Accessibility links

Breaking News

(Un)Civil Societies Report: March 5, 2003

5 March 2003, Volume 4, Number 3
ANNIVERSARY OF STALIN'S DEATH. The 50th anniversary of Josef Stalin's death on 5 March is an occasion for an old Russian woman to remember going to a transit camp in Arkhangelsk at the age of 12 in 1937 to peer through the knothole in a wooden fence to catch a glimpse of her father, arrested after a police search of his home turned up a small icon. Catching sight of the girl, the prisoner tried to throw a matchbox weighted with a rock containing a note over the wall. He missed, and his ardent appeal to Comrade Stalin, whom he was sure would deliver justice if only he could learn about such abuses, fell into the space between the fence and the barbed wire, dangerously visible to the guards. The girl ran home to get a poker from the stove to try to skewer the note, but failed. Then rain washed mud over the letter, and her father was hauled away, never to be seen or heard from again.

The girl and her mother laboriously copied out appeal after appeal to Stalin and his ministers, never losing hope. Her sister was forcibly taken to a factory to work at the age of 14. Later, she married a man who was small in stature, his growth stunted from the Ukrainian famine. His family had been "dekulakified" when the Soviets picked out their humble home from dozens of others with tin roofs, because his father had painted it red against the rust. Eventually, he volunteered to serve at the front.

The couple served the state faithfully for many years, for a time losing two rebellious sons to the system of labor camps known as the Gulag and appealing to Stalin's successors. Through the years, the man proudly preserved his war-time medals and marched as a veteran in parades. When he died, his widow lovingly mounted the medals with the portrait of Stalin on a pillow by his coffin. To this day, she only rarely recalls the terrible years when most of the able-bodied men in her town were arrested under a quota defined by Stalin and embellished by local commissars. If she does speak of it, it is to recall an era when at least there was work, cheap food and rent, far less crime -- a time when people looked out for each other.

To understand the grip that Stalin and the totalitarian system founded by Lenin which he institutionalized still have over Russia and the other former Soviet states (and even the world) is to recognize the complex emotions of this woman and countless others who yearned to be a part of the great project of communism, who believed fervently in social justice and repelled fascism, and yet became victims of a system they actually helped to perpetuate, in some cases even going on to victimize others.

In a national survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation on 22 February, 36 percent of 1,500 persons polled said that Stalin did more to benefit Russia than to harm it, reported on 27 February. Only 29 percent of the respondents said Stalin did the country more harm than good, and 34 percent were undecided. Those who view Stalin positively most often cited his role in the Soviet victory in World War II and the "law and order" he maintained in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). In the survey, while 61 percent did recognize Stalin's "large-scale repression," 8 percent said "everyone was afraid of each other," and 3 percent accused him of the country's lack of preparation for World War II, nevertheless, 35 percent lauded him for victory in the Great Patriotic War, 18 percent credited him with order in the country, 16 percent said average people lived a prosperous and stable life and the social system was just, and 8 percent said he industrialized the nation, Interfax reported on 27 February.

"There has been no de-Bolshevization comparable with the de-Nazification in Germany. The issues aren't even being talked about," former Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev, now a historian of totalitarianism's archives, told "The News International" of Pakistan in an interview published on 28 February. The Russian public "appears unable to absorb this knowledge. It's as if they don't want to know."

The lingering after-effects of Stalinism are most evident in the very lack of a name for this phenomenon of mass murder and abuse on an unprecedented scale. Robert Conquest called it the "Great Terror" in his book by the same title, although people who lived through it do not use the term. Most of them speak evasively about "the repressions" -- a bland word that in fact aptly captures the twofold act of eliminating or marginalizing people, and then also compelling them and others to repress their own experiences and the collective memory.

While anti-Stalinist expression surged in the late 1980s with the publication of many hitherto disclosed files and memoirs, many now prefer to keep the subject buried. Also missing from the national and international understanding of Stalinism and the entire project of Soviet totalitarianism is a readily conceded number of victims. They range from 10 to 20 to 60 million, depending on the political affiliations and research capacities of the scholars or the public figures making the claims. The Memorial Society of Russia and its affiliates in the former Soviet states shy away from giving total numbers of victims for the whole era, citing incomplete records and lack of access to archives and the dying out of the generations of victims. They prefer to make concrete reports of specific mass graves and camps and publish eyewitness testimonies. Students of the "Great Terror" often seem to rationalize the deaths by saying not all of them were immediate, deliberate executions; people died of exhaustion or disease in forced labor camps or artificially induced famine.

