The disgrace of memory

I remember my first visit to Moscow (in 1993) and being taken to Lenin's tomb. It was a sight of faded glory where the guards were agitated at the patent lack of reverential respect from the curious onlookers. On the other side of the tomb, along the kremlin wall, were the tombs of the famous fallen and many of the graves were accompnied by offerings of flowers. In this informal popularity contest, Yuri Gagarin, was the clear winner - a universal symbol of respect and national pride, followed a close second by Josef Stalin.

I remember my surprise, equipped as I was with a thoroughly Western consciousness of this man's evil. Yet here he was a figure of praise to many - the strong leader who made Russia a preeminent power and protector of the nation during the Great Patriotic War.

This ambivalence continues. When I lived in Moscow a decade later, a sweet little old lady sold a pamphlet at my local metro station exalting the life and legacy of Stalin!

Recently I visited the 'State Historical Museum of the Gulag', it is, I fear, a national disgrace. Off the road, three rooms in an ageing building, each on its own level. The first contains random artefacts of a selection of random victims lives, and their brief histories. Little or no historical or social context is given - nothing to guide you to any appreciation of the enormity of the tragedy that was woven into the very fabric of the Bolshevik revolution, and came to its height under the paranoia of Stalin. In the basement a feeble representation of an interrogation and a 'typical' prison dormitory. Between them is a large room with a big screen television showing a documentary - made in English without subtitles for its commentary - as if the country itself had no film makers to tackle their own history!

Millions of people were imprisoned over 70 years, a significant proportion of whom lost their lives or had them wholly blighted, when imprisonment was followed, even when 'rehabilitated', with lingering disgrace and accompanying ostracism and this is their monument?

Listening to the descriptions of survivors on the film was the most moving part - extraordinary, haunting tales of degradation endured and in their case survived.

So many did not - and they deserve a history and a place commensurate with that history. 


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