A meme surfaced recently in Russia that says, “Today you should believe in the Russian Empire, the USSR, Stalin, Putin, and God, simultaneously.” The politics of identity at play in Russia are indeed illogical. We see former KGB officers and loyal Communist Party members now wholeheartedly praying in an Orthodox Church. We hear the narrative promoted by Kremlin of the torn apart, victimized Russia that has been unjustly defriended by the capitalist world and the “ever decaying Europe.” The next day, from the same source, we hear that Russia is advanced and “Europeanized.” Official statistics suggest that Russia suffered the most during the Soviet times; nonetheless, people chant fanatically to the red Soviet flag and dress their children in the Red Army uniform during the carnivalesque celebration of the victory in World War II. The President, who claims that the crimes of the Soviet regime were ‘the tragedy of the nation,’ attends the official celebration of the 100th year anniversary of the establishment of Russia’s Secret Services, i.e. the former Cheka, NKVD, KGB.

Russia’s memory politics today demonstrates a search for its own identity, drawing on the narrative of being both a victor and a victim of its own history. We can identify this discourse in Russia’s most recent monument commemorating the victims of political repressions under the Soviet regime. The Wall of Sorrow, a sculpture by Georgi Frangulyan that opened in Moscow on October 30, 2017, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, attempts to build collective memory while at the same time exposing an unwillingness to take ownership of the tragedy. With no public apology and no guilt for the Soviet tragedy, the healing of a traumatized society is impossible, no matter how grand the monuments might be.

Although official numbers are unknown, estimates suggest that more than 28 million people went through the Soviet concentration system and nearly 2,749,163 were murdered by the regime from 1929-1953. To date, no official criminal investigation has been conducted by the Russian state (except for the Katyn Massacre investigations, the results of which remain classified) and not a single person has been held accountable. Access to Soviet archives is still restricted, history education is flawed, resulting in revisionism and attempts to justify Stalin’s policies, and compensation to victims is miniscule. The creation of this monument to victims who have never seen justice thus seems like a weak attempt at closure.

The erection of the Wall of Sorrow by an authoritarian, kleptocratic state that continuously violates human rights and freedoms, raises questions about the real intentions behind it. Monuments often intend to provide victims with a sense of “closure”; this is one way of interpreting the Wall of Sorrow — as a tick on a checklist, after which there is no longer a need for discussion since the issue can be perceived as resolved. It could also be Russia’s attempt to raise its image in the eyes of the international community, a means of claiming that by condemning the Soviet repressions, it condemns repressions altogether. This message might seem rather hypocritical given the number of political prisoners in the modern-day Russia, one of the reasons that prompted some human rights activists to boycott the opening of the monument, arguing that the current regime in Russia is just as oppressive as the Soviet Union, and claiming that the government is erecting a monument to some dissidents, while simultaneously oppressing others.

Notwithstanding criticisms of the current regime, the artistic choices and the symbolic message of the monument deserves a special consideration. The portrayal of the prisoners as faceless figures that look like commas and question marks makes the viewer feel distanced, detached, and confused. Back in 2009, Alexander Etkind stated that monuments in Russia that commemorate victims of the Soviet regime are constructed as either bare stones or monsters. He explains the faceless monuments as an expression of “the political nature of life and death in camps.” He writes, “Bare stones convey the memory of bare life.” Depriving the monument of its human face, both symbolically and literally, as opposed to depicting a prisoner at the peak of suffering, implicitly points to the senseless and defenseless life of a Gulag victim.

Life in the Gulag was “life” in legal and social limbo, as it was not “subject to any legal or religious order.” The outrageous conditions in the camps often led to prisoners being referred to as “dohodyagi,” or “soon-to-be-dead.” By commissioning faceless monuments, the state is implicitly denying what happened to those ‘soon-to-be-dead’ living their final days in state-sponsored zones of exception. “Mourning senseless loss on such a catastrophic scale,”Etkind argues, “is an impossible task,” though he also points out that ‘non-sacrificial’ monuments are intuitive choices for the heirs of the Gulag. The facelessness per se is not as problematic as the absence of any attempt to provide some list of names, as no other monument of Soviet repressions in Russia does that. The “naming” of the victims is a natural desire of people; it is reflected in, for instance, the campaign of “The Return of Names,” which prompted people to gather next to another monument of the Soviet repressions, the Solovetsky Stone, and read the names of those killed by the regime.

Frangulyan’s project was selected after an open competition that received more than 300 submissions. He contends that the “faceless figures” represent the large number of people who were swept away by “the scythe of death” and remained unidentified. Although abstract monuments, rather than conventional sculptures, leave some space for thinking and do not impose a fixed meaning, Buckley-Zistel and Schäfer persuasively argue that “the pain and unresolved political issues involved make more explicit, grand architectural gestures more attractive in order to establish a memory claim.”

