A national museum to the victims of Stalinist repression: words not deeds?

President Medvedev may have declared his support for a museum complex outside St Petersburg in memory of Soviet political repression, but a year later the project is no further forward and there are plans to build over the site. Catriona Bass wonders how can words be turned into actions.

Catriona Bass
5 November 2010

This time last year, in a video blog on the day that commemorates the victims of Soviet repression, President Medvedev impressed on the Russian people the importance of remembering the political repression of the Soviet era and said that memorial museums were needed to ensure that it was never forgotten.

This was no empty rhetoric. He had just put his personal signature to an initiative, from the human rights organisation Memorial, to create Russia’s first national memorial museum complex in the Kovalevsky Forest outside St Petersburg, where around 4,500 victims of the Red Terror, the first victims of the Bolshevik regime, lie in still unmarked mass graves.

Kovalevsky Forest

Kovalevsky Forest in the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Around 4,500 victims of the Red Terror lie here in still unmarked mass graves.

But now, one year on, the project’s working group, headed by St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, has gone public on the project in the hope of pushing the President and the Russian Government to follow through on its commitment.

The memorial complex was intended to be the Russia’s equivalent of the holocaust museum at Auschwitz or, as Mikhail Piotrovsky suggests, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. But, despite the fact that none of the federal ministries nor the local government departments who received the presidential directive to examine the proposal has raised any objection, no mechanism has been worked out to implement it or even to give the site legal status as a memorial.

The danger now, as the cultural historian and working group member Alexander Margolis points out, is that the whole burial site could simply disappear under new housing as the Ministry of Defence plans to hand over the land to the local government.

This is a familiar story for Memorial’s Research and Information Centre team in St Petersburg, who uncovered the Kovalevsky site and who have spent the last two decades trying, against the odds, to ensure that such places all over the former Soviet Union are commemorated and kept in the public memory.

Ceremony Kovalevsky Forest

Director of St Petersburg Memorial Research and Information Centre, Irina Flige talking to young Russians about Soviet Repression at Kovalevsky Forest, outside St Petersburg, Russia. Site of execution and burial of 4,500 Petrograders during the Red Terror (1918). Site of planned National Memorial Museum Complex

Indeed, it is symptomatic of a broader problem where declarative statements by Russia’s leaders founder in the lack of political will to develop mechanisms to implement them. Last week, St Petersburg Memorial’s Research and Information Centre hosted a gathering of experts and activists from across the former Soviet Union. It was entitled ‘Forgotten Graves’ and included curators from the Katyn Memorial Cemetery as well as from museums in the Baltic States, Hungary, Poland and Russia. Most of them expressed  similar feelings of frustration at the difficulty of getting access to information, or commitments from the Russian Government followed through, even where these involved bilateral agreements between states.

Today, despite Medvedev’s insistence that the memory of this tragic past should be ‘passed on from generation to generation’, the archives have become more restrictive and none of the memorials that exist is funded or has legal status.

In fact, Hare Island, on which the Peter and Paul Fortress stands (one St Petersburg’s major tourist attractions) is the focus of a battle between Memorial and the local government over the discovery of another site of mass burial. The government refused to examine the site or to commemorate it, and a road has already been built over the graves as part of a planned car park. However, after a public outcry earlier this year, work has temporarily stopped and archaeologists are excavating the territory, but without government funding.

Peter Paul fortress

Peter and Paul Fortress is one of St. Petersburg’s major tourist attractions. It is becoming clear that throughout the 1920s Soviet citizens were shot in the fortress in their hundreds or even thousands (photo: wikimedia)

Peter and Paul fortress was known in Soviet times as Russia’s Bastille, whose doors were flung open by the Bolsheviks after centuries as a tsarist prison and never closed again. Today, tour guides still tell the Bastille myth and avoid discussion with visitors of the recent discoveries, although it is becoming clear that throughout the 1920s Soviet citizens were shot in the fortress in their hundreds or even thousands (only a third of the territory has been examined so far).

This week, Memorial has sent an open letter to Medvedev asking him to intervene in developments at the fortress. In it they offer a list of concrete measures that they hope will help push beyond rhetoric the president’s pronouncements on the importance of historical memory. At the same time, they are trying to stimulate public discussion both over the fortress and the Kovalevsky Memorial Museum.

Alexander Margolis points out the critical importance of a major memorial project such as Kovalevsky, given the perpetuation of Soviet myths by many institutions all over the country. ‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘when our young people visit Peter and Paul Fortress, they should not still be learning that it was a Russian Bastille. They should know that the island fortress on which they are standing is, as it’s now becoming clear, the first island in the Gulag Archipelago.’

Catriona Bass is writing a Biography of St. Petersburg

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