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Sergey Parkhomenko

Putin doesn’t want the nation to address its guilt and ignorance. So we started a civic movement that humanises the victims

Русскоязычная версия статьи


The Guardian, Wed 7 Mar 2018

Earlier this year the Russian ministry of culture banned the satirical film The Death of Stalin, supposedly because it contained “information whose dissemination is prohibited by law”. On Russian-language social media, the withdrawal of the film’s screening licence was met with widespread laughter and scorn: what sort of secrets could this movie possibly have disclosed? Could it be that Stalin is indeed dead? – so went the irony.

It looked ridiculous. But back in December, there had been an ominous precursor: Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB intelligence services, told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta government newspaper that Stalin-era repressions had been justified. He mentioned the need to counter Trotsky’s networks, and plots that had “ties with foreign secret services”. He also claimed that “mass-scale political repression” had ended by 1938 – a blatant rewriting of history.

As Vladimir Putin prepares for re-election on 18 March, Russia’s Soviet past has become a constant object of manipulation by a regime that is for ever sending out mixed messages. Prior to Bortnikov’s comments, Putin had inaugurated the Wall of Grief in Moscow, a memorial dedicated to the victims of repression. “This terrifying past cannot be deleted from national memory,” Putin said. “These crimes cannot be justified by anything.”


Stalinism is hidden in the minds of many Russians, how they perceive history and relate to basic values

Meanwhile, new monuments, banners and exhibits honouring Joseph Stalin are sprouting up around the country, and new posters and banners glorifying him have become commonplace, while hundreds of Soviet-era representations of him have been left intact: busts and bas-reliefs of the man, statues big and small, standing or on horseback. Twice a year, on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death, admirers bring piles of red carnations to Stalin’s grave on Red Square. You might think this is what the remnants of Stalinist ideology look like: memorabilia and ceremony. But there’s more to it than that.

Russian society is not ignorant of the scale of the purges and crimes perpetrated under Stalin. When Bornitkov spoke about millions of victims, those figures were nothing new for most Russians. For decades, Soviet doctrine taught citizens that these events were an unavoidable price to pay for the survival and development of the country. Stalinism today in Russia isn’t found in those monuments, flowers, or posters – nor is it in censorship or the double-speak of high-level officials. Instead it is hidden in the minds of many Russians, in how they perceive history, and how they relate to fundamental values.

For most Russians, those millions of victims are nothing but cold statistics. Few people care to pore over the difficult and unpleasant questions. That’s because an unprocessed, psychological trauma remains in our society. The state doesn’t need to make any special effort to perpetuate this. All it needs to do is leave people alone with that terrifying past, and make sure they aren’t helped in trying to understand how it came about, or in coming to terms with unspoken feelings of collective guilt. This is how a totalitarian mindset can reproduce itself.

Four years ago, I decided to do something about this. I went to the Moscow offices of the human rights organisation Memorial with an idea: let’s launch a new civic movement. I was inspired by an initiative that had started in Germany in the 1990s, the Stolpersteine project. Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) are brass plaques the size of a cobblestone laid into the pavements of German towns and cities, outside the houses where the victims of Nazi atrocities had lived. Each plaque bears the name of the victim as well as the place of their birth and death, where known. Since then, more than 50,000 Stolpersteine have been laid in about 700 towns and cities, across 22 European countries.

My idea was to remember the Stalin era in a similar way. Helped by Memorial’s team of historians, we named the project Last Address. Our activists attach small metal plaques to the front of houses or buildings where victims of Stalinist persecutions once lived. The plaques include details about the person who was executed or died in detention: his or her profession, the dates of birth, arrest and death, and in many cases the date of posthumous rehabilitation.

Our movement depends on citizens’ initiatives, not local authorities. What’s especially important is that behind every plaque there’s a living person who contacted us because they felt the past should not be swept away so easily. Sometimes it’s the relative of a victim, sometimes it’s the person who lives at that address now, and is mindful of those who once climbed up the same staircase, opened the same door and looked out of the same windows, before being dragged away to a tragic fate.

Last Address has spread across more than 40 Russian cities, and to Ukraine and the Czech Republic. Soon it will be in Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Estonia and Latvia. The goal is to unite as many people as possible around the simple idea that human life is unique and invaluable. We’re creating a community that feels it is important to think and talk about ordinary people who were destroyed by a ruthless system.

Each time we visit a building and ask residents for permission to put up a plaque, we see how attitudes can change. Last Address transforms the perception of distant events by zooming in on a specific human life, or the fate of a family. The people we encounter start to speak differently of the past: they no longer use confused or vague political language, instead they give some thought to individual human destinies.

Marina Bobrik, a linguistics scholar in Moscow and one of our volunteers, says people get emotional when they are shown “a photo or pages from an 80-year-old case file”. Elena Visens, another activist, describes how sometimes even the relatives of a victim know practically nothing about their father’s or grandfather’s story.

Last Address is unlikely to arouse Putin’s interest. He may (at times) warn against amnesia, but he has done much to rehabilitate Stalin. Putin’s system rests on the notion that the powerful are never held to account, and that individual lives matter less than the strength a nation can project. That’s what our movement wants to chip away at. With Last Address, the dryness of statistics fades away. Instead, there are human lives, senselessly and cruelly crushed. House by house, street by street, history comes to life. I believe there is no stronger way to confront some of my country’s deep woes.

  • Sergey Parkhomenko is Russian journalist and publisher


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