Writing in History Today, Catherine Merridale examines “competing versions of Russia’s troubled past in the light of present politics.” The excerpt below from “Haunted by Stalin” discusses the decline of interest in the Soviet past, and especially the work of Memorial, the research organization dedicated to keeping the memory of Communism’s victims alive. For some Russians, Merridale observes, “the steady flow of soul-searching and criticism began to smell of treachery.” In her conclusion, she writes that, “Stalin’s ghost still walks, in other words, and, though it is easy to condemn the Kremlin’s new occupants for invoking it in their pursuit of power and wealth, the strategy could work only because a large proportion of Russia’s people was ready to welcome the old villain home with open arms.”
Memorial … was reporting increasing harassment. The St Petersburg branch was raided in December 2008 and electronic data from its archive seized. Although the raid was later condemned, it seemed as if that taint of treachery had stuck. Part of the explanation for this, and also for the bleak spectacle of Stalin’s unofficial rehabilitation, lies with the current government, with its desire to build a statist, patriotic politics, a new authoritarianism. The fact that many government officials, including Putin himself, began their careers in the Soviet security force, the KGB, is also relevant, for Memorial is the nemesis of every secret police force since the days of Lenin’s Cheka, run by the aristocratic Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinskii. Underlying Memorial’s unpopularity, however, and feeding the current enthusiasm for strong, centrist, managerial rule, is a kind of amnesia, a false memory of Stalinism. The key here was Russia’s failure to deal decisively with the criminal aspects of its Communist decades when there was still a chance. As The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky put it in 2008, the publications of the glasnost years seem to have been swallowed without being digested.
The country’s rapid collapse in the 1990s was part of the problem. Another was the accompanying failure of collective nerve. Yeltsin put the Communist Party as an institution on trial, but criminal charges were never brought against the many living interrogators, torturers, embezzlers, bullies and rapists. Russia, unlike South Africa, had no Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The moment when such a thing might have happened – some time in 1992 or 1993 – coincided with a time of deep uncertainty and many argued that self-flagellation was a poor method of crisis management. The deeper truth, however, was that people feared to look so piercingly at themselves. Almost every family had its secret. As a result, the real crooks, many of whom remained in their influential administrative roles, never faced justice. More seriously still, the case against Stalinist methods, Communism’s legacy and even against Stalin personally, remained moot. Such an omission was bound to influence understandings of history and it left the door open for today’s revival of popular chauvinism. When Putin reintroduced the Stalinist national anthem, with all its associations, in 2000, a majority of Russian citizens supported him.
That interaction between Russia’s people and its increasingly manipulative government is the key to understanding how history has changed in the past decade. It is the Kremlin’s view that Russia needs a coherent story and that the tale should not only encourage romantic patriotism but that it should, in the process, justify the kind of centralised government that Putin and his aides desire. In return, a significant portion of Russia’s people seem drawn to escapism and epic; swashbuckling, after all, is much more fun than repentance. At first, the war took the lion’s share of the nation’s commemorative energy but, in a major break with the Soviet era, Russia no longer concentrates its focus entirely on the years since 1917. The fall of Communism led to a major reconsideration of the alternative and hagiographic accounts of Nicholas II’s reign soon followed. In 1998 the bones of the last tsar were reburied in the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in St Petersburg. The act lent much-needed splendour to Yeltsin’s ailing presidency, but it also seemed to meet a public need. Russians had missed the sense of mission that Soviet power gave. Now they could dream of empire and of greatness once again.