Features

Why doesn't Russia have a Yad Vashem for the gulag?

One of the 20th century's great crimes is still awaiting a fitting memorial

4 January 2014

4 January 2014

Yad Vashem, Israel’s vast Holocaust memorial complex, dominates a hillside above Jerusalem, surrounded by bare rock and pines. Vast though it is, it manages to be both harrowing and restrained; both rooted in the times it commemorates and thoroughly modern — not just in style, but in the way it harnesses the most advanced technology to its cause.

As an enterprise, let alone a monument, it is impressive: a testament to the commitment of Israel and the survivors of Europe’s Jewry to ensure that what happened is never forgotten. But it aspires to more: to convey a sense of the communities that were destroyed and to memorialise, so far as possible, every last individual. The idea is to humanise those who had been stripped of their humanity: to establish each victim’s identity, to name every name.

To date, the archive at Yad Vashem has four and a half million names, many with dates of birth and death, even photographs. Two thirds of its holdings have been digitised and are available worldwide. No one accepts that the task is anything like complete.

The new museum at the centre of the complex is a model of what a modern museum can be. By the age of 25, practically every Israeli will have taken part in several group visits — as a pupil and as a military conscript. Such exposure to the catastrophe of the last century helps form the outlook of every citizen of Israel.

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Contrast this with the Museum of the Gulag I chanced upon in Moscow a couple of years ago, its presence indicated only by a handwritten sign. Sparsely staffed by elderly volunteers and comprising just a few rooms, it was heroic proof of personal dedication. There was a faithful reconstruction of camp accommodation; fragments of letters and diaries, official documents authorising banishment or rehabilitation; the wooden spoons and food tins that have become, in their simplicity, icons of life in the Gulag.

It would be wrong to accuse post-Soviet Russia of doing nothing to remember the victims of communism. The works of Solzhenitsyn, including The Gulag Archipelago, are now prescribed reading in Russian schools. As President, Vladimir Putin — yes, even Putin — has spoken at gatherings to commemorate victims of Stalin’s purges. The 30th of October is designated the day of remembrance of political repressions. Local newspapers, and now websites, have regular features publishing appeals from people trying to trace missing friends and relatives.

And the admirable organisation, Memorial, works to identify burial sites and establish the fate of the missing. In 1990, it placed a monument — a huge boulder from the prison complex in the Solovetsky Islands — in front of the notorious Lubyanka in Moscow. But Memorial is a non-governmental organisation, and commemoration depends, all too often, on individual initiative.

It could justly be argued that integrating such a painful past takes time. Although the law establishing Yad Vashem was passed just five years after the foundation of the state of Israel, the project advanced only by stages and not without controversy into the extensive complex that exists today. There is a crucial difference, too, between the situation of Russia and Israel. As has been said epigrammatically: half of Russia did time in the camps; the other half sent them there. There is as yet no agreement on a common past.

But more than 20 years have elapsed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the number of those who passed through the country’s prison camp system is estimated at between 15 and 50 million. Is it not time for today’s Russians, and the Russian state in their name, to start incorporating that past trauma into their present? Regrettably, there is little evidence that this is happening.

Take Memorial. The bulk of its funding comes from Germany. It is not only the state that has denied funding; Russia’s oligarchs, it seems, would rather spend their wealth on foreign football teams, Fabergé eggs or English public school fees for their offspring. Contrast this with the long list of eminent Jews who helped fund Yad Vashem.

It is not just Russia, of course, that could usefully take the Holocaust memorial as a blueprint for commemorating a tragic past in a credible and modern way. Rwanda is one of the latest countries to ask Yad Vashem for advice on compiling an archive to remember its ugly recent history. But the scale of Israel’s project as it was conceived, the spirit in which the 700 or so staff work there, and their determination to continue until each and every victim has a name, all offer Russia a model of how it might proceed. For it is only when the state and its citizens restore the memory of their past, that Russia will become a fully normal country.


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  • Roy

    The USSR’s Gulag is still an unrecognized phenomena that waits to be qualified and admitted by the Russian leaders and Western cohorts. Western leaders after WW2 kept explicitly to Stalin’s road map of his making. To this day living a lie that working with the devil makes you part of the evil.

