2018-11-01 | Human Rights
Central Asia looks on as Kremlin attempts to whitewash repression
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.