Orthodox Church Edges Out Civil Society

barbwire072408.jpgIn the opening chapter of Steve LeVine’s interesting new book, he recounts a visit to the Russian human rights NGO Memorial in the late 1980s, whose offices and museum exhibits “buzzed with researchers, journalists, visitors, and foreign dignitaries” at a time when “curiosity about the Stalinist was intense.” Fast forward to modern times, and we see Memorial’s staff and budget slashed, and a variety of pressures pushing the organization into the margins. These days Stalin is voted as the Greatest Russian, while the Solovetsky Stone is being moved to a place of “restricted public access.” Remembering Stalin, the purge, and the gulag has and always will be a painful politically charged activity – one that the current administration is not comfortable allowing to be uncontrolled. But how to handle these inescapable politics of identity and history? How should Russia respond to calls from former Soviet states calling for reparations? Into the fold steps the Russian Orthodox Church, which this month has curiously called upon the government to denounce the Soviet communist regime. Masha Lipman is cynical about this move, and makes a very compelling point that there is a strong need for a comprehensive national effort to come to terms with the Stalinist past.

The church’s call for de-communization helps the state further marginalize the public effort led by Memorial, the Russian human rights group that, since the late 1980s, has researched and published information on communist crimes. Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church, Memorial wouldn’t keep denunciations of communism within “reasonable limits.” Little wonder that the church’s anti-communist campaign conveys the impression that the church is the only organization concerned with confronting communist horrors. (…) Interest in the dark side of Soviet history is modest now compared with the nationwide yearning in the late 1980s for the truth about the Soviet regime’s crimes. But it may be enough to make the Kremlin want to preempt or control such interest. If its plan is indeed to enlist the church in a mild anti-communist campaign while marginalizing Memorial, the government has abundant power and resources to do so. Of course, even a limited condemnation of Soviet communism is better than nothing, but these political half-measures cannot supersede a national effort to come to terms with Russia’s history.