Russia’s history wars: access to the truth restricted – again

The trial of Mikhail Suprun has become the latest cause célèbre in Russia’s continuing history wars. A trumped up charge, a sloppily worded article in the Criminal Code: the case should never have come to court. Now the verdict is about to be handed down – though the expected bad publicity is being kept for after the election – and access to the truth is once more restricted, says Catriona Bass

Before the election

‘The truth is with us! We will be victorious!’ Few people outside Russia will have picked up on the fact that Vladimir Putin chose to end his speech to the ‘United Russia’ Congress on 27 November with an echo of Stalin and Molotov’s famous challenge to Germany at the start of the Second World War.

"Peter is our city, Zenit is our team, Putin is our
president" - so reads a stencilled drawing on a
St Petersburg pavement. Photo: spb-ru

In the week before the parliamentary elections, St Petersburg felt like a city of smoke and mirrors. Good news was everywhere. The TV announced that the city has the highest standard of living in Russia (not far below Zurich and Vienna). On the pavements, stencilled in big white letters by unknown activists ran the slogan: Peter is our city, Zenit is our team, Putin is our president

Teaching children about the past

On 29 November, at the opening of an interactive exhibition for schools on childhood in the 1930s (for which has won an award), children were being invited to fly with the Soviet Hero Chkalov over the Arctic, put out a fire in the great Kirov tank Factory in Leningrad and help to bandage the wounded in the Spanish Civil War. ‘Children don’t know the history of our country,’ the curator told me.

I asked her about representing the darker side of 1930s childhood, which was nowhere to be seen. She directed me to a pair of headphones in the next room, behind the door: a five-minute memoir of Margarita Rudzit who lost her ability to speak for a year, after her father was taken away and shot in 1937. The tragic side of the 1930s has not been left out of the exhibition and any child who happens upon that set of headphones among the dozen others, would get a very different view of Soviet life. I heard the curator mention Margarita Rudzit as she talked to a journalist, but when I scanned the papers the next day, only the happy children’s history had made the press.

The Archangelsk affair

On 30 November, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, called a press conference to publicise the increasing restrictions on their work dedicated to exposing the truth of the Stalinist Terror. The press conference focused on the Arkhangelsk Affair – the criminal case brought by the FSB in 2009 against historian Professor Mikhail Suprun and Police Colonel Alexander Dudarev for compiling a ‘Book of Memory’ about victims of Soviet repression.

Mikhail Suprun, who is a lecturer at Pomorsky University, is accused of infringing Article 137 of the Criminal Code: exposing ‘the personal or family secrets’ of victims of Soviet repression without their consent. Alexander Dudarev, who headed the Internal Ministry archives of Arkhangelsk Region, is said to have exceeded his authority in giving Suprun access to the material. 

The material in question contains the basic biographical details of ethnic Germans deported to the Arkhangelsk Region in the 1930s-1940s. It is quite normal, Mikhail Suprun told journalists: books commemorating victims of Soviet repression have been published all over Russia, including by departments of the FSB, since the ‘Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression’ was passed in 1991.


Lecturer Mikhail Suprun was arrested in 2009 for
compiling a book on victims of Soviet repression.
Authorities say they were acting on complaints by the
victims; campaigners say that Suprun has become a
pawn in Russia's continuing history wars.
Photo: http://hist.pomorsu.ru

When the charges were first brought, the case caused an international outcry. It then disappeared from view and no one imagined that it would go to court, because it was seen as bungling by the local authorities.  However, two years later, in September 2011, the trial began in closed session. It should already have been concluded, but now, according to Memorial spokesperson Tatyana Kosinova, the court has adjourned until Monday. The authorities don’t want negative news leaking out before the elections, she said.

Memorial’s Research and Information Centre in St Petersburg has worked hard during the last two years to prevent the Arkhangelsk Affair from being lost to public view. Every few months a press conference is organised, attended by a handful of faithful journalists – Tatyana Voltskaya, the Petersburg poet and presenter of Radio Freedom, a journalist from Ekho Moskvy and a reporter from Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper for which assassinated journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked. There is no press blackout, according to Ms Kosinova, but only the small circulation liberal media continue to cover the case.

In September 2011, the trial began in closed session. It should already have been concluded, but now, according to Memorial spokesperson Tatyana Kosinova, the court has adjourned until Monday. The authorities don’t want negative news leaking out before the elections, she said.

From the start, the case had the fictional spin of a detective novel, Mikhail Suprun told the press conference in Memorial’s small offices off Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospect. He was arrested at one o’clock on 13 September 2009, supposedly in response to complaints made to the FSB by victims’ relatives, though the first statement of complaint is registered at four o’clock on the same day – three hours after his arrest. During the next two years, the FSB went through Suprun’s life with a fine toothcomb – his visits abroad and university days in Leningrad with an underground journal. His phone was tapped, his car was followed and his students were interrogated. ‘They tried to compromise me in any way they could,’ he said. One day he found that the bolts had been loosened on the front wheels of his car.

What lies ahead?

Suprun’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, petitioned the Constitutional Court to clarify Article 137. ‘A personal or family secret’ remains undefined in the Criminal Code and has never been used in this context before. The petition was turned down – a new ruling prevents applications being made before the verdict. The judge could have applied for clarification. She refused to do so, without any explanation.

Although the trial has not ended, the case has already had an impact on access to archives in St Petersburg and elsewhere. Ms Kosinova said that Memorial researchers were now facing increasing restrictions in regions throughout the former Soviet Union. In Magadan, where many of the gulags were located, the Suprun-Dudarev case has been cited directly as a reason for refusing access to material on Soviet deportees.

Ivan Pavlov told journalists that they were expecting a guilty verdict, but if necessary they will take the case as far as the European Court. ‘This will be the case for freedom of access to the archives,’ Pavlov said.

Ms Kosinova said the case was central to the work of Memorial. Investigating the truth of Soviet repression is the only way to enable Russian society to move on from its past.

Catriona Bass is writing a Biography of St Petersburg

About the author

Catriona Bass (Oxford) is a scholar of Tibetan and Russian history. She has taught at Hubei University in Wuhan and in the 1980s worked for the Lhasa City Government Education Department and the TAR Academy of Social Sciences.  She has addressed the European Parliament and the United Nations on educational development  in the TAR. She has published Inside the Treasure House: A Time in Tibet (Victor Gollancz, 1990) andEducation in Tibet : Policy and practice since 1950 (Zondervan, 1998). She is writing a biography of the city of St Petersburg.