Transmitting Memory of Stalin’s Repressions to Russia’s Next Generation
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In a bid to solidify its hold on historical memory, the Kremlin is pushing the history of Soviet political repressions further and further to the margins. The result: nearly half of young Russians today say they never heard of Stalin’s repressions. Meanwhile, Gulag survivors are still around—in some cases, still fighting for their right to return home. In the run-up to Russia’s Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, we discussed how to transmit this history and make it relevant to Russia’s next generation.
"The primary goal that I had for the series was to find a way to transmit these stories from the past and to transmit them to the present, to a younger audience and to make this a series about what's happening today, not something that happened a long time ago… Most of the visuals, most of the multimedia materials we were able to find, there are government propaganda films about the Gulag or photos taken by state officials, that's pretty much it. This might seem very obvious to some people here, it's, I think, it's absolutely just a key challenge, it's a huge challenge for how to tell this history, how to tell these stories, how to make them relevant today... With so many of these major events of the 20th century, whether it's the Great Depression or the Holocaust or the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., when you hear these events, you immediately have images kind of flash in your head, and, you know, I think that is really key that in order to keep historical memory alive, you have to keep the visual memory alive as well. And that for me is really one of the strongest signs of the Kremlin's monopoly today on these dark chapters of its history and its insistence on keeping the archives closed."
"The context of Generation Gulag and the stories of the Soviet repressions, you know, they're very much relevant today because when you look at the wider, the kind of bigger global picture with rewriting history, Russia obviously is not alone here. We're all living through this time of democratic backsliding, we're seeing this new generation of authoritarian leaders who are using history to nation build, to redefine national identity, and, you know, obviously no government is immune to instrumentalizing its history, and we've seen that so much this year in 2020 in the U.S. and the UK, in all the discussions around monuments and all these discussions about how governments and people in society, how we all deal with our unsavory history."
"The right to return home proved over recent years to be an illusionary right, proved to be a right that exists on paper, but no one can really enjoy it. The history of this law and the history of this right in many respects is the history of the government's attitude towards the victims of the Soviet repressions. Over the years the law was amended gradually so that it lost its thrust."
"I think it's a very interesting phenomenon that today in 2020 there's this increasing interest by people of our generation, people in their 20s and 30s, and interest in this topic. And I can explain why I am doing this, why and how I got involved in this and I think there's a civil aspect to it and a professional aspect to it. The civic aspect, I think, is that we as young people today in Russia see the parallels between the Soviet past, especially the 1930s, and our present. So many policies of our government remind us of the repressions of the Soviet past, in fact, they look as the continuation of the repressive policies of the Soviet government, so in this respect, it becomes for me, and I think for my friends and colleagues, it becomes a matter of, you know, civic dignity to do this kind of work. So when we participate, when we work for the victims of the Gulag, when we advocate for the right to return home, we not only show that there are people who still need our protection, there are still survivors that need legal help, but we also demonstrate this link between the past and the present."
"This picture is more complex than the bad Stalinist Kremlin and the anti-Stalinist civil society. It is more complex. The state is a complicated plural actor... On the one hand, we already know that the state politics of dealing with the past is more and more black and white in this industry, but on the other hand, we see that some state-sponsored activities are still active and the Museum [of Gulag History] is more active than in the previous decade, and there are very interesting projects which are also state-sponsored. So it is a complex picture."
"The opinion polls show a decrease in the knowledge of Stalin's repressions, but the public opinion poll is not a good instrument to measure such a complicated thing. In this concrete case, it is quite an interesting picture. When we ask people, do you know something about Stalin's purges, Stalin's repressions, they mostly say yes. When we asked people, do you know something about the political terror of the 30s, the political terror of the 30s through 50s, they mostly say, we're not sure. So these public opinion polls, they measure not the real understanding of the issue, but the reception of some narratives."
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more