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Russia: Rights Group Marks Bolshevik Anniversary With Catalog Of Soviet Repressions

  • Gregory Feifer

Russia today marks the 85th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a national holiday now renamed the "Day of Reconciliation and Accord." Once one of the Soviet Union's most important holidays, it is now, for many Russians, simply a day off. But human rights organizations spearheading an effort to document Soviet political repressions say that's a shame: Russians are forgetting the tens of millions who suffered and died under communism. Furthermore, they say the government has failed to renounce the past -- and is now beginning to repeat it.

Moscow, 7 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Diehard, mostly elderly communist supporters are taking to the streets of Russia today to wave red flags and mark the anniversary of the 1917 Revolution.

For most Russians, 7 November has become little more than a day off work. But in Moscow, hundreds of members of various communist-aligned groups marched today to the Kremlin to listen to addresses by their leaders. Braving the cold weather and heavy security provided by army soldiers and police dogs, most are denouncing government officials as thieves and bemoaning the end of the Soviet Union.

Several prominent human rights organizations, meanwhile, are marking the anniversary by releasing a CD-ROM with information about 640,000 victims of Soviet terror.

The project was spearheaded by the Memorial human rights group and includes work by the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center and the presidential committee for the rehabilitation of victims of political repression, headed by Aleksandr Yakovlev, a former Politburo member and a chief proponent of reform under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Speaking at the CD-ROM's release, Memorial head Arsenii Roginskii said the project would help tens of thousands of Russians who still do not know what happened to relatives, loved ones, and friends during the tragic repression of the Soviet years: "Various kinds of people, from scholars to schoolchildren, but most of all people like you here today -- children, grandchildren, loved ones -- will be able to search [the CD-ROM for information about their relatives]. Because to this day, tens of thousands of people in our country are searching for the fates of their loved ones."

The list represents only part of the information the rights organizations have at their disposal -- and only a drop in the bucket compared to the true number of victims. A similar disc was released last year with 200,000 names and another is planned for next year.

Authorities say over 20 million people suffered in purges under Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin -- and that more than 10 million died before Stalin's death in 1953. Some put the number even higher.

Of the 640,000 people listed on the CD-ROM, some were shot and some died in Gulags, or labor camps. Others survived the camps. Still others were deprived of their jobs, deported, or otherwise subjected to repression and suffering.

The disc contains names and short biographies. Users can search the database by typing in names and other information. The CD-ROM also contains maps and information about the Gulag system and photographs of many memorials erected around the country since the end of communism. The disc will be distributed to libraries and museums around the country to supplement the lists published in limited numbers in various regions that also document victims of Soviet political repression.

Outside the specific regions, Roginskii says, these books are available only in a handful of the largest libraries in major cities -- making them inaccessible to most Russians.

Still, it is unclear how many Russians will relish the opportunity to look back at one of the grimmest periods in their country's history. In fact, many Russians appear to harbor nostalgic feelings for the Soviet era.

A survey of 1,600 Russians conducted late last month by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 43 percent of those polled said they would actively support or cooperate in some ways with the Bolsheviks were the revolution to occur today. Sympathy for Vladimir Lenin has dropped from 70 percent in 1990 to 36 percent today, but the number of Stalin supporters has grown from 8 percent to 22 percent.

Rehabilitation committee head Aleksandr Yakovlev decries the fact that few Russians want to remember the widespread repressions of the past: "We somehow very quickly forgot that millions and millions of people died as a result of state terror. With the exception of certain groups -- a few more emotionally sensitive and state-minded ones -- few want to remember. And a very few number of people want to repent on that account. It's strange."

Yakovlev also criticizes the direction of the current government under President Vladimir Putin, who promised to build "a dictatorship of the law." Liberal politicians and human rights defenders say that under Putin, the Kremlin has backed away from democratic gains made after the Soviet collapse by co-opting parliament, curtailing the free press, and using the judiciary to carry out political will: "It's a strange thing that we agree that it's necessary to strengthen the state. Of course it's necessary. But when strengthening it is offered to us, the discussion is about the strengthening of bureaucratic authority. It's the bureaucrat who's demanding more power for himself, and not people -- reasoning ones, at least."

The Prosecutor-General's Office announced today that around 600,000 victims of Soviet repression have been rehabilitated in the last decade. The agency says it plans to wrap up work on rehabilitation next year.

Also, Memorial chief Roginskii says the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- a successor to the KGB, the agency responsible for most of the Soviet repression -- contributed information to the CD-ROM project, as did the Interior Ministry.

But he says state agencies have dragged their feet in helping with the uncovering of mass graves of Stalinist victims. Memorial has taken the lead on such projects. Around 80 percent of the remains of unidentified victims buried around Russia are gone, Roginskii said. Uncovering the rest will take what he described as "massive work."

Memorial last found the remains of 20 people in August in a forest near St. Petersburg, where the organization says some 30,000 victims of Stalin's 1937-38 Great Terror are buried. Experts said the found victims died from shots to the back of the head, the typical Soviet method of execution. The FSB had earlier denied the grave existed.

Yurii Samodurov, head of Moscow's Sakharov Museum, which also documents political repression, says one of the reasons for such difficulties is that the government has failed to acknowledge Soviet crimes. He criticizes the administration of former President Boris Yeltsin for having announced itself heir to the Soviet system instead of making a clean ideological break with the past: "These lives were destroyed and denigrated by the very same state we inherited and which we are now trying to represent. I think that's a very serious mistake and cannot be allowed."

Yakovlev says Russians have become used to blaming others instead of taking responsibility for the actions of the state on themselves. "Who shot these 640,000 [listed on the CD-ROM]?" he asks. "You and I."