Russia keeps Stalin locked in the past

MOSCOW (Washington Post) – In August 1942, 16-year-old Aldona Voldynskaya was taken from a Soviet orphanage by Nazi troops and put to work unloading trucks in Germany. This summer, 60 years later, the German government sent her checks totaling $2,245 by way of apology for the horrors she endured.

She is still waiting, however, for her own country to make amends.

Like perhaps thousands of Russians still alive today, Voldynskaya suffered less at Adolf Hitler’s hands than at those of the Soviet Union’s great dictator, Joseph Stalin. The KGB secret police executed her father in 1938, then arrested and imprisoned her mother in a work camp. At age 11, Voldynskaya was sent to an orphanage for children of “enemies of the people” until German invaders seized her five years later and shipped her west. When she returned home after the war, Stalin’s police jailed her for concealing her parents’ arrest records.

Russia’s redress for the horrors endured by Voldynskaya and others persecuted under Stalin is a $3 monthly stipend and certain discounts on rent and utilities. Beyond that, three decades of death and suffering have been largely relegated to the past, and Stalin’s image has even been somewhat refurbished.

In contrast to Germany’s public repentance over Hitler, Stalin still gets a pass in this huge and long-tortured nation, 49 years after his death ended the 20th century’s longest reign of terror and more than a decade after Russia abandoned communism and secret police to pursue democracy and the rule of law. There is no national museum to document the history of Stalin’s crimes. According to Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights organization, official records prove that at least 1 million people were executed for political offenses, and at least 9.5 million more were deported, exiled or imprisoned in work camps between 1921 and 1953.

Moscow’s monument to the victims – a stone from a prison camp – is so modest that few passersby even notice it in a tiny park across from the former KGB headquarters in downtown Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. Access to the KGB files remains so strictly controlled that even survivors of gulag camps cannot discover who betrayed them.

Some scholars suggest Russia is too chaotic, degraded and impoverished now to draw too much attention to the savagery of the leader who once led it to military and industrial greatness. Others worry deeply that the lack of contrition means that human rights is still a foreign notion to the average Russian. They worry that future Russians might be blind to the narcotic effect of power, whether wielded by another tyrant or by a Kremlin risen again on the world stage.