflet. However, as the historian Orlando Figes points out in his book, 'The Whisperers':  'In addition to the millions who died, or were enslaved, there were tens of millions, the relatives of Stalin's victims, whose lives were damaged in disturbing ways, with profound social consequences that are still felt today. After years of separation by the Gulag, families could not be reunited easily; relationships were lost; and there was no longer any 'normal life' to which people could return' (Page 31, Introduction, The whisperers, Orando Figes.) 

                 Figes is right! Having spent many years in Russia I have encountered some old people still afraid or uneasy about talking to foreigners and a few who would talk to me in only discreet places while whispering in a low tone of voice. Thankfully, the older people
are becoming less anxious and guarded. It was as if they were afraid the years of repression might just return. When you hear that the Ministry of Justice is attempting to ban Memorial you begin wonder if they might be right.

                 I dropped into the Gulag Museum which displays the photos, possessions, stories and works of art of former prisoners. As I was gazing at some of the photos I recognised one famous Russian actor who I had seen in a lot of spy films. The actor, Georgy Stepanovich Zhzhonov, spent 15 years in a Siberian correction labour camp. His alleged crime? He just happened to meet an American in a train and have a chat with him. When he was released in 1955 his film career took off again when he was asked to play     the roles of Russian security spies and policemen! The K.G. B. even granted him a special award. You can also read of a case where a student was imprisoned because he adored the Russian poet Yesinin. An old security woman asked me, 'Do you have any questions?'

                 Don't ask me why, but I could intuitively tell that a member of her family had suffered during the repression. 

                 'Were any of your relatives victims of the repression?'

                 'Yes, my father, who was a doctor, was executed. They accused him of spying and being part of a 'counter - revolutionary organisation.' Since her eyes started to water with tears, I decided not to be too intrusive.

                 She told me, 'The American and British visitors don't understand the nature of the repression. They of course sympathize, but the Germans understand'.

                 'Do you think Russia might return to those times?'

                 'Yes, I think it is very possible. I have met so many older people who believe Stalin won the war and helped Russia become a great power.'

                 I asked her whether she believed in God and she told me, 'The main point is to be a good person and not how or if you believe in God. I 'm reading an interesting philosopher who mentioned this.' I asked her, 'The philosopher isn't Victor Frank, is it?' She then picked up a book by Victor Frank.

                 The day before yesterday I had dropped into the main offices of Memorial office at Mali Karetny Pereulok in central Moscow. I spoke to a pleasant looking middle aged woman who expressed herself very articulately and potently. She was small with short red hair and very lively with alert eyes. Her name was Olga Rakutko and she seemed happy that they had only recently erected a monument to the 'Thousands of Victims of political repression in Komulnarka between 1937 and 1941.' She showed me a list of the many Russians who had donated money to make this happen.

                 Olga told me that while she was casually leafing through one of Memorials published volumes of the victims of repression she had come across the recorded case of her husband's grandmother ...Until then, her husband had never discovered the fate of his grandmother. She opened the book and I read the entry, 'Balikova Yedokiya, a peasant
1881-1937, semi-literate, arrested on the 20th November 1937 for spying for the Japanese secret services, shot on the 25th December 1937.' Olga stated, 'You see how idiotic those charges are? How can some one who is semi literate in Russian be capable of spying for the Japanese?'

                 His grandfather's father and two brothers and her mother were also apparently arrested. So almost a whole family were put behind bars. 'They were arrested after returning from working on the railways in China,'  Olga told me.


                 According to one survey by the All Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion', in 2005, 42% of Russians wanted the return of a great leader like Stalin and 60% of the respondents over 60 years of age were in favour of a new Stalin. In light of this survey, I asked Olga, 'Do most Russians like Stalin?' She answered 'I don't agree with you that most Russians like Stalin.There is no conclusive research which can tell you how many Russians approve or don't approve of Stalin. What I can say is that I and my family don't like Stalin and the victims of repression don't like him.... Even at huge gathering of war veterans of between 5000-6000 most of them refused to stand up when his memory was ceremoniously evoked. She also told me of a strange case where a Russian was arrested in 1948 on charges of working for the Germans. It all began when he visited a       cinema to watch a war-film and innocuously told his friend, 'How well armed were those German troops in the film.'

