Artefacts from Stalins brutal reign give the lie to Putins vision of a heroic Soviet past, says author and historian Irina Sherbakova
Great expectations characterised 1989. In Russia, the rock band Kino sang We are waiting for changes! In huge public rallies on the streets of Moscow, millions demanded freedom and democracy. The Gorbachev era brought about a frenzy of change, and people witnessed incredible events on a weekly basis: they snatched up newspapers, hung on every word broadcast on TV, and with every passing day they felt more alive and free.
Many also understood that to change the rotten Soviet system one had to know the truth about its Stalinist past. It was the year the human-rights organisation Memorial was founded, bringing together hundreds of activists from across the Soviet Union. Some of them had experienced life in the gulags. Some were dissidents who had recently returned from labour camps or places of exile, such as the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. The mission was clear: we would bring back the memory of Stalins victims and make it public.
In the spring of 1989, something happened that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams: I was invited to the history and archives institute in Moscow to give a talk to students on the fates of former gulag prisoners. Afterwards one asked me if I had ever met a real-life Stalin supporter. My first reaction was to laugh, but then I paused and wondered: had we finally reached a point in time when 20-year-olds thought no Stalinists existed any more? Thirty years on, I recall that moment with a bitter feeling.
In the early 1990s, visitors flocked to the small house where Memorial had its offices. They brought documents, memoirs of prisons and labour camps, letters from gulags, and little notes that had been thrown from freight cars in transit and had miraculously reached their intended recipients. Other objects from the gulags included plywood labour camp trunks, quilted prison jackets with inmate numbers, jagged spoons and bowls. Visitors brought handwritten books, embroidery, drawings and watercolours that they had managed to hide during searches of their cells. This led to the creation of an archive at Memorial, a collection of thousands of fragments of family memories.
At the time we thought this was only the beginning of a long process and that our new political leaders had realised that getting to grips with the past was a key task. But the reformers lacked interest in history; they were in a rush to build a market economy. They didnt see the link between successful economic reforms and the need for a vibrant civil society. Boris Yeltsins government would mention Soviet political repression only ahead of elections in order to fend off the Communists.
Soon enough, in the grip of severe economic crisis, democracy became a dirty word for many Russians. They were disappointed, and felt reforms were never truly accomplished. Russian society succumbed to weariness and indifference. Stalinist crimes, once thought better out in the open, had turned out to be so horrific that people didnt want to spend time thinking about them.