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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 August, 2003, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
Russia's resistance to facing past
Katyn massacre site
The KGB's massacre of Poles in Katyn is remembered
Human rights groups in Russia are currently commemorating the millions who died as a result of political oppression in the Soviet era - but much of the country seems indifferent towards joining them.

The vast majority of the deaths - estimated by some experts to number around 20 million - took place under Stalin.

However, recent developments - including a plan by the mayor of Moscow to restore a statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, and the restoration of the tune of the old Soviet anthem - have stirred debate over how much of their country's past Russians are prepared to accept.

Despite the advent of democracy, most Russians have shown little inclination to face up to the enormity of past crimes.

"Soviet terror wasn't very selective - it would kill anyone who didn't fit in as a typical Soviet citizen," Erin Afliga, a regional director of Memorial - a movement to commemorate the victims of repression under Stalin - told the BBC.

No change

Memorial is currently digging in an area around 100 km north of St Petersburg, which has revealed what it estimates to be the remains of 30,000 people in a total of 50 pits.

Tests on seven bodies unearthed so far have, Memorial says, revealed that they were killed by bullets.

Josef Stalin
Stalin's regime is believed to have killed up to 20 million
But there has been little support for their efforts, either locally or nationally.

"There is a myth about Russia, that it is now a post-communist society," Ms Afliga said.

"In reality, until we understand and think clearly about communism - and the gulags - we can't really talk about irreversible change in this country."

And she added that Russia has never really accepted the dark side of its 20th Century history, unlike Germany where the crimes of Nazism are openly acknowledged.

"Russia still doesn't have a gulag museum. The remains of thousands of victims of communist terror still haven't been given a proper burial," she said.

'Unreliable and unconfirmed'

Certainly, there has been no concerted national effort to confront the crimes against humanity - or to atone for them.

Memorial has asked various authorities for help in determining what did occur in some areas, but the responses it has received often appear terse.

The Military Prosecutor's Office replied by saying that Memorial's evidence was "unreliable and unconfirmed".

Meanwhile the successor to the former KGB secret police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), said files could not be released - and added that any information it might give would "infringe the privacy" of the people whose bodies lie in the pits.

KGB building
Sergei Bogdanov's father was killed in the KGB building
But some relatives view this claim as a further indignity heaped on the victims.

"They should be doing a lot, but they're doing almost nothing," said Sergei Bogdanov, whose father was accused of spying for Finland and shot in the KGB building at the height of Stalinism.

"I think, like the majority of people who understand what's happened, that until we get a confession to all these wrongdoings, we can't move on."

Many wars

But Alexander Mikhailov, a reserve FSB general, said that there had been many deaths on Russian soil and not all could be attributable to past regimes.

KGB logo
Many remain proud of the KGB's achievements
"If you see a mass grave or an unnamed burial site, it doesn't necessarily mean it is related to Stalin's great terror," General Mikhailov, speaking in a personal capacity, told the BBC, adding that conflicts such as the Civil War and World War II also produced mass killings.

"Unfortunately forensic science cannot be very precise about when the bodies were buried."

With regard to Memorial's site near St Petersburg, General Mikhailov said that the FSB had already published the location of all burial sites related to the terror, and that these sites were guarded and marked.

"If we're talking about a new site, and the FSB says they don't know anything about it, I would believe them," he said.

People are not interested in what human rights groups say - people are interested in preserving their dream of the past
Moscow tour guide Peter Kosarev
General Mikhailov also stressed that there was likely to be doubt surrounding any new sites, even if eyewitnesses claimed to have seen them being used for burial.

"We've come to terms with all the crimes on our conscience, but the FSB can't take responsibility for what one witness said many years ago," he argued.

"Those bodies could be corpses brought from, say, a military hospital."

And he said he doubted that the St Petersburg site had been "missed off" the official list.

Dzerzhinsky statue being torn down and stamped on
Dzerzhinsky's statue was torn down in 1991
"I don't think we've missed anything," he said.

"The site in the forest has yet to be studied properly and thoroughly.

"Sometimes during construction work in Moscow they still find mass graves - but when we look in the archives we find, for instance, that there used to be a church on the site.

"And so we conclude the bodies are nothing to do with terror."

Blind eye

However, more than simply glossing over the past, some Russians are beginning to actively look to it with pride - hence Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov's proposal to restore the Dzerzhinsky statue torn down in 1991.

Moscow tour guide Pyotr Kosarev says that for many people the simplest thing is to turn a blind eye.

"It's hard to talk about that," he said. "People who are getting older now and think of the times gone with pride sometimes simply don't believe in those victims."

Instead, he said, they prefer to think of it as "overestimated, made up by over-enthusiastic historians".

"People are not interested in what human rights groups say - people are interested in preserving their dream of the past."

Statue plan stirs Russian row
21 Sep 02  |  Europe
Russia adopts new anthem
26 Dec 00  |  Europe
New anthem reopens old wounds
08 Dec 00  |  Europe
Stalin's ghost looms large
12 Jul 03  |  From Our Own Correspondent
The maddest and most criminal of tyrants
23 Jun 03  |  Letter From America
How Russia faced its dark past
05 Mar 03  |  Europe

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