This time last year, in a video blog commemorating the victims of Soviet repression, President Medvedev impressed upon the Russian people the importance of remembering the political repression of the Soviet era. Memorial museums were needed to ensure it was never forgotten, he affirmed.
This was no empty rhetoric. He had just signed an initiative, from the human rights organisation Memorial, to create Russia’s first national memorial museum complex in the Kovalevsky Forest outside St Petersburg, where around 4,500 victims of the Red Terror, the first victims of the Bolshevik regime, lie in still unmarked mass graves.
But now, one year on, the working group behind the Kovalevsky Memorial Museum, headed by the director of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, has gone public on the project in the hope of pushing the president and the Russian government to follow through on its commitment.
The memorial complex was intended to be the Russia’s equivalent of the holocaust museum at Auschwitz or, as Mikhail Piotrovsky suggests, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. But despite the fact that none of the federal ministries nor the local government departments who examined the proposal has raised any objection, no mechanism has been worked out to implement it, or even to give the site legal status as a memorial.
The danger now, as the cultural historian and supporter of the memorial museum, Alexander Margolis, points out, is that the whole burial site could simply disappear under new housing as the Russian ministry of defence plans to hand over the land to the local government.
This is a familiar story for Memorial’s Research and Information Centre team in St Petersburg. They uncovered the Kovalevsky site and have spent the last two decades trying, against the odds, to ensure that such sites all over the former Soviet Union are commemorated and kept in the public memory.
Indeed, it is symptomatic of a broader problem where declarative statements by Russia’s leaders founder in the lack of political will to implement them. Today, despite Medvedev’s insistence that the memory of this tragic past should be “passed on from generation to generation,” the archives have become more restricted and none of the memorials that exist is funded or has legal status.
In fact, Hare Island, on which the Peter and Paul Fortress stands (one St Petersburg’s major tourist attractions), is the focus of a battle between Memorial and the local government over the discovery of another mass burial site. The government refused to examine the site or to commemorate it, and a road has already been built over the graves as part of a planned car park. However, after a public outcry earlier this year, work has temporarily stopped and archeologists are excavating the territory, but without government funding.
The Peter and Paul fortress was known in Soviet times as Russia’s Bastille; after centuries as a tsarist prison, its doors were flung open by the Bolsheviks and it was never to be used again. Today, tour guides still tell the Bastille myth and avoid discussion of the recent discoveries, although it is becoming clear that throughout the 1920s Soviet citizens were shot in the fortress in their hundreds or even thousands (only a third of the territory has been examined so far).
This week, Memorial has sent an open letter to Medvedev asking him to intervene in developments at the fortress. In it they offer a list of concrete measures that they hope will help push the president to act upon his pronouncements about the importance of historical memory. At the same time, they are trying to stimulate public discussion both over the fortress and the Kovalevsky Memorial Museum.
Given the perpetuation of Soviet myths by many institutions all over the country, Alexander Margolis argues that major memorial projects like Kovalevsky are critically important. “Indeed,” he says, “our young people should not still be learning when they visit the Peter and Paul fortress that it was a Russian Bastille. They should know that the island fortress on which they are standing is, as it’s now clear, the first island in the Gulag Archipelago.”
Catriona Bass is writing a biography of St Petersburg