4 March 2023
On the eve of the seventieth anniversary of Iosif Stalin’s death, Deutsche Welle’s Anastasia Butsko spoke with historian Irina Shcherbakova
Source: Deutsche Welle
Irina Shcherbakova, cofounder of the international historical-educational, philanthropic, and human rights society Memorial, shared her views with DW on March 1953, the awareness of the past, the Soviet Union after Iosif Stalin, the war in Ukraine, and regime transformation in modern Russia. Russian Memorial was one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.
DW: Irina Lazarevna, on 5 March 2023, it will be 70 years since the death of Iosif Stalin. In March 1953, you were a small child. Do you remember the event?
Irina Shcherbakova: Yes! I know it sounds funny, but my first conscious memories are linked specifically to Stalin’s death. You know, children do remember certain “flashes.” I remember people who had been sent home from work coming to see my parents and my grandmother and grandfather. We know that Stalin was planning a new wave of repressions. There was something in the air. What was this? What was going to happen? Maybe Stalin was the last barrier? If he dies now, might a bloody terror ensue that will sweep over everyone? Because in the eyes of many, Stalin was still at least some kind of Marxist and Lenin’s comrade-in-arms. People had those illusions, too. As Naum Korzhavin wrote, addressing Russia: “In Malenkov’s heavy, muddy gaze / Could this now really be all your fate?” They were terribly afraid. They were waiting.
But from those same childish feelings I remember how, after this icy March, the season changed and warmer weather came. It is true after all. Literally barely more than two weeks passed before Beria began, so to speak, to release that spring, realizing that the only way he could hold on was by releasing that spring. Rehabilitation began for those convicted in the Doctors Plot, and the newspapers published a letter banning “measures of physical persuasion”—that is, banning the use of torture.
And where do we find ourselves now? It’s simply frightening to imagine. If even in the Soviet era torture was practiced in secret, and the people who came out of the prisons and prison camps only spoke of it in whispers, then now everyone sees and knows everything: both that they torture people with electroshock and that violence is going on in the penal colonies. And somehow society has just not protested against this on a massive scale. And this for me as a historian is an absolutely horrific turn.
– On the conscience of Stalin and his circle lie millions of human lives and mangled fates and the destruction of the country’s intellectual and cultural elite. At the same time, Russia in recent years has once again been seeing monuments appear to the “father of the peoples.” A bust to the Generalissimus was unveiled in Volgograd, which was renamed Stalingrad for one day on the anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. How could this have become possible?
– This is tied to the transformation of the Putin regime and to the state’s newly reproclaimed role. As soon as Stalin started coming up as the symbol of this state, it was obvious to us in Memorial the direction in which the country was moving. This continued over the course of twenty years—step by step, law by law. As soon as the main doctrine became aggressive nationalism, in which the main role is played by a strong state and the myth around the “great Victory,” whose creator, it turns out, was not the Soviet people (as Khrushchev formulated it) but Stalin, it became obvious that time was rewinding to the period before the XX Congress. If Stalin has become the symbol of the state, it’s perfectly obvious that the path is opening up to violence, the path to repressions. This is to say nothing even of the fact that this means a tremendous concentration of power in the hands of one man, a dictator.
– A little more than a year ago, in late December 2021, you and I spoke at what turned out to be your last exhibit in Moscow, “The Female Memory of the Gulag.” Were you positing the further development of events?
– Since the day this “heir,” so to speak, was announced (on 31 December 1999, Vladimir Putin was announced as Boris Yeltsin’s heir. — Ed.), I personally have been in a very pessimistic frame of mind in general. Like all of us, though, I hoped it wouldn’t go too far. That some great event, like the Soviet Union’s peaceful collapse, which I consider one of Perestroika’s great accomplishments (after all, it could have been otherwise, as the terrible example of Yugoslavia later proved), and Ukraine’s peaceful separation would give us hope for the future.
My hopes diminished greatly when the Chechen war began in December 1994. Nonetheless, I wanted to believe this would be such a slow decay of the regime that none of this would be that catastrophic. Since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, everything has become absolutely clear. Nonetheless, when the night before 24 February of last year I received the text—“They’re bombing Kyiv”—it felt like a roof collapsing on my head.
We’re not talking only about my individual perception. Being a historian, I immediately realized that a terrible catastrophe had occurred whose consequences—for Europe and especially for Russia—we can still barely understand today. Although, I will honestly say, I don’t even feel like talking about Russia right now. In this situation we have to talk and think about Ukraine.
This is that instance when historians see sooner and more than political scientists do. And it cannot be said that we did not warn of what was coming. We did.
– Then a question for you as a historian. That is, based on the historical experience we know, is the further development of events more or less predictable?
– No, no, that would be pure speculation. Of course, we can console ourselves a little with such an optimistic date as the anniversary of Stalin’s death – there are few optimistic historical dates in Russia. But no one can predict the development of the current situation.
At the time of Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union was a country that had gone through the war and won a moral victory. Now there is an unjust, brutal, aggressive war, and it is unclear how a thaw, perestroika and humanization of society can follow after it. I think this war is a disaster and the beginning of the end for the Putin regime. But war provides a very dangerous ‘groundwork’ for change in society.
– For decades, Memorial has been doing tremendous work throughout the country. It seemed that the point of no return had already been reached, that many things might happen but certainly not the opening of new monuments to Stalin. Why did this happen?
– Awareness of the past is a very difficult process, requiring very great effort from the whole of society and from the state. Memorial could not do this work alone. Great resources were needed and an understanding that this was absolutely vital work. At first the government didn’t have the strength to do this, and then there developed an attitude that ‘Well, yes, it was, but it was in the past. Yes, it’s bad there were victims, but let us just get on with our lives, don’t torment us with this anymore. Let us rather remember “how well we lived badly” during the Brezhnev era.’ There was a certain canonization, normalization of the Soviet past.
We failed to convince people that no real reforms are possible until we recognize that our grandparents, our parents, and we ourselves lived in a criminal state, in a criminal, inhumane system. This is something people were not prepared to accept in the 1990s.
– And, apparently, they’re not ready to accept it now either.
– Even less so now than then! And as a result, we have arrived where we are. The main feature of the current dictatorship is its repressive nature. Before the war, people could be persuaded that the repressions were not directed against everyone, but against specific individuals or groups, but now the war and the mobilization show that everyone is involved in what is happening, everyone has been drawn into it.
– I don’t ask about predictions anymore.
– You know the saying: ‘You must live a long time in Russia.’ Then maybe you’ll live to see a thaw, reforms, the death of a tyrant. My grandmother always liked to say this to comfort us: ‘I have survived everyone since Aleksandr III. Don’t worry, you’ll survive this lot too.’
I can’t accept predictions that ‘all is lost,’ and people are making a lot of predictions like that nowadays. But the price to be paid if Russia takes another path will be very high. And no one will escape from collective guilt – and I mean collective guilt not in a legal but a historical sense.