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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Putting A Face On The Past

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the third time since the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Moscow is engaged in the massive political rehabilitation of the victims of Soviet repression. And like the two previous efforts -- in the 1950s and 1980s -- the current campaign calls attention to the extraordinary extent of that repression and raises questions about the ability of Russian society to cope with this past.

Aleksei Pavlov, a spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry, said on 13 March that his ministry over the last 10 years had reviewed 3,559,131 requests for rehabilitation from victims of political repression in the past or their families. The ministry had issued 1.6 million formal rehabilitations and another 300,000 certificates to those who had been repressed unjustly. In addition, the ministry has provided some compensation to the victims.

The number of requests is staggering. It represents one for every 40 current Russian citizens. When combined with earlier rehabilitations under Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, this figure suggests that almost every extended family would have been touched by one or another form of political repression under Soviet power.

Indeed, Pavlov continued, the number of applicants is so large that the ministry has had to set up special structures both in Moscow and in the regions to handle the influx. A rough calculation suggests that there have been almost 1500 applications coming in every working day during the past decade, and Pavlov indicated that the stream shows little sign of letting up.

Indeed, he said, during the year 2000, the ministry had reviewed some 5,000 applications from Chechens alone and had granted rehabilitation to 300 of them.

In other comments, the Interior Ministry spokesman provided some additional details which also suggest the extent of the human tragedy involved. He said that 48 percent of the requests for rehabilitation came from those who had been branded as rich peasants ("kulaks") during Stalin's collectivization campaign in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Another 37 percent of the requests came from those subject to repression on the basis of their nationality. Among them are not only members of the 11 nations Stalin deported en masse during and after World War II, but also members of an additional 48 national groups who, the Russian Interior Ministry now admits, "were subject to partial political repression."

The Interior Ministry spokesman did not give any details about the remaining 15 percent of those now seeking rehabilitation, but this group almost certainly includes those imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their religious affiliations or on trumped-up charges of being spies, "wreckers" or members of anti-Soviet groups.

The enormity of the crimes involved that require such a process now a half century after most of these persecutions took place calls into question both the assertions of those in both Russia and the West who have sought to minimize the costs of the Soviet system and the nostalgia many Russians now feel for the Soviet past, a nostalgia that some Russian political figures are seeking to exploit.

More than that, the process of political and legal rehabilitation itself raises serious questions about how any society can address the most difficult and painful chapters of its past. Failure to deal with these issues, as the American philosopher George Santayana observed, may condemn a society or an individual to repeat them.

At the same time, however, the assumption that granting rehabilitations of this kind posthumously or otherwise addressing the problem may be equally dangerous. Clearly, the act of recognizing the victims and the crimes they were subject to is essential to the healing process and to gaining the kind of perspective that any society needs in order to be able to sort out its past.

But handing out certificates to those who suffered or to those who survived them may have some unintended consequences. For those who did not suffer, it may seem enough; but for those who did, even with some monetary compensation, it is unlikely to be entirely satisfactory.

Consequently, those who have been rehabilitated in this way may begin to ask even larger questions about what happened and why and also about who is responsible. Given the remarkable continuity of Russian elites between the Soviet period and its Russian successor, such questions almost certainly are going to be difficult for many to answer and could prove explosive.

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