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This Park Was Not A Playground

A banner reads "Freedom For Svetlana Bakhmina" as people gather in Moscow to mark Political Prisoners Remembrance Day.

A banner reads "Freedom For Svetlana Bakhmina" as people gather in Moscow to mark Political Prisoners Remembrance Day.

For some, October 30 is a day to remember relatives who died in Stalin's gulag. For others, it is a day of conversations about contemporary political prisoners. Some even organize demonstrations and assert that the very existence of political prisoners is an atavism from authoritarian times that is not fit for a democratic state.

I remember how students gathered in the enormous auditorium of Moscow's Polytechnic Museum to hear Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder and former head of the Yukos oil company, tell these budding economists what Russia's future would be like. Back then, they even reported the speech on television and talked about how Khodorkovsky was helping institutes of higher education. Then they arrested him. Now, is he a political prisoner? And what about Svetlana Bakhmina, the jailed former Yukos lawyer?

There is an elderly woman who survived being captured by the Nazis during World War II. When she returned after the war, she was thrown into Stalin's camps. Convicted as "politically unreliable," she was sent to work in a lumber camp. She survived and was released in 1954. Then she left for Canada. Now, despite her advancing years, she corresponds with a friend in Russia.

Her friend is a Russian, about the same age, who served on the front during the war. Their letters are normal old-lady letters -- how much things cost, how to treat various aches and pains, bragging about the grandchildren. On Political Prisoners Remembrance Day, the Russian friend will travel to Samara, to the monument there to the victims of political repression. The monument is a piece of an enormous stone, set up in a playground for the edification of future generations.

But not so long ago, this park was not a playground. On the very spot where there are now swings and slides, political prisoners were once rounded up and summarily executed. Now there is nothing left of the camp barracks. Only a giant stone -- a symbol of the bad years under Stalin -- connects the age of the horrors of the gulag with the carnival atmosphere of today's pure childhood.

-- Sergei Khazov

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