Putin wants to control the historical narrative in Russia. The Kremlin aims to legitimise its authoritarian practices by imbuing the power of the state with an almost sacred quality.

The Solovetsky Islands in northern Russia’s White Sea have played a unique role in the country’s history. Almost 600 years ago its fortified monastery was founded and quickly became a stronghold of the Russian Orthodox Church. Following the Bolshevik victory after the 1917 revolution, the monastery was closed down and many of its buildings were turned into a forced labour camp, a prototype of Stalin’s Gulag system. More than one million prisoners died in this camp, said by historians to have the hardest regime of all.
Twenty nine years ago I made the first of several visits to the Solovetsky Islands to witness the re-opening of the monastery. The walk through the dark deserted rooms, many still festooned with shackles, sent shivers down my spine, even though it was peak summer and the venomous mosquitoes, whose bites literally killed tethered and naked prisoners all those years before, were using my follically-challenged head as a landing strip. In winter the temperatures hover around -20 degrees C, (the lowest recorded is -36 degrees C). Solovetsky prisoners who weren’t bitten to death in the summer, froze to death in winter.
With so much suffering and death in the gulags, it’s no wonder that those Russians who wanted to keep the memory of the victims alive, chose to transport a huge granite boulder from the Solovetsky islands to Moscow, where it is set in the middle of Lubyanka Square, opposite the infamous KGB (now FSB) building. The Solovetsky stone was one of the first and perhaps the most important monument of its kind in the former Soviet Union. The inscription at the foot of the pedestal reads: “This stone is delivered by the ‘Memorial’ members from the Solovetsky Camp and established in memory of the victims of the totalitarian regime”. Some wanted to use the word “Stalinist”, as the dictator was responsible directly or indirectly for the deaths of some 20 million victims.
Memorial is Russia’s oldest civil rights group and was established in the late 1980s by dissidents, including the famous physicist Andrei Sakharov. It has spent decades cataloguing atrocities committed in the Soviet Union, building up a huge archive of Soviet-era crimes and campaigning tirelessly for human rights in Russia. This activity has so annoyed President Putin that two weeks ago, prosecutors were instructed to ask the Kremlin-controlled courts to dissolve Memorial for allegedly violating Russia’s controversial law on “foreign agents”. This comes in a year that has seen an unprecedented crackdown on Putin’s opponents, including the jailing of chief Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and the banning of his organisation as “foreign agents”.
Russia’s “foreign agent” law is Putin’s “catch-all” law designed to curtail any criticism of the Kremlin. It was introduced in July 2012 to cover “any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia”, according to the speech made by Putin to the FSB in 2013. This means that any opposition group giving Vladimir Putin a sleepless night is slapped with a “foreign-agent” order by the courts, which makes the problem go away; job done. Laden with Soviet-era connotations of treachery and espionage, the “foreign-agent” label has been used against a wide range of rights-groups and independent media in recent years.
But why is President Putin so paranoid about Memorial?
Putin wants to control the historical narrative in Russia, which is perhaps why his boyhood contemporary from Leningrad, Sergei Naryshkin, is not only head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, but also the head of the Russian Historical Society. The Kremlin aims to legitimise its authoritarian practices by imbuing the power of the state with an almost sacred quality. Even personal memories must be interpreted to fit a prearranged discourse, giving the state full control of Russian history.
Take for example the infamous Katyn massacre, when in 1940 some 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were executed by the Soviet secret police. Until 1990, the Soviet Union claimed that it was the Nazis who carried out the butchery, but in that year, Boris Yeltsin released documents showing that it was indeed carried out as directed by Joseph Stalin. Articles on a state-run news agency website are now rehashing the falsified Stalinist version of the event, once again suggesting that the Poles were massacred by the Germans.
Putin’s regime has not openly exonerated Joseph Stalin of his crimes, but neither has it opposed the creeping rehabilitation of Stalin by many. The clear plan is to gradually remove from the public gaze any reference to the mass murders carried out by the person whom many at the time considered powerful but deranged, and focus on the war hero—Stalin, the strongman who heroically saved the nation. And it’s working. In just one year, according to the latest polling by the Levada Centre, the public’s “respect” for Stalin increased from 29% to 41%. The number of those who believe that Stalin played a positive role in the country has grown consistently to 70% in 2019, while only 19% of respondents had a negative opinion.
Vladimir Putin has thrived on his image of a strong leader. People remember the disastrous period following the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago; Boris Yeltsin appeared weak and the living standards fell dramatically as his regime pursued a post-communist failed economic “shock treatment”. As Russian friends said to me in Moscow while their world collapsed: “plenty of shock, but no treatment”. The perception quickly arose that only a strong leader could solve Russia’s problems. A poll last year underpinned this view when 45% of respondents even supported the idea of the concentration of power in the hands of a single person. Many Russians have set aside the terror of the Stalin period, personifying him as the model of order and Vladimir Putin has built on this image to create mutually reinforcing popularity ratings. When Putin behaves in a more authoritarian manner, Stalin becomes more popular. A more popular Stalin elevates the popularity of Putin, or so the Kremlin’s theory goes. Any organisation or person who interrupts this “virtuous cycle”, such as Memorial, must be removed.
Over the past decade, Memorial has survived Russia’s reactionary turn under Vladimir Putin, continuing to popularise its research into the Stalin-era atrocities as it built a database of more than 3 million of his victims. The passive measures against Memorial by the Putin regime, such as blocking primary documents from the Stalin era, have had limited success and they now appear to be turning to the nuclear option of destroying Memorial itself. “We were enthusiasts who wanted to know more about history, tell people about their history”, said historian and researcher at Memorial, Nikita Petrov. “When Russia chose to take a democratic, legal path forward, I couldn’t in my darkest dreams have imagined that everything would eventually start going into reverse. Probably I was naive then.”
Another historian, Yuri Dmitriev, who had dedicated himself to documenting Stalin’s 1937-38 Great Terror by unearthing mass graves and chronicling state repression in Russia’s north-western Karelia region, was found guilty of paedophilia last year and sentenced to a 13-year jail term in a high security penal colony. “Nonsense” said his supporters, “the outrageous charges were fabricated simply to punish him for his work with Memorial”.
UN officials, the Council of Europe, international rights groups and Western governments have all warned against Memorial being disbanded. Russia’s two surviving Nobel Peace Prize winners, the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and Novaya Gazeta newspaper editor, Dmitry Muratov, have urged prosecutors to drop their claims. The two said in a joint statement that Memorial was aimed not only at preserving the memory of Soviet-era repression, but at “preventing this from happening now and in the future”.
Many Russians would say that under Vladimir Putin, it already has.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.