• New Post Alerts By Email

  • Syndication

  • Tags

  • Archives

Historical memory of the Gulag (3): Contested memory

The failure to establish a central memorial to the victims of the Gulag mentioned in my previous post is part of a problem of contested memory that has been apparent since the demise of the Soviet Union but has escalated in the last decade or so. As Arseny Roginsky’s eloquent essay The Embrace of Stalinism shows, various aspects of the contestation of historical memory had taken hold by 2008. In this post I want to think about how things have developed since then, and bring together a few articles on some of the most critical events of recent years.

The increasing harassment of the Memorial Society, from the raid and confiscation of their archives in December 2008 to the imposition of the status of ‘foreign agent’ last year (read the official line on this from TASS and in English from Russia Today), now threaten its very existence (see also this BBC article, featuring interview with activists and family members at last year’s Return of the Names ceremony). The Sakharov Center faces similar problems. Most prominently over the last year or so, the Perm-36 Gulag museum has lost funding, closed and reopened under new management; see also Aleksandr Kalikh’s article ‘Perm’-36: unichtozhenie pamiati. The NTV documentary about Perm-36, ‘The Fifth Column’, is an example of the disturbing tone of the accusations being levelled and of attempts to shift the focus away from the Gulag’s victims. Ola Cichowlas’ article in New Republic gives some useful context and detail on the programme for non-Russian speakers, and for Russian readers the website ura.ru has a list of stories related to the situation.

Perm-36 Gulag museum, by Gerald Praschl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Perm-36 Gulag museum, by Gerald Praschl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are a number of reasons behind this movement against these organizations, such as the involvement of some of them in other human rights work (the closure of the Committee Against Torture as a ‘foreign agent’ shows that it is not only organizations campaigning about historical memory that are under threat). But the rehabilitation of Stalin is a major factor. In Georgia, Stalin remains a cause for celebration in some quarters, the home boy made good. In Russia, the rhetoric of the strong leader, focusing first of all on Stalin’s victory in the Great Patriotic War but also now more generally on his rebuilding and industrialization of the country both before and after the war, is very much directed towards bolstering Putin’s legitimacy at home, reclaiming pride in the nation, and re-establishing Russia’s claim to a place at the top of the international pecking order. One might suggest therefore that the memory of the Stalinist repressions and its victims are merely, yet again, the casualties of that process. But it’s more complex than that. While the new exhibition at Perm-36 emphasizes not the victims but the Gulag’s ‘Contribution To Victory’, the Museum of history of the Gulag in Moscow is, by contrast, thriving; the opening of its new building is scheduled for 30 October 2015. In Roland Oliphant’s excellent piece The growing struggle in Russia about historical memory and Stalin, Irina Shcherbakova of Memorial characterizes this as part of a hybrid approach to memory. That identifies what’s going on, but again, I’m not sure that really helps us understand why it’s happening. I’d like instead to examine two aspects which I think may get us closer to understanding it. The first is a question about commemoration: who (and what) is being remembered? The second is a question about the nature the Gulag itself.

Leaving aside Western memorials to the victims of communism, which arguably are more interested in lauding the victory of capitalism (and hasn’t that turned out well?) than in remembering those who perished, the first question, about commemoration in Russia itself, may appear to have an obvious answer: the victims of the Stalinist (or, more broadly, Soviet) repressions. Certainly, NGOs such as Memorial, the compilers of the many memory books and those involved in the various memorial projects I discussed in my previous post, are working to identify and commemorate all the victims, and their efforts are in no way devalued by what follows. But there are a couple of problems with commemoration that Alexander Etkind has identified in his article ‘Hard and Soft in Cultural Memory: Political Mourning in Russia and Germany’, Grey Room, 16 (2004), 36–59. The first is the extent to which the Orthodox church has appropriated commemoration of Gulag victims, for example at the memorial complex at the Butovo firing range. Many Orthodox believers, both lay and ordained, were victims, and they certainly deserve to be remembered – Orthodoxy does have an important role to play here. But if the commemorations as a whole have an Orthodox colouring, where does that leave victims of other faiths, or none? I can’t help comparing this to Khrushchev’s secret speech and the subsequent de-Stalinization programme that focused solely on the repression of party members and remained silent about all other victims, who were the majority. Beyond that question, the involvement of the Orthodox church is particularly problematic given the level of collaboration between the church and the security services after religious revival Stalin encouraged during the Great Patriotic War. The present-day church’s accommodation with power raises similar questions: can or should an institution that participated in the prosecution and imprisonment of Pussy Riot control memory of the Gulag? And when an Orthodox priest is pictured placing a flower at the bust of Stalin on the opening of the new museum devoted to him in Tver oblast, one might well ask about the church’s suitability for the task.

