Archives on dictator seized from human-rights group Memorial
By Alex Rodriguez, Chicago Tribune correspondent
December 17, 2008
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — At first, the purpose behind the midday raid at a human-rights group's office here was murky. Police, some clad in masks and camouflage, cut the electricity to Memorial's offices and demanded to know if any drugs or guns were kept on the premises. Five hours later, after police had opened every computer and walked out with 11 hard drives, the reason for their visit became clear to Memorial Director Irina Flige. On the hard drives, a trove of scanned images and documents memorialized Josef Stalin's murderous reign of terror. Diagrams scrawled out by survivors detailed layouts of labor camps. There were photos of Russians executed by Stalin's secret police, wrenching accounts of survival from gulag inmates and maps showing the locations of mass graves."They knew what they were taking," Flige said. "Today, the state tries to reconstruct history to make it appear like a long chain of victories. And they want these victories to be seen as justifying Stalin's repressions."
Stalin, the brutal Soviet dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of his citizens, has been undergoing a makeover of sorts in recent years. Russian authorities have reshaped the Georgia-born dictator's image into that of a misunderstood, demonized leader who did what he had to do to mold the Soviet Union into the superpower it became. In Russian classrooms, history teachers are guided by a new, government-approved textbook, Alexander Filippov's "Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006," which hails Stalin as an efficient manager who had to resort to extreme measures to modernize the lumbering Soviet agrarian economy. There were, writes Filippov, "rational reasons behind the use of violence in order to ensure maximum efficiency."
A museum commemorating Stalin as a national hero opened in 2006 in the southern city of Volgograd. The following year, a 40-episode television drama broadcast on a state-controlled network whitewashed Stalin's crimes and portrayed him as Russia's savior. When he was president, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sought to shift the nation's focus away from Stalin's legacy of brutality. Meeting with history teachers in 2007, Putin acknowledged that Russian history "did contain some problematic pages. But so did other states' histories. "We have fewer of them than other countries, and they were less terrible than in other nations," Putin continued. "We can't allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us."
The battle over how Stalin should be remembered remains one of Russia's most divisive topics of debate. For many Russians, Stalin's achievements far outweigh his crimes. He is seen as the wartime leader who saved the Motherland from Nazi Germany in World War II and engineered the country's ascent as a global powerhouse.For many others, that ascent was made using millions of Russians' lives as grist. Historians estimate that Stalin's decrees led to the deaths of as many as 20 million people, either from famine, execution, incarceration in labor camps or during mass deportations. After Stalin's death, Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power included a program of de-Stalinization, which condemned Stalin's dictatorial rule and ended forced labor.In recent years, Russian authorities have made strides in rehabilitating Stalin. In 2006, nearly half of Russians polled by the Levada Center, a leading Moscow survey group, said they viewed Stalin positively, while just 29 percent perceived him negatively. When a Russian TV network conducted an online survey this summer asking who was the greatest Russian ever, Stalin was a leading contender.
Memorial's St. Petersburg branch has been researching and documenting Stalin's crimes for 20 years, building one of the world's most complete archives of one of the darkest chapters in Russia's history. These archives are now in the hands of Russian police. St. Petersburg prosecutors say they conducted the raid because they were trying to track down an article in Novy Peterburg, a local newspaper under investigation on charges of extremism. But Flige says Memorial has no connection at all with the newspaper. The archives include information and images that Flige says play an invaluable role in preserving the historical record of the Stalin era, including databases recording the names and biographical data of thousands of Stalin's victims.Flige says she does not know when she will get the archives back, or what condition they will be in when they are returned. "They could damage them, either deliberately or by accident," she said.
The raid occurred Dec. 4, a day before Flige was slated to join leading historians and academics at a conference in Moscow about Stalin's place in Russian history. "The way we see it, the raid was a kind of greeting card from the authorities ahead of the conference," she said. Flige says the raid reflects a government bent on remaking history so Russians believe "all of the difficulties of the past were needed for the glory of Russia." That worries Elizaveta Delibash, a gulag survivor, who says too many Russians have acquiesced to the government's version of history. "There's a large part of society that simply doesn't know Russian history," says Delibash, 80. "So the work of Memorial is very important to let people know what really happened. The problem is that the authorities fully understand this."