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Russia: Rights Groups Want To Renew Public Discussion Of Stalin's Purges

Russia's leading human-rights groups have released a list of more than 1 million people killed during the regime of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The names and biographical details of the victims represent only a small fraction of the tens of millions of Soviet citizens who died, were exiled or tortured under the dictator's iron hand and are not a new discovery. But Russian human-rights groups say they want to renew public discussion of Stalin's legacy at a time when his popularity appears to be on the increase.

Prague, 25 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- American philosopher George Santayana is credited with the phrase, often repeated, that "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."

In keeping with this point, representatives of Russia's leading human-rights groups gathered in Moscow this week for the release of a CD-ROM listing the names and biographies of more than 1 million people killed during the regime of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Speaking at a news conference on 24 March, the head of the Memorial human rights group, Arsenii Roginskii, told journalists that the 1,345,769 names on the disc represent just a small fraction of the Soviet citizens who perished under Stalin.

"I think the total number of victims was at least 20 million -- 20 to 25 million people."
"According to the most conservative count, the most formal count -- the count of people who received actual certificates saying they were the victims of repression -- their number should be 10 times greater," he said. "And we spent 10 years just compiling [this CD]. So that means that if the work continues at the same pace, with the same passive attitude of the state authorities, we will need to continue working for another 100 years."

Aleksandr Yakovlev -- who is considered one of the architects of "perestroika" under the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev -- has for years headed Russia's Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression. He told RFE/RL that the official numbers of people listed as interrogated, tried, and imprisoned by the authorities represent only part of Stalin's vast terror machine.

"This only concerns people who were tried, who passed through the courts," he said. "But what about the 5.5 million peasant families who were, with no court decision, exiled from the south of the country to the far north? No one tried them. They were sent there on orders of the Central Committee [of the Communist Party]. It wasn't a court ruling, just a footnote. And what do you do about the famine victims? They were also victims of the same government repression. Five million people in the 1930s and more than 5 million during the Civil War. That's more than 10 million people who perished of famine. We know some horrible details from the Communist Party's regional Office for the Fight Against Cannibalism. I think the total number of victims was at least 20 million -- 20 to 25 million people."

One of Stalin's famous quotes reportedly was: "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." Roginskii said part of the motivation for compiling the names of as many victims of Soviet repression as possible was to negate this philosophy -- to give the dead faces; to return their dignity.

"Why did we create this disc? Of course, in the first place, it's to honor their memories. [As the poet Anna Akhmatova put it,] one would like to remember them all by name. And we tried to accomplish this. The second reason we created this disc was to warn society and the authorities about what happens in a country where [the government's] power is unchecked by society -- what this can lead to."

Irina Yasina works for the Open Russia educational foundation, which is funded by jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovskii. She told the news conference that many schoolchildren and even university students in today's Russia know surprisingly little about the dark pages of their country's history -- at a time when the authorities are calling on them to show their pride in Russia. Yasina said blind patriotism is not healthy patriotism.

"It's very important for us that the recipients of this disc not only be a narrow circle of people who know the truth already, but rather young people. We want people who are currently studying the history of our country to see this disc, people who are being told that they are expected to be proud of their country. It's become fashionable lately to be proud of our history. The president himself has called on people to be proud of their own history. But sometimes there's nothing to be proud of."

Yuri Samodurov, executive director of the Moscow-based Andrei Sakharov Foundation, agreed. He said the fact that textbooks used in Russian schools and universities barely mention Stalin's purges, his forced labor projects, mass deportations, and network of Gulag concentration camps bodes ill for the country's ability to come to terms with its past and build a strong society.

"The fact that tens of millions of people were destroyed in our country is discussed in two paragraphs, sometimes a single page -- with no commentary. There is no legal evaluation, no attempt at an evaluation in the historical context, no moral evaluation. There is no evaluation of this period in our schoolbooks or higher education textbooks."

To this day, historians say hundreds of thousands of people who disappeared in the maelstrom of Stalin's killing machine remain unaccounted for. According to a recent poll conducted by Russia's independent ROMIR agency, however, 45 percent of respondents said they believed Stalin had played a largely positive role in Russia's history.

Respondents called him Russia's second-most successful leader since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, behind Russia's current President Vladimir Putin.

(Mikhail Salenkov of RFE/RL's Russian Service in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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