In late December, a Russian court ruled that Memorial, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of people who perished in communist terror, should close. Memorial was founded by Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov and fellow Soviet dissidents at the height of Perestroika in 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (freedom of speech) made it possible to speak openly about the genocidal crimes of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.
The tragic symbolism of this event is hard to overemphasize. The formal grounds for banning Memorial were based on the alleged failure to comply with the law on “foreign agents” – a term that immediately evokes memories of 20th-century Soviet terror.
The closure of the organization is a major blow to Russian civil society and comes amid a massive wave of repression against regime opponents – the worst since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny was jailed last January when he returned. of Germany after recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with Novichok nerve agent, a Soviet-made chemical weapon. An investigation by Bellingcat, an investigative media outlet, and Navalny’s team blamed it on Russian secret services.
Authorities continued to fight the remnants of the Navalny-led opposition, with hundreds of activists and key public figures forced to emigrate and some of the most stubborn being imprisoned. Even more ominous is the imprisonment of Yury Dmitriyev, a prominent Gulag historian and member of Memorial, who discovered a large Stalin-era murder field in the Karelia region, to 15 years on fraudulent charges of pedophilia.
This policy of repression could not help but bring to light historical parallels. On New Year’s Eve, opposition activists posted old Soviet postcards celebrating the arrival of 1937 – the year Stalin’s terror culminated, with thousands of innocent people arrested and executed – not because they did anything specific, but merely to meet quotas. the extermination of “enemies of the people”.
But despite the obvious associations with the most tragic period of Russia’s 20th century history, what is happening in the country is part of a totally different 21st century story.
Does Putin really plan to wipe out the memory of communist victims and – as some critics fear – turn himself into a new Stalin, sparking another wave of genocide? Those who closely follow Russian politics know that the answer is no.
In 2015, a state-run museum dedicated to the history of the Gulag was opened. In 2017, Putin inaugurated the Wall of Grief, a massive monument in Moscow dedicated to the victims of terrorism.
In 2020, the Russian president ordered the creation of a database for terrorist victims. It would become a government-run alternative to the database that has been painstakingly compiled by Memorial researchers over the past 30 years. This detail provides a key to understanding Putin’s motives.
It is not Memorial’s historical research that has provoked his anger. The real reason is that the organization has linked that effort to defending human rights in the present. It maintained its own human rights center, which monitored abuses and designated political prisoners. It also organized an annual night vigil in front of the former KGB (now FSB) building in Moscow, with thousands reciting the names of terror victims in a powerful “never again” message to modern human rights violators.
A former KGB officer, the Russian leader is known for his obsession with control. He’s not really against ideological diversity, but he wants to be the one pulling the strings. Throughout the two decades of Putin’s rule, his administration has sought, with varying degrees of success, to nurture loyal nationalist, communist, liberal, and even neo-Nazi groups as an alternative to their ideological equivalents that Putin’s government seriously opposed and participated. a political struggle.
This classic secret service strategy was brilliantly satirized in the 1987 Soviet film A Forgotten Tune for the Flute, in which a KGB character says: “The best way to stop a spontaneous movement is to organize and lead it. ” This phrase is widely used in modern Russian politics.
This is exactly what is happening now. By closing Memorial and at the same time setting up loyal institutions investigating communist crimes against humanity, the Kremlin is trying to clean up the liberal wing of Russian society. But to act in the same way, it simultaneously manipulates the illiberal wing, which tends to deny or justify terror.
As elsewhere, Russian admirers of 20th-century totalitarianism tend to concentrate in law enforcement agencies and the military, having become a kind of professional counterculture among the people whose work involves carrying weapons.
That’s why, while publicly rejecting Stalin’s terror and often referring to 1937 in a negative context, Putin turns a blind eye to officials of his own Committee of Inquiry, a body responsible for today’s repression, and bears retro uniforms of NKVD, the secret services. tasked with eradicating “enemies of the people” in the 1930s. He is also right with leaders of the Russian Communist Party celebrating Stalin’s birthday on Red Square.
At the same time, Putin’s regime has relentlessly seized on parts of the far left, which he considers his opponents. Young Communists from the Left Front, a far-left opposition organization, have served jail time after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government during the 2011-12 Bolotnaya protests.
This year’s wave of repression hit moderate leftists who ran for the national and regional elections on the Communist Party ticket. Moscow Communist Party boss Valery Rashkin, who maintains an ambiguous relationship with Navalny’s movement, is facing accusations of poaching, which many believe are politically motivated.
In the same spirit, the Kremlin sued far-right groups. This allowed, for example, neo-Nazis of the St. Petersburg-based group “Rusich” to integrate with the Wagner mercenary army, which was used for “undeniable” military intervention in the Ukrainian, Syrian and other conflicts.
At the same time, repression on the far-right and nationalist flanks was severe, with lengthy prison sentences handed out to several major leaders and numerous activists. In 2020, the most prominent neo-Nazi figure, Maksim Martsinskevich or Tesak, died in his prison cell under suspicious circumstances, with lawyers saying his body showed signs of torture. Many of Tesak’s comrades fled to Ukraine, where they joined the Azov Regiment, which was fighting Russian-backed forces.
Putin’s regime views 20th – century totalitarian ideologies as fashion brands – visually appealing but rather meaningless in terms of modern politics. All it cares about is the loyalty of their fans. This is what determines its policy regarding historical memory today. The regime is also well aware that its American opponents are also cynically manipulating historical memory to incite polarization and radical nationalism in places like Ukraine and other neighboring countries to Russia.
Using a 20th-century lens to understand 21st-century Russia has never worked. Together with geopolitics, it disguises the real forces of modern political technology and globalization that are playing out in Putin’s Russia – a country that finds itself at the forefront of the global trend of illiberal populism that is engulfing Europe and the United States. Using a 21st-century perspective to talk about Russia today can help explain what is happening in the country, including the wave of oppression it is currently experiencing.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.