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12.04.2011. On the Perpetuation of the Memory of the Victims of the Totalitarian Regime and on National Reconciliation

This is the name of a project prepared by the Historical Memory Working Group at the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights. The documents have been submitted to the President and are now being studied. The texts are available at the websites of Rossiiskaya Gazeta (www.rg.ru). Those, who want to contribute their comments, please, send to the www.rg.ru. The program was prepared and is being further developed by a large team of specialists including Council members, historians and archivists.

The project has been presented to the President and has caused a lively discussion in society, and this is what it was intended for. We do not expect it to be approved within a year, even a significant part of it. Rather, it is intended for the long term.

Yet, without its implementation, I am confident, the country will not overcome its present state, and no modernization – technological or political – will succeed. The main prerequisite for any breakthrough is the presence of the actors, that is, millions of free and patriotic citizens who feel responsibility for their country and pride for it, even though it may be bitter at times. The bitter feeling of losses unites people in the same way as the pride of victory does.

A breakthrough is impossible without the return to the masses of the Russian people of the best that was created by Russia – its high culture, which is now getting forgotten. But this is a topic for a special study.

Our project is aimed at restoring self-esteem of the people and making them feel that they are the masters of their Motherland. Society must overcome its current dangerous state when the masses are contemptuous of elites, while elites are contemptuous of the masses; when morals are degrading, which is manifest in rampant corruption and legal nihilism; and when the notions of honor, conscience, shame and dignity are losing relevance.

I understand that I will anger many of my fellow citizens, whom I respect, and my friends. But I dare say that we do not deserve even freedom yet. When we received freedom from above twenty years ago, we destroyed the country which we had inherited from our ancestors. And ten years later, in the late 1990s, what was left of it – the Russian Federation – almost collapsed.

This is largely due to the loss of the feeling of normal patriotism, self-esteem, and the sense of being the master. Yet these words do not negate the need for the return of political pluralism – at least, to combat the stifling corruption.

The numerous emerging opponents of the proposed project for restoring historical memory are accusing its authors of attempts to distract the country from moving forward and from building a bright future. Let us forgive their hypocrisy.

This project is necessary precisely because the country is making no headway or even is retrograding due to its moral crisis. The reason is that the more active and creative part of the population have again begun to view “this country” as not their own and have started withdrawing from creative activity or emigrating. And the top is now being occupied by the uncompetitive gray mass that once made ​​a revolution in order to plunder; then it killed the best of Russians, and now it is engaged in unbridled stealing.

The people and the elites have had little to be respected for over the last almost 100 years. The only thing that one can be truly proud of is the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), but its uniting potential has been naturally dwindling with the years.

Our society will be unable to restore self-esteem and the feeling of pride and responsibility for our country and our people if we keep closing our eyes to the terrible sins of our ancestors.

They made ​​the revolution and brought to power – and later tolerated – an anti-human, barbaric regime. They participated in self-genocide – the systemic elimination of their very best representatives; the destruction of traditional morals; the demolition of churches and cultural monuments; and the ruin of culture and law.

This self-genocide continued for decades. It began with the destruction of the nobility – the most educated and patriotic part of society and the bearers of national pride, and the bourgeoisie – the most enterprising and competitive part of it. It continued with the destruction and expulsion of the intelligentsia – the bearers of the nation’s intellect, and finally with the destruction of the clergy – the custodians of traditional culture and morals. Then there followed the collectivization and the Holodomor, artificially imposed famine, which destroyed the best of the peasantry and accounted for the greatest number of victims. These were followed by waves of repression against the new intelligentsia and the military. After World War II, Soviet POWs, who were equated to traitors, were sent to labor camps or executed. Later, the brutality of the repression diminished, although the degradation and elimination of the best representatives of society, of faith, morals and law continued.

We still do not know the exact number of people killed in the Soviet Union. It must be tens of millions of people. There have been victims in almost every family, but people still prefer not to think about them. Because of this horrible century, people do not know their ancestors and have lost touch with their own country.

Many things remain unknown, but one thing is obvious: some people were killed for no apparent reason according to “quotas.” But as a rule, those killed were the best representatives of the people – hard-working, free-minded, intelligent, strong, educated and energetic.

