The Russian human rights organisation “Memorial” has published an online database of 39,950 members of the special police force (NKVD) which carried out Stalin’s mass purges of the late 1930s at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
The database does not cover the entire NKVD workforce, which included not just the security services who played the leading role in the purges (the GUGB and UGB) but also border troops, internal troops, the police, and sections responsible for the prevention of economic crime. Reflecting the contents of the archives used to compile the database, the latter is largely restricted to GUGB and UGB agents who were rewarded with the special ranks for services to the state which the Soviet government awarded from October of 1935 onwards.
In that sense, the database lists the NKVD’s “cadre” elements. The database also contains details of some 4,500 NKVD agents who themselves suffered repression. Around 1,600 of them were executed. Most of the rest were sentenced to spells of varying length in labour camps (although many of them were “released” into the army on the outbreak of war). The organisation responsible for publishing the database, “Memorial”, dates back to the late 1980s. It main activities involve research, publications and education about repression in the former Soviet Union, and providing material support to survivors of the repression. But it is also a campaigning organisation.
The 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression and the decision by the Russian Parliament the same year to declare 30 October a Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repression, for example, were both due in part to campaigning by “Memorial”. According to a spokesperson for “Memorial”, the new database is not just a tool of use to historians and individual Russian citizens searching for information about relatives who suffered death or imprisonment during the Great Terror. It is also a political campaigning act:
“Until now, if anyone mentions the victims, it’s as though they were killed by a natural disaster like an earthquake or a tidal wave. They were victims of crimes and those crimes were committed by people.”
“Our government doesn’t like to acknowledge that the Soviet Union was a criminal state. The criminals’ names are known. Let the ones who carry our orders now know that their names too will be known.”
The response of the Russian government to publication of the archive was less than enthusiastic. According to a government spokesperson: “I will leave this issue without comment. The issue is very sensitive.”
If Putin’s government finds the issue “very sensitive”, then this is solely because the publication of the database is at odds with the Russian government’s ongoing process of rehabilitation — not of the victims of repression, but of Stalin himself. Putin has described Stalin as “an effective manager” and emphasised his “achievements” in defeating Nazi Germany and raising the Soviet Union to the status of a world superpower. According to Putin: “We can criticise the commanders and Stalin all we like. But can anyone say with certainty that a different approach would have enabled us to win?”
And, for Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “major geopolitical disaster of the century, (which) for the Russian nation became a genuine drama.” Stalin’s purges are largely ignored in Russian school textbooks. So too are the mass national deportations carried out under Stalin’s orders. The deportation of nearly half a million Chechens to Central Asia in 1941, for example, merits just two paragraphs in school history books. The appointment of Olga Vasilyeva as Russian Education Minister in August ensures that Stalin’s crimes will remain a blank page in Russian schools.
Vasilyeva has praised the “efficiency” of the Stalin period, and has described Stalin’s purges as “necessary at the time” and as “exaggerated” in history books. Other government figures who share Vasilyeva’s admiration for Stalin include the Minister of Culture (for whom Stalin was “the foundation of Russia’s heroic past”) and the Vice Prime Minister (who has advocated that Volgograd be renamed Stalingrad). Leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church have also been increasingly vocal in their support for Stalin.
According to Archpriest Vsevlod Chaplin, until last year spokesperson for the head of the Orthodox Church: “He (Stalin) did a lot. At the end of it all, what’s so bad about destroying internal enemies? There are some people you should kill. Even God, if we read the Old and New Testaments correctly, directly authorised the destruction of a large number of people as a message to others. Not as punishment ot revenge, but as edification.”
The official creeping rehabilitation of Stalin has served as a stimulus to his natural admirers in the Russian Communist Party (CP; despite its name, now a profoundly conservative, xenophobic and antisemitic party). Local and regional CP organisations declared 2016 to be the “Year of Stalin” and have erected statues and opened cultural centres and museums in memory of Stalin. A giant picture of Stalin was a backdrop to the CP’s 2015 conference, while pictures of Stalin are increasingly common on placards on CP demonstrations. Unsurprisingly, the state-sanctioned rehabilitation of Stalin has changed public opinion.
In 2012 public attitude surveys found that “only” 27% of Russians though that Stalin did more good than bad. Now the figure is 40%. 45% of Russians think that the “sacrifices” made under Stalin were justified. 52% think that Stalin “probably” or “definitely” played a positive role in Russia. The proportion of Russians with a negative view of Stalin has declined from 43% (2001) to 21% (2015). And nearly 50% of Russians think that Stalin’s purges were necessary. In such a context the publication of the NKVD database by “Memorial” is not just a useful tool for historical research but a challenge to the Putin-driven rehabilitation of Stalin.