Today’s blog post, written for International Women’s Day 2016, relates to my current research into women’s experiences of repression in communist Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on Czechoslovakia 1948-1968, during the period of Stalinist terror and its immediate aftermath.
The vast majority of the 90,000 – 100,000 Czechoslovak citizens who were prosecuted and interned for political crimes between 1948-1954 were men; only between 5,000 – 9,000 (5-10%) were women. These women were held in numerous different prisons and forced labour camps across Czechoslovakia, where they frequently experienced poor living conditions, inadequate hygiene and medical care and enforced labour, while enduring physical and psychological violence, abuse and humiliation at the hands of the penal authorities. Beyond this, however, hundreds of thousands of other Czechoslovakian women also became ‘collateral’ victims of state-sanctioned repression during these years. The Czechoslovakian Communist Party actively pursued a policy of ‘punishment through kinship ties’, so while family members of those incarcerated for political crimes were not necessarily arrested themselves, they were considered ‘guilty by association’. As men comprised the majority of political prisoners, it was usually the women who were left trying to hold their families together and survive in the face of sustained political and socio-economic discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion.
The growth in published memoirs and oral history projects such as Paměť Národa and Političtívězni.cz in post-communist Czech Republic and Slovakia have encouraged more victims of repression to record their stories. However, women’s experiences of political repression in communist Czechoslovakia remain under-researched and under-represented in the historiography. It is often suggested that women are generally more reluctant to share personal accounts of traumatic experiences, in comparison with their male counterparts. For example Historian Tomáš Bursík’s study of Czechoslovakian women prisoners Ztratili jsme mnoho casu … Ale ne sebe! notes that in many cases ‘Women do not like to return to their suffering, that misfortune they affected, the humiliation that followed. They do not want to talk about it’. In her own account of imprisonment in communist Czechoslovakia, Krásná němá paní, Božena Kuklová-Jíšová also explained that:
‘We women are very often criticized for not writing about ourselves, about our fate. Perhaps it is because there were some moments which were very humiliating for us; or because in comparison to the many different brave acts of men, our acts seem so narrow-minded. But the main reason is that we have difficulties presenting ourselves to the world’.
This reticence extends to many women who experienced collateral or secondary repression, such as Jo Langer, who despite being subjected to sustained political harassment and socio-economic discrimination including loss of employment and forced relocation when her husband Oscar was arrested and interned 1951-1960, described how, upon receiving the first full account of her husband’s traumatic experiences in the camps after his release, she felt ‘shattered and deeply ashamed of having thought myself a victim of suffering’ (You can read more about Jo Langer’s autobiography Convictions: My Life with a Good Communist in my previous blog post HERE)
However, the inclusion of women’s narratives make an important contribution to the historiography, broadening and deepening our understanding of terror and repression in communist Eastern Europe. A number of women who endured political repression have shared their stories, which not only document their suffering at the hands of the Communist Party but are also testimony to their strength, resistance and will to survive. Through their narratives, these women are able to present themselves simultaneously as both victims and survivors of communist repression.
Today then, it seems fitting to mark International Women’s Day 2016 by briefly highlighting two examples to pay tribute to the many strong, spirited and inspiring women who feature in my own research.
“The screeching seagulls are flying around me. I am so free, I can walk barefoot. And the waves wash away traces of my steps long before a print could be left”.
Dagmar Šimková’s autobiographical account of her experiences in prison Byly jsme tam taky [We were there too] is arguably one of the strongest testimonies of communist-era imprisonment to emerge from the former east bloc. Šimková’s family became targets after the communist coup of 1948 due to their ‘bourgeois origins’ (her father had been a banker). Their villa was confiscated by the Communists, while Dagmar and her sister Marta were denied access to university. While Marta fled Czechoslovakia in 1950, Dagmar became involved in resistance activities, printing and distributing anti-communist leaflets and posters mocking the new Czechoslovakian leader, Klement Gottwald. In October 1952, following a failed attempt to help two friends avoid military service by escaping to the West, she was arrested, aged 23, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
Between 1952 – 1966 Šimková passed through various prisons and labour camps in Czechoslovakia: in Prague, Pisek, Ceske Budejovice and Opava. In 1955 she even briefly escaped from Želiezovce, a notoriously harsh agricultural labour camp in Slovakia. Sadly, her freedom was shortlived: she was found sleeping in a haystack at a nearby farm two days later, recaptured and returned to Želiezovce, where an additional three years was added to her existing prison term as a punishment.In Byly jsme tam taky, Šimková documents the cruelty, humiliation and harsh reality of life for women in communist-era prisons and labour camps in striking detail, describing how ‘According to them [the prison authorities], we are swines, bitches, smelly discharge, whores, and beasts … A woman had to be shamed for her femininity, she had to be deprived of her gender’. However, she also described the strong bonds of mutual solidarity, gentility and friendship that developed amongst women political prisoners; a source of strength that enabled many to resist the dehumanisation of the prison experience and cope with their incarceration: ‘Most of us survived with a healthy mind, and it was determined by the fact that we are women. Not that women had easy conditions in prison, there was no difference in the level of cruelty, but women developed different survival instincts compared to men’.
