Russia and the Manipulation of the Past

“Several trucks brought the prisoners to the wood in which they themselves had earlier dug deep pits. The prisoners were then tossed onto the ground, face down. Then they were shot.”

This massacre took place in 1937 and formed part of the Great Purge which Stalin had initiated and in the course of which at least 700,000 political prisoners were executed. Mikhail Matveyev, a member of the NKVD, the Soviet secret services and the author of the above-cited declaration, had developed a system for mass executions: the prisoners were stripped in their cells, tied up in another cell, and then they were beaten with logs until they lost consciousness. Then they were finally taken to their place of execution.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the historian Yury Dmitriyev and his team at Memorial, a well-respected NGO, found the mass graves which Matveyev had ordered to be dug. The graves, which were in the area around Sandarmokh, in Karelia, contained the remains of 9,000 corpses. In the ‘Nineties, when the pro-democracy leader Boris Yeltsin was in power, this find was held to be significant. But this is no longer the case in the era of Putin, who declared just two years ago: “An excessive demonization of Stalin is one of many ways to attack Russia.”

Not long after Yury Dmitriyev had made another valuable find in 2016 – a list with over 40,000 names of Stalin-era secret service agents – the historian was accused of using child pornography. The material offered as proof were some photos of his adopted daughter, Natalia, who was then eight years old, nude pictures of whom were found on Dmitriyev’s computer by secret police agents. At the time, Sergei Krivenko, president of the Human Rights Council of Memorial, explained to the Moscow Times: “These accusations are baseless and we all know it. The secret services invented this story to cast aspersions on Dmitriev, whose work honors the victims of Stalin’s terror.” Yury Dmitriyev clarified that Natalia was a sickly child and that he had photographed her so as to keep track of her physical development.

Since then, Yury Dmitriyev has spent long periods of time in jail; other accusations were added to the original one, which alone cost him a year in prison. While he was driving to the funeral of a friend, several months ago, he was stopped by the police and accused of trying to flee to Finland. Dmitriyev was sent to jail yet again. On top of which, he was subjected to various psychological examinations against his will.

Meanwhile, the court case made Dmitriyev famous throughout Russia and well-known people from the cultural world (including Andrey Zvyagintsev, director of the film Leviathan) signed petitions demanding that the authorities cease persecuting the historian. The poet and playwright Alexandr Gelman said: “This trial has helped us to get to know a remarkable man. Only barbarians get to know such worthwhile people in this fashion, but that’s Russia for you. In this sense, the trial has been worth it.”

What can be concluded from all this is that in Putin’s Russia Soviet methods are being used, gleaned from decades of Stalinism. In the current climate, Stalin himself emerges from the past as a hero. In surveys in which Russians are asked about who they consider to be great personages, Stalin usually takes first place. Many Russians in the Putin era have forgotten about the Gulag, a subject which is frowned upon these days. Putin wants his citizens to have a favourable view of their past.

In a conversation with Masha Gessen, I asked this journalist of Russian extraction, who currently works for The New Yorker magazine, what impressions she had after a recent visit to Russia, where she researched the Gulags and those elderly ex-prisoners who’d survived them. “Twenty years ago,” Gessen told me, “in many places in Siberia where there had once been Gulags, monuments were erected in honor of those who had lost their lives in the Stalin era, and there were projects to found museums dedicated to the Gulag. All that’s gone now.” The journalist visited the places she’d seen 20 years ago and where she’d met many people who really wanted to remember, to keep historical remembrance alive, to build more museums and monuments dedicated to the Gulag. Back then her guide was Inna Gribanova, a geologist dedicated to historical remembrance, specializing in the Siberian camps of Kolyma. But over the last few years Inna has become a different person, Gessen told me: not only did she not do anything to found the museums that the Gulag deserves, but she now claims that the witnesses to the Gulag were exaggerating the horrors they lived through. “And on top of everything,” Gessen added, “Gribanova has become a Putin voter.” Seeing my incredulity, Masha Gessen explained: “She got tired of being socially marginalized.”

Gessen is right. During my trips to Russia I could see how the museums dedicated to the Stalinist repression and to the Gulag weren’t exactly impressive. Lack of funding is not the only reason for this negligence; there is a noticeable lack of enthusiasm amongst the people who are working in these places, as if they know that their efforts are in vain. “Russia doesn’t want to remember; it’s trying to cover up its past with grandiloquence,” Masha Gessen said, confirming my impressions.

Russia today: repression, disinformation, falsification of history. This is happening in several spheres, including that of literature. One example of this is Zakhar Prilepin, a 42-year-old writer, a former solider in Chechnya, a militant in the Russian National Bolshevik Party and one of the best known names in contemporary Russian literature. His penultimate novel, The Abode, is about the 1920s in Russia’s first, and cruelest, Gulag, the one on the Solovetsky islands. The novel’s main character is a Dostoevskian parricide who killed his father to protect his mother; the political prisoners who beleaguer this common prisoner are depicted as subtly Machiavellian, completely unscrupulous people who deliberately spread slander and sow discord. In the context of a Russia whose historical memory is being eaten away by various attempts to throw doubt on the nature of Stalin’s crimes, the novel contributes to this tendency by questioning the ethical nature of the political prisoners and by relativising their suffering.

On the Solovetsky islands, and in many other Gulags, instead of building a museum for these forced labour camps, the authorities have decided to restore the old monasteries and dedicate them to the life and art of the monks who lived there before the advent of the Gulags: all this helps to highlight the glorious Russian past and to obliterate the memory of Soviet crimes.

According to the expression of one of Russia’s best known activists, Irina Fliege from Saint Petersburg, in Russia “the past continues to exist in the present and so still hasn’t become the past”. If the past invades the present, society can never regard it as being over and is therefore unable to examine it with all its details, including the most painful ones. The manipulation of the past due to current political interests is a feature peculiar to authoritarian regimes.


Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)