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84% of Russian Students Want a Public Debate About the Red Terror

They want to know what happened and what that means for today's Russia 

MORE: History

Recently, a fascinating trend in Russian society has emerged: a peaking, nation-wide interest in history, especially post-Revolution history and, even more so, the (in)famous Stalin years.

This year, on the centennial of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russians are finally ready to grapple with the countless ghosts of the victims of Soviet purges and repressions: the Christians, the liberals, the peasants, the nobility, the foreigners, and so many other random “counterrevolutionaries.”

This is the first large organized social attempt to address the brutal historical reality. Russians are discussing, debating, organizing exhibitions, building memorials and walls of tears for the victims. RGRU, the official Russian government publication of historical documents has created an official page called "reconciliation" for materials and news related to the memorialization and discussion of the Revolution and the Red Terror. 

The site reports the following statistics:

“84% of Russian students stated that the Stalin’s “Great Purge,” a political repression from 1936 to 1938, during which about six million people were killed in camps and shot, it is a necessary topic of discussion and study for youth, reports rgru. 34% stated that the had relatives who were repressed, 29% couldn’t answer. 71% of respondents believed, that Russia needs to develop a culture of memory, specifically to build memorials for those who were repressed during the Great Purge.

What’s fascinating is that Russia’s teenagers-the members of society one would think least likely to be interested- are most willing and eager to open the Pandora’s box of the bloody 20th century.

Their parents and grandparents were much more careful, often not even hiding their own stories from their children in paranoid fear. But the careful secrecy of the Soviet Union era is finally combusting.

Teenagers demand to know their own history: the good, the bad, the ugly.

The debate is only the more lively due to the shocking ideas involved. On one side of the spectrum, there is a loud cry for national ash and sackcloth repentance for betraying the Tsar, the monarchy, and complying with an atheist regime. People from that camp also insist that Lenin’s embalmed body finally be removed from the Red Square. They want nothing to do with the legacy of the Soviet Union, maintaining that its crimes and atheism negate any possible "good" others try to attribute to it. 

On the opposite pole is a  controversial, recent movement of historical revisionism, according to which only 600,000 people were killed in the purges. The rest, according to this theory, was Western-originated hype and anti-communist propaganda. Here, there’s even room for the Stalin apologists, who suggest that he shouldn’t be blamed for the murders; instead, they were carried out by a ghoulish secret police force even he couldn’t control.

Of course, most people fall somewhere in between the divide. 

For some, it's simply a deeply personal question. Some people just want to reinstate their repressed relatives, erased from society, into national history; to finally let go of the "deaf ache of ignorance and consistent half-truths" of history, as the grandson of a repressed victim wrote in a recent article that accompanies his familial archive.

Some want to figure out what the Terror means for the new post-Putin Russia and how it informs its further actions.

The project of memory surrounding the Revolution also goes hand in hand with the recent work of the Russian Christian Church, which, in the past decades, has seen a gigantic influx of post-Revolution saints: people who were killed by the Soviet Regime for their staunch Christian faith.

Believers build massive churches and publish hundreds of books to commemorate and raise awareness about the Christian martyrs.

Either way, Russia is doing what a therapist would approve of: it is facing its craziest fears and working through its national trauma in order to find closure and maybe even renewal.  

And maybe learn from, and connect anew, with their country's past--all of it. 

MORE: History