From 1953, Šimková was held in Pardubice Prison near Prague, in the women’s department ‘Hrad’ (Castle), which was specially created to house 64 women who were perceived as being the ‘most dangerous’ political prisoners, and segregate them from the main prison population. Here, Šimková participated in several organised hunger strikes to demand better conditions for women prisoners. She was also an active participant in the ‘prison university’ founded by former university professor Růžena Vacková, who gave secret lectures on fine art, literature and languages to her fellow prisoners. Šimková later described how ‘We devoured every word. We tried to remember, and understand, like the best students at universities’. Some of the women even managed to compile some lecture notes into a small book which was secretly hidden, before being smuggled out of Pardubice in 1965. This book is currently held in the Charles University archives.
After a total of fourteen years incarceration, Dagmar Šimková was finally released in April 1966, aged 37. Two years later, during the liberalisation of the Prague Spring in 1968 she was instrumental in establishing K 231, the first organisation to represent former political prisoners in Czechoslovakia. Following the Soviet invasion to halt the Czechoslovak reforms, Šimková emigrated to start a new life in Austrialia, where she completed two University degrees, worked as an artist, prison therapist and even trained as a stuntwoman! She also worked with Amnesty International , continuing to campaign for better prison conditions until her death in 1995.
Heda Margolius Kovály
Heda Margolius Kovály’s memoir, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 remains one of the most damning accounts of the violence and repression that characterised mid-twentieth century central and eastern Europe. Heda’s incredible life story spans the Nazi concentration camps, the devastation of WWII, the communist coup and the post-war Stalinist terror in Czechsolovakia. Having survived Auschwitz, Heda escaped during a death march to Bergen-Belsen and managed to make her way home to Prague. After the war, she was reunited with her husband Rudolf Margolius, who was also a concentration camp survivor, and a committed communist. Following the Communist coup of February 1948, Rudolf served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade, only to quickly fall victim to the Stalinist purges. Rudolf was arrested on 10 January 1952, brutally interrogated and forced to falsely confess to a range of ‘crimes’ including sabotage, espionage and treason. He was subsequently convicted as a member of the alleged ‘anti-state conspiracy’ group led by former General Secretary, Rudolf Slansky, in Czechoslovakia’s most infamous show trial. In December 1952, Rudolf was executed, along with 10 of his co-defendents.
Following Rudolf’s arrest, Heda described how ‘Suddenly, the world tilted and I felt myself falling … into a bottomless space’ . She was left to raise their young son, Ivan, while fighting to survive in the face of sustained state-sanctioned repression. She was swiftly fired from her job at a publishing house, and was forced to work extremely long hours for pitifully little pay, while living on ‘bread and milk’ in order to make enough to cover their basic needs. Her savings and most of her possessions were confiscated, and she and Ivan were forced to leave their home and move to a single room in a dirty and dilapidated apartment block on the outskirts of Prague, where it was so cold that ice formed inside during the winter months, and cockroaches ‘almost as large as mice’ crawled up the walls. Abandoned by most of her former friends, Heda describes how she became a social pariah who was treated ‘like a leper’. At best, former friends and acquaintances would ignore her when they passed in the street, while others would ‘stop and stare with venom’ sometimes even spitting at her as she walked by.
The strain of living under these conditions caused Heda to become critically ill, but she was initially denied medical treatment. When she was finally admitted to hospital she had a temperature of 104 and a long list of ailments, leading the doctor who treated her to compare her to a newly released concentration camp survivor. It was while she was recovering in hospital that she heard Rudolf’s trial testimony broadcast on the radio, and she listened to her husband monotonously admit to ‘lie after lie’ as he recited the script he had been forced to learn. Forcibly discharged from hospital before she was fully recovered, Heda was so weak that she had to crawl ‘inch by inch’ from the front door of her apartment block to her bedroom, where she spent several weeks following Rudolf’s execution ‘motionless, without a thought, without pain, in total emptiness … lying in my bed as if it were a coffin’.