    • Daniel Maris

      What about our gulags in the colonies? Do they not count?

      • Roy

        To try and compare any British system of imprisonment, even in the dark old days, does not compute. These would be holiday camps in comparison. Please explain. We are talking about sub zero condition, prisoners doing 15 years plus with hard labour, with the very minimum of food, for speaking out of turn or even just having the wrong credentials.

        • Otto

          Historians estimate that one third of the population of Bengal perished in a massive famine due to the uncontrolled frenzy of looting that followed the imposition of British rule in 1857.

          Historians estimate total famine deaths in India under British rule in the nineteenth century at 25 millions. See Mike Davis’ well known book “Late Victorian Holocausts”.

          Even Churchill was a bigger mass killer than Stalin. In 1943 he deliberately refused food aid to starving people in the Indian province of Bengal after years of draining India of food, and forbade the US and Australia to send famine aid to India when the dead and dying littered the fields and roads of Bengal. As a result about a tenth of the population of Bengal – three million people – perished. In proportion to population that is a bigger death toll than what historians today
          book Stalin for.

          Ask the Irish about famine and depopulation and land seizure on an incredible scale under the rule of your British.

          • Roy

            Your ant-British fanaticism shows the height and depth of hatred you will go to, along with the purest propaganda on so many subjects cluttered up to put your point over. Perhaps if your self-control will enable you, read “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire”. A book produced especially for your steamed-up rationale.

            My comment was a short implication to the dreadful Gulag prison and forced labour camps of the Stalinist Regime of the former USSR. Rather than even start to even itemise the depths of depravity the ones running such camps. You should read: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. The comment above: Urszula Muskus, also suggest a book to read. Let me say this; the extinction of the Tasmanian natives or any other native population in the former British Empire would not amount to the same number of Russian deaths forced on them by Stalin’s policy of ridding the countryside of it’s legitimate peasants by withholding their ability to hold sufficient food supplies, so they died … in their
            millions. This is not to mention the amount of deaths in the prison camps themselves … which were meant also to be an exterminating procedure.

            To try and hide the suffering of a people under the
            communist regime by comparing it to the British system is an adolescent engagement in absurdity and does you no justice.

        • Otto

          Tell that to the Irish slaughtered and sold into slavery on such a scale that about a fifth of the population perished in the time of Cromwell. Tell that to the Irish in the nineteenth century when Ireland underwent a second Holocaust under British rule.
          Tell that to the generation of Africans who were treated like animals or worse under racial segregation in places like South Africa that were boasted centres of the Empire. Tell that to the tens of thousands who perished in Kenya as late as the 1950s. Tell that to the tenth of the population of Angola and Mozambique that was wiped out in ruthless raids by racist South African forces in the 1970s and 1980s supported by the US and the UK – again, proportionately a far worse crime than what happened under Stalin.
          Tell that to the Aborigines of Tasmania who suffered EXTINCTION under British rule.

  • The_Savage

    According to Solzhenitsyn, 66 million perished in Soviet gulags. The Russian Christian holocaust was 10 times greater than the Jewsh one, so why does the latter dominate?

    • Daniel Maris

      I’ve never read a claim like that from Solzhenitsyn – do you have a citation? Bear in mind the population of the Soviet Union was at most around 200 million.

      Crazy stats help no one.

      • Scott Lowson

        The article below from the NY Times mentions 66 million killed in Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

        “In it he implores the Soviet leadership to disavow this “rubbishy ideology.” It has killed, he argues 66 million and bred cynicism and hypocrisy among the living; now it is leading to a disastrous war with China as well as ecological catastrophe through unbridled economic and technological growth.”

        Probably the greatest evil ever perpetrated if the number is correct.

        http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/01/home/solz-gulag.html

        • Daniel Maris

          Well, there you go, just as I said. It does not say 66 million died in the gulags as was claimed above. He says the ideology (presumably Bolshevist) was responsible for 66 million deaths, which is certainly arguable, especially if you include actions by other Comintern parties like the Chinese Communist Party once they gained power and if you make Stalin co-responsible for WW2. However, I suspect that Solzy, who was an anti-abortionist, probably threw in all abortions allowed under the Soviet Union.

