The Struggle for a Reckoning With Soviet Crimes

From Belarus to Ukraine, activists are trying to shine light on the darkest chapters of their modern history — but theirs is an uphill task

The Struggle for a Reckoning With Soviet Crimes
People attend a public prayer on April 4, 2019, outside Minsk at a site where the Soviet secret police shot and buried thousands in the 1930s and ’40s. (Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)

Across the former USSR, attempts to condemn Soviet crimes have been disjointed. History has been muted and justice for victims has never been established. In a small library in North London, resistance takes the form of objects that memorialize past wrongs. The Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum is at the center of a battle to preserve Belarusian history. It houses an extensive archive, including texts written in Belarusian, which might otherwise have been lost or locked away in an attempt to replace a distinct identity with a singular Russian narrative.

I first visited the library over a year ago, in November 2021, just as the President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko was using hopeful asylum-seekers to antagonize the West. Looking at books smuggled by refugees across borders, I learned that a state-led silence has made way for political repression. Belarusians have been caught in a wasteland of half-truths.

I returned on a sunny day in August this year to attend the opening night of the “Unbroken Exhibition,” organized by the library to exhibit the prison clothes of the Belarusian activist Natallia Hersche. The library is tucked away on a suburban, tree-lined street, adjacent to a wooden church.

Thirteen of us filed into the small exhibition room on the top floor of the library to listen to Hersche’s story. A dual Belarusian and Swiss citizen, she was arrested in the Belarusian capital of Minsk during the Women’s March on Sept. 19, 2020, which demanded an end to Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule but descended into chaos when riot police detained hundreds of the women demonstrating. A photo of Hersche’s arrest went viral. In prison, she refused to take part in forced labor, which would have had her sewing the uniforms of the same police officers who had arrested her. As punishment for her insolence, she was transferred to a high-security men’s prison. After 17 months, she was released and handed over to a Swiss diplomat while still wearing her prison clothes: a state-sanctioned, bright-blue puffer jacket and a khaki skirt suit. The outfit was displayed in the corner of the room, a token to what the library writes on its Facebook page was “the peaceful struggle … for freedom and democracy” pursued by Belarusian activists.

The exhibition told a prolonged story of repression. Objects that former prisoners had carried with them to the Soviet-era gulag — a wooden cross, an embroidered cloth — were also exhibited, painting a portrait of detainment from then until now. Their significance cannot be overestimated. Pointing to the embroidery, a museum archivist from the Ivan Luckevic Belarusian Museum in Vilnius said, “It’s truly amazing how one finds the courage to see some beauty in the cold of Siberia, in this place of torture.” It is also proof of a history that has been rewritten in the service of the current regime.

Hanna Komar, a Belarusian poet now living in exile in London, attended the event wearing the same clothes she wore when she was arrested and detained for nine days by the Belarusian authorities during the 2020 uprisings.

Komar said a suppressed history has a way of evolving, and generational trauma has contaminated Belarusian society. Growing up in a country where people have experienced gulags and forced labor but discussion of these topics was silenced led her mother to hold political views in favor of the Soviet regime and later post-Soviet regime. It’s a common story. This, she said, was why a public reckoning with the past could be transformative.

In Belarus, many of Komar’s friends remain in detention. Over the border in neighboring Ukraine, her friends have also been subject to the ongoing military bombardment. She wonders “if, as a Belarusian, I have a right to speak about this,” when missiles are launched from Belarus into Ukraine. Komar told me there is a history which electrifies the war but has barely been acknowledged. It’s a history that links the two countries, and one which makes her feel Russia should apologize for the legacies of Soviet imperialism.

In the 2013 book “Second Hand Time,” the author Svetlana Alexievich writes, “People who have come out of Socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity … all of us come from the Gulag and harrowing war.” In subsequent chapters, she documents a new Russia. Capitalism appears out of nowhere. Prosperity reigns. It is as if nothing ever happened.

That “nothing” was used by Vladimir Putin’s government to create a space where dissent against the current invasion of Ukraine was not an option. A void can easily be filled with lies. When I spoke to Maria Tomak, head of the National Office of the Crimea Platform, she said this is precisely what Putin has done. The legacy of the Soviet Union is essential to understanding the current invasion. Elsewhere, Tomak said that “the truth has never been established.”

