Russian historians fear crackdown on sensitive research

Russian historians fear crackdown on sensitive research

4th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

Some Russian historians fear that probing too deeply into Stalinist history may incur the wrath of today's authorities, who have made the positive portrayal of Soviet history part of their political agenda.

When the police stopped Mikhail Suprun's car last month, he did not expect to be questioned over his research into mass deportations that took place in Russia more than six decades ago.

But Suprun, a history professor in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk, discovered that his research into the 1940s deportations had drawn the interest of the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB.

Briefly detained by the FSB, Suprun was told he was suspected of illegally publishing private information -- a charge he calls "absurd.”

Agents also searched his apartment and seized his computer and personal archive, which held a trove of information about victims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his brutal Gulag prison system.

"Everything was taken away,” said Suprun by telephone from Arkhangelsk, where he is a top expert on local Stalin-era history. “All the things I've been working on for the past 10 years were on my computer and hard drives."

Political history

Some Russian historians fear that probing too deeply into the Stalin era may incur the wrath of today's authorities, who have made the positive portrayal of Soviet history part of their political agenda.

Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union for nearly three decades until his death in 1953, is deeply controversial and even his defenders admit he sent millions of people to the Gulag, where many of them died.

A woman cries near the Solovetsky Stone, a memorial to the tens of thousands of political prisoners executed during Stalin-era repressions, in front of the FSB, formerly KGB, headquaters in Moscow

But he also oversaw the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany, which cost the lives of millions of Soviet citizens, and to many Russians he is associated with their country's victory in World War II.

The Kremlin has made reverence of the Soviet victory a major part of efforts to boost patriotism among Russians in recent years.

Critics say the government has gone too far by taking steps to polish Stalin's image, such as a 2007 decision approving the use of a school textbook that praised his management style as "efficient.”

The public seems increasingly sympathetic: Last year, Stalin took third place in a televised competition where viewers voted for the greatest Russian in history.

"This is all part of a creeping re-Stalinization, the return of his persona as a figure who is depicted not just in dark colours," said Irina Shcherbakova, a historian who researches the Gulag for the Memorial human rights group.

Growing fear

Memorial has also battled authorities over its research.

Last December, police raided its Saint Petersburg office, seizing documents and computer discs with evidence of Stalinist repressions that the group had collected over two decades.

Following a court battle, police returned the materials, which they said had been seized as part of an investigation into "extremism.”

Shcherbakova said people have become afraid to help Memorial, especially officials at state archives that contain Stalin-era files.

In the 1990s such archives were a rich source of information for historians but they became much more reluctant to share documents after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

"They are afraid to give them out," Shcherbakova said.

Soviet poster - youtube footage
One of the many Soviet era posters comparing the corruption and decadence of Western civilization with the moral strenght of the Soviet system

Hidden histories, dangerous questions

The investigation of Arkhangelsk historian Suprun centres on a controversial chapter of Soviet history: Stalin's treatment of ethnic Germans, who had lived in Russia for centuries, during World War II.

Large German communities had lived in Russia since the 18th century, when Catherine the Great invited them, but after 1941 Stalin doubted their loyalty and ordered their mass deportation to remote regions.

Suprun was researching the fate of ethnic Germans sent to the Arkhangelsk region when the FSB became interested in his project, which he was doing in collaboration with the German Red Cross.

He said agents had questioned his graduate students in the weeks before September 13, when he was detained and warned that his research might be illegal.

Suprun is suspected of violating the privacy of 5,000 Soviet citizens of German and Polish ethnicity deported to the Arkhangelsk region in 1945-1956, said a spokeswoman for Arkhangelsk investigators, Svetlana Tarnaeva.

The investigation is also targeting Alexander Dudarev, a police official who gave the historian information about the deportees, Tarnaeva said in a written response to questions from AFP.

"According to the investigation, Suprun with the help of Dudarev gathered information on the private lives of 5,000 deportees ... and members of their families without their permission," Tarnaeva said.

Gathering such information "violated the constitutional right of citizens to the inviolability of private life, personal and family secrets," she said.

"This is absurd, this is nonsense," Suprun said of the investigation.

Suprun said his work had been explicitly allowed by a 2007 agreement between his university, the Russian interior ministry and his partner organisations, the German Red Cross and an association of Russian Germans.

The project's goal was to assemble a "Memory Book" detailing the fates of the German deportees.

Memory Books are thick tomes with brief biographies of victims of Stalinist repression that historians throughout Russia have been compiling since the early 1990s in a quiet effort to document the tragic Gulag period.

Suprun believes the investigation is linked to broader government efforts to control portrayals of history, including President Dmitry Medvedev's creation in May of a commission to battle "historical falsifications.”

The Arkhangelsk probe "is one link in the same chain of events," Suprun complained.

Suprun later told AFP he could no longer speak to journalists because of an official gag order. He gave his interview to AFP in early October before the order was imposed.

The FSB did not respond to phone calls or written requests for comment.

Alexander Osipovich/AFP/Expatica

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