Nevertheless, Heda regained her strength. Her son Ivan later described how, even in the face of sustained persecution ‘Heda survived through her determination and managed to look after us both’. She continued to maintain Rudolf’s innocence and fought to clear his name, writing endless letters and attempting to arrange meetings with various communist officials, most of whom refused to see her. Following Rudolf’s execution, she dared to publicly mourn him by dressing completely in black, in a deliberate challenge to the Communist Party. After she remarried in 1955, she continued to campaign for Rudolf’s full rehabilitation. In April 1963, she was finally summoned to the Central Committee where Rudolf’s innocence was privately confirmed, and Heda was asked to write a ‘summary of losses’ suffered as a result of his arrest and conviction, so that she could apply for compensation. In Under a Cruel Star, she described how:
‘I sat down at my typewriter and typed up a list:
– Loss of Father
– Loss of Husband
– Loss of Honour
– Loss of Health
– Loss of Employment and Opportunity to Complete Education
– Loss of Faith in the Party and Justice
Only at the end did I write:
– Loss of Property’.
Upon presentation of this list, the Communist officials responded in confusion:
‘”But you must understand that no one can make these losses up to you?”. “Exactly” I said “That’s why I wrote them up for you, So that you know that whatever you do you can never undo what you have done … you murdered my husband. You threw me out of every job I had. You had me thrown out of a hospital! You threw us out of our apartment and into a hovel where only by some miracle we did not die. You ruined my son’s childhood! And now you think you can compensate for that with a few crowns? Buy me off? Keep me quiet?”.’
Following the failed Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Heda left Czechoslovakia and settled in the USA with her second husband, Pavel Kovály. There, she continued to forge a successful career as a translator in addition to working as a librarian in the international law library at Harvard University. Heda Margolius Kovály died in 2010, aged 91. In addition to her personal memoir Under A Cruel Star, an English-language translation of Heda’s novel Nevina [Innocence] was recently published in 2015 – which I can also highly recommend!
The next post in the 2012 student showcase explores how the terror and repression of the Stalinist era had an impact which extended far beyond those directly targeted by the regime. Stalinist propaganda claimed that the USSR was the best place in the world to raise a child, presenting childhood as an innocent, happy and fulfiling time. However this was not the case for the millions of children whose parents were caught up in Stalin’s terror. Some of these children were raised in the Gulag camps, some in state orphanages. Some were sent into exile with their families and others were left to fend for themselves on the city streets. All found themselves dispossesed, displaced, marginalised and rejected. In this article Victoria Bird discusses the experiences of these children, Stalin’s ‘Littlest Enemies’.
‘The Littlest Enemies’: Children of the Stalinist Era
By Victoria Bird.
The Stalinist era was characterized by extensive terror and repression, with large numbers of the Soviet population living in fear of the ‘knock on the door’ that could signify arrest, exile, imprisonment or execution. This climate of fear even extended to young children, many of whom were terrified of the day when their parents would ‘disappear’. Children who lost their parents as a result of Stalin’s Terror were affected in a number of different ways. Some were interned in Gulag camps along with their parents; some were deported to live in exile in remote regions with their families and some were forced into Soviet orphanages. Those who were left behind were stigmatised and ostracised, often even by other family members who feared punishment if they were seen to be helping the child of an ‘enemy of the people’, so were left to fend for themselves on the city streets. Whatever their ultimate fate, these children all found themselves marginalised, persecuted, rejected and forgotten by mainstream society. Instead their lives became dominated by a daily battle for survival, a battle that sadly many did not win.
‘Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin for a Happy Childhood!’
Stalinist propaganda worked very hard to present childhood as a happy and positive time. Children were presented as the loyal socialists of the future, and Stalin was portrayed as the ‘little father’ raising the next generation of new Soviet men and women. Posters showing children praising Stalin were put up everywhere, often including the caption ‘Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood’, while communist youth groups such as the Young Pioneers (for children aged 9-14) and the Komsomol (ages 14-18) were set up to provide children with a range of extra-curricular activities including parades, theatre outings, sporting events and summer camps which many would otherwise not have had access to.
Catriona Kelly argues that the state was attempting to back up the claims of the ‘fairy tale reality’ that supposedly characterized life in the Soviet Union, with sentimental visions of childhood pervading throughout all propaganda and claims that the Soviet Union was the best place in the world for children to grow up. But, this fairy tale concealed the dark reality of many children’s lives during the Stalinist era, something which is illustrated by the image below. This famous photograph, entitled “Friend of the Little Children” was published on the front page of Izvestia in 1936, showing a happy, smiling young girl being lovingly held up by Stalin. However, the young girl’s smiles hide her dark background. Her name is Gelya Markizova, and her mother was mysteriously murdered after her father, Ardan, was shot for allegedly plotting against Stalin during the Terror years. Her real story was, of course, hidden by the state’s propaganda machine to perpetuate the vision of happy childhoods that Soviet propaganda was desperate to portray.
