October 30 saw one of the most important moments so far of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency in Russia. On a video blog posted on the presidential website, he squarely addressed the issue of the mass repressions carried out under Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator from the mid-1920s to 1953. I agree with Tomas Hirst, who wrote on the Prospect magazine blog that this was a brave step on Medvedev’s part.
Medvedev didn’t simply condemn Stalin’s crimes. He criticised Russians – and, sad to say, there are an awful lot of them – who make excuses for Stalin by saying some supposed “supreme goals of the state” justified the arrest, deportation, imprisonment, execution and death by starvation of millions of people. It is still quite common to hear Russians defend Stalin by saying that he led the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany. Significantly, however, Medvedev entitles his video blog “Memory of National Tragedies is as Sacred as the Memory of Victories”.
Medvedev took matters still further by calling for the construction of new museums and memorial centres to make sure the Russian public, particularly the younger generation, does not lapse into ignorance about the appalling abuses of power in Russia’s 20th century past. Nor was it the first time that he had tackled this most delicate of subjects. In September he became the first Russian president to visit a memorial to labour camp victims at Magadan in Russia’s far east.
These are steps that distinguish Medvedev from Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and ex-president, under whose rule as head of state official attitudes to Stalin were more ambiguous. As in communist times, the way that a Russian leader interprets his country’s past can be a useful guide to his thinking on the present.
Of course, the Russian human rights group Memorial is correct to say that everyone must wait and see if Medvedev really carries out his promises. But now at least Russians have a yardstick by which to measure their president.