Decades On, Nation Has Yet to Confront Murderous Reign
MOSCOW — In August 1942, 16-year-old Aldona Voldynskaya was taken from a Soviet orphanage by Nazi troops and put to work unloading trucks in Germany. This summer, 60 years later, the German government sent her checks totaling $2,245 by way of apology for the horrors she endured.
She is still waiting, however, for her own country to make amends.
Like perhaps thousands of Russians still alive today, Voldynskaya suffered less at Adolf Hitler’s hands than at those of the Soviet Union’s great dictator, Joseph Stalin. The KGB secret police executed her father in 1938, then arrested and imprisoned her mother in a work camp. At age 11, Voldynskaya was sent to an orphanage for children of “enemies of the people” until German invaders seized her five years later and shipped her west. When she returned home after the war, Stalin’s police jailed her for concealing her parents’ arrest records.
Russia’s redress for the horrors endured by Voldynskaya and others persecuted under Stalin is a $3 monthly stipend and certain discounts on rent and utilities. Beyond that, three decades of death and suffering have been largely relegated to the past, and Stalin’s image has even been somewhat refurbished.
In contrast to Germany’s public repentance over Hitler, Stalin still gets a pass in this huge and long-tortured nation, 49 years after his death ended the 20th century’s longest reign of terror and more than a decade after Russia abandoned communism and secret police to pursue democracy and the rule of law. There is no national museum to document the history of Stalin’s crimes. According to Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights organization, official records prove that at least 1 million people were executed for political offenses, and at least 9 1/2 million more were deported, exiled or imprisoned in work camps between 1921 and 1953.
Moscow’s monument to the victims — a stone from a prison camp — is so modest that few passersby even notice it in a tiny park across from the former KGB headquarters in downtown Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. Access to the KGB files remains so strictly controlled that even survivors of gulag camps cannot discover who betrayed them.
Some scholars suggest Russia is too chaotic, degraded and impoverished now to draw too much attention to the savagery of the leader who once led it to military and industrial greatness. Others, like Alexander Yakovlev, a former Politburo member, worry deeply that the lack of contrition means that human rights is still a foreign notion to the average Russian. They worry that future Russians might be blind to the narcotic effect of power, whether wielded by another tyrant or by a Kremlin risen again on the world stage.
Officials of Memorial, initially founded to commemorate victims of political repression, see in Russia’s failure to face Stalin’s crimes the seeds of its blindness toward the documented atrocities of its troops in the war in Chechnya.
“It is so typical of Russians that people can get very upset when one person dies, but when millions die, they are indifferent,” said Yakovlev, one of the leading figures behind the economic reforms of perestroika and now the head of a state commission to clear the names of those persecuted under communism. “This is thick skin, and I think this is scary. People do not seem to care whether we confront this chapter of our history or not.”
‘Proud of Their Heroes’
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin both denounced Stalin, Yeltsin perhaps most vehemently in 1996 when Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov mounted a strong challenge for the presidency. But under President Vladimir Putin, the pendulum has swung toward the view that Stalin deserves some measure of honor.
Putin has authorized the issuance of 500 special silver coins bearing Stalin’s portrait and unveiled a plaque honoring Stalin for his military leadership. He told Polish reporters this year that though Stalin was a dictator, “it would be silly to ignore” the fact that he led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II.
The Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the KGB, appears to have taken its cue from its old boss. Last December, Putin, who directed the FSB from 1998 to 1999, hailed the history of Russia’s security services, saying Russians “should, without shame, be proud of this history, be proud of their heroes and their achievements.” The agency’s new calendar shows the KGB headquarters and Lubyanka Square as they looked in communist times, with a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, in the center.
There are limits, however, to the Kremlin’s acceptance of the seamy Soviet past. This month, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov suggested that the 14-ton statue of Dzerzhinsky, torn down in 1991, be re-erected in the square. A top Kremlin official objected, saying such a move would be unacceptable to most Russians.
Still, it is hard to say that Putin doesn’t reflect a certain nostalgia among the Russian people for Stalin, a ruler whom communist propaganda had elevated to demigod status by the time of his death.
In an opinion poll one year ago, more than half of all Russians surveyed viewed Stalin with ambivalence or as a positive force; only one-fourth said he did more harm than good. Communist politicians, the biggest bloc in the Russian Duma, openly praise Stalin, claiming the mass arrests and executions under his rule have been vastly exaggerated.
Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies, says Russia is not the only nation reluctant to confront a painful past. French citizens avoid a close look at the Vichy period; many Austrians pretend their country was a victim of Nazi aggression; Japan often plays down atrocities of troops in China, Korea and Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s; and until 30 years ago, the United States ignored slavery in its reconstruction of colonial life in Williamsburg.
Still, Kramer argues, Russia is particularly unwilling to analyze the years of terror because its political leaders are Soviet offspring. Although he condemned Stalin, Yeltsin headed the Communist Party in Sverdlovsk and Moscow before he became president; Putin worked for 15 years as a KGB agent.