The second aspect Etkind discusses is the form commemoration takes, as it focuses squarely on paying tribute to the suffering of the victims, and presenting them as martyrs. In the latter respect again one may see the influence of the church, but more importantly here, Etkind’s concern is the failure to use commemoration to question the system that created so many victims, or to address questions of responsibility. One could ask whether the sort of ‘hard’ memorials Etkind has in mind here ever really can address such issues, but his approach made me think more broadly about the mindset of survivors as narrators – a major concern for my research – and how they present their own experience. Many survivors have a clear idea about who (or what) is responsible for their arrest and for the horrific conditions they endured (think Evgeniia Ginzburg). But equally, many frame their arrest and camp experiences as a matter of fate – a perusal of titles in the Sakharov Center’s database of Gulag memoirs reveals very frequent recourse to words such as sud’ba and dolia and to statements that ‘this is just how it was’ that bypass the question of responsibility altogether.

Some might suggest this is the result of a particularly Russian mentality, an emphasis on suffering and/or a view the individual as being at the mercy of the state. That undoubtedly is part of it, but I think there’s something else at work here. A significant problem Gulag memory is the identification of perpetrators and victims, because of the ease with which people could move from one category to the other – and back again. This raises a genuine dilemma about whom to commemorate. One of the people I’ve been working on recently, Ida Averbakh, was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938 at Butovo. She was undoubtedly innocent of the crimes of which she was accused (unlike Shalamov, for instance, however innocuous those ‘crimes’ seem to us now). But does the fact that she was a prominent legal scholar who wrote a book celebrating the use of hard labour in reforming criminals, and was married to NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda to boot (she was in fact probably responsible for her husband’s ascendency), mean that she should not be subject to commemoration? Personally I find it hard to feel much sympathy for the likes of her, even if I am prepared to accept (and it’s sometimes a stretch) that such people were sincere in their attempts to institute proper reforms in the criminal justice system. But one doesn’t have to go as far as someone like Averbakh to encounter ambivalence; as Vasily Grossman shows in Everything Flows, degrees of participation in, acquiescence in, and often personal profit from, a society built on terror, left many people compromised. One could go further, and suggest that as non-participation in the Soviet state was not an option, almost everyone was involved to some degree (as expressed Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s memoirs, if one bought bread at a Soviet bakery – and what else could one do? – one participated in the system). The recourse to fate therefore becomes a means of sidestepping the problem of complicity, by which I do not mean that those authors who use such terms were themselves in some way more complicit than others; rather, they are evidence more generally of a desire to avoid a question that in reality is far more thorny than, for example, Ginzburg’s rather simplistic identification of Stalin as the evil genius in her life.

