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Soviet repression

Fiona Clark, MoscowAugust 23, 2015

In recognizing the atrocities of the Soviet past, will Russia be able to calm its own current troubled waters? Fiona Clark in Moscow investigates.

Image: picture-alliance/akg

In a small street not too far from the Kremlin is a very small museum. If you blink when you're walking up the road you can miss the entrance easily and very few people even know it's there. It's Moscow's State Gulag Museum. I always advise visitors to go there, not just because of its content - which really puts into perspective the scale of the persecution - but because of its understatement. It's barely more than three small rooms and it makes you think - is this really the best you could do to honor the many millions who were imprisoned or died in the Soviet Gulags?

But now the government seems to be taking steps toward acknowledging its dark and brutal past in a meaningful way. It's released its State Policy on Commemorating the Memory of Victims of Political Repression which lists as one of its guiding principles: "The denunciation of the ideology of political terror."

Facing up to its past of mass killings and mass deportations, forced famines and brutal repression of dissent is necessary as "Russia cannot fully become a state where there is the rule of law and occupy a leading role in the world community without immortalizing the memory of many millions of our people who were the victims of mass repressions," the document states.

'With us or against us'

While this is to be commended, it stands in stark contrast to what appears to be a concerted campaign over the past few years to crack down on public dissent, limit freedom of speech, imprison those who question the leadership while failing to solve the murders of others, and create an feeling of 'you're either with us or against us' throughout the general population.

An endless diet of pro-government propaganda on TV forms the basis of nightly television program while patriotic groups such as "nashi" (or more recent variations of those) and the biker's group, the Night Wolves, are wheeled out to man barricades at pro-Russian rallies and enforce the appearance of pro-Russian solidarity.

At the same time, western organizations have been vilified. NGOs receiving money from abroad are deemed 'foreign agents' who are obviously - irrespective of their mandate - attempting to subvert the Russian constitution and traditional way of life.

people protesting
Supporting those pesky foreign institutions is a risky businessImage: imago/ITAR-TASS

Those pesky foreigners

It's got to a point now where even foreign words that are used in the Russian vernacular are coming under attack. One group of Russian translators, picking up on the president's call earlier this year to cleanse the Russian lexicon of those pesky foreign words like 'computer,' have called for the banning of onomatopoeic words like "bang," "crash," and "wow" in comic books, preferring instead to replace them with words like "chorkh" for scratching and "khurt-khurt" for swallowing. Unfortunately, according to the Moscow Times, those words aren't Russian either, they're derived from a dialect spoken in Azerbaijan and Dagestan, but at least that's a bit closer to home than the unpatriotic "wham" or "whack."

While that may be relatively amusing for lovers of language, other results of this government-manufactured upsurge in patriotism are far from funny.

A man is currently on trial for murdering his friend after drawing the conclusion that his longtime drinking partner was in fact a foreign spy. Apparently, during a discussion about his past, the victim told his friend he'd been in the Russian navy and had travelled abroad. His friend put two and two together and decided his friend was an enemy of the state and promptly beat him to death.

Surely when this type of thing starts to happen you must start to think that the message you're sending to your population isn't healthy?

woman in theatre copyright: Fiona Clark
Fiona Clark writes a regular column for DW from MoscowImage: DW/F. Clark

But obviously getting the balance right between fostering loyalty and fueling hatred isn't easy, and it brings to mind the old adage: be careful what you wish for, because it just might come true. Perhaps the Russian government should have paid some heed to it when they were creating the policies that have shaped their current society. They may not be the direct tools of repression - but they certainly create the right environment for it.

Fiona Clark is an Australian journalist currently living in Russia. She started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a TV reporter in the mid-1980s. She has spent the past 10 years working on publications such as The Lancet and Australian Doctor and consumer health websites. This is her second stint in Moscow, having worked there from 1990-92. What was to be a two-year posting is still continuing.