          • Ibsen

            Here is what the fiercely anti-Soviet US historian Timothy Snyder says in an article comparing Stalin and Hitler in the New York Review of Books:

            “It turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large
            majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit less. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people starved. ”
            The claim that the 1930s famine was deliberate has been disputed by other distinguished historians.

            The link to the article is:

            http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/n

    • Otto

      The fiercely anti-Soviet American historian Timothy Snyder has reckoned that
      now Soviet archives have been revealed the number of victims attributed
      to Stalin have had to be drastically revised downwards. In the Cold
      War the West said 20 million. Snyder estimates the real figure as
      between 2 and 3 million, many of them Communist Party members, out of a
      population of about 170 million. He attributes to Stalin an additional
      5 million in a famine in the 1930s that according to Snyder was
      deliberately engineered by Stalin. Other historians dispute this. So
      if we take the 3 million figure Stalin’s crimes did away with less than 2 percent
      percent of the Soviet population: horrific and totally unforgivable.

      Cromwell,
      the founder of the modern BRITISH state, by contrast, caused the deaths
      of ONE FIFTH OF THE POPULATION OF IRELAND. ONE FIFTH !!!!!

      He makes Stalin seem a mere beginner.

      Here is what Timothy Snyder says in his article in the New York Review of Books:

      “It turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large
      majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the
      Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag
      between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was
      on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the
      entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million.
      The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a
      million people, probably a bit less. The largest human catastrophe of
      Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million
      people starved. ”

      The link to the article is:

      http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/n

      Even Churchill was a bigger mass killer than Stalin. In 1943 he
      deliberately refused food aid to starving people in the Indian province
      of Bengal after years of draining India of food, and forbade the US and
      Australia to send famine aid to India when the dead and dying littered
      the fields and roads of Bengal. As a result about a tenth of the
      population of Bengal – three million people – perished. In proportion
      to population that is a bigger death toll than what historians today
      book Stalin for.

  • http://3650daysinthegulag.com/ Urszula Muskus

    Few in the UK know much about what happened east of Germany during WW2. My grandmother Urszula was deported to the gulags for 16 years after her husband was murdered at Katyn. A memorial is much needed. Urszula wrote an inspiring memoir which has received over 100 five star reviews on amazon uk. See

    http://3650daysinthegulag.com/

    • Persuasive

      God bless her and your whole family. And I will pray that she is safe with the one creator and with all those who’ve suffered around the world.

  • Daniel Maris

    Er – because most of them think there was nothing wrong with it?

  • Otto

    It is no longer so easy for the British to point fingers at Russia: now the horrific scale of British crimes in the colonies and in Ireland are known.

    • serguei_p

      Only someone with very poor knowledge of History compensated with ideology can write something like this.

      • Otto

        Here is what the fiercely anti-Soviet US historian Timothy Snyder says in an article comparing Stalin and Hitler in the New York Review of Books:

        “It turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large
        majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit less. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people starved. ”
        The claim that the 1930s famine was deliberate has been disputed by other distinguished historians.

        The link to the article is:

        http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/n

        • serguei_p

          Your link does not work.
          And I know that what you writing is not true.

      • Otto

        A book was published a few years ago on the Hitler-like crimes of Churchill in India and received the endorsement of the Churchill expert and ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings. Here is his review:

        http://www.fpp.co.uk/online/10/08/Churchill_Bengal.html

        Churchill was a worse killer in terms of proportion than Stalin.

        Moshe Lewin, one of the most distinguished of all experts on Soviet affairs, dismissed the charge that the Ukraine famine was deliberate as garbage.

        • serguei_p

          Have you actually read the link you posting?
          Even that text by Madhusree Mukerjee says that the problem was caused by Japanese occupying Burma, the main source of rice in Bengal.

