Gorbachev calls for memorial to victims of Soviet-era oppression

"Forgetfulness must be overcome; democracy and freedom must be strengthened," former Russian president says.

gorbachev 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
gorbachev 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on Wednesday urged the creation of a national museum and memorial to honor victims of Soviet-era repression and to document their demise. The call by the leader whose "glasnost" campaign bared grisly details of Josef Stalin's terror presents a challenge to the Russian government, which critics say has glossed over the crimes of its predecessors to justify its own retreat from democracy. Gorbachev expressed alarm over efforts to cast Stalin in a positive light - as a "brilliant manager" rather than a murderous autocrat - and said a real reckoning with one of the bloodiest periods in Russia's history is crucial for its future. "Forgetfulness must be overcome; democracy and freedom must be strengthened," he said. Gorbachev said authorities have done much to honor Soviet soldiers who died during World War II. "As for the memory of people who fell into the millstone of Stalin's repressions, there is still a great deal to be done," he said. A statement announcing the initiative, signed by Gorbachev and about 25 rights activists and cultural figures, said "the current and future generations need memory and knowledge of the repressions of the Stalin regime," which it said left few families untouched. Millions of people died in the Gulag prison camps and about a million were executed, it said. "Humanity has great monuments dedicated to tragedies - the Yad Vashem museum in Israel and the Holocaust museum in Berlin, for example," said Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire businessman who is backing the proposal. "We have nothing like that in this country." One reason is that Russia's leaders - and many of its people - have recoiled at the notion that Stalin's crimes can been equated with Adolf Hitler's. They have lashed out at those who suggest the Soviet Union of World War II as an oppressor rather than as a liberator. Kremlin critics say the problem goes deeper than that. Under former President Vladimir Putin, the longtime KGB officer who brought many former colleagues into the leadership and is now prime minister, they say state authorities recast history to suit their purposes. Public interest in Stalin's crimes faded as Russians struggled to stay afloat after the 1991 Soviet collapse. Putin, who became president in 2000, restored Soviet-era symbols and mixed occasional criticism of Stalin with a large dose of pride in Soviet achievements. Putin said last year that no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about the Great Terror, and a teacher's manual published during his presidency suggested Stalin's actions were justified by the need to modernize the economy. "This new view of Stalin, Stalin as a hero, Stalin as the one to whom the country owes everything good ... is strengthening and a barrier must be erected against it," said Arseny Roginsky, a member of Memorial, a group that studies repression. Roginsky said it was "shameful" that Russia has no national museum or memorial to the victims. "A normal future - a future in which freedom and truth will reign - is impossible without understanding of the past," he said. Gorbachev and his partners in the initiative said they hoped the idea will win broad backing from the populace but that state support would be needed. They said one suitable site for the complex would be Butyrka, a notorious czarist and Soviet-era prison near central Moscow that still serves as a jail. They said the timing of the initiative was not linked to the transfer of formal power last month to President Dmitry Medvedev, whose emphasis on the need to protect human rights and the rule of law has led to hopes for change in the Kremlin's approach. As always, Gorbachev tread lightly around Putin, praising him for mourning Stalin's victims at a ceremony last October, when Putin for the first time joined public commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the height of Stalin's purges in 1937. The Kremlin ignored other events linked to the anniversary marked by Memorial and other groups. But Gorbachev criticized Russia's current electoral system, in large part the product of changes Putin initiated to enhance his grip on power. "We cannot have the system that the CPSU had," he said, referring to the Soviet-era Communist Party monopoly. "I think we need serious work to adjust the electoral system."