An anxious world watches as Russia amasses more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. But Kremlin aggression isn't just amplifying abroad. It's intensifying internally, too.
The latest example is the court-ordered closing of Memorial International, the country's most significant civic institution working to preserve the memory of victims of Stalin-era crimes as well as protecting human rights in today's Russia.
Founded during the glasnost and perestroika (openness and reconstruction) era under former General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Memorial, as it's known, was shuttered by a court ruling on Dec. 28, 2021. The end thus came in the centenary year of one of the institution's founders, Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, and just days after the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Memorial was accused of being a "foreign agent" — a Soviet-era euphemism for traitor. It's the kind of charge that sent an estimated 17 million Russians to Soviet prison camps — or gulags. They included a former World War II Army captain, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would himself later win a Nobel Prize in literature, most notably for "The Gulag Archipelago," an account of the Kafkaesque camps in Siberia that scarred, or ended, the lives of millions.
Most of them, Solzhenitsyn wrote, had an identical reaction to their arrest: "Me? What for?"
Memorial, a well-established, well-respected institution, may have asked the same incredulous question. And received the same ridiculous answer, echoed in verbiage that would have been familiar to Solzhenitsyn's ear, and era: Memorial, State Prosecutor Aleksei Zhafyarov said at the trial, "creates the false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state." It "makes us repent for the Soviet past, instead of remembering its glorious history."
That history is more sordid than glorious. But Russians "are being told that Stalin, for all his faults, was a great national leader who brought the country successfully through World War II," said Tom Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth. A former Foreign Service officer who was stationed in the Soviet Union in the mid '80s, Hanson added that "the interpretation is tipping toward the positive view of the past as opposed to a balanced view of the past."
Security services are "increasingly influential in Russia and have been particularly so about Memorial's efforts to shine a light on the crimes of the Stalin era," said Timothy M. Frye, professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University. Frye, author of "Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia," added that "in the Soviet period, the Soviets tried to erase the memory of Stalin's crimes, and were only partially successful, and it will be even harder to do so in the modern world."
The limited success in memory erasure was partly due to Solzhenitsyn's unforgettable tome on the toll of the oppression. At first, "The Gulag Archipelago" was clandestinely copied and surreptitiously passed among select Soviet citizens one reader at a time. One of them was Maria Zavialova, the curator and head of exhibitions and collections at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, who said that she had a "really very close personal connection" to the book.
The then-22-year-old living in Leningrad (the once and current St. Petersburg) obtained an English version of the work, which she translated to a group of friends. It was an "eye-opener," Zavialova said. While she said they knew about Stalin's repression, "we didn't know the facts, all the information [Solzhenitsyn] put together, the actual conditions."
But then one in the group reported the reading, the book was confiscated, and Zavialova was interrogated by the KGB.
"I studied literature; I wanted to read books freely," Zavialova said. "That was my point, how I explained what we did, because I was asked for an explanation of why we did that, why we read the literature that was forbidden. And I just said, 'We are students of humanities, we read books, period, by definition.'"
That definition cost Zavialova the opportunity for steady work, she said. And other family members were previously persecuted under Stalinist repression, she said, making her "really anti-Soviet." Altogether, her searing experience gives her unique insight into today's revisionism and repression.
The court-ordered closure of Memorial "is not a good sign," Zavialova said. "The system — I will not say society because society is full of a lot of free-thinking people — but the system is becoming more repressive."
This includes repressing the press, social media, and modern-day dissidents, including the most well known one, Alexei Navalny, who is languishing in prison after a poisoning widely believed to have been engineered by the Russian government.
Zavialova said that literature and film help retain the truth, but Memorial "is a different story." There is "some kind of historical revisionism going on right now in Russia. And I know that the revision of history is happening all the time, everywhere, because every new government would like to be revising what happened in the past, but to a different extent."
As an example she cited America's reckoning with its early "glorious presidents" being reexamined because of slavery. "So this revision of history is happening all the time in every country, depending on the moment, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, what's happening now. And this Stalinist period is being revised right now in Russia, and what people think about it is changing and the official opinions also are being changed."
Every country, concurred Hanson, "ours included, has a sometimes-heated debate on history, because the way you see the past often covers how you feel about the present and the future. But it's in autocracies you end up having the past controlled, or the attempt was made to control the narrative of the past. And under [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Russia is starting more and more in that direction."
Yet the Kremlin's difficulty now, Frye said, is "that we know so much about the crimes of that period. That through the work of Memorial, the work of Russian and foreign historians, that it will be a very difficult task to erase the historical memory of Stalin's crimes. And the banning of Memorial is really a testament to the foresight of the founders of the organization and an affirmation of why an organization like Memorial is so needed right now."
It's "really important to remember; that's what human culture is about," said Zavialova. "It's about remembering, and interpreting, but also preserving eyewitness accounts of past times, because that's how we learn, not just by our own mistakes."
The degree to which Russia remembers and learns from the Soviet Union's mistakes will become more apparent as the border brinkmanship with Ukraine — and by extension the West — plays out in the coming days. But it's already quite clear that it hasn't learned the lessons from the gulag era. Because the Kremlin may be able to shut down Memorial, but not memories.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.