By Hamilton Walters

“He (Stalin) was a great popular leader. No revelation about what he did will change my mind.” (1)

- Oleg Korbalev, citizen of Moscow, age 63, March 2003.

The myths that Stalin was a benevolent leader, grand modernizer and reformer, and national savior of the peoples of the Soviet Union have proven to be just as resilient as the man himself. Despite Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign, Gorbachev’s Glasnost initiatives, and the cessation of the cold war, these myths have prevailed. The concepts of Stalin “the leader” – Stalin “the hero” (as opposed to Stalin “the criminal”) are vibrant today in Russia even as the bones of his victims, among them women and children, are being excavated from mass graves. Today, the living victims of Stalin’s “excesses” find little sympathy for their fractured lives either officially or among the masses.

In August of this year the leader of Russia’s Communist Party sentimentally recounted Stalin’s rule and likened him to notables of the Renaissance age. (2) On March 7, 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of Stalin’s death, thousands of Russians tearfully laid wreaths at his grave site in Moscow. A recent poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation found that 36 percent of Russians believe Stalin did more good than harm. (3) There has even been a movement by some of the citizens of Volgograd to change the name of their city to its former name of Stalingrad. (4)

Reasons why the Stalin myth remains vibrant 50 years after his death are subject to numerous suppositions. First, concerns issues of culpability. If Stalin is damned officially, then it is logical to assume that such a denunciation would lead to a thorough investigation of Stalin’s crimes. Considering the breadth of Stalin’s security apparatus (which extended from snitches lurking in public restrooms to internal security bosses like the infamous Beria) there are possibly just as many culprits as there are victims. And as former victims of political abuses and their relatives struggle for vindication, so, perhaps, the perpetrators of those crimes wish to keep such issues in the dark. Culpability even extends to ordinary Soviet citizens who may have turned in or publicly castigated co-workers and relatives judged to be “enemies of the state,” thus falling in line with the Stalin-era maxim: “You die today, so I will live tomorrow.” (5)

Another aspect to the durability of the Stalin myth may be attributed to Russia’s loss of national prestige. Viktor Anpilov, a member of a Stalinist party in Russia, claims that foreign nations treated Russia with respect during Stalin’s rule, and now the international community is “laughing at us.” (6) Russia’s economic woes, high crime rate, collapsing social support systems, and troubled transition to democracy have some Russians yearning for the “good old days” of law and order. President Putin, a former KGB agent, may be making use of such perceptions with his tough stance on Chechnya, crack down on “criminals,” and stifling of Russia’s independent media. In Putin’s drive to create a stronger centralized government bent on establishing “stability” and regaining honor, images of Stalin “the leader-hero” could prove quite useful. For example, Putin recently restored the Stalin-era Soviet national anthem and allowed the Russian Central Bank to issue Stalin commemorative silver coins.

This brief analysis will focus on several aspects of the Stalin legacy in Russia today: legal marginalization of the survivors of Stain-era atrocities, lack of international concern relating to newly discovered Stalin-era mass graves in Russia, and a salute to the Russian NGOs that are bravely battling in both the past and present to ensure that the truth will prevail in the future.

Sentenced to obscurity: the survivors

“In Russia today nobody is willing to recognize the horrendous crimes of the past. There are 17,000 of us who lost parents under Stalin in Moscow alone but the authorities simply pretend we do not exist.” (7)

In 1991, a new Russian law permitted former Gulag prisoners to seek limited compensation for property seized by various Soviet internal security apparatuses. In accordance with this law, each victim must produce three witnesses to confirm their claim, but only in rare instances can these witnesses be located – most have died or have “disappeared.” (8) Children who had been sent to the Gulag along with their parents were denied compensation until 1996. After years of political sidestepping, the Russian Duma in 2003 enacted into law compensation for the sons and daughters of Stalinist repression. The Duma’s move, perhaps, was not an act of goodwill, but a face saving gesture after local courts took the initiative and began awarding damages to the victims of Stalin era repression. (9) State compensation for these victims amounts to approximately $3.44 USD a month, a 50% discount on medicine, one free train ticket, and free false teeth.

Mass Graves: not a dead issue

The discovery of mass graves, possibly containing 15,000 bodies, in Mahawil, Iraq touched off a media frenzy, but when Russian volunteers a year earlier at Toksovo (15 miles northwest of St. Petersburg) uncovered what may be the biggest mass grave of Stalin era repression yet discovered – containing an estimated 30,000 bodies – the story barely registered a blip on the international media screen. At the Mahawil site forensic teams were dispatched, international organizations issued statements, and myriad questions and concerns were raised. The scene at the mulberry bog in Toksovo was much different; a handful of Memorial volunteers marked off the site with plastic bags mounted on sticks. (10) Making matters worse, FSB officials not only deny that political crimes took place at the site and deny humanitarian organizations access to its archives, but on several occasions soldiers have blocked the road leading to graves forestalling progress in the investigation. (11)

Human rights organizations like Amnesty international have been outspoken in pressing for answers relating to “enforced disappearances” that have occurred in Iraq, Argentina, Bosnia, Kosovo, and even in Chechnya, but have been curiously silent about enforced disappearances of the Stalin era (which exceed exponentially the number of enforced disappearances in the aforementioned countries). Could it be that only the recently slaughtered illicit concern? Also, if bodies can be located and exhumed in the hazardous conditions in Iraq, then why not in Russia? If a small volunteer group like Memorial can locate mass graves weaving together scant traces of evidence, then how much more could be accomplished by a professional, well-funded organization?