No other world-class criminal guilty of killing his own people seems to have an affectionate nickname like "Uncle Joe," nor are his lapel buttons sold as a form of kitsch memorabilia on the streets of Eastern as well as Western capitals. In "Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million" published in 2002, Martin Amis strove to fill the public knowledge gap about the appalling dimensions of the crimes of Stalin. His uneven effort was slammed by critics who singled out gaffs like his inept comparison of his colicky infant's screams to those of the inmates of Butyrka. Christopher Hitchens, attacked by Amis in the book as soft on Stalinism, objected in a "Harper's" review that "everybody already knew" about the horrors of Stalinism and Amis himself was coming late to the discovery. Anne Applebaum (see "Recommended News Links), reviewing the book for on 13 August 2002, wonders: "Why did so many Western liberals fail to absorb the full horror of Stalinism while it was happening? Arguments among the comrades on the far left notwithstanding, why does Stalinism still not inspire anywhere near the same kind of horror as Nazism today? Hitchens writes that Amis occasionally makes us wince at things we 'already know' -- but who really does already know them? And who really cares? Certainly they aren't part of what one would call popular knowledge, or popular culture, or public debate."

A popular Internet game called "The Sims Online" has filtered out the names "Stalin," "Hitler," "Osama," and other mass murderers so that players cannot use the names in their in-game personas or dialogue. That isn't surprising, given the increasing tendency of companies to restrict hate speech on the web, but the action puzzled players. "Why is a 20th-century leader of the Soviet Union banned from the game?" asked a "Sims" player on a message board. When another player explained that his two grandparents had died at Stalin's hand, the first player objected, "But there isn't any neo-Stalinism cult so there isn't a danger of hate speech." A crude but popular assessment of the recognition factor for Stalin on the 50th anniversary of his death turns up 628,000 references at, contrasted with 1,700,000 for Hitler.

Today, Stalin is remembered less for his own awful deeds than as a yardstick for other modern tyrants. Stalin's famous comment summing up the machinery of repression, "there is a person, there is a problem -- no person, no problem" is noted in descriptions of Saddam Hussein, an admirer of Stalin, responsible for an estimated 1 million deaths in wars and terror against his own people.

Stalin's sayings are even compared to the speeches of leaders of democracies. In a 10 February "Comment," Hendrik Hertzberg of "The New Yorker" associated what he described as Hussein's favorite maxim, "no person, no problem" (unattributed to Stalin) with a passage in President George W. Bush's State of the Union he characterized as "tasteless": "We've arrested or otherwise dealt with many key commanders of Al-Qaeda.... Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies." The millions of unrecognized victims of Stalin would know the difference.

THOUSANDS DEMONSTRATE FOR OPPOSITION CANDIDATE. Tens of thousands of Armenians demonstrated on 20 February in Yerevan in support of an opposition candidate for president, Stepan Demirchian, facing the incumbent, Robert Kocharian, in runoff elections on 5 March, with many detained by police. The rallies continued on 24 February with more arrests. A protest march by more than 10,000 people in Yerevan on 26 February was halted by barbed wire, water cannons, and riot police armed with tear gas, and Interior Ministry troops deployed on the street that leads to the parliament building and the presidential palace, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003).

A total of 158 people were recorded as detained by human rights activists during all the week's opposition rallies, 86 of whom were charged with administrative offenses, reported on 3 March. Forty-eight who had remained in detention over last weekend (1-2March) were set free, also reported. Their release followed appeals by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman-in-Office Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Human Rights Watch, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and Armenian Catholicos Garegin II, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Justice Minister Ara Saghatelyan announced that the 15-day prison sentences originally meted out to demonstrators will now be commuted to fines, reported, estimated to range from $1-$3 by AP on 1 March. Court appeals by remaining detainees are to be considered this week. "These arrests are a clumsy attempt to disable the opposition the week before the runoff election," said Human Rights Watch in a press release issued on its website (

Although the rallies were largely peaceful, some impassioned speakers called forcefully for condemning the alleged falsification of the vote, punishing those guilty for it, and ensuring victory. Former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian -- who withdrew his candidacy on 8 February in favor of Demirchian -- and Albert Bazeyan, a second leading member of Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun party, both declared that "we shall resort to all possible means" to ensure that Demirchian is ultimately recognized as the legitimately elected president (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2003). Demirchian is the son of former Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian, who mounted a serious challenge to Kocharian in the 1998 election, taking 40.12 percent of the vote at that time.