Keeping closing our eyes to our history would be tantamount to complicity in this horrible crime against our people. This would mean that we agree to be successors not to the best but the worst part of our people – Bolsheviks, butchers, informers, collectivization activists, organizers of famines, and the destroyers of churches, mosques and synagogues. We hold that the people of Russia deserve a better destiny and must free themselves from the burden of their history through its cognition and recognition.

Some people want to continue taking pride in Stalin. They have a right to do that. But the whole of the people should not conceal the truth from themselves and bear the burden of the guilt of some of our ancestors, thus denying themselves the right to self-esteem.

The popular media dubbed our project “de-Stalinization.” This is an incorrect term, as it exalts one of the worst tyrants in human history, who deserves only disgust and contempt. The term “de-Stalinization” puts the responsibility only on that man and leads us away from understanding the essence of that regime, which destroyed what was the best in the nation and in Man and whose legacy must be overcome.

We are not calling for a crusade against the successors to that regime. All people, even butchers, fell victim to it. We all should bow low to the millions of victims. A people that does not honor and does not want to know the graves of millions of fathers and mothers can hardly hope for a future and for self-respect or respect from other peoples.

In any case, the main thrust of the program proposed by the Historical Memory Group at the Council on Civil Society and Human Rights and supported by the overwhelming majority of the Council members, should be not “against” but “for.” It should be geared to bringing the Civil War to a formal end and to achieving final reconciliation of the nation. We should not pull down monuments to the “Reds” – there are few monuments in this country. What we should do is to honor the memory of the millions of our best compatriots, who perished in that civil war, through the mass installation of monuments to victims of the totalitarian regime. We should return their names to towns and villages, from which they were taken to labor camps or execution.

We must launch a mass movement to search for thousands of forgotten mass graves of the regime’s victims and give these graves the status of military cemeteries. Young people who will join this movement will become a generation of true patriots, like those who look for graves of soldiers killed in the Great Patriotic War. We must also look for and memorialize forgotten cemeteries of soldiers killed in the Second Patriotic War, renamed as “Imperialist” by the Bolsheviks, who surrendered half of the country for the sake of retaining power. There are crosses on the graves of Russian soldiers who died in the First World War all over Central Europe. Russia is the only country where there are no such crosses.

We should also create a unified electronic Book of Remembrance that would record the names of the victims of the totalitarian regime. Unfortunately, not all the regions are working on Books of Remembrance. Information from the already published books has been included in the database created and made public by the Memorial Society. Thanks to these efforts, hundreds of thousands of people have learned about the tragic fate of their ancestors. However, this database contains the names of only 2.7 million people, whereas, according to very modest estimates, more than six million people fell victim to political repression in the territory of the Russian Federation alone. Almost as many people died from the Holodomor in the Soviet Union. Millions of others were disfranchised and could not get a normal job and education. They were doomed to miserable existence and hunger. Among the disfranchised were members of the Russian elites, the nobility, the clergy and the bourgeoisie.

I think it is strange, if not humiliating for us, Russians, that there is no national memorial to repression victims in Moscow. There are such memorials in Astana, Kiev and other capitals. Do we not want to pay tribute to victims in our country? Or do we think of ourselves as successors to the butcher regime and not want to renounce this “honor”?

Also, at least two national memorials must be built in Moscow and St. Petersburg that would be devoted to the history of the totalitarian regime’s terror. This idea was supported at the top level, but its implementation has stalled.

In addition, the totalitarian regime’s archives must be made fully open. Formally, archives must be opened in 30 years’ time (except the Foreign Intelligence Service archives, which must be opened in 50 years’ time). However, archives remain closed due to the utterly excessive bureaucratization of the opening procedure. This creates an impression in the public mind that the incumbent authorities are hiding something; that they do not want to break with the terror of that regime and consider its shameful secrets to be their own. At the same time, the absence of access to archives feeds the demagoguery of the spiritual heirs to the totalitarian regime, allowing them to deny the obvious. It is believed that it is the Federal Security Service that stands in the way of the full disclosure of archives. But this defies common sense. The FSB must initiate the opening of archives in order to disown the legacy of the Soviet regime’s punitive bodies.

