Bells Tolling for Russian Memory

A black silk dress, worn and patched: this was the object that made the greatest impact on me on my first visit to the Memorial in Moscow, an institution that deals with the preservation of historical memory, as well as the advocacy of human rights. The woman to whom the dress belonged, the art historian Valentina Ivanova, was arrested in a theater in Stalin’s time. For a year, her elegant short-sleeved dress was her only clothing in prison. While Valentina’s fate was lost in the pit of Soviet labor camps, the dress has survived in the Memorial, which also functions as a museum-archive of the gulag. Immersed in the research for my book Dressed for a Dance in the Snow, several gulag survivors confessed to me that something comparable had happened to them.

Similar is the story of former prisoner Susanna Pechuro, who as a teenager with her boyfriend tried to safeguard revolutionary values from what they both considered the ideological deviation of Stalin’s government. After their arrest, the boyfriend was shot while Susanna was sentenced to decades in the gulag. When, after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev declared amnesty, Susanna became a history teacher and later one of the founders of the Memorial, institution fostered by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. Her dress with the white schoolgirl’s collar in which she was arrested and which she wore in prison was deposited at the Memorial.

In the Memorial I also found books, which in the gulag represented the most treasured possession, although generally forbidden and therefore scarce. Books were the salvation because reading made one forget the wretchedness of the camp and provided the prisoners with thoughts to occupy their minds while they worked up to fourteen hours a day, not counting the long marches to the place of work. In the reading, the prisoners found surprising insights and unusual beauty, which helped them to retain their dignity as human beings. Many people who spent years or decades in the gulag deposited in the Memorial those objects that had helped them most to develop resilience.

Now, however, the Memorial, which for more than three decades has helped so many people not to forget, is forced to close.

Vladimir Putin, since he became president of Russia two decades ago, has set out to restore his country to greatness, using a hypertrophied and uncritical nationalism as a tool; obviously, the narrative of the dark excesses of Stalinism is not part of his agenda. The Russian president, who was trained during the last four decades of the Soviet Union, embraced some of the values of the great communist power, including Russia’s global significance. That is why, during his presidency, he has repeatedly stated that the breakup of the Soviet Union was “a tragedy”, as was for him the loss of Russian influence over its satellite countries, most of which are now part of the European Union. Putin has set out to do nothing less than restore the Russian empire and is constantly taking steps in this direction: he is trying to influence the politics of the countries of Eastern Europe and has annexed Crimea, an integral part of Ukraine, on whose border, moreover, he is engaged in an armed conflict.

Rewriting history to obtain the image of a Russia with an impeccable, even grandiose past, that of the country that defeated Nazism, as well as other “evils” such as homosexuality or blacks, is another of the objectives. To achieve this image, Putin exterminates his critics, deploys his army on foreign borders, stirs up trouble in the West, grabs other nations’ land. And he persecutes those who strive to keep historical memory intact, such as historian Yuri Dmitriev, who found near a former prison colony in Karelia a mass grave dating back to 1937, the year of the great Stalinist terror. Inna Gribanova, who twenty-five years ago was devoted to historical memory in the area of the Siberian Kolyma camps, where she acted as a guide and planned to establish museums, has grown tired of the constant harassment and has changed her profession. “Russia does not want to remember; what it seeks is to disguise its past with grandiloquence,” the well-known Russian-American journalist and essayist Masha Gessen told me.

Now bells are tolling for Memorial, that shrine of historical memory, which the Russian state banned after accusing it of being a foreign agent: since Memorial was not getting Russian money, it had to seek funding abroad. Even Putin’s accusations are a carbon copy of the Soviet ones.

Like many other nations subjected to dictatorships and autocracies, the Russians, too, can become a community without memory. And from that point on, any manipulation is possible.

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)