Another explanation is that the Soviet Union’s peaceful collapse spared Russians the painful historical reckoning Germans faced when they lost World War II and were forced to endure the Nuremberg trials. In Russia, no one complicit in Stalin’s crimes ever stood trial. The Communist Party’s responsibility was briefly aired in Russia’s constitutional court in 1992 after Yeltsin tried to ban the party, but the court did not try to assess guilt.
Arseny Roginsky, chairman of the board of Memorial, said activists shunned trials because many key players in Stalin’s massive machine were dead by 1991, and the rest were old. The complicity of millions of ordinary Russians who informed on their neighbors under withering state pressure also made it hard to single out villains.
Nor did Russia create a powerful truth-finding commission to document and draw lessons about the gulag era, as a panel in South Africa did in its 1998 report on 35 years of abuses against blacks. While Yakovlev’s commission gained access to many such documents, it has focused mostly on clearing victims — 4.5 million of whom have been rehabilitated — not on fingering the guilty.
Now Roginsky says Russia’s lack of self-examination was a historic mistake. “We were fools,” he said. “If we had 10 or 20 hearings on such criminals, then people would have thought about it. But all this discussion at the end of the 1980s was thrown to the back of people’s minds, and then it disappeared altogether.
“Today, only rare people think about the past.”
Yuri Pivovarov, a political science scholar with the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that neither Russia’s leaders nor its people want to look back. “They think that all this is in the past, and let’s not think about these dark pages of our history. Let’s just stick to the concrete tasks of today,” he said.
“People simply do not know their own history,” he said. “And that means they are completely disarmed against any potential dangers.”
Efforts to Remember
A few activists, mostly Western-financed, struggle against the tide of forgetfulness. In Moscow, an 82-year-old historian is trying to turn a decrepit office building into a museum to Stalin-era victims, and has won permission from the city to take over a few rooms.
Some gulag exhibits are on display at a museum in western Moscow dedicated to Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist sent into internal exile in 1980. Next to them are blown-up photographs of civilians killed in Russia’s long-running war to subdue the separatist region of Chechnya.
Yuri Samodurov, the museum’s director, said he tried for 12 years to persuade the Russian government to open a museum to victims of the gulag. He finally concluded that the government was simply too riven to make a statement about the past. “Our state has not decided who it wants to be,” he said.
And not just the state. Tatyana Kursina, 53, a former teacher from the Ural Mountain city of Perm, seeks with her husband Viktor Shmirov to turn one of Stalin’s last labor camps, Perm-36, into a national museum. With $250,000 from Western foundations, they have restored two barracks and scavenged the ruins of the infamous Kolyma camp, in Russia’s far northeast, for tin cans, tools and other artifacts used by prisoners.
This is a personal crusade: Kursina’s mother was a girl when her family was forced off its land and exiled. Her father, like 1.5 million other Russian soldiers captured by the German army in World War II, was treated as a pariah after the war by Stalin’s party bureaucrats and forced to work in a chemical factory far from his home.
But Kursina cannot talk to her 81-year-old mother about her work. Despite her family’s history, her mother still supports the Communist Party and considers Stalin a great leader.
“She doesn’t believe that so many people were in camps. She thinks it is falsification and exaggeration,” Kursina said. “Unfortunately, in our country, no one has been able to call black, black. So people can choose to see what they want to see.”
Lack of access to KGB files has helped blur the picture. In Germany, a 1991 decision to open the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, kicked off a painful reappraisal of the country as a communist state. Neighbors, friends, even spouses were exposed as spies. Files on all public figures were opened.
In Russia, victims of political repression and their relatives can peruse parts of their own files, but many say they find little that is revealing. Names of the informers who fingered them remain secret. Files on public figures are open only to their close relatives. Private researchers can gain access only with the approval of the FSB.
To some victims, like Aldona Voldynskaya, Germany’s program to compensate Russians who suffered from Nazi abuses only highlights the lack of atonement in Russia.
Now 76 and nearly blind, Voldynskaya recounted her trip from Soviet orphanage to German camps to Soviet prison in two days of interviews in her neat, modest Moscow apartment. Her strongest memories are of the orphanage outside Kirovograd, in the center of then-Soviet Ukraine, for children of enemies of the people.
“It was the most horrifying place I have ever seen in my life. We were starving there,” she said.
Today she goes from school to school in Russia, trying to educate children about the sufferings of her generation. But until perestroika dawned in the 1980s, she said, she was afraid to speak about why she was banished to the orphanage, about her parents’ arrests or about her six-month incarceration in a Soviet prison.
“Can you imagine when you are silent for 50 years?” she asked, poring over a few faded photographs of her youth through her thick glasses.
In 1991, invited by city officials in Bonn to recount her story to Germans, she described for schoolchildren her three years in German camps, where she endured forced sterilization, hunger and disease after Nazi troops conquered the village where the orphanage was located. Afterward, she said, one German boy approached her and told her: “Please forgive us.” When she asked whether he had relatives among the Nazis, he answered: “No. But still we are to blame.”
“Russians will never say that,” she said.