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2018-11-01 | Human Rights

Central Asia looks on as Kremlin attempts to whitewash repression

A woman October 30 fastens flowers to a tree with portraits of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's purge victims at a memorial containing graves on the wooded outskirts of Saint Petersburg. [Olga Maltseva/AFP]

A woman October 30 fastens flowers to a tree with portraits of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's purge victims at a memorial containing graves on the wooded outskirts of Saint Petersburg. [Olga Maltseva/AFP]

Caravanserai and AFP

MOSCOW -- On Monday (October 29), hundreds of participants in the "Return of the Names" event, which has been running in Moscow for more than a decade, waited in line to read out the names of those killed, despite questions over whether city authorities would allow the annual ceremony to go ahead.

Others placed flowers and candles by a rock brought from the Solovki labour camp in the far north. The rock sits as a memorial outside the offices of the Federal Security Service (FSB) secret police, formerly the KGB.

"I come every year because I feel I have a duty to pay tribute to the victims," said 55-year-old Sergei Mitrokhin, a member of the liberal Yabloko political party.

"Today, Russia is trying to forget that period," he told AFP.

Russia's attempts to rewrite history

The Kremlin's continued attempts to whitewash the brutality of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's reign of terror have not deterred citizens in Russian and Central Asia from paying tribute to the victims.

During the 1930s, Stalin sent millions of citizens to their deaths for opposing his policies or for a variety of imagined crimes, such as plotting his assassination or spying for several foreign countries simultaneously.

Russia in recent years has seen an official trend to present Stalin's rule in a positive light, while downplaying the repressions and forced collectivisation that killed millions.

Last December, for example, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov said many of Stalin's victims deserved their punishments.

In an interview with the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta, he said many of the criminal cases were legitimate and "had an objective side to them", and suggested "links of coup plotters to foreign security agencies".

Such efforts to rewrite history have reawakened the grief of Central Asians whose families suffered at Stalin's hands.

Exact figures of the Stalin-inflicted death toll throughout the USSR are impossible to compile. Some estimates put the number of executions between 1921 (several years before Stalin seized all power) and 1953 (Stalin's death) at 5.5 million. Other estimates are even higher.

In Kazakhstan alone, estimates suggest nearly a third of all Kazakhs perished as a consequence of Stalin's policies.

Meanwhile, about 40,000 Kyrgyz are believed to have been executed during the Stalin years.

Every November 8, Kyrgyz gather at the the Ata-Beyit (Grave of Our Fathers) Memorial Complex to commemorate those who perished under the Soviet regime. The date formally became a day of remembrance in 2017, but it had been observed as such for years.

Since 1997, Kazakhstan has honoured its own victims of Stalinist terror every May 31.

"We need to keep the memory of those terrible times alive, since we keep falling into the same traps," Anuar Galiev, a historian at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, told Caravanserai earlier this year. "We need to create a system that cannot -- even in theory -- allow the same terrible events to repeat themselves."

'We have to remember'

Rights group Memorial, which organises the 12-hour annual event in Moscow, said this month authorities had rejected plans for the ceremony to take place at its usual location but a few days later said it could go ahead.

"We have to remember all of this," said Anastasia, a 26-year-old student who gave only her first name.

"We can't find anything out [about this period] in the official media," she said. "It all depends on the work of people like those in Memorial who organise this ceremony."

"What the state does to commemorate the victims is completely insufficient," said Maria Sakharova, 80, who was visibly moved after reading out the names of several victims.

Almost half of Russians aged 18-24 said they had never heard of Stalin-era repressions, according to a survey published by the VTsIOM state pollster this month.

Memorial, which also speaks out about current human rights violations in Russia, has come under increasing pressure in recent years.

In 2016, authorities labelled Memorial a "foreign agent" under a 2012 law that obliges groups deemed to have "political" activities and international funding to submit documents every three months outlining their finances.

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Comment bubble | 2018-12-16

The crimes of Stalinism and the Soviet Union cannot be covered up anymore, although Russia is trying hard. But [Russia] will have to pay for everything!

Comment bubble | 2018-12-15

If there were different policies at the time, the 90s would have come much earlier. Now liberals are popping up, yapping about repression under Stalin. Well, let them give you at least one name people would turn into a battle cry and attacked the enemy meeting their fate while repeating "For the Motherland! For Stalin!"

Comment bubble | 2018-12-14

If there were Nemtsov and the likes of him, but not Stalin at the time, do you think that you and the peoples of the fifteen republics would exist today? Yes, Stalin had probably gone too far in some respects, but are you sure he could have done it differently?

Comment bubble | 2018-12-12

Stalin was punished the way he deserved, dying soaked in his pee.

Comment bubble | 2018-12-03

Who did that kind of a blotting paper statistic of the repressed [individuals] at the time? How are the victims of "political repressions of the totalitarian regime" counted? Are their names written along with those who died due to old age, sickness, accidents and others sentenced to death and executed? And how many of them were really "innocent?" Were the kulaks and priests innocent? They cut up Komsomol activists [young communists], teachers, doctors in two with hatchets. The "Forest Brothers", Basmachi and Banderites, Crimean Tatar and Balkar Hiwis [auxiliary forces recruited by Nazi Germany]... Would you consider them "innocent?" And now add up all those sleazeballs and you will have "millions" repressed [victims] new "nati-Anal historians" picked out of their noses, ears and butts!

Comment bubble | 2018-12-02

What millions? According to the archived data, less than one million people were sentenced during Stalin's rule.

Comment bubble reply | 2018-12-06

Impossible! It's probably one million from just one republic

Comment bubble | 2018-11-30

Lenin-Stalin-Hitler-Marx-Engels - they were all from the same nest.

Comment bubble | 2018-11-27

Putin = Stalin = Hitler

Comment bubble | 2018-11-23

May this shoemaker's son burn in hell

Comment bubble | 2018-11-23

Putin is simply trying to whitewash Stalin in order to kill all the opponents of his bloody thievish regime

Comment bubble reply | 2018-12-04

That's right. Morons like you should be annihilated.

Comment bubble | 2018-11-15

This yapping Yank site has made me laugh with its nonsense yet another time

Comment bubble | 2018-11-13

Are there any retards who believe these lies? Do the Yanks really think people in Central Asia are stupider than they are?

Comment bubble | 2018-11-13

[They are] keeping silence... There is nothing to say here. They know neither their own nor world history ))

Comment bubble | 2018-11-11

You bullshitting American rag, why do you post the photo of the dead prisoners at the "Klooga" concentration camp shot to death just before the Red army came [to liberate them]? The bodies were stacked onto a wooden pyre to be burned. Estonian General District, Third Reich, Reichskommissariat Ostland, 1944. And you call them "the victims of STALIN". PEOPLE, DON'T TRUST THIS STINKY SITE.

Comment bubble reply | 2018-11-13

I fully support [your opinion]! There are lies in every article. Yanks know nothing about our history, that's why they are talking trash. Only retarded dunderheads can believe that Yankee bullshit. Those who know would understand this kind of stupidity is laughable ))))

Comment bubble reply | 2018-11-28

The notion that half-educated Stalin was an effective manager is a lie. He was an ordinary serial killer.

Comment bubble reply | 2018-12-02

Then how would you explain that not only did food prices not go up, but, to the contrary, they went down on his watch?