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Construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal (Belomorkanal). The canal was constructed between 1931 and 1933 by forced labor of Gulag inmates. According to official records and accounts in the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, between 12,000 and 240,000 laborers died during the construction of the canal, Russia, 1933. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images)
The bear with no memory

The bear with no memory

Construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal (Belomorkanal). The canal was constructed between 1931 and 1933 by forced labor of Gulag inmates. According to official records and accounts in the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, between 12,000 and 240,000 laborers died during the construction of the canal, Russia, 1933. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images)

Putin is trying to destroy a precious pillar of Russia’s collective recollection

Twenty years ago the World Bank brought me face to face with a beautiful brown bear in eastern Siberia. It was dusk, about 100 miles into the mountains north of Magadan. The bear didn’t know it, but in the 1940s millions of slave labourers were sent through Magadan to their deaths in the Kolyma goldfields, and the road they built, the road we were on, became known as the road of bones. 

The bear shrugged into our headlights and walked off in search of food. We drove on and eventually came to an old mining camp called Susuman where the bank was trying to pay people to move south for an easier life. There I met a woman in her seventies who’d been arrested as a teenager in Leningrad. She’d been sent east, as deep into the Gulag as it was possible to go, and she’d been there ever since. 

By this time Kolyma’s secrets weren’t secrets any more. Solzhenitsyn had been available to read in the West for 30 years. For those without the stamina for The Gulag Archipelago, Varlam Shalamov’s short stories cut to the heart of it like icicles. Yevgenia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind described how a good Communist could be sucked into it and survive, but perhaps 20 million had died, and Andrei Sakharov, nuclear physicist and pacifist, had helped found Memorial International to keep their memory alive.

Now Vladimir Putin’s flunkies in what passes for a court system in Russia are trying to shut Memorial down. Prosecutors are using a law against “foreign agents” to target its priceless archive and get its sister charity, the Memorial Human Rights Centre, closed for good. 

This is not how modern Russian history was meant to unfold. After the great Soviet surrender to western liberalism the new Russia was supposed to reckon with its past. Memorial would be its conscience and the kernel of a new civil society. Russians would learn from their history so as not to repeat it. 

Western writers understood this even if Russians were at that point more concerned with their next meal. In the early 1990s people like David Remnick, Adam Hochschild and Catherine Merridale arrived with open minds and empty notebooks and found that despite all the chaos and humiliation Russians did want to tell their stories. Up to a point. It was soon clear that, institutionally at least, recollection would be rationed. Merridale picked up on this in Night of Stone. When Boris Yeltsin’s government banned the Communist Party while rehabilitating its victims in 1991 and 1992, “its motives were not really truth and reconciliation,” she wrote. “Like the reburial of Nicholas II’s bones, the idea was to crate up and inter the past, to save embarrassment, head off the witch-hunt, and keep a whole skin.”

The trouble is, Merridale didn’t know the half of it. Her book was published in 2000. Putin had just arrived in the Kremlin. For a few years the KGB’s archives had been open to select researchers, but he quickly shut them. He glorified the sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War as if it had just happened. He lamented the Soviet collapse as one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. He didn’t entirely expunge the memory of the 20 million – he pays lip service to “victims of political repression” and has even laid flowers at a memorial to them – but a generation of Russian children has grown up on his watch with no real understanding of their country’s mass murder of its own people. 

Many of those people were the grandparents of today’s Russian millennials. Without Memorial they would have disappeared without trace, not spoken of except perhaps as reasons never to trust government. But Memorial’s researchers have spent the past 30 years piecing together personal histories, identifying camp guards, unearthing mass graves – and collecting records in an archive that if lost would leave Putin free at last to complete his fictional rewrite of history.

I asked Hochschild, author of The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, how serious Russia’s blindspot about its past could become. He quoted Orwell from 1984: “‘Who controls the past controls the future’. Putin knows this, and that’s why he’s gunning for Memorial. It will be a truly deadly sign if the organisation is closed down and its archives destroyed or confiscated – just as so many other records were destroyed or confiscated under Stalin.”

In Susuman, the woman who’d been ripped away from her family as a teenager still lived in an apartment she’d been given when forced labour ended in the 1950s. It was tiny and smelled bad. Her bed was the closest thing she had to a sofa. Above it on a narrow shelf – the first thing she saw every morning and the last thing at night – was a small framed picture, not of a parent, sibling, son or daughter, but of Stalin.

We spent a day there and as darkness fell we began the long drive back to Magadan. The ride was rough – the road of bones was still unsurfaced. There was no hope of putting pen to paper in the back of a rattling Russian 4×4 so I had to draft most of my story about the World Bank’s resettlement programme in my head. It read OK, as I recall, but oddly it’s since vanished from the Times’ archive. Maybe it wasn’t worth keeping after all. Or maybe I imagined the whole thing. 

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