Russian NGOs: fighting in the past and present for the future

The decades of crimes perpetrated by Stalin and his associates constitute one of largest human catastrophes of the modern era. Even today, the victims of these crimes and their family members continue to suffer. Their suffering is further intensified by government callousness and resistance, the indifference of the Russian masses, and absence of international media outrage. Since the beginning of perestroika, several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have stepped forward in an attempt to confront Stalin and heal the wounds he created.

Russian NGO Memorial

“Yet leaving behind the tragic truth means abandoning one’s own memory. A society without memory will obediently play into the hands of any demagogue –” (12)

Founded in 1991, Memorial deals with a myriad of social issues from human rights education to investigating Russian military war crimes in Chechnya. But Memorial’s primary goal, as the name denotes, is to ensure that the political abuses committed by Stalin government will not be forgotten. To achieve its goals the organization must struggle in both the realms of the past and present or in the world of the dead and the living.

In confronting the past, Memorial compiles data concerning biographical information of victims and the possible locations of mass graves. Only for a brief period in the early 1990s did various organs of the Russian government allow Memorial access to its archives. The information, vital in placing new sites, is now largely restricted. (13) However, Memorial continues to forge ahead undaunted in its mission, presently relying on the testimonies of former Gulag prisoners or the relatives of these prisoners in an attempt to piece together the past. The amount of material collected in this manner has been massive, if not overwhelming, and has led to the creation of “Books of Memory.” The “Books” include biographical data of the victims of political persecution (most them executed) and are situated throughout various regions of Russia. (14)

In tackling the Stalin era abuse issues of the survivors, Memorial has erected plaques at sites of political repression, set up study centers, published articles, pressed for the full rehabilitation of former political prisoners, and assisted relatives to acquire information about their “disappeared” and deceased loved ones. The organization also pushes the Russian government to fulfill its compensative obligations to former political prisoners in accordance with the 1991 Law on Rehabilitation. In its various museums, Memorial displays the artwork of former Gulag inmates, which “bear witness to the life in the camps” (15) and provide these marginalized groups with an additional and possibly therapeutic mode of expression.

Russian NGO Compassion

“We have a civic duty towards those who have survived the Gulag, and consequently we will continue our help of these citizens, as they are not helped by the state.” (16)

Compassion, established in 1992 and funded primarily by international organizations, states that its main objective is to provide Gulag survivors with medical and psychological care. According to the group, many of the former prisoners no longer have ties with their families and suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and other illnesses associated with mistreatment during incarceration. (17) The fact that these victims are now elderly and often poor compounds the problem. Compassion also conducts various education campaigns to insure Russians do not forget the horrors of Stalin’s repression, for example, once a year the group sponsors an international youth camp located on the grounds of a former Gulag. (18) Compassion also provides training relating to concepts of non-violence and toleration.

1 “Joseph Stalin 1879-1953.” Canadian Broadcasting Company 6 March 2003. 22 November 2003

2 “Oh Feel the Warmth of Stalin’s Hand.” The New York Times 9 March 2003. 18 September 2003

3“Oh Feel the Warmth of Stalin’s Hand.” The New York Times 9 March 2003. 18 September 2003

4 Ibid.

5 “A Crippling Legacy.” The Washington Post 5 March 2003. 22 November 2003

6 “Still Mourning Stalin.” Economist 1 March 2003. 9 September 2003

7 “2 Pounds-a-month sop Stalin’s Russian Victims.” The Electronic Telegraph (UK) 28 January 2003. 22 November 2003;$sessionnid$DVUQQF0V.

8 Ibid.

9 “2 Pounds-a-month sop Stalin’s Russian Victims.” The Electronic Telegraph (UK) 28 January 2003. 22 November 2003;$sessionnid$DVUQQF0V

10 “Memorial Caught in a Grave Spat.” The Moscow Times 14 August 2003. 20 September 2003

11 “Soviet Union’s Pasr remains Buried.” San Francisco Chronicle 22 August 2003. 20 September 2003

12“The Historical Enlightenment Work of Memorial.” Memorial Human Rights Center. 29 November 2003

13 “Perpetuating the Memory of the Victims of Repression.” Memorial Human Rights Center. 29 November 2003

14 “The Historical Enlightenment Work of Memorial.” Memorial Human Rights Center. 29 November 2003

15 “The Historical Enlightenment Work of Memorial.” Memorial Human Rights Center. 29 November 2003

16Humanitarian and Charitable Center Compassion. 22 November 2003

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.