Few countries have memorial days that were initiated in jail. On October 30, 1974, Soviet political prisoners in Mordva and Perm camps and Vladimir prison held simultaneous hunger strikes to commemorate the victims of communist repressions in what became the first Political Prisoners’ Day. The idea, proposed by dissident Kronid Lubarsky, took hold: this day has been observed, in one way or another, every year. The largest number of political prisoners — more than 300 — participated in a hunger strike on October 30, 1981.
Beginning in 1987, Political Prisoners’ Day was marked by annual rallies and demonstrations across the Soviet Union, from Moscow and Leningrad to Lvov and Tbilisi. On October 30, 1989, at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” hundreds of Muscovites were detained by police on Pushkinskaya Square while attempting to hold a peaceful vigil in memory of the victims of communism. In 1990–91, as the first free elections held in Russia in more than seven decades brought the democratic opposition to power, with Boris Yeltsin first elected as parliamentary speaker and later as president, Political Prisoners’ Day gained official recognition. Mr. Yeltsin was the son, grandson, and nephew of “enemies of the people” — peasant kulaks who were dispossessed and exiled during the Stalinist collectivization of the 1930s. During his 1991 campaign for the presidency, in an effort to show impartiality, he resigned from all political and social associations — except, famously, for Memorial, the organization dedicated to documenting the history of communist repressions, from Lenin to Gorbachev. In 1991, the Russian parliament officially designated October 30 as the “Memorial Day for the Victims of Political Repression.”
According to Memorial, in 1937–38 alone, more than 700,000 people were shot by the communist authorities. The total number of victims of the Soviet regime — priests, peasants, intellectuals, military officers, people of all ages and backgrounds who perished in the civil war, the “red terror,” the “great terror,” the anti-religious campaigns, the ethnic deportations, the forced collectivization and army purges; what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “the Volga River of people’s grief” — will likely never be known, although the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation puts it at around 20 million. In 1992 the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that “governing structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were initiators … of the policies of repression directed at millions.”
Last weekend thousands of Russians gathered at memorials across the country — often ad hoc — to light candles and lay flowers in memory of those who were killed in the name of a criminal utopia. Commemorations traditionally centered around Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, where, a few hundred feet from the morose headquarters of the GPU-NKVD-KGB, a stone brought from Solovki, one of the first Soviet labor camps, was installed as a memorial in 1990. For the last few years organizers have opted for a simple ceremony, free from politics or ideology: Muscovites wait in line for the microphone installed near the stone to read from the thousands-long list of people killed during the “great terror” of 1937–38. No speeches or slogans — just the name, occupation, age, and date of death. As Memorial board member Sergei Krivenko noted, “the last time these people’s names were being read out loud was when they were being handed their death sentences.” Among the participants were prominent public figures, including leaders of the opposition Yabloko party.
Despite the fact that the October 30 date still formally remains on the statutes — a rare holdover of the 1990s — no government officials took part in the ceremony this year. Their absence was welcomed by those who came to remember. The appearance of representatives of a regime that restored not only Stalin’s national anthem but also many of Stalin’s approaches to governing would have cast over Russia’s memorial day an unwelcome shade of hypocrisy.
Russia’s Day of Memory