These abstract monuments do not impose a “totalizing meaning” upon us and encourage what Janet Donohoe calls a “poetic” reflection in the Heideggerian sense. It means that monuments should allow us to reflect on the finality of our experience on earth, and thus disrupt the mundanity of everyday existence, and thus can be considered authentic and contribute to public discourse. At the same time, the author claims that Heidegger characterized totalitarian states as those that killed people like animals, as was the case with the Nazi concentration camps, and any reminder in a monument of this kind of death might cross a different line. Then the monument can be read as ideological, meaning to horrify, and suggesting that state ideology could be a defense against senseless death.

The construction of the Wall of Sorrow should be considered within the broader context of Russia’s approach to the past, which can be characterized as “organized forgetfulness,” “societal amnesia,” or a reframing and manipulation of history in order to create a meta-narrative of Russian identity. What is even more disturbing is that Russian society, which experienced a major identity vacuum after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gladly buys the myth of Russia being a glorious and victorious power. The Wall of Sorrow tries to make a moral claim, but the intention behind it reads as propaganda for the populist and authoritarian policies of the government.

The Soviet Union dispossessed Russian society’s culture, religion, and identity, and healing this trauma is challenging, and as a result Russian society is going through cycles of post-traumatic disorder. As outlined by Koh and Twemlow, emotional detachment and closing-up is one way how collective trauma manifests itself, another is the tendency to think in simplistic and binary terms. A need to reinforce boundaries — us vs. them, the West vs. Russia — is the result of fragile identities and deep traumas. The state thus feels the need to protect this fragile identity by reinforcing patriotism through the militarization of public opinion and glorification of the past.

In the Soviet context, the dividing line between perpetrators of political repression and victims was very thin, as practically anyone could be implicated in cooperating with the Soviet regime. It is not about “us,” the victims, vs “them,” the perpetrators, the question should rather be posed as ‘How can one human being do this to another and how do we make sure it will never happen again?’ We cannot apply Arendtian judgment that moral foundations of certain people are so attenuated that we cannot possible judge them, because we are all implicated. We should, instead, as suggested by Alan Norrie, develop a sense of solidarity for the pain suffered by millions and accept “a practical experience of guilt as a universal human possibility.”

Activists in Russia have launched a petition demanding that the slogan ‘forgive’ be taken out from the Wall of Sorrow. Forgiveness is a deeply personal matter and is an exclusive prerogative and voluntary wish of victims and survivors, many of whom are no longer alive. We have no moral right to ask for forgiveness. It is intuitive that the confession of guilt precedes forgiveness. In the words of Natalya Solzhenitsyna, the widow of the prominent dissident, whom Putin quoted during the opening ceremony of the Wall of Sorrow, we should “Acknowledge, remember, punish. And only then — forgive.” The first and very essential step towards forgiveness is public acknowledgment of the wrong. Memorials represent a symbolic attempt at public apology, recognition, and acknowledgment, and perhaps this was the rationale behind the Wall of Sorrow. However, the absence of criminal investigations did not allow victims and perpetrators “to reach each other,” eliminating any chance for forgiveness. The challenge was exacerbated by the experience of living in a context where structural and political violence was normalized, enabling perpetrators to think that state violence during the Soviet times was justified in light of the circumstances.

Context is key to how we analyze memorials, and the Russian context points to the need to educate society and abstract monuments do not do the job. Monuments of this kind should generate discussion, rather than silence, as democratic dialogue is never about closure. The gravity and the scale of tragedy, the senselessness of life in Gulags, would require a monument that is much more explicit in its meaning. People who were victims of the Soviet regime were real, they were distinguished, relatable, strong and resilient individuals; they consciously resisted, they refused “to live in a lie,” and they deserve their names to be known.

It takes some time for countries to constructively and publicly discuss their past; it is never an easy task to open up old wounds. If time heals, there is a hope that, maybe, the generation to come will ask uncomfortable questions not only about Russia’s past, but also about Russia’s present.

Let me conclude with an excerpt from Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem: Poems 1935-1940”:

The hour of remembrance has drawn close again.

I see you, hear you, feel you:

the one they could hardly get to the window,

the one who no longer walks on this earth,

the one who shook her beautiful head,

and said: “Coming here is like coming home.”

I would like to name them all but they took away
the list and there’s no way of finding them.

For them I have woven a wide shroud

from the humble words I heard among them.

I remember them always, everywhere,

I will never forget them, whatever comes.

And if they gag my tormented mouth

with which one hundred million people cry,

then let them also remember me

on the eve of my remembrance day.

If they ever think of building

a memorial to me in this country,

I consent to be so honored,

only with one condition: not to build it

near the sea where I was born:

my last tie with the sea is broken,

nor in the Tsar’s Garden by the hallowed stump

where an inconsolable shadow seeks me,

but here, where I stood three hundred hours

and they never unbolted the door for me.

Selbi Durdiyeva is a second year PhD student in the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University. She writes about the role of civil society in transitional justice processes in Russia.