In Russia, the battle for the memory of Soviet repressions

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Issued on: 17/12/2021 – 17:04

In November, shortly before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian authorities moved to close down one of the country’s oldest and most influential NGOs, Memorial, which was dedicated to preserving the memory of Stalin-era repressions. Despite everything, the group’s historians are determined to continue the fight to open up the archives of the Soviet secret services. FRANCE 24’s Elena Volochine reports, with illustrations by Sofiya Voznaya.


Thirty years ago, on 25 December 1991, the president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned. It was the end of the Soviet empire that had lasted for nearly 70 years, and he was the last of the leaders to serve under the red hammer-and-sickle flag.

From 1929 until his death in 1953, that position was occupied by Joseph Stalin, responsible for the extermination of between 3 and 20 million – according to different estimates – of his fellow citizens.

Some 750,000 people are thought to have been shot dead just during the two years of the Great Terror, 1937 and 1938 – the years of the extra-judicial “Troika” courts. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than 18 million people were sent to the Gulag concentration camps, where many of them would die of hunger, cold, illness and exhaustion from forced labour.

Gulag is short for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerei: Central Administration of the Camps. The word became the name for a whole system, described by the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his masterpiece “The Gulag Archipelago”.

When the USSR fell in 1991, the archives of the NKVD – the Soviet secret services, ancestor of the KGB and of today’s Russian FSB – were partially opened. The move gave historians hope that it would finally be possible to shed light on the darkest hours of the past.

But the shroud of secrecy soon descended again. In 2015, an FSB decree declared the identities of NKVD officers who signed deportation and execution orders to be state secrets.

On December 8, 2021, Sergey Prudovsky, a researcher at the NGO Memorial, failed to have this secret lifted by the Russian Supreme Court.

Memorial itself was declared a “foreign agent” in 2014 by the Russian state and is now the target of liquidation proceedings.

As pressure grows on those who are fighting to reveal the details of the crimes of Stalinism, and in particular the names of the perpetrators and victims, Russian civil society groups say the Kremlin is returning to Soviet-era methods, with an all-powerful secret service, state interests taking precedence over individual rights and freedoms, as well as reports of systematic torture within the Russian penitentiary system – heir to the Gulag.

Illustrations by Sofiya Voznaya.

Watch the other episodes from our series marking 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union:

The good old days? Positive feelings about Stalin abound in Russia

Georgia’s Post-Soviet Orthodox Church: a cultural and identity heavyweight

Ukraine’s ‘decommunisation’ and the fall of Soviet symbols

Post-Soviet Estonia: From collective farms to digital powerhouse