Sergei Lebedev: “How did it come about that the Gulag returned?”
Sergei Lebedev. Photo: Radio Svoboda

20 March 2024

An extract from an interview with Sergei Lebedev by Andrei Arkhangelsky

Source: Radio Svoboda


Sergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981. In his youth he participated in geological expeditions to Russia’s Far North and in Central Asia, at former Gulag sites. He worked as a journalist and deputy editor-in-chief of the newspaper First of September. He published poems in the journals Zvezda and Znamya.
His first novel, Oblivion, came out in 2010. The novel, along with its follow-ups, The Year of the Comet, The People of August, and Goose Fritz, is part of a meta-novel that explores Soviet totalitarian trauma through the lens of private and familial relationships. Lebedev’s fifth novel, Untraceable, is an intellectual thriller that explores the world of the Russian intelligence services and their operations abroad. The first collection of Lebedev’s short stories, A Present Past: Titan and Other Chronicles, came out in April 2023. Lebedev’s books have been translated into 22 languages and have been shortlisted for major book awards.

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– After the massive amount of information that flooded society during perestroika, it seemed impossible for things not to change. That’s what your first book, Oblivion, is about – a young man who learns that his grandfather was an executioner in a camp. To forgive doesn’t mean to forget; but we can see that the majority of people in post-Soviet times ultimately chose to repress the inconvenient information. Was there any way this societal neglect and indifference could have been prevented in the 1990s?

– Let me give you another example from East Germany. Dissidents in the DDR said, at a crucial moment, “We want to see our dossiers. We want to see the Stasi archives.” When this became possible, people started occupying Stasi headquarters in different cities. In fact, this is what Putin observed in Dresden in late fall of 1989. The building was besieged, and over three days demonstrators forced the Stasi to release political prisoners and keep the archives safe. As Evgenia Lyozina shows in her book, The Twentieth Century: Working Through the Past…, this crucial moment of solidarity opened up the possibility for legal consequences. We didn’t have anything like that happen at our corresponding crucial moment. Moreover, framing the issue in this way was considered radicalism.

Here was a turning point, in my opinion. For us, it wasn’t only about opening up the archives of the Stalinist period. Equally important was the opening of the so-called operational archives of the 1970s and ’80s. Further decisions could have been made on the basis of what these archives contained. Legal decisions. Decisions about lustration and the like, to be blunt. Opening all the archives, with no exceptions, in 1991 would have been symbolically significant: the archives would thus have become the property of the public, not of the intelligence services. But it didn’t happen. In my view, this was a critical mistake. Of course, the archives were opened for a period of time after 1991 – some small groups of trusted individuals received access to them, something trickled out – but then the window was quickly slammed shut. Seizing the archives in the 1990s would have had very different repercussions. It would have moved us in the direction of historical justice. Accountability for Soviet crimes in a broad sense has been the most important political issue of the post-Soviet transition. However, the full breadth of accountability hasn’t even been considered.

And before 2014, the most pressing political demand of opponents of Putin’s regime should have been the question of responsibility for the two wars in Chechnya. Not corruption, not elections with stolen votes, but “the blood on your hands.” That’s a very different thing. We know the scale of crimes committed in Chechnya. And the constant inverting of this ethical pyramid – bringing forward economic, corruption-related considerations, and procedural matters – undermined resolving the basic, fundamental issue of guilt and responsibility.

The East German dissidents chose to begin by restoring justice. In other words, they began with retribution. And they made open archives a condition of the German unification treaty. You can argue about how it was done, but either way, after the legal decisions were made, a former Stasi lieutenant colonel simply would not have been entitled to run for office anywhere. As for us, we didn’t even consider that.

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Translated by Nina dePalma