          Read this: http://www.rediff.com/news/slide-show/slide-show-1-churchill-madusree-mukerjee-arthur-herman-rebuttal/20101202.htm

          • Ibsen

            Read “The Viceroy’s Memoirs”, by Lord Wavell, the British Viceroy in India in 1943. He had to battle with Churchill to get even the belated shipments that were finally sent after millions had died. He called the event the worst thing to happen to any people under British rule and asked bitterly if Churchill’s Cabinet was the most contemptible one Britain had ever had. He was wrong, unfortunately on this famine being the worst: under British rule India endured many far worse. It has never had any famine even remotrely on the same scale once the British left, incompetent as Indian regimes have been.
            Churchill’s own colleague, his Chief Military Adviser, Lord Alanbrooke, commented at the time: “Winston seems content to starve India while using it as a military base.” See Patrick French’s well known history of modern India, “Liberty or Death”.

          • serguei_p

            Of course Viceroy would battle for the resources, the same as those in charge of other parts of British Empire.
            The problem is that we are talking about 1943, the year when Britain itself was not without a problem of getting food.

            What Churchill is accused here is that he at the time when the Britain was short of resources and fighting the war the government did not quickly enough found and shipped food to people who starved for reasons that the government was not responsible for.
            How on Earth someone can even compare this with intentionally killing people?

          • Otto

            Your only resource is blank denial. It was OK to let Indians starve, and not even let them use their own money and ships to save themselves.

            Stalin was nothing by comparison to British callousness.

            Churchill’s own colleague, his Chief Military Adviser, Lord Alanbrooke, commented at the time: “Winston seems content to starve India while using it as a military base.” See Patrick French’s well known history of modern India, “Liberty or Death”.

            I prefer the word of the British Viceroy who was there at the time, and that of Alanbrooke.

            Your kind of excuse could equally serve Stalin: he had to industrialise Russia fast to prevent German invasion, and therefore commited excesses. I don’t buy that sort of crap.

          • Otto

            Without the empire Britain would have amounted to damn all, to put it politely. Robbing the empire gave the Brits the importance they had for a long while. India helped with the early industrialisation when it provided a captive market and the wealth looted from it (loot is a Hindi word) was invested in British industry. The British used Indian manpower for many of their wars and also for policing the empire in many places. Vast amounts of mineral wealth from Africa extracted in conditions of Gulag like slavery fattened the City of London. Africans got bugger all: when Independence came Zambia whose copper mines were so lucrative for the Brits had four effing secondary schools. Effing 4.

            You Brits sucked the blood of the world for centuries and now you are boasting, abusing Bolsheviks and all the rest of it. But you kid no one anymore. We are wise to your game.

          • Ibsen

            Churchill stopped the US and Australia sending famine relief to a starving Bengal, and Australian ships filled with grain sailed past a Bengla where the dead and dying littered the fields and roadsides, while the British feasted in their Whites-only clubs and hotels.
            Churchill even stopped India using its own ships and money to procure famine relief.
            One tenth of the population perished. Stalin was small beer by comparison.

          • serguei_p

            And how US would send that relief? It is not like there was an abundance of shipping at the time (you know, German submarines kept sinking ships) and the US did not propose to deliver it in their own shipping. How long that relief would take to come? Don’t forget there was Japan somewhere between US and India.

            And no, Churchill did not stop India. India had enough of its own conflicts and problems without Churchill having to intervene.

            It is the same as to blame Stalin for not supplying enough food to Leningrad during the blockade – as if it was that easy.

  • Otto

    Why is there no Yad Vashem in Britain for the crimes of the British in Ireland and India and Africa?

    • Blazenka Hudson-trograncic

      Having been to Yad Vashem I think the Indians, Africans and Irish would not have enough detailed information, it’s not just a memorial, it is education.
      Also Yad Vashem is not German.

  • Treebrain

    Mary,

    “It is not only the state that has denied funding; Russia’s oligarchs, it seems, would rather spend their wealth on foreign football teams, Fabergé eggs or English public school fees for their offspring. Contrast this with the long list of eminent Jews who helped fund Yad Vashem.”

    Most of the oligarchs ARE Jewish and prefer to spend the money they ‘obtained’ in Russia in Israel, not on commemorating events that involved the Russian people.

    The oligarchs most certainly do NOT want any memorials to the gulags for fear it will draw attention to how many of the senior Soviet fanatics were of Jewish origin.

  • David Lindsay
  • Otto

    The record of the British Empire and the US even post 1945 is far worse than that of Stalin.

