Pieces of barbed wire. A tattered dress, patched in so many places that it is more patch than dress. A homemade lamp cobbled together out of a tin can. A padded jacket to protect against Siberian winds.
These humble relics recall the horror of the Soviet labor camps in a Berlin exhibition, “Gulag: Traces and Testimonies, 1929-1956.” The show at the German Historical Museum remembers the estimated 20 million people incarcerated during Josef Stalin’s reign. About 2 million are believed to have died. Yet the historians trying to ensure the suffering isn’t forgotten say they are becoming the target of persecution themselves. The exhibits in Berlin belong to Memorial, a Russian non-governmental agency founded in 1988, whose first president was the nuclear physicist, dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov.
Memorial has been threatened with having to close by President Vladimir Putin’s government for refusing to comply with a law requiring institutions that engage in “political activities” and receive aid from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” That requirement “is like a yellow star, a sign on the chest,” Irina Sherbakova, a historian and co-founder of Memorial, said in an interview at opening. “We do not consider ourselves foreign agents. This seems to us the peak of absurdity.”
The word “agent,” Sherbakova said, is one you see in “hundreds of thousands of death sentences” in the biographies of those persecuted by Stalin. If Russia were prepared to support Memorial’s work, she said, the organization wouldn’t be forced to seek funding from abroad….
Russia’s failure to accept the terrible realities of its past remains the greatest obstacle to its chance of a better future.