The Horror of Russian Nationalism, Unbound

The New York Times continues its series of articles published in the paper and translated into Russian on a ZheZhe blog, collecting comments in Russian which it then translates back into English. The latest installment exposes the phenomenon of nationalism in Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia, exploding the myth that Putins’ KGB regime lacks ideology.  Some hopeful Russian comments are digested following the text. Perhaps the most telling and typical is this neo-Soviet rationalization:

You gentlemen are interested in “Stalin” secrets. Why so? So many years have passed. If The New York Times was able to dig into the archives of the American secret services and the role of F.B.I. and C.I.A. in the organization of President Kennedy’s assassination, this interest would be understandable. However, there is one guess. A program of active (secret) propagandist operations has been put in motion on the Web. One more “Orange Revolution” is required, this time in Moscow. And human rights in the U.S.S.R. (Russia) and Stalin repressions are nothing but a smoke screen to cover a secret operation. Undoubtedly.

Another poor ignorant soul writes:  “The word ‘nationalism’ is not applicable to Russia at all (at least on the state level, on the level of everyday life, there is no more nationalism than in any other state).” A third claims:  “No matter how much mud they sling at Stalin his accomplishments are so obvious that all this propaganda hullabaloo does not impress anybody.” And so it goes in the wretched quagmire that is neo-Soviet Russia.

TOMSK, RUSSIA. For years, the earth in this Siberian city had been giving up clues: a scrap of clothing, a fragment of bone, a skull with a bullet hole. And so a historian named Boris P. Trenin made a plea to officials. Would they let him examine secret archives to confirm that there was a mass grave here from Stalin’s purges? Would they help him tell the story of the thousands of innocent people who were said to have been carted from a prison to a ravine, shot in the head and tossed over?

The answer was no, and Mr. Trenin understood what many historians in Russia have come to realize: Under Vladimir V. Putin, the attitude toward the past has changed. The archives that Mr. Trenin was seeking, stored on the fourth floor of a building in Tomsk, in boxes stamped “K.G.B. of the U.S.S.R.,” would remain sealed. The Kremlin in the Putin era has often sought to maintain as much sway over the portrayal of history as over the governing of the country. In seeking to restore Russia’s standing, Mr. Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system’s horrors.

As a result, across Russia, many archives detailing killings, persecution and other such acts committed by the Soviet authorities have become increasingly off limits. The role of the security services seems especially delicate, perhaps because Mr. Putin is a former K.G.B. officer who ran the agency’s successor, the F.S.B., in the late 1990s.

To historians like Mr. Trenin, the closing of these archives reflects a larger truth. Russia, they say, has never fully grappled with and exposed the sins of Communism, never embarked on the kind of truth and reconciliation process pursued by other countries, like South Africa, after regimes were overthrown.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this. For one, after the Soviet Union fell, Russia underwent an economic upheaval, and people were focused on just surviving. Still, now that the country is more stable, the Kremlin, if anything, is moving toward more secrecy. It tends to be hostile toward those who want to study the grimmest aspects of Soviet rule, as if attempts to diminish the Soviet image will discredit the current leadership.

“They say Russia has gotten up off its knees, and this is why we should be proud of our past,” Mr. Trenin said. “The theme of Stalin’s repressions is harsh and gloomy and far from heroic. So they say that this is why it should be gradually pushed aside. They say the less we know about it, the better we will live.”

His comments were echoed in interviews with more than a dozen historians across Russia, all of whom said they had had far greater access in the 1990s to archives of the K.G.B. and other security services. They spoke of the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union as a time when scholarship flowered, saying that they had a chance to delve into historical episodes that had long been concealed.

“There was a period when we could go to the archives as if we were going to our workplace,” Mr. Trenin said.

Under Mr. Putin, the historians said, these records have usually been out of reach. Mr. Putin, who served two terms as president, is now prime minister, after installing his protégé Dmitri A. Medvedev as his successor in May.

Officials at the security archives, which are now mostly controlled by the F.S.B. and the Interior Ministry, typically reject requests for access by citing a need to protect state secrets and personal privacy. (Though a vast majority of people mentioned in records from Stalin’s time are obviously dead.)

The director of the F.S.B. archives in Moscow, Vasily Khristoforov, has said all records related to “ways and methods of operational investigative activity” will never be declassified.

The chill over the Soviet security archives has not only thwarted inquiries into events of the 1930s under Stalin, when millions of people were executed or died in prison camps. It has also prevented historians from gaining a better understanding of other aspects of Soviet persecution, like the hounding and the deportation of dissidents through the 1980s.

And it has aggravated tensions between Russia and its neighbors. The Kremlin, for example, has recently rebuffed requests from Poland to release documents related to the World War II massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and others in the Katyn Forest and elsewhere in Russia. For decades, the Soviets blamed the Nazis for the killings; Mikhail S. Gorbachev was the first leader to admit that Soviet security services carried them out.

What is more, the restrictions have frustrated Russians who are seeking the truth about their families and want future generations to be aware of what once happened here.