  • Mele

    The author asks the question ‘why’ and then compares two absolutely different countries, cultures and histories. The major difference is, of course, that Holocaust wasn’t Israel’s internal tragedy, there is someone else to blame. If you want to compare Russia to some country, it is better to imagine a huge memorial with names and stories of indigenous people of America in the centre of New York or Washington, or a memorial to Irish victims of the British empire in London. It is about internal history and therefore is about blaming someone, about feeling guilty (even for surviving) and dividing the society.
    The second big difference is size. You know, Russia is a huge country and you are trying to compare it to Israel, which is much smaller, Yes, there is a small museum in Moscow (and other places in Moscow too), but have you been to any other museum in Russian cities and towns? There is a lot more in different parts of the country.
    And the third thing is Russian recent experience in the 90s. For many ordirnary Russians blaming the past and accusations, even with the best of intentions are unfortunately associated with destroying everything from the past, including decent education, health care and industrial sector. People are highly suspicious nowadays, and expect that anyone who is promoting yet another revision of history is pursuing his own selfish interests like in the 90s.
    And finally, Israel is quite a specific example anyway, with their state established after WW2.

    • Otto

      Well said!
      The oily hypocrisy of these Western propagandists is amazing.
      In 1943 Churchill stopped the US and Australia sending famine relief to a
      starving Bengal, and Australian ships filled with grain sailed past a
      Bengal where the dead and dying littered the fields and roadsides, while
      the British feasted in their Whites-only clubs and hotels.
      Churchill even stopped India using its own ships and money to procure famine relief.
      One tenth of the population perished. Stalin was small beer by comparison.
      Even in the 1980s the UK and the US supported racist South Africa in raids into Angola and Mozambique that killed at least a tenth of the population of those countries.

      US-backed military dictators carried out a massive genocide of native Amerindians in Guatemala that in two decades up to the 1980s that again killed off with extreme barbarity at least a tenth of the population.

      Where are the Yad Vashems for all these horrific crimes – or for Ireland which was depopulated by repeated British genocides?

  • Violetta

    “Russia will become a fully normal country”? Define “normal” first, maybe? Why is Western media so obsessed with telling Russia what to do about her internal matters? You guys have no problems of your own?

    • Otto

      Well said!

      Let the UK set an example with a Yad Vashem in London for Ireland, one fifth (ONE FIFTH!!!!!) of whose population perished in the horrific wars of Cromwell, the FOUNDER of the modern English state whose statue stands in front of Parliament in London….Also for the million Irish who died in famine in the mid nineteenth century while London denied famine relief…

      And for India – 25 millions dead in British famines in the nineteenth century and many millions more in the twentieth – including one tenth of Bengal’s population in 1943 when Churchill deliberately refused famine relief and even stopped the US and Australia helping – stopped India using its OWN money to buy food!!!!.

      And for Africa. Etc Etc.

  • Otto

    What sort of people do these British propagandists think the Russians are: that they will be fooled again and again by their oily hypocrisy?

  • Otto

    Dejevsky pontificates:


    It is not just Russia, of course, that could usefully take the
    Holocaust memorial as a blueprint for commemorating a tragic past in a
    credible and modern way.”

    Now there she is right. How about the UK?

  • John H Newcomb

    Memorials to recognize mass murders seem to missing in a lot of regimes?
    “From Stalin to Hitler, the most murderous regimes in the world”:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-2091670/Hitler-Stalin-The-murderous-regimes-world.html

  • Blazenka Hudson-trograncic

    Because Germany doesn’t have a ‘yad vashem’ either.

  • Christopher Szabo

    Almost all my father’s family were deported to the Gulag in 1944 from Hungary and later, many of my mother’s family. This was done on ethnic grounds, where entire ethnic groups were seen as “enemies”. My uncle Elemér died in the camps and we don’t even know which one. Some 650, 000 people were deported from Hungary alone and about half died. Still, there is no memorial to them, even in Hungary, let alone in Russia. I couldn’t agree more that until these dark deeds are acknowledged and somehow digested, there will be something wrong with all these countries. After all, someone worked the Gulags, someone was the camp guard, someone the secret policemen and someone the informer. Time to at last start talking about this.

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