Dance me to the end of history


From one man’s search for his ancestor’s executioners to Holocaust dances – here’s how Russia learns to forget. Русский


Mikhail Kaluzhsky
2 December 2016

On the night of 1 December 1937, the 56 year-old farmer Stepan Karagodin was arrested by NKVD agents in Tomsk region. He was convicted of espionage, organising sabotage operations and aiding Japanese military intelligence, for which he was sentenced to death. Image courtesy of Denis Karagodin.

The phenomenal investigation of Denis Karagodin has become one of the hottest news stories of past weeks. The Tomsk resident established the names and ranks of the NKVD agents responsible for the execution of his great-grandfather Stepan Karagodin in January 1938. Moreover, Karagodin intends to hold to account all those responsible for and party to his ancestor’s murder.

Karagodin achieved clear results — but his initiative was unique for another reason. Namely, he demonstrated what one ambitious person can achieve alone, as a private individual, motivated by private interests. Karagodin doesn’t speak about “Stalinist repressions” in a broad sense; he dives into his own family’s history and demands justice for his great-grandfather. Importantly, this turned out to be the most effective way not only to reveal the truth, but to cast doubt on the omnipotence of those who conceal it.

Casting the first stone 

Much has been written about the investigation. Its author’s obvious indignation provoked much discussion on social networks, which then spilt over into mass media. The granddaughter of one of the firing squad even began a correspondence with Karagodin. The grandchildren of a victim and executioner reconciled with one another. But others were not so forgiving. Karagodin, they said, “undermines the foundation of the state and of its law enforcement”. He was merely “looking for ways to punish the dead” (link in Russian), all the better to “cast judgement on the living” (link in Russian). 

This approach to memory isn’t interested in the complexities and inconsistencies of the past. It is simply a feel-good project, a balm for the soul

Karagodin’s critics were offended at this assault on the settled order of things, an attempt to blacken the name of the state’s secret police. Their reaction only went to show that they — intentionally or not — identify themselves with the current Russian government, its system of values and its worldview. These values don’t permit much, and certainly not the right of an individual to historical truth and justice. That particular right is monopolised by the state itself — by the president, ministries and some particularly eager ministers, or by quasi-civic organisations such as the Russian Military-Historical Society.

“Know your place!” servile state journalists urge Denis Karagodin. “Don’t you get it? We’ll put up a monument to the repressed Soviet citizens on Sakharov Prospekt, we’ve opened a new Gulag museum… repressions are just a part of history. There’s no use in returning to them; rehabilitation finished long ago. Besides, we must concentrate on fighting fascism today, whether in Ukraine or in the Baltic states.”


Denis Karagodin undertook the investigation into his great-grandfather’s murder alone, on his own initiative. Photo courtesy of D. Karagodin, from his site blog.stepanivanovichkaragodin.org

It’s tempting to dismiss Karagodin’s most vituperative critics as being apologists for the Gulag. But that’s too easy; these people are by no means Stalin-worshippers. Their pointed reluctance to work through the past is not based on a denial of repression. They simply want to forget about evil, instead choosing love — but not justice. 

A refusal to work through the dark sides of our past, the better to concentrate on the wonderful present, is at the very core of the government’s politics of memory. We could try to imagine the most effective implementation of this idea, but we needn’t — there are plenty of examples. “Ice Age”, a recent live show on Channel One, brought together the actor Andrey Burkovsky and professional figure skater Tatyana Navka. As well as being an Olympic champion, Navka is married to Putin’s press secretary and was once a confidante to the president herself.

The Holocaust, on ice

“Ice Age” is an extremely popular programme; a figure skating competition featuring professional athletes and celebrities. On 26 November Burkovsky and Navka, dressed in black and white striped outfits with yellow stars of David and prisoner numbers, performed to the score from Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning film “Life is Beautiful”. The jury awarded them top points for their artistry and performance. 

The performance outraged many — and not without good reason. Of course, the Holocaust, like any tragedy, may be spoken about in any artistic language. But it’s just as obvious that for figure skaters to wear concentration camp uniforms while receiving accolades from the jury for their technique was the very height of bad taste. It’s not as if one expects subtlety or sensitivity from Channel One. Shows like “Ice Age” are not the best venue for an artistic interpretation of historical tragedies, which have often been expressed in film, theatre, opera and even comic books

But the dance of the Kremlin press secretary’s wife could have been forgotten were it not for the context around that particular broadcast of “Ice Age”. And this context made its way into the on-air discussions which followed. “The message here is to study history!” said one commentator, of the performance. “A history which has been offered up to us like this, on a silver platter!” 

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Andrey Burkovsky and Tatyana Navka perform on “Ice Age”, for Russia’s Channel One. Image still via YouTube.