                 His friend reported this comment to the police and he was subsequently arrested on charges of having worked for the Germans during the war. But he was 15 at the time of the Great Patriotic war. 'Despite doing twenty years in confinement he told me Stalin was not to blame for his fate because he didn't know what was happening around     him. I couldn't believe it. I know for certain that Stalin was well aware of the terror and was organising it by signing documents which executed many people,' stated Olga.

                 'From what I have heard of Stalin he was very sick. A paranoic. I have read accounts by people who knew him who claimed he constantly lived in fear of being poisoned and would never sit with his back before anyone least he be attacked.' Olga generously spared her time and even gave me free books in Russia. One well written story by Nellie Tachko tells of how she and her brother were thrust into a children's home for orphans following the arrest of her father and mother. Her father was shot and her mother stood by her husband for saying, 'I don't agree with the charges against him'. So she too, was imprisoned for the phrase, 'I don't agree'. The family were reunited and her mother experiences great joy when she succeeds in witnessing her husband's 'rehabilitation.' Olga told me that there are only approximately 100 surviving victims of the repression left in Moscow and most are in their 90 's. She was at pains to point out that the children of the arrested were also 'victims of the repression ' since they were deprived of much required parenthood.

                 I discovered that if I wanted to interview someone about the impending legal case I would have to go to another office. I discovered Memorial society was an umbrella
society for many groups covering around maybe fifty.

                 It has a quite loose and long chained structure and lacks a head office. It is  not only a human rights group which monitors current violations. It has groups that specialise
in doing research about the victims, publishing books, raising money for new monuments, performs an educational role where members educate people and attempt to aid the victims of repression through charity.

                 If you listen to some Russian state channels you might be misled into believing Memorial society is some kind of subversive organisation of 'undesirables' which are           being funded by Americans and therefore represent a threat to Russia's national security. On deeper scrutiny, those charges are so absurd that they border on the insane or surreal. They even echo the irrational charges made against many of the victims of repression we have just heard. In recent days there has been a campaign of disinformation by the government to blacken the reputation of Memorial society by channels such as NTV where they claim the organisers have either links with terrorists or support them. Since 2012, political groups which receive money from abroad have been ordered to register as 'foreign agents' or face a legal ban. The term's insinuation behind the term 'foreign agent' is very insulting and almost accuses you of being a 'traitor'. Now the Ministry of Justice is appealing to the Supreme Court to ban the Memorial society.

                 I asked Aleksandr Cherkasov, the chairman of the board of HRC Memorial, 'Why is the Ministry of Justice making a move to dissolve your organisation?'

                 'They have never offered us an explicit explanation as to why they are taking legal action against us.'

                 I asked him whether he thought that the Society's outspoken views on Ukraine may have something to do with it.

                 'I don't think so. I think the opening of this new case and the war in Ukraine is a coincidence. This case against us has a long history. I think that the case being made against us is all illogical. I can perhaps only describe it as Kafkaesque with maybe a touch of Beckett. Yes, it is true that we got a presidential grant from America in the past, but it does not follow that if we receive a grant from Americans that we are following their will.

                 'They suppose that there is no difference and that is why their case is so illogical. They suppose we want to use this money to bribe and buy people within the Russian Federation.

                  'Of course, we have a complex structure as Memorial society is an umbrella group which encompasses about fifty organisations. But we are calling a future     conference to resolve this structural problem. They tell us that is fine, but are still going to ahead with attempting to ban us. So how can forbidden groups then organise a conference when they'll be already banned? The Ministry of Justice lack  any sense of logic!'

                  'Can you reach a compromise?' I asked. 

                  He retorted, 'Look, could you reach a compromise with people from a mad-house? I think the actions by the Ministry of Justice won't help President Putin's image abroad. It must be embarrassing for him because if the Ministry of Justice goes ahead it will make him look idiotic abroad.'

                  Alex, a jovial and cheerful man told me, 'By the way, we have had a lot of letters of support and many people asking us what they can do to help us. Nevertheless,
the legal outcome of this case remains unclear'.

                  I remember Olga Rakutko stating, 'What happened in Russia could happen in any country in the world. So we can't forget what happened in Russia during the Repression.

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