Gelya’s tale illustrates a much wider issue: that while some children do recall their Stalinist-era childhoods with fond memories today, their experiences were far from universal. Many other children were marginalised, rejected and persecuted. Far from having the happy childhoods that they were supposedly entitled to, they were instead faced with great hardships and a struggle for survival.
Children of the Gulag
As a result of Stalinist terror and mass repression, hundreds of thousands of parents were arrested and placed in the infamous Gulag camps. Resolution No 2213 stated that children up to the age of two must be kept in confinement along with their mothers, so many young children were taken to the Gulag and placed in camp nurseries. Other children were actually born in the Gulag, because some prisoners were pregnant on arrival while others became pregnant in the camps (for more on pregnancy and childbirth in the Gulag see the previous blog post HERE). Life for children who found themselves in the camp nurseries was horrendous. They were often forced to live in extremely unhygienic conditions, in the coldest, oldest barracks, with a shortage of blankets, while the meagre food rations provided lacked essential nutrients and vitamins. The quality of care provided was terrible; children were neglected and given minimal attention with reports that nurses would feed the children scalding hot food and often left them sitting for hours on their potties causing many to suffer from prolapsed rectum. As a result, the rate of infant mortality in the Gulags was extraordinarily high and those children who survived suffered extensive physical and psychological damage. In her memoir, Evgenia Ginzburg commented on how shocked she was on discovering that many older children in one camp nursery would not even speak, communicating instead via inarticulate howls.
In 1935 the introduction of Article 12 of the Criminal Code also permitted children from the age of twelve to be sentenced as adults and interned in the Gulags. This law was used to round up the children of those who had earlier been arrested for political crimes based on the belief that ‘an apple never falls far from the tree’. Many street children, the waifs and strays, commonly known as Bezprizorni also committed crimes (most commonly theft) and many were sent to the camps as punishment, where they found themselves living in bare, dirty cells in a brutal world where they mixed with older, more dangerous criminals. Oleg Khlevniuk described how many older criminals treated these youngsters brutally, often using them for sexual favours or forcing them into prostitution.
Banished: Childhood in Exile
Many children also had to face the terrifying prospect of exile. Those commonly targeted included devout religious followers, ethnic minorities and ‘kulak’s’ (peasants who resisted collectivisation). Numerous families were rounded up and forcibly relocated to remote and uninhabited regions in Russia’s far north, such as the Urals, Northern Siberia or the open steppe of Kazakhstan. Many families were given little more than an hour to gather together sufficient food and provisions for their ‘new lives’. Antonina Golovin recalls her mother quickly wrapping her in a warm woollen shawl when the order came to leave, but this was removed and she was not allowed to take it, even though they were heading for Arctic conditions. The journey into exile was arduous and exhausting, with families packed into overcrowded, under-heated and filthy cattle trucks for days or weeks on end. One letter to the Chairman of the VTsIK told how thousands of children died of starvation or disease during the journey into exile, to be buried in mass unmarked graves.
On arrival, the surviving settlers had to make do with living in primitive zemlianki, mud holes that had been dug out of the ground and covered in branches and mud to keep in as much heat as possible. Whilst digging out these cold, damp shelters, the exiles also had to struggle to find food for their families: they arrived with few tools or other provisions to aid them and many settlements were completely cut off by the snow. This meant thousands more children died from starvation. Exiled children also faced a variety of other life-threatening diseases. The lack of vitamins caused scurvy and malnutrition, while many fell sick with typhus, malaria, tuberculosis and pneumonia with no prospect of medical aid. As Werth explains, the situation in exile was critical for children, who were the chief victims of disease and death. For example, in one settlement consisting of 350 families, 180 children died during the first few months due to an epidemic of scarlet fever. On another island settlement, of the 14,000 deportees who died there between June and August of 1931, 76% of them were under 12 years old and one report in January 1932 recognized that in the Narym region, mortality for children under three years old was as high as 12% per month, with Siberia becoming the setting for a huge amount of child deaths.
Homeless children along ‘children of the enemies of the people’ increasingly found themselves being placed in state-run orphanages, where their fates were far from happy. Alan Ball argues that conditions in some Soviet orphanages were just as bad, if not worse, than life on the streets, and Deborah Hoffman agrees that during the Stalinist era the high influx of children into state-run orphanages (absorbing 5,000-10,000 children each year during the 1930s; while in Moscow alone, by June 1st 1938, 15,347 children of repressed parents had been sent to orphanages) meant conditions became increasingly dire, leading to overcrowding and severe shortages.
