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Daily RC Article 181

Soviet Memory: Rewriting History, Repression, and the Elusive Road to Freedom


Paragraph 1

For the Soviet regime, memory itself was intrinsically a serious threat. The entire history of the past, and above all of the revolution and the civil war, was rewritten and mythologized. Memory was made to function in a truly Orwellian style: what had been peace was now declared war, and the Soviet version of memory became oblivion.

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The effect is rather different, however, on those considered the enemies of state (and who, therefore, remained repressed) in the decades between the 1920s and the 1940s: more of a confusion – especially in the memory of prisons and camps – of the superficial distinctions between imprisonment and freedom. Today they all repeat the observation, now commonplace, that the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s was itself an immense concentration camp: even if millions of its people, particularly of the generation born after the revolution, considered their ‘cell’ the brightest and most beautiful in the world. Thus, those who had served their terms and were released into freedom still felt – either consciously or unconsciously – that the Soviet Union itself was a concentration camp, and therefore chose not to return to the ‘big world’, but instead settled down in Siberia or the far east of Russia, living near the camps, continuing to work on the camp farms, on different tasks, as exiles.

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The most far-sighted of them did understand the system. But where could they go, where else could they settle? Ex-prisoners were forbidden to live in the big cities, and in smaller towns a stranger would always be under suspicion. Their fears were sound, for a new wave of repression followed in the 1940s, and those so-called ‘recidivists’ who had settled down in new places were rearrested and sent off into exile: an exile which is often remembered as scarcely less terrible than the concentration camps, with no work, nothing to eat, and nothing to provide warmth. Indeed, those who were sentenced to the camps in the post-war period – with the exception, of course, of those sent to hard-labour camps – often told me, ‘You were better fed in the concentration camps than in freedom.’… 

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The prisoners in the post-war camps adapted themselves to these conditions and prepared to spend their whole lives in the camps, to which they had already been typically sentenced for ten to twenty-five years. When release came, after the death of Stalin, it was neither anticipated nor easy, and this is partly why there often is a lack of clarity and coherent perspective, and in some respects confusion, in their reminiscences. For them freedom did not come in a single, swift joyful act. Release demanded trouble, letters, and petitions. Re-entry into ordinary life was slow. They had long struggles to win rehabilitation, a flat, or a pension. In the Soviet situation it was very difficult to perceive the end of repression in an individual’s fate, not merely in memory, but simply in real life. For many of them the repressions have scarcely finished even in the most recent years, when they have at last been able to talk openly about their own pasts.

The Soviet regime manipulated memory, turning history into myth. Enemies of the state faced confusion between imprisonment and freedom, perceiving the entire country as a vast concentration camp. Post-war prisoners struggled for release, adapting to camp life, and finding the transition to freedom slow and challenging amidst ongoing repression.
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