Kremlin Urged to Emulate Patriarch in Honoring Stalin's Victims

by Paul A. Goble  |  May 4, 2005  |  ARTICLES

Patriarch Aleksii's continuing efforts to honor those Orthodox Christians who died for their faith in Soviet times – people his Church refers to as "the new Russian martyrs"—has been recommended as a model for how the Russian government might honor the memory of all those who died in Soviet-era repressions.

Last Saturday, Patriarch Aleksii II held a divine service in the now-peaceful Moscow suburb of Butovo, a Soviet secret police killing field where more than 20,000 people were executed between August 1937 and October 1938 alone. Approximately 1,000 of those killed were Orthodox hierarchs, priests or active lay persons.

During the service, Interfax reported, the participants, who in addition to Aleksii included 12 hierarchs of the Church, 300 priests, and 1500 faithful reaffirmed their commitment never to forget what had happened and their recognition that "Russia has given more martyrs (for the faith) than all the preceding history of the Christian church"

A decade ago, the Russian government transferred six hectares of that location to the Russian Orthodox Church which is in the process of building a memorial chapel there. Already, the Church has identified many of those who were killed, published a book about them, and even opened a website, http://www.butovopolygon.by.ru.

And every year since the late 1990s, on the fourth weekend after Easter, the patriarch has conducted a divine liturgy in memory of those martyred there. No other place in Russia is said to have the remains of as many Chruch martyrs. And the Church now calls it "the Russian Golgotha" (http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/print/17797.htm ).

The Patriarchate's decision to honor the victims of Soviet-era repressions stands in sharp contrast to the Russian government's general unwillingness to do the same by developing a ceremony that would honor the memory of those who died as a result of Soviet totalitarianism.

This year, in the wake of the Kremlin's enormous effort to remember the millions who died in World War II, a leading Russian writer on religious questions has urged that the Kremlin develop a "worthy state ritual" to honor the memory of the victims that repression and to show respect to those who survived those terrible times.

In an article in "Izvestiya" two days before the Butovo ceremony, Andrei Zolotov noted that the annual visits to that location by the Patriarch, who ranks sixth in the protocol list in the Russian state, represent "the most 'highly placed' acts of respect for the victims of Soviet terror" in the new Russia so far.

None of the officials under Gorbachev or Yeltsin who outrank him ever visited a site memorializing those who died under Stalin, and Vladimir Putin has done so only twice, laying flowers at memorials in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana in 2000 and the northern Russian city of Norilsk in 2002.

Such a lack of attention to this national tragedy, Zolotov continued, is simply "shameful."  And it "is especially bitter" in the wake of the recent commemoration of those who gave their lives during World War II.   Zolotov said that the reason behind this difference is the following calculation by the current Russian government.

"Remembering those who fell in the war became an element of the government's ideology already in Soviet times and is actively supported at the state level," he wrote, "but remembering the millions of victims of the Stalinist terror never became the same thing in the new Russia."

Instead, "in formulating its historical mythology, the Kremlin has placed the Soviet period within the single historical flow" of that country's past,  an approach that is also reflected in the three things it has elevated to the level of state symbols: the Byzantine eagle, the Petrine tricolor flag, and the music if not the lyrics of the Soviet-era anthem.

Zolotov explicitly said he was not urging Putin to go to Butovo with the Patriarch next year, but he concluded his article by saying that there are three good political reasons beyond the obvious moral ones why Putin should now be thinking about how to honor those who died under Stalin.

First, by honoring the memory of those who died under Stalin, Putin would quiet if not silence those who now accuse him of seeking "the restoration of Stalinism." Second, he would guarantee that his political opponents could not seize control of this issue in the way that the communists took over the issue of Russian patriotism in the 1990s.

And third, by creating such a ceremony, Zolotov said, Putin would open the way for genuine reconciliation at home and even abroad.   If such a ritual were created within a year, he concluded, then "it would be possible to invite the leaders of the Baltic and other post-Soviet states" to take part in that.

For that kind of ceremony, the Russian journalist said he was sure, there was no doubt that "they [all] would come."