It is also imperative to complete the still unfinished process of legal rehabilitation of the victims of political terror.

And, of course, the government must increase manifold social allowances for repression victims, which are often humiliatingly small. Meanwhile, these people were undeservedly punished by the state, the successors to which we consider ourselves. They built, with their own hands and in inhuman conditions, roads and factories, many of which we still use today.

We should continue returning the historical names to streets in cities – with due account of the local population’s opinion – and renaming streets named in “honor” of out-and-out butchers.

In order to knock out historical memory from people’s minds, the Bolsheviks renamed hundreds(!) of streets after the now-forgotten German revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. These names now look like a bad joke. Thousands of streets are still named after Lenin. The people must be returned their historical memory.

It is long overdue that we bury Lenin’s body. But its burial must not replace the entire set of measures to restore historical memory and people’s self-esteem.

When our society gets an opportunity to assess its history and when it feels responsibility for it, it will be able to give political and legal assessments to the crimes of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union, and Russia will bid its final farewell to this regime.

But some relatively painless measures must be taken already now in order to speed up this farewell. Obviously, public statements by officials of any rank denying or justifying the crimes of the totalitarian regime must be declared incompatible with staying in public service.

The government must raise the status of September 30 – Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression. And finally, while not rejecting what was the best in the Soviet Union, we must restore connection with the great centuries-old Russian Empire, from which the Soviet regime tried to separate us for 70 years. This can be done, in particular, through memorable dates. For example, the Militia (Police) Day is now marked on November 10, the day when the Soviet Workers’ Militsiya (police) was established in 1917 by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Meanwhile, it would be logical to mark the Police Day on June 7, the day when Peter the Great established the Main Police in 1718. Also, it is odd why the FSB officers should have their professional holiday on the day when the Cheka was established, instead of dating their organization to April 28, 1827, when the Corps of Gendarmes was created. After all, its founder, Alexander von Benckendorff, is a no less outstanding figure than the Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. But in contrast to the Cheka, the Corps of Gendarmes and the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancellery, which von Benckendorff headed, acted within the law and were not associated with mass repression. We already have good examples of this kind: Prosecutor Day is now marked on the day (January 12) when Peter the Great established the institution of the Prosecutor General in 1722.

And, perhaps, we should rename the National Unity Day, marked on November 4 and commemorating the expulsion of a Polish-Lithuanian occupation force from Moscow in November 1612. Now that Russia is normalizing its relations with Poland, the name of this holiday sounds somewhat strange. I think it should be renamed as Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Civil War and National Reconciliation – especially as November 1612 saw not only the expulsion of the Poles but also the end of a civil war, known as the Time of Troubles.

The key point of our program is not only the recognition and overcoming of the grave consequences of the totalitarian regime and the creation of conditions for preventing its recurrences in any form, but also the restoration of Russia’s true identity and the development on its basis of a new one, oriented to the future. This can and must be done by developing pride in what we can be truly proud of. This includes many achievements of the 20th century and, of course, the brilliant 19th century, which actually lasted for almost 150 years (since Catherine the Great and until 1917).

We must just remind ourselves that after all we are a country not of Lenin and Stalin, but of Suvorov, Kutuzov and Zhukov, and, most importantly, of Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Korolyov, Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn and, finally, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, and Stolypin.

Twenty years ago, when the country overthrew Communism, many thought that after the first difficulties were overcome life would be better. But the trauma caused by the 70 years of Communism proved to be much deeper. It must be cured, specifically by restoring historical memory, commemorating the victims, restoring true national self-esteem and the dignity of every individual, by making people true citizens and instilling in them the sense of responsibility for their Motherland – in the times of glory and grief.

Moses led his people through desert land for 40 years. We have left behind 20 years and must not squander the next 20 years.

I repeat – it is difficult to hope for the implementation of many of our proposals in the pre-election year.

Therefore we invite everyone to get acquainted with our program, to discuss it, and dispute or supplement it. It will have to be implemented anyway. If only it would be too late. 

//Originally published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta  on April 8, 2011.