Something surprising happened on Oct. 30. Since the 1970s, Russian dissidents have marked the date as an annual commemoration of victims of Soviet-era repressions. Although it was adopted as a state holiday in 1991, state officials usually leave the organization of the commemorations to NGOs such as Memorial, which is dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the stories of the victims of Soviet terror.
But this year, during the centenary week of the October Revolution, President Vladimir Putin personally unveiled “the Wall of Grief” — a crescent of faceless human figures, cast in bronze, to remember the victims of the Soviet gulags. Russian society is still divided on how it interprets the Soviet legacy, making this a politically charged project.
Why would Putin step into such fraught territory?
As so often in discussions of Russian politics, context is paramount. Russian presidential elections are scheduled for March 2018. By closely examining state coverage of the event, we can see how Putin is working to reward allies, frame the nation’s political memories — and position himself as the moderate leader who can maintain stability and beat back the forces of chaos.
Putin’s government has increasingly been acknowledging Soviet ills
Between 2004 and 2010, official Russian discourse about the nation’s past often amounted to whitewashing Stalinism, with a focus more on Stalin’s administrative and martial achievements than his domestic crimes. That changed in 2010, when Putin’s government organized a commemoration of Soviet security forces’ 1940 massacre of Polish officers at Katyn. The commemoration was especially somber, given that a group of senior Polish politicians perished when their plane crashed in thick fog on the way to the event.
Since then, Putin has become increasingly close to the anti-communist, anti-Stalinist leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. They coordinated responses to Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” of 2011. The Russian government sentenced the activist musicians to two years in prison; state-sponsored media repeatedly covered the patriarch’s pronouncements, including his refusal to promote leniency in response to their “sacrilege.” And at the monument’s unveiling, the patriarch stood beside Putin, a position of honor, suggesting that the patriarch may have encouraged the ceremony.
But with this latest development, the trend toward acknowledging past repression has reached a new point, with Putin’s high-profile, personal stand. This monument is the first of its kind to be constructed by presidential decree.
So what does government messaging tell us about the reasons behind this event?
Our research involves determining how Russian media coverage represents government aims. Russia’s international broadcaster, RT, highlighted how Putin’s speech unequivocally condemned Stalin’s repression. Similarly, the main evening news bulletin of the state-backed Channel 1 opened by reporting on the event, extensively covering Putin’s speech, in which he lamented “the persecution of millions . . . crimes [which] cannot be justified in any way.” The speech condemned the entire Soviet system that made terror possible and stated that the causes of repression could not be blamed on rogue individuals, as Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign attempted to do from the mid-’50s to mid-’60s.
Here’s the catch: Blaming the system avoids placing responsibility on any individual. Respected civil society organizations, including Memorial and the Gulag Museum, characterized the unveiling as a step toward state recognition of Soviet terror as a crime. But the opposition daily newspaper Novaya Gazeta criticized the decision not to name Stalin or any others as perpetrators.
Why might Putin decide to blame a system rather than individuals? For two reasons. First, the Communist Party still enjoys a significant minority of support within the Russian electorate. Second, during the final years of the Soviet era, Putin himself was an intelligence officer in the KGB — the organization responsible for much of the terror.
Still, what might the payoff be for Putin’s government in examining political repression at all?
There are two. First, though most Russians still see the Soviet victory in World War II as their country’s finest hour, a broad swath of Russian society looks very negatively on Stalin’s period of terror. Putin is using his stance against past repression to co-opt some of those disaffected and critical of the regime, particularly in Moscow, the capital, and St. Petersburg, the former capital.
Second, by reminding Russia of the systemic causes and widespread costs of a previous era of political repression, Putin is continuing to emphasize the chaos, violence and human suffering that come from revolution — and contrasting that with the relative stability of his rule. His speech argued that to move forward, Russian society must focus on building “trust and stability.” He quoted dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s widow, herself present at the ceremony, as saying it was important “to know, to understand, to condemn, and only afterwards to forgive.” Putin is positioning himself as the representative of “afterwards.”
That’s why high-profile human rights activists and former dissidents criticize the monument as a cynical attempt to skip over any genuine investigation of communist-era repressions and to distract from the ongoing political repression in Russia. Putin’s phrase “trust and stability” might as easily read “better the devil you know.”
We can see that implicit message in the remainder of the day’s news coverage. Channel 1’s second news item covered at length Putin’s participation at a meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. In a session billed as leaving no topic off limits, Putin answered genuinely tough questions from council members about current arbitrary persecutions, restrictions on political protest and the unpleasant atmosphere in Russia, which leads to people emigrating.
Putin’s calm, reasoned performance stressed the importance of upholding the letter of the law, arguing that opposition politicians deliberately violate regulations for publicity reasons. Putin contrasted Russia’s relative stability with what he portrayed as the chaotic contemporary politics of President Trump’s United States, Brexit Britain, post-referendum Catalonia, and a Western Europe plagued by terrorism and the refugee crisis.
On the eve of the presidential election, Putin’s aim is to address political grievances on his own terms, and to position himself as genuinely reasonable and moderate.
Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester and co-author with professor Stephen Hutchings of “Nation, Ethnicity and Race on Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference ”(Routledge, 2015).
Precious N. Chatterje-Doody is a research associate at the University of Manchester, working on the British Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Reframing Russia for the global mediasphere: from Cold War to “information war”?