Starvation and malnutrition were a routine occurrence in the orphanages with many children forced to raid nearby rubbish bins to find sustenance and there were reports of children lapping thin soup directly from cupped hands due to the shortage of bowls. Shortages of clothes and shoes meant that children often had to go around barefoot in the snow and in one orphanage an inspector recorded 46 children who were suffering from frost-bitten feet. Three to four children would often be required to share a filthy mattress lacking any blankets, while others slept in stoves or huddled on the bare floor, covering themselves with whatever came to hand, such as old curtains. One orphanage in Viatka even issued sacks for the children to sleep in.
The institutions themselves had crumbling walls, no heating and a total lack of washing facilities which resulted in orphanages being increasingly referred to as ‘cesspools’. Children only received baths at intervals of several weeks; one group of children even wrote of how they were only allowed to visit the bathhouse every other month, and were given clean underwear even more rarely. Many orphanages had no lavatory so children would relieve themselves in yards, hallways and even their own beds. Orphans commonly suffered from diseases such as typhus, malaria, dysentery, scurvy, rickets, ringworm and lice as a result of their dire surroundings and poor hygiene. Former inmates described how the bodies of those who had died being stacked in piles, where they were kept until there were enough to be taken away and cremated, while one inspector’s report described how he had witnessed children having to live and sleep for several days in the same bed as the corpses of other children. Mortality rates among children in some Ukrainian orphanages actually stood at one hundred per cent.
Those who managed to survive disease and death in the orphanages were also faced with the threat of beatings, abuse and bullying from the older inhabitants, while there are also countless stories of the warders in charge violently assaulting the children or even raping the young orphans in their care. Many children received brutal beatings from their directors, while others remember being thrown into ‘punishment cells’ for the slightest offence. One child told of how the director would frequently drag children out of their beds by their hair, bang their heads against the wall and then threaten them with his revolver.
Bezprizorni: Life on the Streets
Some children avoided life in the orphanage by running away. These gangs of homeless children or Bezprizorni became a common sight in Soviet cities during the Stalinist era. Most scraped a living through scavenging, begging, pickpocketing, petty theft and prostitution. Many quickly became addicted to cigarettes, alcohol and even cocaine in an attempt to escape from the terror and hardships of their everyday lives. They lived in appalling conditions, particularly during the freezing winter months, dressed in ‘lice-ridden, grimy garments’ with ‘bare feet wrapped in newspapers’. To keep warm at night, the Bezprizorni would sleep in dirty cauldrons, rubbish bins, public toilets and some even buried into the earth into shallow dugouts.
Initially, the state made some attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ Bezprizorni, through the establishment of special children’s homes, communes and colonies which aimed to re-educate and reintegrate homeless children into respectable society. However, most Bezprizorni stubbornly refused to enter these institutions and those who were forcibly rounded up fled by the thousands, returning to life on the streets. From 1935, a special Soviet decree extended full adult penalties to juvenile criminals, which meant any Bezprizorni who were apprehended could simply be imprisoned.
While Stalinist propaganda may have presented an idealised ‘fairy tale’ image of Soviet childhood characterised by happy innocence, for some the reality was very different. Many children were ripped away from their families, condemned to the Gulags, forced into exile, sent to orphanages or left to fend for themselves on the streets. Most of these children endured severe physical and psychological trauma and those who survived often carried this stigma with them into adulthood.
For more information see: Film: Children of the Gulag (Java Films)
About the Author:
Victoria Bird has just completed her BA in History at Swansea University, UK. In her final year of study Victoria specialised in the history of communist Eastern Europe and she also researched and wrote her History Dissertation about “Bezprizorni: The Result of Mass Arrests and the Labour Camp System”.
 Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing up in Russia, 1890 – 1991 (Yale University Press, 2007)
 Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Penguin Books, 2004), 292; Cathy A Frierson and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag (Yale University Press, 2010), 310 – 313
 Evgenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind (Collins Harvill, 1989) 4; Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 241
 Evgenia Ginzberg, Within the Whirlwind, 4
 Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 237
 Oleg Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (Yale University Press, 2004) 124
 Orlando Figes, The Whisperers, 95
 Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 100 – 103
 Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies: Children in the Shadow of the Gulag, (Slavica Publishers, 2008), 41
 Nicholas Werth, Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag (Princeton University Press, 2007), 44-56
 Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia 1918-1930 (University of California Press, 1994) 98; Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies,81; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary life in extraordinary times; Soviet Russia in the 1930’s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 150
 Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115
 Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 254
 Jehanne Gheith, and Katherine Jolluck, Gulag Voices, Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 125; Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115
 Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 116; Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies, 98
 Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 58, 117; Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115; Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 201
 Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 56
 Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 30 – 32 , 72
 Lucy Wilson, The New Schools of New Russia, (Vanguard Press, 1928), 100
In Russia today, Josef Stalin’s historical legacy remains a controversial topic – should Stalin be remembered primarily as a strong, heroic leader, responsible for leading the USSR to victory over Nazi Germany or as a cruel dictator, responsible for the death and suffering of millions of his own people? This article, by guest author John Harman, analyses some of the problems faced by those who attempt to memorialise and publicly mourn victims of Stalin-era repression in contemporary Russia; exploring the uncomfortable juxtaposition between the dominant heroic myth of WWII and the darker aspects of Stalinism in the contemporary Russian psyche.
