Gulag files seized during police raid on rights group

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Russia’s Constitutional Court, which recently transferred from Moscow at Vladimir Putin’s command, is lit more brightly than any other building on St Petersburg’s beautiful English Embankment at night. 

At the offices of the leading human rights group Memorial, however, a daylight raid by masked men speaks of a darker Soviet tradition of state power. Police confiscated computer hard drives containing 20 years’ work documenting victims of Stalin’s Terror and political persecution in the Soviet Union. 

Education programmes, human rights work and research on the still secret graves of an estimated 2.7 million Leningraders were all taken from the research and information centre. So too was material for one of Memorial’s most important and potentially most powerful projects - a “Virtual Museum of the Gulag”. 

The Prosecutor’s Office in St Petersburg claimed that it was investigating links between Memorial and an article in Novy Peterburg, an obscure anti-semitic newspaper that was shut down a year ago. Staff at Memorial say that they have never had anything to do with this newspaper and are under no illusion that the allegation is simply a pretext to wreck their work.

Russia has no national Gulag Museum. Indeed, there has been no legal assessment of Soviet repression and none of the efforts to understand the past that countries like Germany and South Africa have pursued. The Virtual Gulag was to provide an important alternative to a growing cult of Stalinism, in which the dictator’s methods are gradually being justified again. 

A teachers’ manual published this year explains that Stalin acted rationally in his campaign of terror to ensure the country’s modernisation. Stalin currently ranks third with almost 250,000 votes in a TV contest to find history’s greatest Russian, less than 2,000 votes behind the leader. 

Memorial’s staff have been photographing camps, recording testimonies and documenting the work of 300 tiny museums scattered over the former Soviet Union. Many of these museums have been set up by dedicated individuals and remain almost unknown. 

“The Virtual Gulag is a new type of museum,” said Irina Flige, Memorial’s director, who was interrogated by investigators for several hours yesterday. Its virtual nature means that it works like memory itself. Visitors can take different tours through the same collections while the writings and voices of dissidents tell their stories. 

By gathering such artifacts and testimonies into a national museum, the project aims to give them the stature of public memory and make them the basis for a genuine understanding of the past. 

“In Russia, a positive history is being constructed,’ said Ms Flige. “There is no place for trying to understand the past. Our work is now on the frontline of politics.” She suspects that the raid last week was a “symbolic gesture” timed to coincide with a major international conference in Moscow that was examining the history of Stalinism. 

“When the past is not understood and not analysed, and no responsibility is taken for it, contemporary political and economic life keep exposing elements of the terror. The habits persist, the style is the same,” Ms Flige said. One other theory is that Memorial was being punished for screening a documentary that accused the Federal Security Service (FSB) of assassinating the dissident spy Alexander Litvinenko in London. Andrei Nekrasov’s film, Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case, was shown on the second anniversary of Mr Litvinenko’s death on November 23.  continues here

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