Truth is essential for post-conflict societies to move forward after mass atrocities. Transitional justice — a formal response to human rights abuses, which may include judicial redress and political reforms — can be institutionalized through courts or community efforts to establish the truth, administer justice and achieve peace through reconciliation.

One famous example is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which, for better or worse, sought to establish a common vernacular on the brutality of apartheid. These tools are not perfect. Still, while they aim to create the cohesion necessary to forge a shared national identity (and by extension govern that nation effectively), personal transformation is also possible.

There are other famous examples. In 1945, an International Military Tribunal was established to prosecute former Nazi officers for crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg Trials resulted in 155 prosecutions, including 24 death sentences. Around the same time, in Soviet Ukraine, a court tried and sentenced 12 German officers to public execution for their part in the mass murder of Jews at Babyn Yar in Kyiv. After the executions, the Soviet Union banned any further discussions or memorials. This was typical of the Soviet system, of which secrecy was an inherent part, enabling Soviet regimes to forge an alternate reality (or history) in the process.

There were no tribunals in the aftermath of the atrocities committed under Josef Stalin, or any of his successors. No one was brought to justice by a Soviet, post-Soviet or international court. Consequently, neither political nor personal transformation has been possible in post-Soviet countries to the same extent as in post-Nazi Germany.

“I think this topic was really underestimated,” Tomak said. Without engaging with the past, the terror that people experienced in the USSR was “marginalized” and simplifications of history were allowed to creep into the language. She fears outrage has given way to romanticism. The hammer and sickle have become a symbol of rebellion in countries weary of the inequalities existing under capitalism. Tomak feels that the people who plaster these signs around student unions up and down Western Europe or in the centers of crumbling Mediterranean cities may as well be glorifying Nazi swastikas.

“I feel offended just because my family suffered because of the regime,” says Tomak. Unlike the Nazi regime, Soviet crimes and Stalin’s crimes have never been solidified in the collective imagination, despite the fact that, in her words, “under that sign [the hammer and sickle], millions of people were killed.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, condemnation of the crimes committed by its autocratic government could have allowed for “history [to] develop in some other ways,” Tomak says. This might have given Russia and Belarus the opportunity to transform their political structures. Instead, “Putin is like a successor to the USSR,” and there are “very basic connections between the former KGB and newly established business enterprises in Russia.”

How exactly this transformative justice process might work, especially in the aftermath of further war crimes in Ukraine, is difficult to imagine when contemplating a vast territory spanning 11 time zones. The communal effort to commemorate history at the Francis Skaryna library is vital. Still, the library is physically located in the West. Direct commemoration inside Russia and Belarus themselves is essential.

For groups marginalized under the Soviet regime, transitional justice is also personal. This is why the photojournalist Emine Ziyatdinova believes Stalin needs to be prosecuted in a posthumous trial. The murders of millions, including her grandfather, began with Stalin. Ziyatdinova has seen firsthand how Russian patriotism has been wielded in more recent times to secure power in Crimea. Much of that patriotism centers on baseless history.

Ziyatdinova, who now works in London, was born in Uzbekistan but moved to Crimea at the age of 3. Soviet officers forced her grandmother, Ayriye Emirvelieva, to leave Crimea, under what has since come to be known as the Surgunlik, which took place from May 18 to 20, 1944. Lavrentiy Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police, ordered over 190,000 Crimean Tatars to abandon their homes and belongings for labor camps in Central Asia. The deportation was no coincidence. Displacement was engineered by a regime that emphasized forced Sovietification at any cost. For years, ethnic Crimean Tatars campaigned to have the Surgunlik recognized as cultural genocide. The Ukrainian Parliament eventually granted that recognition in 2015. The Russian government is yet to do the same.

On May 18, 1999, Ziyatdinova was at a school commemorative service in Serebryanka, a small village in northern Crimea. The teachers had asked the school children to read poems about exile. Ziyatdinova felt a rush of recognition: Her grandparents had lived this history. She began to cry. “It’s just like maybe the age that you start understanding that it happened to your family and that you belong to some ethnic group,” she told me when we met in London this July. “So there’s an understanding that … it could have happened to you as well, or it can happen to you as well.” Ziyatdinova recalled that during the service, the class vowed “never again.”

