Burying Perestroika

Culture, European culture(s), History, International Politics, Media / journalism, Politics

Memorial had its digital archives seized in a police raid last month. "This was 20 years' work. We'd been making a universally accessible database with hundreds of thousands of names."

The BBC last week took on the story Dagmaraka started telling here three months ago, picking up roughly where she left off. Rossiya TV, one of Russia’s biggest TV channels, last year launched a show that, over the course of the year, grew into much more than just another TV program: vote for the Greatest Russian in history!

In the first round, no less than fourtyfive million votes were cast for the initial fifty candidates. In the second round for the top 12 vote-getters, another four and a half million votes were phoned or texted in or cast online by the time the vote was concluded last weekend. But there was a problem. Throughout the year, those pesky viewers kept voting Stalin to the top of the list.

Anxious to avoid embarassment, the organisers tried to change the ranking by hook or by crook. The producers appealed to viewers to vote for someone else and, as Dagmaraka recounted, at one point claimed a massive hacking incident to remove one million votes for Stalin. But he kept bouncing right up again.

When the BBC reported the story on Saturday, Stalin was in fourth place. In the final tally, he still passed Pushkin and came in third. He missed the top spot only by a hairwidth: Alexander Nevsky and Pyotr Stolypin beat him by just six and five thousand votes respectively. Lenin didn’t do badly either: he came in sixth, squeezed in between Peter the Great and Dostoyevski.

Now the success of the show in itself is striking. It’s tempting to speculate that it must have something to do with how Russians don’t have many opportunities anymore to vote on a wide-ranging ballot of candidates, but earlier versions of the show in the UK and Holland saw a similar mass participation (and the Dutch version triggered a similar controversy). The BBC report, however, takes the story into a different direction, and places Stalin’s success in the poll in a context of progressive efforts by the Putin-era state to rehabilitate him.

It may be a little all too embarassing to have Stalin right at the top of a list of Russian heroes, but his showing is actually right in line with the state’s recent push to take him out of history’s doghouse:

The primary evidence comes in the form of a new manual for history teachers in the country’s schools, which says Stalin acted “entirely rationally”.

“[The initiative] came from the very top,” says the editor of the manual, historian Alexander Danilov. “I believe it was the idea of former president, now prime minister, Vladimir Putin.”

That’s a long way from the Yeltsin days of “Ne dai Bog!”. In the 1996 elections, the Russian state pulled out all the stops to keep the Communist Party out of power and get Boris, whose approval ratings had plummeted to single digits, reelected. The media vilified communist contender Zyuganov, and millions of copies of the special newspaper “God Forbid!” were distributed (featuring Zyuganov “as a mad surgeon wielding a hammer and sickle in place of a scapel”).

In some respects, little has changed – the willingness to use the state’s levers of power to subvert democracy is the same. But boy, has the climate changed.

Little by little, in Putin’s skillfull, incremental but determined way, the discourse of the communist security apparatus he once served has been restored. Step by step, avoiding any all too drastic rupture that would rock the boat, the state’s ideological discourse has reversed itself.

There is no more bitter exhibit of this new trend than the seizure of Memorial’s archives the BBC article reports:

Earlier this month, riot police raided the St Petersburg office of one of Russia’s best-known human rights organisations, Memorial.

Claiming a possible link with an “extremist” article published in a local newspaper, the police took away 12 computer hard-drives containing the entire digital archive of the atrocities committed under Stalin.

Memorial’s St Petersburg office specialises in researching the crimes committed by the Soviet regime.

“It’s a huge blow to our organisation,” says Irina Flige, the office director. “This was 20 years’ work. We’d been making a universally accessible database with hundreds of thousands of names.

“Maybe this was a warning to scare us?”

Irina Flige believes they were targeted because they are now on the wrong side of a new ideological divide. [..]

The new ideology is “Putinism” which, she says, has evolved over the past two years and is based on a strident form of nationalism.

It seems Russians are to be proud of their history, not ashamed, and so those investigating and cataloguing the atrocities of the past are no longer welcome.

“The official line now is that Stalin and the Soviet regime were successful in creating a great country,” says Irina Flige.

“And if the terror of Stalin is justified, then the government today can do what it wants to achieve its aims.”

There’s little surprising about the observation that Putin has steadily steered Russia further toward totalitarianism. We all know that he has little up with the concept of democracy, and merely aims to use its formal trappings as best as he can to strengthen the state’s authoritarian apparatus. He did so for years without shedding any popularity, and it’s easy enough to empathise with the Russians’ feelings. If you merely associate “democracy” with a decade of chaotic indifference, collapsing median living standards, endemic corruption and money-grabbing oligarchs, no wonder you’re not likely to shed a tear for it.

For now still in the dumping ground of Moscows sculpture park (image used under CC license by Flickr user chill)

For now still in the dumping ground of Moscow's sculpture park (image used under CC license by Flickr user chill)

But Memorial’s work, through all these years, still constituted a lingering echo of the promise of Glasnost: political accountability, Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung, incontestable human rights. The organisation was arguably the most important actor, back in the late eighties and early nineties, in the efforts of historians and dissidents to uncover the stories of the Soviet Union’s crimes against its citizens. It led the way back when Russians eagerly ventured to open the lid of the unprocessed past, pushing where Gorbachev feared to tread, and gained international fame accordingly.

Memorial proceeded to dig up individual stories with scrutiny and patience, push for the rehabilitation of victims and research newly opened archives, long after the tide had turned and the democratic, human rights oriented movement had become relegated to the outer political margins. And it did not restrict itself to the past. Memorial stubbornly collected information about the violation of human rights in the former Soviet Union and agitated against the Chechen war even against the flow of political pressure and public opinion.

While the steady drip of stories that chronicle the creeping slide of Putin-era Russia to totalitarianism has gotten all too familiar, this detail right here feels like someone finally hammered the very last nail in the coffin of the Perestrojka era. The act of seizing the organisations’ digital archives seems all too symbolic. It’s as if the state doesn’t just want to clamp down on that last remnant of erstwhile dissident ambitions – that frail hothouse flower, stubbornly kept alive in small offices long after groups like Democratic Russia and Democratic Choice turned into historical footnotes – it’s as if it wants to make it seem like that whole movement had never existed in the first place.


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