Of Historical Memory and Forgetting

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera recalls a comment by the Czech historian Milan Hübl that “the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

It was with this intention––to make people forget their country’s history––that on December 28, 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of Memorial International. Formed in 1989 during Gorbachev’s glasnost by the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, it was the oldest human rights organization working to uncover the truth about the Soviet past and to commemorate millions of victims of Stalin’s terror.

During its three decades of existence Memorial collected archival information to establish museums and monuments to the gulag victims. The Russian state and its powerful bureaucracy worked against them by prohibiting archival access and hindering efforts to remember.

Despite such hindrance Memorial and its volunteers amassed millions of names in its database and published memory books. I worked at the library of Memorial International in Moscow while researching Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century. This library is stacked with memory volumes, produced by every region of Russia and the former Soviet republics––Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. The books containing names and brief information about the repressed fill an entire reading room. This is where I first fathomed the scale of Soviet repressions.

In 1996 Putin declared that “Russia’s return to totalitarian past is possible.” Upon becoming president in 2000, he worked to recreate the Soviet Union and Stalin’s image as a great leader. Since then Memorial had been continuously harassed and finally branded a “foreign agent,” a ubiquitous term in Putin’s Russia, used against members of the political opposition, NGOs, independent media, and historians and meant to put their activities outside the law. The pretext for shutting down Memorial was its alleged failure to display the “foreign agent” label on some of its materials. The real charge brought up during the December hearings by the Prosecutor General’s representatives was that Memorial was “creating a falsified image of the USSR as a terrorist state.”

Russian authorities still refuse to recognize the obvious fact that throughout seventy years of its existence the USSR WAS A TERRORIST STATE. Nations tend to embellish their pasts, but a coherent Soviet history has never existed. There is always a newer version crafted to suit a current leader.

Totalitarian states prohibit thinking and remembering. Keeping a memory becomes a crime. Under Stalin people were physically annihilated and airbrushed from group photographs. Under Putin Stalin’s crimes are being erased from public memory and books are written to praise the dictator and his secret police.

Yuri Dmitriev, historian and former head of Karelia’s chapter of Memorial, had uncovered thousands of names of Stalin’s terror victims. He located mass graves in the forests Sandarmoh (where fifty-eight nationalities lie buried) and Krasnyi Bor, and turned these places into public memorials. In December 2016 Dmitriev was imprisoned on trumped-up charges: https://dmitrievaffair.com/. During his third trial, which took place on the eve of Memorial’s liquidation, his jail term was extended to 15 years.

In her book Never Remember Masha Gessen tells a story of a woman, Elizaveta, who was a baby when her parents were exterminated under Stalin. Elizaveta’s terrified relatives destroyed family photographs. All she had left from her family was an album with no pictures inside. Elizaveta spent decades searching for information about her parents, eventually discovering that her mother, an actress, was killed during a mass execution in Sandarmokh. In Russia her story is typical.

Gessen had traveled to the killing grounds of Sandarmokh and through major sites of Russia’s extended gulag. Her book is dedicated to historical memory, the subject she discusses with Irina Flige, head of St. Petersburg’s chapter of Memorial. As Flige remarked, in Russia there is no “clear line separating the present from the past. That’s when you can say, ‘After the Holocaust,’ for example. But we don’t have that break—there is no past, only a continuous present.”

Proper remembering hasn’t happened, so Russia remains trapped in its past. The nation is again prevented from learning its history. How will it fare without a historical memory? The answer is suggested in the opening of this blog post.