Before the Surgunlik, suppression and surveillance had become defining features of day-to-day life. It was within this world of persecution and fear that Ziyatdinova’s great-grandfather Abdul Kerim Emir Veli was executed after being arrested under false allegations by Soviet police. Ziyatdinova carries her great-grandfather’s execution with her. It is the defining event in her family history, which tells her she is part of a persecuted minority.

Growing up in Crimea, Ziyatdinova saw Russian nationalism stirring beneath the surface, despite the promise that a shared Ukrainian identity would follow independence. As early as 2005, there were signs that Russian nationalism was on the rise. Certain moments in particular stand out. On Aug. 24 of that year — Ukrainian Independence Day — Ziyatdinova was home from university after taking part in the Orange Revolution in Lviv — the 2004 protests opposing government corruption and Russian influence. She went for a drink with three friends from her school days in a small village bar that doubled as a grocery store during the day. Ziyatdinova, Katya, Sasha and Denis were sitting at one of a few tables in the corner of the shop drinking beers. Ziyatdinova raised her glass to her friends, hoping to make a toast to independence, but was surprised when Sasha refused. Given her family’s history, she was passionate that Ukrainian independence should be protected. Sasha, who came from a pro-Russian family, felt differently. They argued and, finally, Sasha said, “Stalin did it right when he deported Crimean Tatars!”

Silence fell. No one defended her, not even Denis, who had spent years passing her handwritten love letters under his desk. If you zoomed out of the scene, you would see Ziyatdinova there, distinct, the only ethnic Crimean Tatar sitting with her Slavic friends in a typical village bar. She was alone.

Later, while working as a journalist, Ziyatdinova covered the 2014 pseudo-referendum in Crimea. The political spectacle was used to authorize the Russian annexation of the peninsula. She remembers standing in Lenin Square in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, with pro-Russians, whom she recalls were going “crazy.” It occurred to her that history was cyclical. For Ziyatdinova, it was like peering through the looking glass into an alternative reality where, she says, the Russian narrative was “so dominant” it eclipsed everything else, even the notion that others were Ukrainian.

Today, eight years later, Ziyatdinova’s family has returned to a time when they cannot speak. The May 19 commemorative practices were banned by the Russian regime in 2014. The past has been disfigured. The disjunction between private memories and public narratives has created a schism. It has meant that Ukrainian society (and all previous colonies of the Soviet Union) have no common language to describe the past. “The truth was twisted [for] so long that it’s like no one even believes in any truths anymore, or facts,” Ziyatdinova said.

Danielle Johnson, a consultant Ukraine researcher with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), agrees. “Stalin’s legacy, in particular, needs to be reckoned with,” she said. “Putin has been able to exploit Stalin … to build support for his project. Stalin has been glorified … which is very, very dangerous.” Johnson said the international community missed an opportunity to reckon with the USSR’s crimes in the early 1990s, creating space for Putin to “rewrite the narrative of history.”

Looking at what is happening in Ukraine today, Johnson feels distressed. “It just feels like this is what happens when countries do not face the past. When they’re not allowed to or they’re not able to for whatever reason, well, this is an example of it.”

Because that history was never looked at properly, Johnson said it can be used “to justify brutality in the service of a greater political project, which in this case, frankly, is imperial expansion.”

Meanwhile, in London, Belarusian activists continue to build a project to counter this forced Russification. As Komar pointed out, maps show how close together Ukraine and Belarus are. Yet, so far, all efforts to commemorate a shared history of oppression have been muted by the homogenizing force of Russian nationalism.

To close the opening of the Unbroken Exhibition, Komar read one of her poems:

in our prison cell
the four of us
share everything:
liquid white
and sticky ochre light
bed squeaking
the cold curling up
the sun behind the thick window
fresh air from the gap
between the window frames
free trains rumbling
iron doors clashing
tapping against the wall
warm water in the shower
a newspaper with crossword puzzles
the voice reading aloud
thickened time
and the very
“when i’m out of here …”

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