Stepan Demirchian and his supporters accused the authorities of using considerable "administrative resources" (i.e. funds, ways and means available to state agencies) in order to manipulate the 19 February first round of voting (see "Armenia: Thousands Defy Government Ban To Rally For Opposition,", 23 February 2003). According to preliminary results, Kocharian failed by only a fraction of a percentage point (at 49.8 percent) to get the 50 percent needed to win. Demirchian garnered 28 percent of the vote but claimed fraud.

An Armenian opposition spokesmen said on 28 February in a news conference that Stepan Demirchian might withdraw from the runoff to protest alleged vote rigging and strong-arm tactics, AP reported on 1 March, although the proposal for a boycott appears to have been dropped. Elections in the Caucasus and Central Asia often produce very high percentages on behalf of strong rulers, so the narrow miss of Armenia's president startled many observers. "It's amazing, I'm very surprised. It's a bomb," "The Guardian" quoted a Western diplomat as saying in a 21 February article. "This means Kocharian was afraid to fake results and give himself an outright victory," the diplomat was quoted as saying. The U.S. and EU are closely watching the outcome of the elections in this strategically important region and have made their concerns about fraud known to Armenia's Central Election Commission in recent meetings, local and international news agencies reported.

The pressure of mass demonstrations as well -- not often seen in such numbers since the days of independence marches -- no doubt were a factor in the decision of the Central Election Commission's chief, Artak Sagradyan, to go into a second round. The presence of observers from the OSCE and the Council of Europe no doubt played a role. "The counting process was flawed and the long-term election process fell short of international standards in several key respects," "The Guardian" quoted the head of the OSCE monitoring group as saying. Both organizations said they saw less evidence of fraud than in other elections of previous years, and measures such as transparent ballot boxes were taken to deter tampering.

Election observation is in the eye of the beholder. The official mission of CIS observers declared the presidential elections in Armenia as "free, transparent, democratic, and legitimate," CIS Executive Secretary Yurii Yarov was quoted as saying at a news conference by RosBusinessConsulting on 20 February, citing Arminfo. Yarov headed a delegation of CIS monitors who claimed Armenia was complying with both national election legislation and world standards, although dissidents on the scene scoffed at their statements. Their assessment was so out of sync with the news reports in the capital and the sentiments of street protestors that opposition leaders declared -- falsely as it turned out later -- that Yarov had been dismissed from his post as head of the election-monitoring team, reported.

NGOs mounted their own determined election-monitoring efforts. Jemma Asratian, chairwoman of Women With University Education, said she disapproved of the Defense Ministry's statements against mass opposition rallies which she implied broke the public trust in democracy building, Noyan Tapan quoted her as saying at a press conference on 24 February. She also said that her group and six other women's organizations that had monitored the ballot found basic violations, including inaccurate voter lists and pressure on members of election commissions, most of whom were women, by "youngsters of athletic build" who were stationed around the precincts. Asratian said hospital patients and disabled were "disenfranchised" and servicemen lists were distributed too late. She cited local opinion polls indicating a clear majority of respondents had lost confidence in the possibility of holding fair and democratic elections, Noyan Tapan quoted her as saying.

An alternative public commission for monitoring the elections, coordinated by lawyer Ruben Torossian, offered to mediate between the warring candidates' staffs and arranged a meeting between the candidates on 4 March, during which both sides were expected to agree that terror and violence were "inadmissible" in the campaign and to promise the Armenian people to conduct the runoff election "in an atmosphere of tolerance and cooperation," reported on 3 March.

NGO ELECTION MONITOR DETAINED. The detention this week of an independent monitor of last month's public referendum shed more light on the murky world of government pressure on NGOs in Kyrgyzstan. Edil Baysalov, leader of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said he was detained on 28 February by military authorities and at a military hospital in Besh-Kungey outside of Bishkek. His forced hospitalization came on the eve of a roundtable titled "Freedom of Assembly in the Kyrgyz Republic" convened by Freedom House, a U.S.-based group promoting democracy and free and fair elections, where he was to give a report on protecting the right to hold meetings and rallies.

In a letter to a military commander, a copy of which was given to local reporters, Baysalov describes how he had been summoned to the draft board, despite obtaining an exemption from army duty as recently as 29 January due to his severe astigmatism. The bespectacled Baysalov, visible in a photo distributed by, says he was held at the military commission although he warned officials that he was scheduled to speak, and viewed the action as an "unlawful deprivation of liberty dictated by political motives."

