Lev Shlosberg: The Unrepentant State

28 October 2021

By Lev Shlosberg

Source: Website of Lev Shlosberg

On 30 October, the victims of political repression are remembered across Russia. Millions of people, whose names will most likely never be listed in full (since many executions took place in secret, and no records were kept), became victims of the people-hating Bolshevik government of the USSR. 30 October is, above all, a day of remembrance. But it should also be a day of repentance by the state for its past crimes against humanity.

The losses people suffered during those years of repression will never, and can never, be remedied. Millions of lives were cut short, leaving a void that will last forever.

Unless the state repents, the victims cannot properly be remembered.

Yet state officials hardly ever come to these memorials. They shun them, as if they are uncomfortable standing alongside the victims’ relatives. It’s as if they can’t work out on which side of the firing line they would have stood back then, 80 years ago, and – forgive me for saying – which side they would stand if (God forbid) large-scale, bloody repression was to return. That’s why they back out and studiously ignore the day altogether.

And so they don’t come. They are afraid of saying the wrong thing in public, since most victims of political repression were found guilty principally for what they had said. Words, whether real or imagined, were used to fabricate bloody prosecutions … and death sentences.

Today’s interim overlords are running scared. What if Leninist and Stalinist repression were to be deemed acceptable, and everything went back to the way it was?

And if everything did go back to the way it was, what would that make the current overlords: victims or executioners? Or, as happened in the 20th century, first executioners, and then victims?

They’re scared, but they don’t want to admit it – to themselves or to others. That’s why they have no desire to go along to these mournful, sacred places, where lying and hypocrisy are off limits. The people who do go know the truth. There’s no deceiving them.

The stench of Stalinism has returned to Russian society. His public portraits, busts, and eulogies are back. The spectre of the most notorious executioner of all time is emerging from obscurity and becoming appealing – something to be welcomed. The spiritual successors of the executioners like the smell of victims’ blood. As the executioners’ political heirs, they are ready and willing to continue their work. Stalin has restored repression to Russia once again, at the start of the 21st century. 

These days, it’s not just outmoded to remember the victims of repression, but politically dangerous, too. The profiles of Joseph Vissarionovich and Vladimir Vladimirovich have converged in striking fashion, just like the bas-reliefs of Soviet times. Lenin. Stalin. Putin. You simply can’t fail to notice the continuity.

One of Putin’s very first policy decisions was to restore the anthem of the USSR to Russia. The original 1943 lyrics are unforgettable: “To a righteous cause Stalin raised the people, To labour and heroic deeds he inspired us!”

He wrote and corrected those lyrics himself, personally instructing Sergei Mikhalkov and Gabriel El-Registan on what to write, and how. He summoned the authors of the draft to see him in the Kremlin, and they rewrote the lines of the future anthem right there with their leader, following his instructions, taking his creative lead, and trembling with mortal fear, wondering what would happen if he didn’t approve.

These words are utterly inseparable from this music, no matter how much you might try to rewrite them. These sounds, these words, this bloodied name formed the accompaniment to people’s executions.

It was with this same red pencil that Stalin signed off the lists of those to be executed.

“He inspired our work and our deeds!” sang the executioners.

They had been trained up by Stalin.

It is hard to imagine anything less suited to a country drenched in the blood of those repressed than Stalin’s anthem. But it rings forth again and again, and its sounds are the sounds of triumph in that bloodthirsty time – triumph over the victims, over their descendants, trampling over their memory, over this nationwide tragedy of ours, for which nobody has taken responsibility – neither the executioners, nor the government itself.

This absence of justice, of a nationwide trial in which not only the victims but also the executioners and informants would be named, is in itself the position taken by the state – it is contemporary Russia’s state policy.

This policy is entirely at odds with bosses showing up at memorials held by people who lost their relatives to political repression. Because if they are not repentant, these civil servants have no reason to be there.

The Russian state today has plenty to repent for, vis-à-vis those whose relatives suffered from the repression. It directly encroaches on the very memory of those victims, their names, their legacies.

Back in March 2014, the Interdepartmental Commission for Protecting State Secrets adopted a resolution to extend the length of time for which documents of state security agencies are classified for a further 30 years.

However, documents which contain state secrets are only required by law to be kept for 30 years from the time at which they were written. According to a decree issued by president Boris Yeltsin on 23 June 1992, entitled “On the Removal of Classified Status from Legislative and Other Acts which Served as the Basis for Mass Repression and Infringements on Human Rights”, all materials relating to repression and human rights abuses were to be declassified. Despite this, access to most archives is still closed in practice. The president’s decree has not been annulled, but neither is it being enforced.

By 2044, thousands and thousands of those who lost their loved ones to repression, and who are seeking the truth about what happened, will have passed away. They do not have time to find the truth. And many of those who suffered repression have no living descendants to take up the mantle for them.

There is a reason that the state security archives are being closed. They contain not only the names of the executioners and informants; they also contain the very technology that the state used to commit violence – evidence that the repression was not a case of “the regions overstepping the mark”, but a criminal policy, ordered by the state.

This criminal apparatus has still not been condemned. Moreover, it is being gradually rehabilitated in the political sphere, day by day. It might find new people to serve in the current government. Most of them currently hold high political office, serve in the government. And Stalin is, of course, with them.

That’s why their accomplices in the government don’t attend memorials for victims of political repression.

They are looking to repeat it.

Translated by Lindsay Munford and Judith Fagelson

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