“Zhdi Menya” – Russian TV Addresses Historical Reckoning

Today the Wall Street Journal is reporting on Russia’s most popular TV show Zhdi Menya (Wait for Me), which seeks to reunite families that were broken apart by Stalin’s reign of terror. Running for nearly a decade now, the show achieves a curious mix of historical reckoning suffocated under heavy layers of emotion and sentimentality – although numerous questions are posed about contemporary Russian history, the show is ostensibly apolitical. This article, and the peculiar dynamic of Zhdi Menya itself, serve as potent reminders of the fragility of Russia’s current cultural politics – the acceptable ways in which Russians are allowed to interpret the legacy of the Soviet era, whether with pride, regret, shame, or passive understanding, is struggling to find space in the public sphere. Below I borrow the clip from the WSJ, and below that, an excerpt from the article. Excerpt:

This focus on the victims of the communist regime contrasts with most mainstream media, which these days tend to humanize Soviet-era leaders and gloss over their crimes. A TV drama, “Stalin.Live,” has been panned by critics for portraying Stalin as a sympathetic old man. “There’s a lot of pseudo-historical stuff on TV these days,” says Irina Petrovskaya, a television critic. “‘Zhdi Menya’ is different because it’s totally authentic. That’s why it’s so popular.” Pyotr Leontiev wrote to the program in 2001 in search of his brother. He had spent years trying to trace him through official channels, but was rebuffed at every turn. The Leontiev family had been devastated by war and terror. Their father, drafted in 1941, was declared missing in action in 1943. Their mother was arrested on charges of “speculation” — neighbors informed on her for selling a few pounds of tobacco and she was packed off to the Gulag with Sergei, her youngest son, still a babe in arms. His siblings had only his cradle to remember him by. Researchers at “Zhdi Menya” contacted police in Karaganda, Kazakhstan — the site of the mother’s prison camp — and after trawling archives they found a Sergei Leontiev whose records matched Pyotr’s description. Within weeks they had tracked down Sergei, a retired carpenter. After a childhood in orphanages in Karaganda, he’d spent most of his life, impoverished, in workers’ barracks. In the studio, Pyotr told his story: “The tragedy that befell our family wasn’t unique.” He described how his mother was wrenched from her children, how their last sight of her and baby Sergei was on a prison train bound for the steppes. “We never heard from them again.” The children, raised by a 19-year-old sister, were lucky: Children of “enemies of the people” were often separated, their names changed, and sent to orphanages thousands of miles apart. To the strains of Mozart’s Requiem, Mr. Kvasha spoke to the audience: “It’s hard to imagine how many stories there are like this. They didn’t just take away people’s husbands, wives and parents. They deliberately destroyed archives, concealed people’s names. They took away their memory.” In a heart-rending moment, he led Pyotr Leontiev to his brother, who was sitting weeping in the audience. The two embraced. Pyotr had mixed feelings about the encounter. The joy of seeing Sergei was clouded by the revelation that his mother had been worked to death in 1943. “It was very hard, a very sad day,” says Pyotr. The two men broke down and looked deeply into each other’s eyes. “We survived,” Pyotr said to his brother. “We survived.”