In 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, a man named Cheslav Yasinski was summarily executed in Tomsk after being accused of counterrevolutionary activities. For years, his wife was told that he was alive and cutting trees at one of the prison camps known as gulags, and she continued sending him food packages. She later received an official letter asserting, falsely, that he had died of a heart attack. Seventy years later, his great-grandson Yuri Kultamakov sought Mr. Yasinski’s file from the F.S.B., hoping that the information would help him make peace with his family’s past in Siberia.

While barring historians, the government says it will make an exception and allow individuals access to their relatives’ files from the security archives. But this policy is not as open as it seems, as Mr. Kultamakov discovered. The F.S.B. offered him a heavily redacted file, with many pages removed. Officials said their policy was to withhold documents that included the names of any other people, including those who carried out persecution or were informers. “I would like to know everything, but received little,” Mr. Kultamakov said.

The Past Is a Battleground

Here in Tomsk, 1,900 miles east of Moscow, Mr. Trenin had long been drawn to an area called Kashtak. It was once an empty expanse with a large ravine, but in recent decades the city filled it in. Yet rumors of a mass grave persisted, and in 1989, before the Soviet collapse, Mr. Trenin and a colleague, Vasily A. Khanevich, conducted a small, unauthorized dig there and found two skulls with bullet holes. Like so many people in Siberia, Mr. Trenin, 62, and Mr. Khanevich, 52, have a personal connection to the sorrows of Stalin’s reign. Mr. Trenin’s family was deported to the region, and Mr. Khanevich’s grandfathers were executed by the secret police.

Throughout the 1990s, when ground was broken on construction projects in Kashtak, laborers repeatedly uncovered remains. Sometimes people tending gardens came across bones. By the end of the decade, Mr. Trenin said, some retired K.G.B. officers were acknowledging what had happened. They said that twice a week, during the purges of the late 1930s, prisoners were executed and thrown into the ravine. Mr. Trenin said he believed he had enough information to make the case that he should receive access to the secret documents. He lobbied officials for permission to conduct a full investigation into the events there, and to establish a memorial. But it was too late. Mr. Putin had become president. The F.S.B. would not allow access to the records, and at subsequent meetings in 2002 and 2003, city officials, who had close connections to the security services, would not help Mr. Trenin either. “He had an absolute absence of interest,” Mr. Trenin said of one city official, a former K.G.B. agent. “There was this sense of, it happened, it was there, no need to look any further.”

The former K.G.B. agent, Aleksandr A. Melnikov, who is a deputy mayor, said in an interview that Kashtak represented an enormous calamity, but that “it had been studied in depth.” Mr. Melnikov said he was surprised to hear of Mr. Trenin’s difficulties. “Today, there is no problem obtaining access to the archives of that period, absolutely not,” Mr. Melnikov said. “If they encounter a problem, they can appeal to me. I will provide every assistance to them to get the material that they are interested in.” Told of Mr. Melnikov’s comments, Mr. Trenin sighed. “That’s absurd,” he said.

Mr. Trenin and Mr. Khanevich are active in Memorial, a human rights group, and operate a small museum dedicated to 23,000 people killed under Stalin in Tomsk. The museum is in a former jail used by the N.K.V.D., Stalin’s secret police, the predecessor to the K.G.B. Exhibits are displayed in a gloomy warren of small cells where people were tortured and crowded in 20 at a time. But there is little about Kashtak. Mr. Trenin said he believed that more than 15,000 people were executed there, but without access to records, it is impossible to be certain. A few years ago, officials erected a large cross at Kashtak as a memorial. But it is in an isolated spot overlooking a major road, and is rarely visited. To Mr. Khanevich, whose grandfathers were rounded up and executed one day in 1938 in a Siberian village, this indifference stings. “Russia positions itself as a completely different democratic country with democratic values, but at the same time, it does not reject, it does not disassociate itself and does not condemn the regime that preceded it,” he said. “On the contrary, it defends it.”
Scrounging Information

Mr. Trenin and other historians emphasized that it was not as if the security archives had been thrown open in the 1990s. They said that officials had to be persuaded to provide access, but that there was a spirit of cooperation that no longer existed. Archives from Stalin’s secret police have become a flash point because of the rise of a movement that has sought to idolize Stalin as a leader who defeated Nazi Germany, spurred industrialization and made the Soviet Union a superpower. Last year, the Kremlin promoted a study guide for high school teachers that deems Stalin “one of the most successful leaders of the U.S.S.R.,” while describing his “cruel exploitation” of the population. Mr. Putin himself has acknowledged the losses under Stalin, but has said Russians should not be made to feel ashamed of them. “We do have bleak chapters in our history; just look at events starting from 1937,” Mr. Putin said at a meeting where the study guide was presented. “And we should not forget these moments in our past.”

“But other countries have also known their bleak and terrible moments,” he said. “In any event, we have never used nuclear weapons against civilians, and we have never dumped chemicals on thousands of kilometers of land or dropped more bombs on a tiny country than were dropped during the entire Second World War, as was the case in Vietnam.”