After several opposition figures and journalists visited him at the hospital, officials relented and said they would release him. He then opted to remain in the hospital to obtain an eye examination and official clearance for his draft exemption on health grounds, "Moya stolitsa" reported on 4 March. A Freedom House representative subsequently read a message from Baysalov at the roundtable, at which government representatives were also present, in which Baysalov said his detention was part of a larger government effort to intimidate him and silence him, which had begun three weeks before the referendum with his first summons to the draft and medical examination accompanied by three colonels.

Roundtable participants had been hoping to hear what Baysalov would say about his organization's observation of the referendum. "Slovo Kyrgyzstana," the leading official newspaper, had reported last week that another NGO, the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, and other pro-government civic organizations had inaccurately claimed that 60 percent of the coalition's participants did not find any violations on balloting day, despite detection of numerous problems by both international and independent local observers (see "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies," 26 February 2003). The coalition itself could not substantiate the claim of 60 percent, however, and noted that their own criticism of violations was cited in a report on the referendum issued by the National Democratic Institute. Kyrgyz referendum monitors found themselves under great pressure by both government officials and pro-government NGOs as well as media attempting to glean their findings and put a positive spin on the national plebiscite, launched hastily by President Askar Akaev in a bid to consolidate public support for his rule at a time of increasing grassroots challenge.

The coalition is a network of 180 NGOs involving more than 700 activists governed by a board of 15 regional leaders. Baysalov is also the editor in chief of an independent newspaper, "Demokrat." In a statement condemning Baysalov's detention, the Association of Electronic Mass Media of Central Asia said they believe the summons to the draft, despite an existing exemption, was timed to disrupt the roundtable sponsored by Freedom House, and characterized the incident as an "unfriendly move" by the government toward the U.S. organization, which has a project defending human rights advocates in Kyrgyzstan.

INTERNATIONAL. Anne Applebaum, a columnist and member of the editorial board of "The Washington Post," writes frequently on the legacy of communism. She is the author of a book soon to be published by Doubleday, "Gulag: A History," a narrative account of the development of the Soviet concentration camps, from Lenin to Gorbachev. Based on archives, interviews, new research, and recently published memoirs, the book details the role the camps played in the Soviet political and economic system and describes daily life in the camps and how people survived. Her site also contains many useful links to the study of the Soviet terror, such as "Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder" at and "The KGB Cells Museum in Tartu," and also contains her major essays, such as the "Dearth of Feeling" in "The New Criterion" about the absence of memory of communist crimes.

INTERNATIONAL. International Mother Tongue Day was marked on 21 February, and the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages launched the third edition of its Vade-Mecum, a volume which includes international legal documents on the languages and cultures of those European linguistic-minority communities represented by the bureau, and lists of websites related to European linguistic-minority issues.

INTERNATIONAL. The United Nations Commission on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism (CERD), a treaty-monitoring body, opened its 62nd session on 3 March and will run through 22 March. The commission will review periodic reports on the issues of racism and discrimination and efforts to combat them submitted by Albania, Poland, Russia, and Slovenia.

REGIONAL. The Network of East-West Women has announced a call for applications for the 2003 Legal Fellowship Program on Reproductive Rights and Sexual Health. The program offers young women lawyers from Latvia, Poland, Serbia, and Slovakia an opportunity to strengthen their research, advocacy, and litigation skills in these areas and develop networks with other women's rights attorneys. Applications and additional information for the fellowship, which has a 15 May deadline, can be found at

ARMENIA. The Helsinki Association of Armenia is running frequent updates on election-monitoring, reports of violations, and lists of persons arrested and fined for participation in rallies.

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO. Beta news agency features articles this week on the joint parliament's formation of a commission to implement the new constitution, on growing tensions in Kosova, and on the indictment in The Hague of Vojislav Seselj, who describes himself as "politically intolerable."

TAJIKISTAN. "Dushanbe Moves Toward National Bar Association, But Defense Lawyers Skeptical." Tajikistan has taken the first steps toward the creation of a National Association of Barristers. The efforts are seen as significant to separate and strengthen the judiciary system in Tajikistan. Local defense lawyers, however, say they play only a nominal role in legal procedures in Tajikistan and that the new associations will not have a significant impact on their work.

TURKMENISTAN. "OSCE Raises Human Rights Issues." The head of the OSCE is in Turkmenistan this week, where he raised the issue of human rights with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Rights conditions in Turkmenistan are a continuing source of international concern, but the Turkmen government has widely ignored the criticism. RFE/RL asks what the OSCE can do in the present circumstances.