In late December, a Russian court ruled to shut down Memorial, an organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of people who perished in communist terror. Memorial was founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov and fellow Soviet dissidents at the height of Perestroika in 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (free speech) made it possible to talk openly about Vladimir Lenin’s and Joseph Stalin’s genocidal crimes.
The tragic symbolism of this event is hard to overstate. The formal grounds for outlawing Memorial were based on its alleged failure to comply with the law on “foreign agents” – a term that immediately evokes memories of the 20th-century Soviet terror.
The closing of the organisation is a major blow for Russian civil society and it comes amid a massive wave of repression against regime opponents – the worst since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny was thrown in prison last January when he returned from Germany after recovering from a near-deadly poisoning with Novichok nerve agent, a Soviet-made chemical weapon. An investigation by Bellingcat, an investigative media outlet, and Navalny’s team blamed it on Russian secret services.
The authorities proceeded with clamping down on what remained of the Navalny-led opposition, with hundreds of activists and major public figures being forced into emigration and some of the most stubborn ones jailed. Even more ominously, Yury Dmitriyev, a prominent Gulag historian and member of Memorial, who discovered a huge Stalin-era killing field in the Karelia region, had his jail sentence on trumped-up charges of paedophilia increased to 15 years.
This policy of repression could not but bring up historical parallels. On New Year’s Eve, opposition activists were posting old Soviet postcards celebrating the arrival of 1937 – the year when Stalin’s terror reached its pinnacle, with thousands of innocent people being arrested and executed – not because they did anything specific, but simply to fulfil quotas on the extermination of “enemies of the people”.
But despite the obvious associations with the most tragic period of Russia’s 20th-century history, what is happening in the country is part of a totally different 21st-century story.
Is Putin really planning to wipe out the memory of communist victims and – as some critics fear – turn himself into a new Stalin, unleashing another wave of genocide? Those who follow Russian politics attentively know that the answer is negative.
In 2015, a state-run museum dedicated to the history of the Gulag was opened. In 2017, Putin inaugurated the Wall of Grief, a massive monument in Moscow dedicated to the victims of terror.
In 2020, the Russian president ordered the creation of a database for terror victims. It would become a government-controlled alternative to the database that was painstakingly compiled by the researchers from Memorial over the past 30 years. This detail provides a key to understanding Putin’s motives.
It is not Memorial’s history research that drew his ire. The real reason is that the organisation linked that effort to defending human rights in the present. It maintained its own human rights centre, which monitored abuses and designated political prisoners. It also organised an annual vigil in front of the former KGB (currently FSB) building in Moscow, with thousands coming to read out the names of terror victims in a powerful “never again” message to modern abusers of human rights.
A former KGB officer, the Russian leader is known to be obsessed with control. He is not really against ideological diversity, but he wants to be the one who is pulling the strings. Throughout the two decades of Putin’s rule, his administration has been trying, with a varying level of success, to nurture loyal nationalist, communist, liberal and even neo-Nazi groups as an alternative to their ideological equivalents which earnestly opposed Putin’s government and took part in political struggles.
This classic secret services strategy was brilliantly satirised in the 1987 Soviet film A Forgotten Tune for the Flute, where a KGB character says: “The best way of stopping a spontaneous movement is to organise and lead it.” This catchphrase came to be widely used in modern Russian politics.
This is exactly what is happening now. By shutting down Memorial and simultaneously setting up loyal institutions researching communist crimes against humanity, the Kremlin is mopping up the liberal wing of Russian society. But acting in the very same manner, it is simultaneously manipulating the illiberal wing, which is prone to denying or justifying the terror.
Like elsewhere, Russian admirers of 20th-century totalitarianism tend to concentrate in law-enforcement agencies and the army, having become a kind of professional counter-culture among the people whose job involves carrying arms.
This is why, while publicly decrying Stalin’s terror and frequently referring to 1937 in a negative context, Putin is turning a blind eye to officers of his own Investigative Committee, a body responsible for today’s repressions, donning retro-uniforms of NKVD, the secret services tasked with exterminating “enemies of the people” in the 1930s. He is also OK with Russian Communist Party leaders celebrating Stalin’s birthday in the Red Square.
Simultaneously, Putin’s regime has been ruthlessly clamping down on the parts of the far left, which it sees as its opponents. Young communists from the Left Front, а far-left opposition organisation, served prison sentences after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government during the Bolotnaya protests of 2011-12.
This year’s wave of repression hit moderate left-wingers who ran for the national and regional elections on the Communist Party ticket. Moscow communist party boss Valery Rashkin, who maintains an ambiguous relationship with Navalny’s movement, faces accusations of poaching, which many believe are politically motivated.
In the same spirit, the Kremlin has courted far-right groups. For example, it allowed neo-Nazis from the Saint Petersburg-based group “Rusich” to integrate into the Wagner mercenary army, which has been used for “deniable” military intervention in the Ukrainian, Syrian and other conflicts.
At the same time, repressions on the far right and nationalist flank have been severe, with lengthy prison sentences meted out to several major leaders and numerous activists. In 2020, the most prominent neo-Nazi figure, Maksim Martsinskevich aka Tesak, died in his prison cell under suspicious circumstances, with lawyers saying that his body had signs of torture. Many of Tesak’s comrades fled to Ukraine where they joined the Azov regiment fighting against Russian-backed forces.
Putin’s regime regards 20th-century totalitarian ideologies as fashion brands – visually attractive, but rather meaningless in terms of modern politics. All it cares about is the loyalty of their adherents. This is what defines its policy with regards to historical memory today. The regime is also acutely aware that its American adversaries are also cynically manipulating historical memory to foment polarisation and radical nationalism in places like Ukraine and other countries neighbouring Russia.
Using a 20th-century lens to understand 21st-century Russia has never worked. Together with geopolitics, it obscures the real forces of modern political technology and globalisation which are at play in Putin’s Russia – a country that finds itself at the forefront of the global trend of illiberal populism engulfing Europe and the United States. Using a 21st-century perspective to talk about Russia today could help ellucidate what is happening in the country, including the wave of repression it is currently experiencing.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.