Contesting Popular Memory in Contemporary Russia.
By John Harman.
‘If the problem in Western Europe has been a shortage of memory, in the continents other half the problem is reversed. Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw, usually as a weapon against the past of someone else ~ Tony Judt.
Arseny Roginsky labels the memory of Stalinism as primarily the ‘memory of state terror’, a system of state rule that used terror as a universal instrument for solving any political and social task. For many people today, the word ‘Stalinism’ remains most synonymous with the execution, exile and traumatisation of millions of Soviet citizens. Revelations shedding light on the many crimes of Stalinism have been a feature of Soviet historiography ever since Khrushchev delivered his famous ‘Secret Speech’ denouncing Stalinist terror in 1956. The trickle of information that first began during Khrushchev’s ‘Destalinisation’ later became a flood: gathering pace during Gorbachev’s glasnost in the dying days of the USSR and further increasing due to the release of previously-classified information following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, while many aspects of the Stalinist era still spark contestation and controversy, the crimes of Stalinism can be documented more clearly than ever before.
Despite this, nostalgia for the despotic leader appears to be ever more apparent. Research undertaken by the Levada Centre in Moscow indicates that, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, attitudes towards Stalin are becoming increasingly positive. In a poll taken in 2005, nearly 19% of respondents said they would either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote for Stalin in Russian elections if he were alive today, an increase from the findings of 2003 and 2004 when only 13% answered in the same way. In 2008, Stalin was voted the third-greatest Russian in history, during a public poll held by Rossiya, one of Russia’s largest TV stations. More recently a poll commissioned by VTsIOM (All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre) in April 2011 showed that more than a quarter of those surveyed felt that Stalin’s wartime leadership means that he did ‘more good’ for the country than bad, a rise of 11% from a similar poll in 2007.
The contested nature of historical memory about Stalinism runs more deeply than the publication of controversial popular opinion polls, however. On October 30 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev published a post on his official web portal to coincide with the annual Russian ‘Remembrance Day of Victims of Political Repression’. His blog post condemned continued public ambivalence towards Stalin’s legacy of mass repression, and was written in response to growing concerns about nostalgia for and glorification of the Stalin era in contemporary Russia. However, the State’s official policy towards Stalin has also frequently been called into question, particularly following the publication of Alexander Fillipov’s history textbook in 2007, which formed part of the official government-approved curriculum in Russian schools. The textbook portrayed the mass terror of the Stalin years as essential to ensure rapid modernisation in the face of military threats from Germany and Japan; avoided any attempt at a moral assessment of Stalinism and strongly implied that the (victorious) ends of World War II justified the repressive means of the pre-war years. The memorialisation of Stalin-era victims is also the subject of a contentious ongoing dialogue between the state and those who seek to commemorate the darker aspects of the Soviet past. In 2008 Vladimir Putin ordered the confiscation of digitally archived material from Memorial, a non-governmental organisation which aims to aid the process of memorialisation of state terror in Russia. Memorial representatives believed that the raid was not justified in any juridical sense, but constituted a state-sanctioned act of sabotage against their attempts to document and disseminate knowledge about the crimes of the Stalinist era (for more information about Memorial see their website HERE).
Negative Memorialisation: Terror and Repression
In Adam Hochschild’s The Unquiet Ghost (London: Penguin Books, 1994) Hochschild records a conversation he had with a clinical psychologist from Moscow. The psychologist described a former patient who had recently returned to him seeking treatment – she was in deep distress, because newly published accounts had described how her father, a former diplomat, had been responsible for the denunciations (and subsequent imprisonment and deaths) of many people during the Stalinist era. As a result of his actions, her father had not only remained alive but had even been promoted whilst most of his colleagues had perished. Her father was already dead, but now the woman had to confront and come to terms with his memory all over again.
