Tue, Dec 14, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Understanding historical memory

By Yeh Hung-ling 葉虹靈

According to recent overseas news reports, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has declared himself intent on continuing the process of de-Stalinization. He has said on several occasions that although Josef Stalin made contributions, the crimes he committed against his own people should not be forgiven. Medvedev’s opinion is clearly at variance with that of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who served 17 years in the KGB. Russian society’s divided historical memories of the former Soviet ruler can seem rather familiar to us in Taiwan.

Stalin’s Great Purge, which claimed several million victims, is regarded by historians as one of history’s darkest periods. Nevertheless, in many people’s minds Stalin was a national hero who defended the Soviet Union against invasion by Nazi Germany and who governed the country in a very effective way. This year, as Russia solemnly celebrates the 65th anniversary of victory in World War II, the question of Stalin’s contributions and failings has once again become a focus of discussion.

The Moscow city government reportedly planned to include Stalin’s name and photographs in exhibitions and street decorations connected with the anniversary. The Russian Communist Party and other left-wing groups warmly welcomed this idea, encouraging people to think of Stalin as a founding father, thinker and patriot.

Human rights groups, on the other hand, strongly opposed the idea, saying that displaying posters that included Stalin’s portrait would be disrespectful to the victims of his despotic regime. The organizers responded that their intention was not to make propaganda on Stalin’s behalf, but simply to display historical photographs. They said that the international community recognized the Soviet people as the victors, while Stalin was the nation’s leader at the time. They pointed out that some of the photos were of Stalin meeting with then US president Franklin Roosevelt and then British prime minister Winston Churchill at the Tehran and Yalta conferences, and that surely Stalin could not be deleted from such pictures.

The question of how to evaluate Stalin has long been a thorny issue in Russia. In a television poll conducted this year to choose historical heroes, Stalin got the third highest number of votes, and history books that seek to rationalize his oppression continue to be published.

Last year Medvedev warned the public not to exaggerate Stalin’s achievements. He urged people to always remember the millions of Soviet people who suffered and died under Stalin’s rule, and criticized efforts to absolve the despotic regime of its responsibility.

As Medvedev put it, “Even now we can hear voices saying that those numerous deaths were justified by some supreme goals of the state. I am convinced that no development of a country, no success or ambitions can be achieved through human grief and losses.”

Medvedev also expressed -concern that as many as 90 percent of young people could not name one famous people who suffered or died as a result of political repression.

Further steps planned by Medvedev may include fully declassifying the regime’s archives, increasing the compensation paid to victims, tracking down victim’s burial sites, building more museums and memorials, and possibly even enacting laws forbidding the whitewashing of dictators.

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