Sergey Karaganov Head of the Historical Memory Working Group at the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the President of Russia
Mikhail Fedotov Chairman of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under the President of Russia
What Truth About the Past Can Change the Future?
Over the months since the public-state program “On the Perpetuation of the Memory of the Victims of the Totalitarian Regime and on National Reconciliation” was officially presented to President Dmitry Medvedev on February 1, 2011 in Yekaterinburg, considerable progress has been achieved in its implementation – much to the surprise of its authors.
The program has stroke the right chord in the heart of the nation. The heated debates the program has caused have shown how relevant it is to Russian society. It is largely due to these debates that the program has taken on a national resonance and importance.
We are grateful to the opponents of our program for their arguments, which we are not going to ignore – even if we find some of the critics not quite honest, because they have never before been found serving the public interest selflessly, and even if their verbal carpet-bombing suggests the sad conclusion that their criticism of the program has been ordered.
But we, just as the other authors of the program, take no offence. “Remain to praise and slander cool, and do not argue with a fool” – this advice from great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin helps us not to distract from the cause that we undertook to champion. Our goal is to return to the people the memory of millions of their compatriots killed by the totalitarian regime. Returning this memory is a must for restoring the nation’s self-respect, without which further progress is impossible.
We understand criticism from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and some smaller parties that view themselves as successors to the Soviet Communist Party banned 20 years ago: they have chosen to identify themselves with that regime. Yet, even they, just as our other opponents, have nothing to say against most of the specific proposals contained in our program. As a rule, they criticize things that do not exist in the program; our tireless critics only think it has them. But we are still sincerely grateful to them, because unwittingly they have helped to make the program popular.
Many worthy and respected people, true citizens of Russia, who sincerely seek to prevent a repetition of the past mistakes, have joined in the program – directly or through the media. They come out with new proposals or propose amendments to the ones made earlier. In other words, the program is working – through public discussions and new, non-confrontational rethinking of the origins and outcome of the decades-long tragedy.
Much to our surprise, we have learned encouraging things: namely, society wants to know the truth and wants justice. According to public opinion polls conducted by the Levada Center and the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), 50 to 75 percent of those polled support the main ideas of the program: creating a unified electronic Book of Remembrance that would record the names of the victims of the totalitarian regime; opening the totalitarian regime’s archives; etc. Opponents of the program have found themselves in the minority in society – despite the generally positive tone in the media in recent years with regard to Russia’s totalitarian past and even the notorious “effective manager.”
We understand that we cannot achieve much at once, especially in a pre-election year. In addition, our program is meant for decades. This is why an inter-departmental working group that is being set up now to follow up on the program will not rake up the past or start a witch-hunt, which the authors of the program are often accused of, but will carefully and steadily build organizational and legal mechanisms for restoring historical memory.
The group will have several subgroups which will focus on specific issues. For example, one subgroup will work on the creation of a memorial museum, in the Kovalyovsky Forest, near St. Petersburg. Another subgroup will focus on efforts to give legal status to graves of victims of the political repression. The third one will work on Books of Remembrance, and so on.
The issue of creating a memorial museum in Moscow remains open. The draft program proposed creating it within the city boundaries, on lands that belong to the state-owned enterprise The Moscow Canal. But now there are other options, as well. Perhaps, it would be worth developing and expanding the existing memorial complex Butovo Firing Range, located outside the Moscow Ring Road. The Orthodox Church has built a magnificent church, a memorial cross and a museum there. This is a good start, but it must be followed up, and the memorial complex must be given special status. Also, let us not forget that there is an outstanding design of a monument by our prominent compatriot, sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, which has not been given a site in Russia yet. Why not build it in Butovo?
In 2007, on the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression, the Butovo Firing Range, where more than 20,000 people were executed, was visited by the head of the Russian state. Why not make it a tradition? Especially as the memorial complex makes a very strong impression on any normal person. Some critics of the program ask: To whom shall we build monuments? Shall we build them to executioners as well? We believe that we must build monuments to all victims of the 20th century in Russia. After all, it happened that victims became executioners, and executioners became victims.
Such is the nature of totalitarian regimes with inevitable political repression. One of us, for example, likes the idea of building a monument depicting Motherland, before whom a Red Army commander and a White Army officer stand kneeling and begging her pardon. One of them scored a victory in the Civil War but later vanished in the waves of repression. The other was defeated in the Civil War and died, too, or was thrown out of the country. One wise man from Dagestan told us: There are no winners in civil wars; there are only those who have survived amidst graves and ruins.
The main arguments of the opponents of our program, who do not want to cure the terrible disease that we have inherited from our totalitarian past and who have grown accustomed to it and fear being cured of it, are as follows: The project is untimely; we must focus on urgent problems, instead of raking up the past and dividing society. The debates caused by our program have only made us even more resolved to help our society part with the horror of its totalitarian past. We are glad that we can rely not only on the support of our numerous fellow citizens but also on the фсешму civil position of two greatest geniuses born in Russia and known in the whole world.
Almost 40 years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: “Is it not still more dreadful that we are now being told, thirty years later, ‘Don’t talk about it!’? If we start to recall the sufferings of millions, we are told it will distort the historical perspective! If we doggedly seek out the essence of our morality, we are told it will darken our material progress! Let’s think rather about the blast furnaces, the rolling mills that were built, the canals that were dug ... no, better not talk about the canals. … Then maybe about the gold of the Kolyma? No, maybe we ought not to talk about that either. … Well, we can talk about anything, so long as we do it adroitly, so long as we glorify it. …” [“The Gulag Archipelago,” translated by Thomas P. Whitney – Ed.]
Another quotation, by Leo Tolstoy, is more than one hundred years old. Yet, this quotation has direct relevance to us, people of today: “Why annoy the people in recalling what is already past? Past? What is past? Can a severe disease be past only because we say that it is past? It does not pass away, and never will pass away, and cannot pass away as long as we do not acknowledge ourselves sick. To be cured of a disease, one must first recognize it. And this we do not do. Not only do we fail to do it, but we employ all our powers not to see it, not to recognize it. Meantime, the disease, instead of passing away, changes its form, sinks deeper into the flesh, the blood, the bones. … We ask, ‘Why talk about it’? … Yes, why? If I have a severe or dangerous disease difficult to cure, and I am relieved of it, I shall always be glad to be reminded of it. I shall not mention it only when I am suffering, and my suffering continues and grows worse all the time, and I wish to deceive myself; only then I shall not mention it! And we do not mention it because we know that we are still suffering.” [“Nikolai Palkin,” translated by Thomas Y. Crowell and Co. – Ed.]
And, finally, the last thing we would like to mention here. Our critics vehemently try to prove that the program allegedly invites today’s Russia to publicly repent to other countries and peoples for the crimes of the totalitarian regime. This is what we have to say to these critics: One cannot demand that victims assume responsibility for the barbarities committed against them! At the same time, we must explicitly condemn the heinous crimes of the totalitarian regime and declare that we do not have (and do not want to have) anything in common with them.
Not the slightest shade of blame must rest on those Soviet people who had to live in those difficult years, who grew grain, built houses, hunted down thieves, served in the army, and composed symphonies. They lived the only possible kind of life in those inhuman times. But we must renounce the crimes of that regime. In the Orthodox Rite of Baptism, when the priest asks, “Do you renounce Satan, all his works, all his angels, all his service and all his pride?”, one must answer: “I renounce them.” And this must be said three times! Similarly, we all must renounce the totalitarian hell out loud and, most importantly, in our hearts.