This case illustrates an important point. During the Soviet terror, the line between victim and perpetrator was often blurred: the persecutors often became the persecuted. For example, the CPSU regional committee secretaries of 1937 were responsible for sanctioning many death sentences, but by November 1938 half of them had fallen victim to the terror themselves. Even Stalin’s feared secret police were purged, with Nikolai Ezhov, feared NKVD chief and leading orchestrator of the terror arrested and executed in 1940. During the Stalinist era, life for many people was never black or white, but instead comprised of shades of grey. Many people engaged with Stalinism, passively if not actively. Today, widespread public reluctance to confront the past can therefore be attributed to more than just general ignorance: in some cases outward ambivalence stems from a deep-rooted fear of uncovering atrocities committed by close friends and family members, or even confronting ones own past culpability, therefore leading to a greater sense of guilt about the past.
These ambiguities are also reflected in attempts at public commemoration. Memorial have compiled a database of all known monuments which are archived in its online ‘virtual gulag’. At first glance, the number of monuments and exhibits appear impressive: listing 109 museum exhibits and 337 monuments relating to Soviet-era mass repression. However, none of these monuments have been overseen by the central government, but were developed through the efforts of local communities and independent organisations such as Memorial. The location of the monuments are also telling: within cities, these monuments and commemorative signs are not located in central areas, but are overwhelmingly found in more remote locations. The choice of location may at times serve a function; for example, the Mendurskoe Memorial, located 13 Kilometres from the city of Yoshkar-Ola within the Mari El Republic, marks the mass grave of 164 prisoners who were executed by the NKVD in August 1937. However, one should question the lack of memorialisation in more central areas, which may also hint at a low level of state enthusiasm for such memorials, especially since Soviet era street names directly linked with state-sanctioned repression – such as Checkist Street (honouring the forerunners to the NKVD) in St Petersburg – still exist.
The contentious dialogue surrounding negative memorialisation is also reflected in the design of such monuments, which are largely depoliticised. Alexander Etkind has used the term ‘aesthetic minimalism’ to describe such monuments which regularly consist of plain granite stones and raw crosses. This aesthetic, created somewhere between the need for memory and political confrontation may hinder popular memory as a certain amount of accountability or even historical truth is lost in transmission. This confused representation also extends beyond ‘hard’ physical monuments, as illustrated by Etkind’s study of the Russian 500-ruble banknote, issued in the late 1990s and remaining in circulation today. The artwork on the bill depicts the Solovki monastery, a historical complex on an island in the extreme north of Russia. The architecture of the monastery dates to the 1920’s, a time of peak development of the Solovki camp, one of the earliest and most significant camps in the Soviet gulag.
Despite the existence of 337 Russian museum exhibits relating to mass repression, in reality only a few of these are specifically dedicated to the history of the terror. Roginsky argues that the exhibitions relating to the Gulag camps and labour settlements are usually embedded within wider displays relating to Soviet-era industrialisation, modernisation and economic development. The repressions themselves (i.e. the arrests and executions) are generally consigned to biographical stands and window displays. This, he argues, serves to represent the terror in a fragmented manner, creating the image of a succession of ‘localised disasters’ rather than the unified image of a national catastrophe. Today, there is still no national museum of state terror, which could play an important role in crystallising the image of the terror in popular consciousness.
Positive Memorialisation: Russia’s ‘Great Patriotic War’
Monuments are often used as a positive political tool, to demonstrate the continuity of the political tradition of a nation state and to represent its (perceived or desired) identity. Etkind describes monuments as ‘materialised forms of patriotic sentiment’, which create the future by ‘distorting the past’. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that attempts at negative memorialisation have been limited in post-Soviet Russia. In the search for a ‘usable’ or ‘promotable’ past, recent Russian administrations have thus relied heavily on the myth of the Second World War – Russia’s ‘Great Patriotic War’ – above the memory of the terror, for obvious reasons.
The memorialisation drive over the Great Patriotic War began during the Brezhnev era (1964-1982), and has evolved to become the greatest legitimising myth of Soviet history: mythologizing Soviet victory over Germany, presenting the USSR as the saviour of the world from fascist enslavement and the Red Army as the liberators of Europe, a hard-fought feat that was achieved through the spilling of large amounts of Russian blood, with limited outside help.
The memory of the Second World War therefore, serves important functions for the Russian state in a way that the memory of the terror could never do. Nina Tumarkin argues that the key functions of the narrative that has emerged around World War Two in Russia are as follows:
Respect for the Armed Forces and Russia’s Militaristic Past – the USSR defeated fascism because of their strong army, while the sheer number of Soviet casualties in World War Two (est. 20-25 million) promotes Russia as a country who understands the price of war.
