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Descendants of Stalin officials bear witness to his 'mission'

Theatrical show in a Moscow human rights’ museum is shedding light on those who imposed the brutal will of the Russian dictator.

Stalin, with the Spassko tower of the Kremlin in the background right, in Moscow in 1936.
Stalin, with the Spassko tower of the Kremlin in the background right, in Moscow in 1936.
Image: AP/PA Images archive

HIS GRANDFATHER RAN a Gulag prison camp, but he is “not ashamed”, the descendant of a Stalin official tells the hushed audience to whom he is narrating his relative’s life.

Sixty years after Joseph Stalin’s death, descendants of officials who were part of the dictator’s regime testify in a theatrical show staged at a Moscow human rights museum.

The officials’ personal, anonymous accounts are read by actors, and identified only by numbers.

“My grandfather was in charge of the construction of the Moscow-Volga Canal,” reads number 13, alluding to Stalin’s giant project in the 1930s built by Gulag prisoners, tens of thousands of whom died from inhumane conditions whilst working on the waterway.

It is not good to be a head of a (labour) camp. But my grandfather sincerely believed in his mission… In the end, I am not ashamed.

The statements have been put together in a show which has run since November at the capital’s Andrei Sakharov museum – it was the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death on Tuesday, 5 March.

Going back several generations, the speakers’ relatives were officials in the Gulag camp system, judges who signed death sentences or secret police who tapped telephone conversations.

“Delivered numerous death sentences”

Speaking in a neutral voice, number 13 continues to say his great-uncle “delivered numerous death sentences as part of a troika” – groups of three judges that gave verdicts in speedy trials that were held without any defence lawyer, and in the absence of the accused.

“Were they simply fanatics?” number six asks.

“I am absolutely sure that they were not executing people for fun,” she adds, with conviction.

Number 27 speaks of her despair when she learned that her grandfather was the chief investigator in the case of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Hungary during World War II, before being arrested by the Soviets and disappearing into Stalin’s camps.

“I would have given a lot to know what was said at the time in my grandfather’s family, his Jewish family,” she says abruptly.

But today, “I see it as an episode of history,” she adds.

“Our characters are not black-and-white: often those who participated in repressions themselves ended up as victims,” says Alexandra Polivanova of the Memorial rights group who co-scripted the performance.

The show “intends to provoke reflection on the subject,” she says.

“Two different Stalins in people’s minds”

Audience members are also issued with numbers and invited to speak, but at a recent performance most preferred to remain silent.

“This silence is Russia’s main drama. Any discussion about Stalin’s victims is still a sensitive matter,” said Polivanova.

Tatiana Pravdina, an 85-year-old spectator who spent her childhood years in Siberia near the camp where her father was held during the 1930s, was one of the few who dared to get up and speak.

“They are denouncing their loved ones’ errors, but they are not condemning them,” she said bitterly.

For another observer, Alexei Levinson of the Levada independent polling centre, “the performance perfectly captures the attitude of Russians: they do not deny Stalin’s guilt, but refuse to punish those guilty.”

They do not wish to accuse those who were simply carrying out criminal orders or acting in the name of an idea.

According to a poll by Levada, two out of three Russians (65.5 per cent) see Stalin as “first of all a tyrant”, but paradoxically, over 60 percent also see him as “primarily the leader who secured the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II”.

“Two Stalins coexist in people’s heads,” said Levinson, adding that Russia is still not ready for “a categorical condemnation” of Stalinism.

- © AFP, 2013

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