The Memorial Society Oversimplified

The goals of the Memorial Society were to give survivors of the prison camps a forum to express their grief and anger. It would also allow the survivors to build a monument to the victims of Stalinism and a center devoted to the history of repression. When members of Memorial tried to get signatures on a petition in 1987 to build a monument, KGB agents intervened, detained activists, and confiscated their materials. The Minsk government also discouraged students from participating in Memorial’s activities by threatening to lower their grades and withhold diplomas. Along with this, Minsk officials threatened to fire activists from their jobs and deny them any bonuses or promotions.

In 1988, a group of young writers applied to Minsk city authorities to conduct a public gathering to commemorate those killed by Stalin. The writers were denied permission yet the organizers went ahead and held the gathering anyway, regardless of threats.  City authorities shut down all public transportation to the cemetery where the meeting was to take place and the police seized and detained a number of well-known cultural figures walking towards the meeting site. To add ironic icing on the cake, the police violently repressed the remaining activists, including the activists’ children, with riot shields, tear gas, and batons.

Two years later, after pressure from notable Soviet citizens such as Andrei Sakharov, Memorial had an official charter and was recognized by the Soviet government. In addition to the activities of Memorial, there were many other examples of public discussion about the gulag. There were even posters made to commemorate victims of Stalinist repressions (for the first time in forever…). Newspapers published letters written by individuals who had been imprisoned in the gulags. However, not all letters to newspapers were anti-Stalinist. A letter appeared in the newspaper Soviet Russia on March 13, 1988 (titled I Cannot Forsake My Principles) while Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin (the eventual first leader of the Russian Federation) were overseas. Inside, Nina Andreyeva, its writer, expressed her allegiance to Stalin.

Meanwhile, Gorbachev, upon arriving back in the USSR, truthfully revealed that many members of the Politburo seemed to share Andreyeva’s views. It took him one month to convince the Politburo to publish an official response to her account on April 5. Despite Gorbachev’s efforts, Andreyeva’s account sparked the birth of the pro-Stalinist movement “UNITY”, a movement which had members across the entire Soviet Union by 1991. UNITY freely proclaimed admiration of Stalin, and downplayed the significance of purges. While UNITY was an extreme case of pro-Stalinism, the majority of the population in the late Soviet period seemed to develop a case of “willed amnesia.” Even under conditions that allowed free discussion, most people seemed to settle for forgetting the past. When a list of Stalin’s victims began appearing in a Moscow newspaper, readers complained that they had heard enough about Stalinism. Perhaps economic upheavals of the time were a more immediate concern (in hindsight, they probably still are).

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

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