A Rise in National Self-Esteem and Hard Work – war time victory, bolstered by the notion that Russia had to overcome all the odds in order to fight back after the surprise German invasion of June 22 1941.
Moral Courage – generated by nostalgia for a time before the uncertainties of post-communism, when it was made clear what (and who) was good and bad.
The absence of memorials dedicated to the victims of mass repression is further highlighted by the grandiose and hyperbolic nature of memorialisation dedicated the heroic triumph of the Red Army, although since the fall of the USSR the status of many Soviet war monuments has been challenged across Eastern Europe and the FSU (for more on the contested status of Soviet war memorials, see the previous blog post HERE). Such monuments rarely attempt subtlety: the famous ‘Motherland Calls’ statue in Volgograd was the largest statue in the world at the time of its public dedication on October 15, 1967 and the central monument in Moscow’s Victory Park conveys a huge dragon covered with swastikas, curled beneath a towering obelisk adorned with Nike, the goddess of victory engaging in battle with St. George on horseback – and this is but one part of the park complex whose museum also boasts the ‘Hall of Glory’, listing all names of the wartime ‘heroes of the Soviet Union’.
The scale of these monuments is nothing short of breathtaking. In contrast to the ‘collective amnesia’ often displayed when confronted with memories of terror and repression, the memory of the Great Patriotic War is actively commemorated with pomp and circumstance, in the form of the annual Victory Parade in Moscow each May 9th, illustrated in this recent VIDEO.
The immense pride in Soviet victory during the Second World War thus provides one of the most important bases for contemporary support for Stalin, particulalry amongst the older generations, effectively marginalising the darker aspects of Stalinist rule. The drive for truth and reconciliation, which constitutes a key part of the memory of Stalinist-era repression and terror, comes into direct conflict with this heroic ‘war narrative’. Some steps have been taken to revise elements of the Russian ‘war myth’ in light of new evidence available in the post-Soviet period, such as the 2009 publication of formerly secret documents relating to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned as ‘immoral’. In April 2010 the Russian Federation also published documents relating to the true nature of the Soviet role in the massacre of 20,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn forest. When the mass graves were uncovered in 1943 the Soviet Union blamed the murders on the Nazis, and it was only in 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt. The recent publication of these documents confirmed that the massacre was designed by Beria (head of the NKVD) and directly approved by Stalin. This was followed in November 2010 by the Russian Parliament’s adoption of a statement recognising Soviet responsibility for the massacre and condemning Katyn as ‘an act of lawlessness of a totalitarian regime’. Public acknowledgment of this crime may serve as indication of a renewed policy towards popular national memory, however it may be seen as an act of appeasement towards the west – and more specifically the Poles, especially in light of the recent death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski (for more on Katyn see the previous blog post HERE).
However, the Russian leadership have indicated that they will only allow historical revisionism to go so far. In response to mounting criticism from neighbouring states regarding elements of Russia’s ‘war myth’, in 2009 President Medvedev declared the creation of a special commission ‘to counteract attempts to falsify history that undermines the interest of Russia’. Any deviation from the dominant state-sanctioned war narrative in Russia was thus deemed hostile and against the national interest. This stance also makes it difficult for many people to combine the popular image of Stalin as a heroic wartime leader with their memories of Stalin as a murderous autocrat.
Unsurprisingly, since 1991 successive Russian administrations have chosen to emphasise aspects of the Soviet past that they view as ‘worth remembering’, in order to convey particular values and ideals, which sustain a positive identity. The dark chapter in their recent history involving terror, mass repression, denunciation and death does not fit with the heroism promoted by the dominant narrative of war memorialisation. Despite some indications that the current leadership are refining certain elements of Stalinist-era history, any revisionism must be state-sanctioned and thus transparency remains limited.
As Stalin’s popularity continues to rise in opinion polls it is difficult to predict how future Russian generations will approach the darker aspects of their Soviet past. Any true condemnation of Stalinism also requires closer scrutiny and possibly further reappraisal of the Soviet role in the Second World War, which may undermine its place in popular memory. The dichotomy of the Stalinist era is not one that can coexist peacefully, particularly while a significant proportion of the population hold some kind of personal attachment to the horrors of Stalinism. At the current time, the Stalinism that represents an era of glorious victory and great achievement outweighs the Stalinism of a criminal regime responsible for decades of terror.
About the Author:
John Harman is currently completing a Masters degree in History at Swansea University, UK. His MA dissertation considers changing perspectives on the commemoration and memorialisation of Stalinist-era repression from the post-Stalinist USSR to post-Soviet Russia.