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Aleksandr Cherkasov: "Once We Stop Grappling With Who We Are And Where We Come From, Our Future Becomes Unpredictable"

29 October 2012 

Source: (info

Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the historical and human rights organisation Memorial, reflects on the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, the upcoming events and the way the subject of political repression is viewed in contemporary Russian society.

The latest events have given new significance to this day. The Day of Political Prisoners, thought up thirty-eight years ago by Kronid Lyubarsky and his fellow prisoners from the Mordova labour camps, from 1990-91 became, in essence, the Day of Remembrance for Victims of the Totalitarian Regime. However, in more recent years we have also been organising events to highlight the plight of present-day political prisoners. And so the events of the last few days – the so-called ‘Anatomy’ case – or the events of recent months – the cases of Pussy Riot and the Bolotnaya Square protestors – have unexpectedly drawn public attention to this issue of present-day political prisoners.

These days much is said about the return to 1937, but, of course, the comparison is not very accurate. Still when a person is kidnapped, handcuffed, imprisoned illegally and threatened with his own annihilation and that of his family and so forth – this does attract the public’s attention because something like this could happen with just about anybody. The so-called Bolotnaya Square case has affected over a dozen people so far out of the tens of thousands who took part in the mass protest rallies on the 6th of May.

The public impression that the repression, even if localised, even if individualised, is, in some sense, a lottery runs deep. And so it seems that the response to the rally planned for 30th October on Novopushkinskaya Square will be stronger than in previous years. There is, of course, another point here – namely, memory itself. On 29th October, we will recite the names of the victims of the repressions – full name, date of birth, profession, the dates of sentencing and execution – at Lubyanka Square from dusk to dawn, as we did in previous years.

When we spoke a couple of months ago, I asked you whether you could imagine a repeat of the Great Terror in today’s Russia. At the time, you didn’t think this was possible. Have you changed your mind since our conversation?

Since our conversation, it turns out that all kinds of things are possible in our country, at least on paper. The absurd laws (the latest of these laws about high treason does resemble some aspects of the old Soviet Article 58) are creating a psychological and, in some sense, a legal – if you can call it legal – basis for mass repressions. Consider the implications of the fact that these days it is possible to engage in divulging a State secret without realising that you’re doing so, that the very definition of high treason has been inextricably widened. If the regional FSB structures throw themselves into following these brilliant innovations, then it’s possible to imagine not merely individual, but mass repressions. Of course, for this to happen you also need the political will, you also need the state apparatus. All sorts of things need to be in place, but we, as it turns out, live in a land of wonders. Who could have predicted even a year ago a mass protest movement, on the one hand, and the “legal” basis used by the authorities to stem this movement, on the other?

Have the major changes that have taken place in our society over the last 10-15 years made it possible to argue that this society won’t tolerate a Great Terror?

The societal changes have been complex. If you are talk about the past decade, even about the years 2012-13, society has changed a great deal. The brainwashing, the disappearance of independent mass media, the absence of historical self-awareness, self-censorship (the latest example is the shameful self-censorship exercised in the creation of the TV series adapted from Grossman’s Life and Fate) – all of these things make our society less inclined to remember the past and less perceptive to its repetition. On the other hand, there has been an opposing tendency in our society in the past two to three years – the movement from wall-to-wall entertainment to the embrace of serious matters, from serious science to serious political and social issues. A society like this is less malleable.

But of course, we must remember that we live in a country of many Russias – small town Russia, rural Russia, online Russia, the Russia of the television. We live in a country, which we, sadly, don’t know very well, partly because we don’t have independent mass media outlets that see their task as an in-depth engagement with our society, our history. So all kinds of scenarios are possible – both a reaction to actions of this kind by the authorities, a reaction to these laws, or the implementation of these laws, or completely unlawful actions such as the arrests of Razvozzhaev and Lebedev.

Who can predict the future today? We live in rather unpredictable times. It is possible to imagine that all these laws are creating a path which the country is to follow, but it may play itself out differently. Unfortunately, once we stop grappling with who we are and where we come from, the future becomes unpredictable.

Source: Radio Liberty