De-Stalinization Meets Re-Stalinization

When
Russians were given access to their history and discovered the scale of
Stalin’s terror, the newly re-emerged Russian state always found itself
trapped. Even Boris Yeltsin and his democratic government, who were
keen to destalinize the country, were afraid to go the whole way.

“The Russian state has never officially avowed itself guilty of persecuting its own citizens”, — says Rachinsky.

In
Russia, Stalin is a myth, a symbol of law and order and logo of a
powerful, non-accountable, sacred state. The more authoritarian Russia
becomes, the more important Stalin is. The freer it gets, the less
significant he becomes.

In the end of the 2000s,
then-president Dmitry Medvedev attempted to kickstart a new wave of
de-Stalinization. There was a plan to open still classified NKVD-KGB
archives, develop the rehabilitation process, establish commemoration
sites, and, most importantly, revise Stalin’s heritage and image in the
public space. It was decided that Moscow would have its own monument to
the victims of Stalin’s terror. That monument is due to be opened this
year, marking the 80th anniversary of the Great Purge, and Vladimir
Putin is expected to attend. But, ironically, it will appear only after new monuments to Stalin himself have popped up in different Russian regions.

Medvedev’s
de-Stalinization plan effectively died when Putin came back to the
Kremlin in 2012. Two years later, Russia annexed Crimea and began a new
confrontation with the West. Russian propaganda presented the war in
Ukraine as a sequel to the Great Patriotic War, with the West as the
heir of the Nazis. Another page was turned in Russia’s relationship with
Stalin.

In 2009, Putin and Medvedev condemned the
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a Soviet neutrality agreement with Nazi
Germany, as a “criminal collusion” of two dictators. But in 2015, Putin
stressed the pact was an important step to secure Russia’s safety.

“Of
course, Russian leaders are not great supporters of mass repressions.
But for them to condemn Stalin means to admit the guilt,” says
Rachinsky.

By 2017, re-Stalinization had found its way to mostly every part of Russian life. Stalin’s popularity across Russia reached a 16-year high.
Historical narratives that explore the criminal nature of Stalin’s rule
are viewed as a falsification of history, designed to undermine
Russia’s greatness.

The arrest of Yuri Dmitriev, a
historian who made it his mission to collect the names of Stalin’s
victims in Karelia, falls into the same category. “We can see now
historians being targeted by the state,” says Nikolay Svanidze, a
well-known TV anchor and popularizer of Russian history. “We can see they are now being treated as the political opposition.”

Last August, for the first time in 20 years, the Karelian government declined from taking part in commemorations in Sandarmokh. The Russian Orthodox Church also declined to participate
— again for the first time. Starting from 2016, Days of memory in
Sandarmokh no longer enjoy official support. In October 2016, Memorial
was labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. And in
December, Dmitriev was arrested.

Dmitriev’s
colleagues say they do not understand what exactly triggered his arrest.
Some believe it might be a political decision made on a local level.
Others say it could even be the outcome of some personal conflict:
Dmitriev is a hard-hitting person, he could have enemies. He might,
perhaps, have been targeted from Moscow (though activists doubt it.)
What everyone agrees on is that it is the general sense of
re-Stalinization, spreading across the country, that has made the case
possible.

“I told Natasha,” Yekaterina continues, in
a scene that could be a deja-vu from the 1930s, “that our father will
come to take her back soon, and if not him, then I will.”

Almost
miraculously, Mikhail Matveyev, the executioner of 1111 Solovki
prisoners in Sandarmokh, survived the purge. He was released from prison
two years after his arrest in late 1938, dying peacefully, of old age,
in 1971. And his shadow continues to haunt Russia.