Russian collective memory of the various catastrophes to which the country has been subjected during the last 100 years has long been extremely selective. While there are a huge number of grandiose memorials to those who died in the Second World War (usually referred to as ‘The Great Patriotic War’), there are very few memorials to those who died in the First World War (‘The Imperialist War’). And there are remarkably few memorials to the millions who died in the Gulag. The topic of political repression and the labour camp system is barely touched upon in school history curricula, and there is very little by way of well organised and accessible museums devoted to the Gulag.
A year ago, I went to a memorable talk at the Pushkin House, by Irina Flige, the director of Memorial, a research and information centre in St Petersburg. One of the centre’s most important projects is The Virtual Gulag Museum, a virtual space which brings together electronic images from over 100 existing museums — many of which are very small and located in remote and inaccessible towns and villages. Many of these museums are simply rooms in the houses of ex-prisoners or their families; the exhibits are barely catalogued and many of the museums are entirely dependent on the dedication of a single, often elderly, ‘curator’. Irina Flige and Memorial have worked with great sensitivity to bring together images from all these museums and provide a context that informs the exhibits with meaning.
My memory of Irina Flige’s obvious clarity of mind and devotion to her task made it all the more painful for me to read of the police raid on Memorial on 3 December.
The official line is that the search was part of an investigation of a criminal case involving the publication of an article inciting racial hatred in a local newspaper (Novy Peterburg) in June 2007. There is, however, no evidence whatsoever of any connection between Memorial and Novy Peterburg. There is no doubt that the purpose of the raid was simply to intimidate Memorial.
The raid on Memorial in St Petersburg is a serious challenge to freedom of expression in Russia and may well be linked to an official campaign to re-write Soviet history and rehabilitate the Stalinist regime: a new organisation, Historical Memory (Istoricheskaya pamyat) has only recently been created, with obvious official backing, for the purpose of explaining and justifying the crimes of Stalinism.
Robert Chandler is a writer and award-winning translator