Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a memorial wall to victims of Stalinist purges on October 30th. Calling it the “Wall of Grief,” he reaffirmed that history cannot repeat itself in the country. However, the BBC reported that many of Putin’s critics believed his comments to be hypocritical. The President has repeatedly been accused of restricting civil liberties in Russia. His views on Joseph Stalin are also a point of criticism, as he and other Russians have been known to voice opinions of Stalin that ignore his many atrocities.
The Wall of Grief is meant to memorialize the victims of Joseph Stalin’s oppressive regime. There were many dark times during his rule between the years 1929 and 1953. The darkest was the Great Terror, which occurred between the years 1936 and 1938. According to Michigan State University, the Great Terror was initiated by the show trials of several high-ranking Communists charged with aiding domestic terrorists. The accused confessed to outlandish crimes and named names that their interrogators wanted to hear. As the process fed upon itself, the number of victims rose dramatically. Poor records were kept of those who were executed or deported, but conservative estimates say the number of victims exceeded 700,000.
Stalin’s regime was responsible for disturbing human rights abuses, but his image in Russia today is more complicated. While the Wall of Grief memorializes the victims of Stalinist purges, it does not denounce Joseph Stalin. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that many Russians consider Stalin to be an outstanding figure. World War II is called the Great Patriotic War in Russia and its people consider the defeat of Nazi Germany, and fascism in general, to be the greatest achievement of the twentieth century. According to the Washington Post, Putin has only gone so far as to say Stalin was “complex.” He also believes excessive demonization of Stalin is just another tool to attack Russia today. Historical revisionism has made Stalin a figure to be praised. This is convenient for Vladimir Putin, whose regime has been criticized for crushing civil liberties in Russia.
This past summer, the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office released a report outlining the status of human rights and democracy in various countries. Russia was among those listed falling short in both. While the Russian government has been known to make attempts at expanding their power in the region in recent years, they are also responsible for limiting civil liberty within their borders. Russia’s Yarovaya law, enacted in 2016, was under particular scrutiny. The law has restricted online freedom and limited certain religious activities. With these restrictions, state media has continued to extend its reach and promote a pro-government narrative while giving little room, if any, to views of the opposition.
The Wall of Grief is a haunting memorial that evokes emotions of compassion and sorrow for those who suffered under an oppressive regime. While the victims have been given a fitting memorial, many present-day Russians continue to suffer. Stalin’s victories should not overshadow his crimes. They certainly should not be used to justify unfit behaviour today. While it seems so easy to recognize, several Russians do not see it this way. Reuters has already reported that Vladimir Putin is expected to win the re-election in March.