In interviews, F.S.B. and other security officials said they had in fact declassified many documents. Asked about complaints from historians, Oleg K. Matveyev, a senior official at the F.S.B. archives in Moscow, said some people wanted to depict Soviet rule only negatively. “To draw the line at 1991 and say, everything before was black, and now has come white, as is done in many countries and regions in the former republics of the Soviet Union, we have nothing like that here,” he said. “We are more careful about our past.” Mr. Matveyev added that it was vital that the F.S.B. protect the privacy of people mentioned in the records.

It is a particular concept of privacy. The F.S.B. does not keep names secret; in fact, it has provided nonprofit groups like Memorial with lists of those persecuted, which have been published in so-called memory books. But it will not allow access to the files, preventing historians from gaining insight into the security services. The F.S.B. has also promised that many records will be declassified after 75 years. But historians said the regulation was often ignored, adding that the F.S.B. tended to declassify documents that did not present the security services in a bad light.

A prominent historian, Sergei A. Krasilnikov of Novosibirsk State University in Siberia, said officials routinely cited personal privacy and other regulations to block access. But it is a ruse, he said. “The order has been given to rehabilitate Russian and Soviet statehood in all epochs and in all times — for all the czars and general secretaries,” he said. “This is why we have all these restrictions on access to the archives, because the archives allow us to show more profoundly the mechanisms of power, the mechanisms of decision-making, the consequences of these decisions, which were very often tragic for society.”

Unable to obtain records from the security archives, Mr. Trenin and Mr. Khanevich gather them from relatives and researchers who acquired them in the 1990s. They scrounge information from more open Soviet archives, like those covering industry or local government. Sometimes, they feel despondent, as when they hear of polls that reveal that a majority of young people believe that Stalin did “more right than wrong.” Yet they also find signs to be hopeful.

Mr. Khanevich persuaded the Interior Ministry to have employees visit the museum as part of their training, and the other day 15 lawyers and investigators came by. Some appeared moved, saying they had not realized the scope of the killings. “These are people with epaulets, and they have to carry out orders, but the orders are not always humane and sometimes they are criminal,” Mr. Khanevich said. “They need to think about whether it’s the right thing to do to carry them out. Of course, they may lose their epaulets. But they will remain human beings, with their dignity intact.”


(1) My name is Viktor, I am 22. This is a personal story about that time. I apologize for the style, I am not writer. My great grand dad served in the N.K.V.D. right about the same period of time. And he was taking part in all that. This is what he told my father about it. My great grand father lived in a small town in the Voronezh region. Before the war (W.W. II) merchants’ houses stood across the street from the local militia department. During the war these houses were destroyed in air raids. After the war, restoration of the town began. Earthwork started on the place of the destroyed merchants’ houses and, to the astonishment of the construction workers and local residents, literally the first shovel bucket dug out human bodies with the dirt. Rumors spread around town. To stop them the site was surrounded by a fence and armed guards were posted. Later my father asked granddad what actually happened there. This is what he said. Before the war tunnels were dug between the militia HQ and the merchants’ houses. Since execution often took place in the basements of the militia HQ, bodies were buried not too far away. He said trenches were made into which the bodies of the “enemies of the state” were dumped and covered with lime, then another layer of bodies was placed and the procedure repeated. When we asked grandfather how he felt about doing his work, he only repeated that they were “enemies of the state” and he thought what they did was right. He sincerely believed in it and had no doubts. When asked if he took part in the executions, he avoided the answer and said that he only tied the accused peoples’ hands. But you understand that a person who worked for this system would never confess to what he did. I heard more stories. For instance, when people were evacuated from town (to escape the Fascist occupation), he was evacuating N.K.V.D. archives in a separate wagon instead of helping people to run away, or there is a story about the suppression of peasants’ disturbances (they called these peasants “kulaks”).

(2) Well… You are right on many counts. We refuse to admit our mistakes. We – so far – do not want to say out loud how much harm and evil the U.S.S.R. brought on itself and the entire world. Our country has seriously discredited itself in the eyes of its own citizens. While the United States bombed Japan and Vietnam, the U.S.S.R. was taking it out on its own citizens and its neighbors. To admit all this now that the government attempts to restore the former grandeur of the U.S.S.R. is impossible due to one reason at least: the image of Stalin the Dictator does not fit the present course of the “Restoration of Russia.”

(3) The archives should be opened by law, maybe foreign intelligence (archives) later, but the materials about the repressions should be on the Internet, and all of them. Many people still don’t know where their grandfathers and great-grandfathers disappeared.

(4) “They say Russia has gotten up off its knees, and this is why we should be proud of our past,” says Boris Trenin. “The theme of Stalin’s repressions is harsh and gloomy and far from heroic. So they say that this is why it should be gradually pushed aside. They say the less we know about it, the better we will live.”This is the most likely way to have one more executioner come to power. It is necessary to remember this and open the archives and rehabilitate on the basis of facts.

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