23 November 2009

President Medvedev on the Issue of Historical Memory

by Josephine von Zitzewitz

On 30 October, Russia commemorated the victims of political repression. The “Day of the Political Prisoner” was instituted by dissidents in 1974 and became an official “feast” day in 1991. This year, President Dmitrii Medvedev delivered a speech on his video blog, in which he expressed concern about the state of historical memory in contemporary Russia:

“Два года назад социологи провели опрос. Почти девяносто процентов наших граждан, молодых граждан в возрасте от 18 до 24 лет не смогли даже назвать фамилии известных людей, которые пострадали или погибли в те годы от репрессий. И это, конечно, не может не тревожить. <…> важно не допустить под видом восстановления исторической справедливости оправдания тех, кто уничтожал свой народ <…> Никто, кроме нас самих, не сохранит историческую память и не передаст ее новым поколениям.” (The full text can be found here.)

This emphasis on the personal responsibility of the Russian people in coming to terms with the negative aspects of the country’s past and present is in tune with another recent statement about shortcomings in the areas of economics and civil society, among other things. Medvedev’s appeal provides a refreshing contrast to government rhetoric presenting Stalin’s victims as the “collateral damage” of the creation of a mighty empire. Yet the speech has attracted little attention, both in Russia and in the West.

It is of course impossible to predict whether deeds will follow these words, such as the establishment of a museum of political repression, as demanded by the “Memorial” society – apparently a lively and positive correspondence with various government agencies is now under way – or a more liberal climate for historical research. But perhaps the President is testing the waters, and surely in this case the community of commentators and scholars out to encourage the tentative new course?

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