This dance was an answer from this semi-official culture and politics of memory to Denis Karagodin, and to projects such as the Topography of Terror (link in Russian), or Last Address. It was an answer to those who believe that the work of historical memory requires individual contemplation and effort, along with full disclosures of information about the recent past which so strongly shapes our present.

Skating in a dream 

There are no coincidences here. Burkovsky and Navka’s dance is a brilliant example of how the state’s politics of memory has entered the ideological mainstream and work of propagandists, which is what many Russian journalists and cultural figures have essentially become.

Today, this semi-official politics of memory is not capable of having a full discussion on national history — it prefers to concentrate on military triumphs. The horrors of Nazism somewhere in Europe remains a hot topic. The horrors of the Soviet era most certainly do not.

This semi-official politics of memory is ubiquitous, as it delivers its message through the state’s media networks

This approach to the politics of memory also uses the artistic styles of the Soviet era. Figure skating was a key entertainment product in the Soviet Union, having a strong presence in the life of every soviet citizen with a television. Today, it’s an ideal means to hearken back to the Soviet era — combining glamour and a lack of ideology (at face value) with calls to “cheer for our guys!” Everybody is united by the performance of the national anthem as awards are presented.

The most memorable performance of the soviet national anthem after a figure skating victory came in 1980, when Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaytsev took a gold at Lake Placid, USA. The elegant, determined Rodnina was an icon of soviet figure skating. Her biography perfectly embodies the style and continuity of post-soviet politics — she’s been a deputy in the state duma (representing, of course, United Russia) for some ten years. Just as in the soviet era, figure skating occupies an important place in the country’s leading television channel.


Visitors to the “Russia: my history” exhibition in Moscow. (c) Maksim Blinov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

But nowadays, the focus of these dances on ice has shifted from a simple competition to a pop-culture parade of celebrities and TV stars. This semi-official politics of memory is near ubiquitous, as it delivers its message through the state’s media networks. Television is particularly useful in this sense, and not only because the “common information space” built up under Putin has crept its way into all apartments and offices. It’s an ideal medium. Much like the new monuments to dubious historical figures, television presents a monologue with which its viewers can seldom interact, condensing any information or any art form into convenient, trendy, entertaining soundbites. These can be absorbed without critical reflection. 

Finally, this approach to memory, much like its many followers, isn’t interested in the complexities and inconsistencies of the past. It is simply a feel-good project, a universal balm for the soul. Reconciliation, in its understanding, is embodied by simple pleasures in the here and now, which cancel out all the conflicts of the past.

We’ve never had it so good

The Siberian city of Tomsk is a remarkable place. It’s given us not only Karagodin, but the first, genuine version of the Immortal Regiment initiative, which sees Russians march through the streets bearing portraits of their ancestors who were killed in the second world war. A year ago the Tomsk regional museum and youth theatre staged a performance based on my documentary play about the Chainsk uprising (link in Russian). 

In the summer of 1931, this remote district rose in revolt. Settlers, who had been exiled from the southern regions of Siberia to this area of swamps and taiga, put forward political demands — but the driving factor was desperation following a terrible famine. Documents used in research for the play show that settlers had hardly been sent any food supplies. In the discussions following the premiere, audience members spoke about working with archival materials and of the need to reevaluate the soviet past and how it is commemorated.

“This play brings up great tragedies and horrors”, remarked one young woman from the audience. “But I think that now, given that I can choose between an espresso or a cappuccino in the petrol station cafe, it’s simple — we live very, very well”.

Russia demonstrates a peculiar interpretation of Marx’s ideas: with a glowing smile, it joyously refuses its own past

Svetlana Kuritsyna, a pro-Kremlin youth activist and television personality also known as “Sveta from Ivanovo”, put it particularly well. Her enduring words that “we’ve started to dress better” could become the slogan for the entire state-driven campaign of reconciliation and forgetting. 

And that’s why Russia’s committed Stalinists have nothing to fear. Their struggle to whitewash yesterday’s repressions — all the better to excuse those of today — is continued on their behalf by many authors (who are by no means hardcore soviet nostalgics) whose books laud Stalin as an “effective manager” or a “military genius”. 

Today’s fashionable, positive, forward-thinking young people continue to carry the torch. Some of them aren’t above buying, producing and wearing cheerful t-shirts with pictures of Stalin. This isn’t the result of ideology per se, but of the destruction of normal communication and conversation between members of society. A society in which ageing Stalinists and bright young things with no time for politics both follow the cultural politics of the Kremlin. 

Karl Marx wrote of a humanity which could “cheerfully part with its past”. In its own way, Russia demonstrates a peculiar interpretation of Marx’s ideas — with a glowing smile, it joyously refuses its own past.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards

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