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Friday, July 27, 2007

Since Neo-Soviet Russia Ignores Stalin's Crimes, Naturally it Ignores his Victims Too

The Moscow Times reports on a puny public display of support for Stalin's victims and the even punier level of governmental support that lies behind it:

Several hundred people gathered at Lubyanskaya Ploshchad on Wednesday to mark a grim milestone: the 70th anniversary of the Great Purge of 1937. The crowd, which included many elderly gulag survivors, braved rain and unseasonably cold weather to lay flowers on the Solovetsky Stone, a monument to Stalin's victims located near the former headquarters of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police. The building now houses the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Tamara Voronina, 74, clutched a flower as she told how her father was arrested in 1941 and how she found herself living in ramshackle wooden barracks near the Arctic mining town of Vorkuta. "In the winter, it was always freezing," she said, recalling how her mother used to stuff rags into the cracks in the walls to keep in the heat. Although Stalin started eliminating his political rivals well before 1937, the Great Purge began in earnest on July 31 of that year, when the Politburo set region-by-region quotas for how many people were to be arrested and executed. By the time the purge ended in November 1938, more than 1.5 million people had been arrested and more than 700,000 had been shot.

Many of the elderly survivors at Wednesday's gathering were forced to suffer for their parents' purported crimes. They were victims of the notorious NKVD Order 00486, issued on Aug. 15, 1937, which spelled out punishments for the "socially dangerous children" of repressed parents. Those aged 15 and up were given prison sentences of five to eight years, while younger children were sent to special orphanages.

Raisa Ankhipina, 78, was put in an orphanage after her father was arrested in 1937. Her mother died shortly after her father's arrest. In the orphanage, Ankhipina said, her parents' fate was never discussed and children had no idea about the purges. "It's only now that I understand they were repressed," she said. "Back then, I didn't know about it." Ankhipina learned the truth in 1994. Her father, an electrician, had been arrested and shot after being denounced by a neighbor. While the past cast a long shadow over the gathering, many of those in attendance had a more present-day concern: increasing state benefits for the surviving victims of Stalin's repressions.

"In our country today, there is an absolutely appalling mess in terms of support for these people," said Sergei Volkov, president of the Society of Victims of Illegal Repression, which organized the gathering.

In an angry speech, Volkov denounced a controversial 2004 law that replaced benefits for socially vulnerable groups -- including victims of Stalinist repression -- with cash payments. Pensioners have charged that the payments fall short of the benefits they replaced, such as discounts on medicine and public transportation. Volkov complained that the 2004 law had also removed language from a 1991 law, signed by then-President Boris Yeltsin, stating that the government was morally and financially responsible for the victims of Soviet-era political repression. Benefits to Stalin's victims are pitifully small, Volkov charged, saying the federal government paid monthly benefits of 6,300 rubles ($250) to widows of FSB agents, while the amount for gulag victims -- "who lived through hell" -- was only about $7.

Volkov was followed by several other speakers, including ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party. Zhirinovsky declared his support for increasing benefits to gulag survivors, but also took some potshots at his rival parties in the State Duma -- United Russia, A Just Russia and the Communists -- for not sending speakers to the event. "It's a pretty word, 'A Just Russia,'" he said. "But where's the justice?" After Zhirinovsky's speech, music started playing as people lined up to lay flowers on the Solovetsky Stone. Some held signs identifying where in Russia they came from, while one woman held a photograph of her repressed father. Many huddled under umbrellas.

The Solovetsky Stone has been a regular location for such events since it was placed on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad in 1992. It consists of a simple rock brought to Moscow from the Solovetsky Islands, an archipelago in the White Sea that was the gulag's first camp, established by Lenin in 1920. On the same day as the gathering, a memorial procession organized by the Russian Orthodox Church set out from the Solovetsky Islands, Interfax reported Wednesday. After a two-week journey, the procession will deliver a cross to the Butovo shooting range south of Moscow. More than 20,000 people were executed at the range in 1937 and 1938.

As the gathering on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad dispersed, one elderly man expressed his dissatisfaction with its star speaker, Zhirinovsky. "I've always considered him a fascist," said the man, who had left the gathering to seek shelter from the rain in a pedestrian underpass. The man said he had been a victim of Soviet-era political repression, but declined to share his name with a reporter. When asked why, he said, "Don't you understand what sort of a situation we have in Russia these days?"

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