Fresh assault in Russia's "history wars"
Orlando Figes: The arrest of historian Mikhail Suprun is extreme, absurd and alarming
16 Oct 09

This is a guest post by Orlando Figes

It is hard to get a firm handle on the latest development in the Kremlin’s “history wars” — its militant campaign to censor all but the most positive assessments of the Stalin period. The arrest of Mikhail Suprun, a history professor in Arkhangel’sk, for collecting personal data on German POWs and Soviet Germans in the Gulags of the Arctic North is unprecedented and, on the face of it, so extreme and absurd that there may be something more to it than meets the eye. But it is an alarming development. For two reasons.

It is the first time during this campaign that a professional historian has been arrested by the authorities. Is this a warning to other historians in Russia? No doubt charges will be brought against him that do not touch on the principle of freedom of historical expression and research — but that, we must assume, is the true aim of the arrest: to scare historians.

Secondly, what Suprun has been charged for doing — collecting personal data on the Gulag — has been done for many years by Memorial and other organisations throughout Russia. They have published their data in Books of Memory (Knigi pamitati) of which there are several hundred now in print. Does this mean that the authorities intend to outlaw such activities and these publications by Memorial?

I suspect that there will be a climb-down by the authorities on the Arkhangel’sk case. It is too absurd to be sustained. But we should keep a close watch.