My reference to Ida Averbakh in the previous paragraph also relates to the other question: the nature of the Gulag. This is not a simple issue either, despite the person on Twitter who helpfully told me that ‘The Gulag was death’. I do not mean that to be flippant. I am well aware of the numbers of victims and of the suffering of those who endured truly horrific conditions. But one has to remember that the Gulag was a very varied institution, encompassing the sharashka of Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle as well as the ‘Auschwitz without ovens’ of Kolyma. It was not only or primarily about extermination, even if this was often the outcome in some places and for large numbers of those unfortunate enough to be caught up in it. As Steven Barnes’ book Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society (Princeton University Press, 2011) has shown most effectively, cultural work with prisoners was not just a sham, and re-education and restoration of some convicts to Soviet society remained an aspiration, although corruption, incompetence, indifference and plain brutality frequently undermined this in actuality. At the end of the 1920s and in the first half of the 1930s in particular, the idea of reforming criminals through hard labour was much discussed in the Soviet Union and had a good deal of popular support – witness the success of films like Evgenii Cherviakov’s Convicts [Zakliuchennye], based on Nikolai Pogodin’s comedy about ‘reforging’ criminals, The Aristocrats, and Nikolai Ekk’s Road to Life [Putevka v zhizn’], a fictionalized version of work at an OGPU youth offenders’ commune. These works are easy to dismiss because they obviously distort or overlook the experience of many of the incarcerated – in particular, people convicted of trumped-up political charges – but they nevertheless represent a perspective on the Gulag that should not be ignored just because it differs from what we read in most survivor narratives. Loyal Stalinists among the convicts – depicted in so many texts and the subject of Nanci Adler’s book Keeping Faith with the Party – would have little reason to write their own memoirs because they neither viewed themselves as wronged nor had the sort of individualist perspective that would provide the impulse to witnessing. And the fact that such people existed, who endorsed the system and even their own incarceration, renders the notion of universal victimhood somewhat problematic in this context. The different facets of the Gulag, and the disparate ways it was experienced by different types of convicts, meant there was no single response to it at the time. That must have a bearing on how it is perceived today.

I will return to the question of positive reflections of the Gulag in the films I mention above and other propaganda from the 1930s in my next post.

Update (24 Sept 2015): The question of a central monument to the victims of Stalinism is back on the table with the results of a new design competition due to be announced in the next few days. Good news, apparently, although we’ve been at this stage before and nothing has come of it. Perhaps it will happen this time, because the impetus for it comes from Putin himself. But as this Moscow Times article by Vladimir Ryzhkov notes, Putin’s involvement is ambiguous to say the least, given the glorification of Stalin that has been encouraged in recent years, and the attacks on Memorial, Perm-36 and other commemorative/human rights organizations I discuss above. Although Ryzhkov is correct to point to the conflicting values present in Russian society, I’m not sure this is sufficient explanation. So is it more about centralizing control of memory, and removing an important function from groups like Memorial? They can hardly object to his involvement, but I wonder what effect it will have on their fortunes in the long run.

Update (29 October 2015): The design for the monument to the victims of Stalinism has now been chosen. I will watch how this progresses with interest. Meanwhile, Perm-36 Gulag museum has lost its appeal against classification as a foreign agent. And the recalibration of Gulag memory gets ever more murky, as is apparent in this fine article by Shaun Walker reporting from Yagodnoe in Kolyma (where Shalamov spent some of his sentence).

Leave a comment


  1. Peter Davies

     /  September 17, 2015

    The issue of working out who to commemorate is a really tricky one – how does a particular group become visible as a victim group? Commemoration needs a fairly simply defined figure to build rituals around; ambiguity is problematic. But on the other hand, particular survivor groups have always commemorated within the group, but it’s the moment when – if ever – that group achieves broader recognition that is key. And that recognition is dependent on the way a broader society conceives of vicitmhood.

    I was really struck there by this:

    “Loyal Stalinists among the convicts … would have little reason to write their own memoirs because they neither viewed themselves as wronged nor had the sort of individualist perspective that would provide the impulse to witnessing.”

    What you say about the individualist perspective is really interesting, and challenges what I’ve always thought, namely that witnessing is only possible within a group or social context that provides a framework for what witnessing is and means, and how it is performed in public. Need to think about that…

  2. Thanks for this Peter. I was aware whilst writing of it of the paradox of the individualist perspective, and it does need more thinking about because of the necessity of the group for commemoration. Am about to write a small addendum that returns to the important question of who is in control of commemoration, which is proving a very thorny issue as well…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *