One night in October, a group of masked men burst into the Moscow offices of Memorial, the celebrated Russian historical society and civil-rights organization, and disrupted a screening of Mr. Jones, a film about the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33. They shouted, gesticulated, and chanted “fascists” and “foreign agents” at the audience. Police were called, but they allowed the masked men to escape. Instead of chasing the intruders, officers barred the doors of the building and interrogated members of the audience until long past midnight.
This week, as Russian troops and armored trucks are inexplicably gathering on the borders of Ukraine, the event at the Moscow theater seems retrospectively more ominous, the moment when the “normal” pressure on Memorial and other Russian civic institutions turned more sinister. Something about it also felt familiar to Irina Shcherbakova, a Russian historian who writes about Germany and is one of the organization’s original founders. That evening, she told me, reminded her of another one: In 1930, Joseph Goebbels, then the Nazi Party leader in Berlin, sent a mob of thugs to block the showing of a movie. They shouted, gesticulated, released mice into the theater, and threw stink bombs. Frightened, the audience left.
The movie Goebbels didn’t like was All Quiet on the Western Front, which graphically depicted the horrors of the First World War and thus disrupted the more heroic version of German history preferred by the Nazis. Mr. Jones, the film the Russian government doesn’t like, tells the story of a Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, who was the only Western writer to report on the Ukrainian famine. Filmed by the great Polish director Agnieszka Holland, Mr. Jones contains horrific scenes of peasants who are starving to death. They are starving not because their harvest failed, but because the Soviet leadership has confiscated their food. That story disrupts the more heroic version of Soviet history preferred by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former officer of the KGB, the institution that organized the famine 90 years ago.
[From the September 2020 issue: A KGB man to the end]
The attack on All Quiet on the Western Front was a harbinger of what was to come: In 1933, the Nazis took over Germany and banned the movie altogether. A few years later, the entire country, blinded by the Nazi vision of Germany’s past, was at war. Dictators distort the past because they want to use it: to stay in power, to bully opponents, to persuade people to commit acts of mass violence.
The attack on Mr. Jones also heralded a change. In November, the Russian prosecutor general asked the Russian Supreme Court to shut down Memorial altogether. Ostensibly, this was because Memorial had been designated a “foreign agent” and hadn’t complied with all of the laws that foreign agents are required to obey. But this excuse is farcical. Memorial was founded in 1987 by Russians, for Russians, and it has been dedicated to Russian history and Russian civil liberties ever since. If it is closed, that’s because the Russan government is determined to return to the pre-1987 Soviet world of repression, state-sponsored terror, and falsifed history.
How did Russia get to this point? Thirty years ago, after the U.S.S.R. came to an end, the Russian state that succeeded it was focused on the present and the future: economic reform, political reform, opening to the world. Thirty years ago, Memorial was a hive of energy, each corner of its small pink-stone building in central Moscow stuffed with books, papers, and people drinking tea. When I first started spending time there, in the 1990s, Memorial was assembling a library that would eventually contain a wide assortment of memoirs and monographs on Soviet repression, in multiple languages. It was archiving photographs and oral histories, and assembling the world’s largest collection of objects from the Gulag: prisoners’ uniforms, tools, paintings, sketches, carvings.
Some of these projects had started before Memorial even existed. One of the group’s other founders, the late Arseny Roginsky, began collecting the names of Stalin’s victims back in the 1970s, when doing so was still illegal. This was an act of faith: “I had to assume that history would outlast stupidity and cruelty,” he told David Remnick, who quotes him in his book Lenin’s Tomb. Roginsky went to jail for his efforts. But in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Memorial ceased to be a dissident organization. Historians from Memorial often worked in tandem with state archivists. They used newly available Soviet sources to produce an astonishing array of books and document collections. In 2000, they produced the first complete list of the Soviet Gulag camps, with a brief history of each one; in 2016, this material became an interactive online map. Over time, Memorial created a list of more than 3 million victims of Stalinism, and eventually made that available online too. In that era, I met historians affiliated with Memorial in many obscure corners of Russia—Syktyvkar, Vorkuta, Petrozavodsk—where there used to be Gulag camps. In some places they had cordial relationships with local governments, though in others the state was simply indifferent. In the 1990s, many officials viewed archival work, including mine, as a somewhat eccentric and harmless activity. Some girl from America wants to look at old papers? She’s welcome to them.
Putin’s determined re-politicization of history has changed all of that. He began by bringing back annual celebrations, complete with Soviet flags and uniforms, of the 1945 victory in what is still called, in literal translation, the “Great Fatherland War”—as if no one else fought the Nazis. He brought back the Soviet national anthem. Slowly, Stalin was whitewashed. Nostalgia for his victories was pumped up to new levels. In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Russians were repeatedly told on state television and in thousands of social-media posts that they were fighting a war against “fascism” once more.
[Read: Vladimir Putin’s risky ploy to manufacture history]
As stupidity and cruelty again began to outpace history, clashes between Memorial and the organs of the state intensified. Perhaps this was to be expected, because Roginsky, Shcherbakova, and the others at Memorial were not doing history for history’s sake. They were investigating Stalinism in the past precisely because they wanted to block the return of Stalinism in the present. Toward that end, Memorial helped create public monuments to Stalin’s crimes, including a boulder from the Solovetsky Islands, the site of the first Soviet camp for political prisoners, which was placed right in front of KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square. They also began investigating modern Russian human-rights violations in the present—most dramatically in Moscow’s campaign against rebels in Chechnya.
Memorial ended that project after one of its investigators, Natalia Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered there in 2009. But since then other, less obviously political activities have become dangerous too. For years now, Memorial has worked with schoolteachers all over Russia, among other things encouraging children to ask their grandparents what they remember of the Soviet Union, and to write down those stories. This, Shcherbakova told me, is now the most controversial thing Memorial does. “It’s dangerous for schools to work with us. Sometimes it is forbidden to work with us.” But not only schools are intimidated. Archives, libraries, academic institutions—all of them, she told me, are now afraid to work with the organization that pioneered the study of Soviet repression in Russia.
Educators’ and researchers’ fear is not unreasonable. Memorial employees are now regularly questioned and investigated by police. Sometimes their family members are subjected to similar harassment. Yuri Dmitriev, a historian and an archeologist who heads Memorial’s local chapter in Karelia, a region in northwest Russia, has paid an even higher price. Since 2016, Dmitriev—who has probably identified more mass-burial sites and found more bodies of Stalin’s victims than anyone else in Russia—has been in and out of prison while fighting grotesque, clearly fabricated charges of sexual assault.
[From the January/February 2018 issue: What Putin really wants]
In the face of this aggression, Memorial has not backed down. Instead, the organization has been systematically preparing itself for the worst by digitizing its archives. In recent days, thousands of people have come to Memorial’s Moscow headquarters to view its public exhibits, but also to sign petitions and express their support. Even if they don’t know much about the organization, Shcherbakova told me, people come because they understand what its closure would symbolize: “If this is happening to Memorial, then something bad may be coming.”
They may be right. Let me return to where I began: Dictators distort the past because they want to use it. Putin certainly wants to use the past to stay in power. If Russians are nostalgic for their old dictatorship, then they have less reason to push back against the new one. He may also want to use the past to give legitimacy to violence—Russians who have no awareness of what Moscow did to Ukraine in the past will feel no sense of guilt about repeating old patterns of aggression. History does contain lessons, and here is one of them: If Putin plans to turn his falsely heroic vision of Russia’s past into a justification for another war in the present, he won’t be the first autocrat to do so.