Eternal memory: St Petersburg remembers victims of Soviet political repression

Attendees at Levashovo Cemetery Memorial (Photo credit: Aron Ouzilevski)

While Americans decorated their houses and readied their costumes for the fantastical terrors of Halloween, the 30 of October marked a much grimmer and indelible day for the Russian Federation

The Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions serves to commemorate the victims of the brutal terrors of the Soviet regime. On this day, 2016, a small contingent of St Petersburg residents gathered in various locations across the city to memorialise their fallen family members, many of whom were falsely imprisoned or murdered under the suspicion of Soviet dissidence.

In the Soviet Union, the criteria by which individuals were labeled as dissidents was often vague. People presumed to maintain a religious affiliation, farmers who possessed an alleged excess of land, and intellectuals suspected of harboring anti-Soviet values were likely to be repressed by their associations. Moreover, a wide spectrum of ethnic groups and nationalities were persecuted, including Poles, Germans, and Crimean Tatars. Any individual who displayed even the slightest indication of anti-Soviet allegiances was smitten by the iron fist of Soviet authority.

Many historians argue that the most extreme periods of Soviet repression, such as the Red Terror and Stalin’s purges, amounted to some of the statistically largest systematic reductions of human life. Despite the occurrence of the Soviet Rehabilitation in the post-Stalin years, the numbers of casualties, which are argued to be in the tens of millions, are still rising to this day. Many of the names of these victims have yet to be uncovered from the archives.

The large number of the names that have been exposed to the public however, were read out loud at the memorials on 30 October. Much of the dialogue held at the gatherings indicated a lack of national attention to the subject in contemporary Russian society.

The question of whether the fault lies in the society itself and its rejection of a dark historical past, or in the government and its neglect in shining a duly deserved light on the incidents, is still up for debate.

Grassroots initiatives and lack of government participation

A week before the memorial day, the news organization TASS, held a press conference in its St Petersburg office featuring various academic specialists on the topic of Soviet repression. The participants attempted to grapple with the subject’s lack of proper representation.

The first speaker, Anatoly Razumov, the director for the Centre of Returned Names and head editor of the book Memories, spoke at length about the grassroots initiatives taken to memorialise the victims. On top of publishing countless volumes containing the names and stories of the repressed, Razumov has been attempting to galvanise efforts in providing official recognition to locations that served as execution sites or are presumed to contain mass graves of victims.

One such location is the Levashovo Memorial Cemetery, which sits just on the outskirts of St Petersburg. So far, it is the only location within the greater St Petersburg perimeter to be given an official status as a memorial site by the government.

A year ago, the Levashova Cemetery was provided with a status of regional significance as a cultural monument, and talks are now being held about naming it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, as Razumov accentuated several times, there are still numerous locations that deserve to go through a similar process of recognition. He hopes that his and colleagues’ efforts will escalate the painstakingly slow procedure.

Colouring history

To unbiasedly illuminate these historical events, the brunt of the burden falls on historians. Particularly when dealing with politically motivated catastrophes, candidate of Historical Sciences Kiril Voldovsky suggests that it is important to understand “the mechanisms that allowed for such situations to occur.”

Two important factors in conducting such research are the amount and the quality of the available materials, both of which have been limited to historians of Soviet repressions. Regarding ministerial archives, such as within organisations like the the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), historians of this subject are often faced with rigid bureaucratic barriers. Voldovsky believes that the reason for the opposition posed by ministerial representatives is that many of them believe that “particular facts, that don’t colour history as they would like to perceive it, shouldn’t fall into the hands of researchers.”

In the same breathe, Voldovsky claims that such opinions are unfounded, as “there is no use for colouring history—sooner or later it will become as it is.”

Lack of government finance for historical research on the repressions also hinders the work of historians. As a frame a reference, most post-totalitarian countries, right after the fall of their respective regimes, established research institutions devoted to uncovering previously hidden and censored materials. In Russia however, such institutions have yet to be erected.

In Russia, much of the mainstream literature about the history of the Soviet Union is often embedded with political undertones and devoid of adequate facts. This only further hinders the task of combatting historical distortions for historians such as Voldovsky.

The Gulag Museum and Neo-Stalinists

Various cultural institutions, such as historical museums, may also pay a profound role in educating the public about the unsavoury spells of their nation’s history.

In Moscow, the State Museum of Gulag’s History, the only museum on the subject of political repressions to receive government sponsorship, has been a success in recent years. It attracts many visitors and provides them with a wealth of well-suited material on the history of the Gulags. However, the fact that this is the only state-sponsored museum on the subject remains, and Roman Romanov, director of the Gulag Museum, believes that more government initiatives need to be taken in the cultural sphere to educate the populace about the terrors.

Similarly themed museums across Russia are being run by devotees, who create the museums within their homes. The Gulag Museum has recently proposed an initiative to unite such museums under one association. Such an initiative, according to Romanov, is imperative in the current climate as there has recently been a trend to downplay the severity of the repressions.

Not too long ago, a group of young neo-Stalinists hung a dummy of the famous Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the gates of the Gulag museum. The incident received a large amount of media attention. When interviewed, the culprits denied the severity of the terrors, and claimed that the victims were genuine enemies of the people.

Financing more educational institutions and establishing more cultural heritage sites like the Gulag Museum and Levasho Cemetery can prove vital in the battle against historical revisionism. To achieve this, a collaborative and transparent relationship must exist between citizens and government.


More from Aron Ouzilevski

Notorious Russian band Leningrad releases “The Glasses of Sobchak”

The action packed thriller of a music video that features Russia’s Paris...
Read More