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Turning Back the Clock

Russian leader Vladimir putin has been becoming more autocratic for years. Is he now trying to hide the horrors of soviet-era history?

By Clifford J. Levy in Tomsk, Russia


For years, the earth in the Siberian city of Tomsk had been giving up clues: a scrap of clothing, a fragment of bone, a skull with a bullet hole. And so a historian named Boris P. Trenin made a plea to officials: Would they let him examine secret archives to confirm that there was a mass grave here from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's purges during the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of Russians were executed?

The answer was no, and Trenin understood what many people in Russia are beginning to realize: Under Vladimir V. Putin—who served two terms as President and is now Prime Minister, after installing his protégé Dmitri A. Medvedev as his successor in May—the attitude toward the past has changed. The archives that Trenin was seeking, stored in boxes stamped "K.G.B. of the U.S.S.R.," would remain sealed.

In the Putin era, the Kremlin has often sought to maintain as much control over the portrayal of history as over the governing of the country. As part of their efforts to restore Russia's standing in the world, Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system's horrors.

Across Russia, archives detailing killings and persecution committed by the authorities—from the 1917 Revolution to the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991—have become increasingly off limits. The role of the security services seems especially sensitive, perhaps because Putin is a former officer of the K.G.B., the Soviet Union's top security and intelligence agency.

To historians, this reflects a larger truth: Russia, they say, has never fully exposed the sins of Communism, never embarked on the kind of truth and reconciliation process pursued by other countries, like Germany after World War II and the Holocaust, and South Africa after the end of apartheid.

The Stalin Years

After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Russia underwent an economic and social upheaval. But now that the country is more stable, the Kremlin is, if anything, getting even more secretive.

"They say Russia has gotten up off its knees, and this is why we should be proud of our past," Trenin says. "The theme of Stalin's repressions is harsh and gloomy and far from heroic. So they say that this is why it should be gradually pushed aside. They say the less we know about it, the better we will live."

Officials at Russia's security archives typically reject requests for access by citing a need to protect state secrets and personal privacy, although a vast majority of people from Stalin's time are dead. Archives from Stalin's secret police have become a flash point because of the rise of a movement by Russians who idolize Stalin as the leader who defeated Germany in World War II and made the Soviet Union a superpower.

Under Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1923 to 1953, most private industry was nationalized and agriculture was organized into huge collective farms. Millions of Stalin's opponents were sent to forced-labor camps, known as the gulag, in places like Siberia; historians have estimated that Stalin was responsible for the murder of up to 20 million Russians during his reign.

During Putin's presidency, which began in 1999, Russia's economy thrived. The stock market soared, and high oil prices provided a boost since Russia is the second-largest exporter of crude oil. (Recently, Russia's economy has suffered from plummeting oil prices and a 70 percent drop in its stock market.)

Putin approved laws that limited freedom of expression and shut down independent TV stations. Rivals have been jailed, and the government is alleged to have been involved in killing opponents. The government is also reasserting control over industries that were privatized during the 1990s.

Last August, when Russian troops were sent into neighboring Georgia, it seemed like a throwback to the Cold War decades of the 20th century. The incursion sparked renewed tension between Russia and the United States and its European allies.

Locking Up the Truth The chill over the Soviet security archives has frustrated Russians who are seeking the truth about their families. In Tomsk, 1,900 miles east of Moscow, Boris Trenin has long been drawn to an area called Kashtak. Rumors of a mass grave there persisted. In 1989, Trenin and a colleague, Vasily Khanevich, conducted a small, unauthorized dig there and found two skulls with bullet holes.

Trenin and Khanevich both have personal connections to the sorrows of Stalin's reign: Trenin's family was deported to Siberia, and Khanevich's grandfathers were executed. The two historians now operate a small museum dedicated to 23,000 people killed in Tomsk under Stalin. The museum is housed in a former jail once used by Stalin's secret police.

Trenin says that some retired K.G.B. officers have acknowledged that twice a week, during Stalin's purges, prisoners were executed at Kashtak and thrown into a ravine. He lobbied officials for permission to conduct a full investigation. But it was too late. Putin had become President, and the government would not allow access to the records.

Sergei Krasilnikov, a historian at Novosibirsk State University in Siberia, says officials routinely cite privacy and other regulations to block access. But it is a ruse, he says.

"The order has been given to rehabilitate Russian and Soviet statehood in all epochs and in all times—for all the czars and general secretaries," Krasilnikov says.

"This is why we have all these restrictions on the access to the archives, because the archives allow us to show more profoundly the mechanisms of power, the mechanisms of decision-making, the consequences of these decisions, which were very often tragic for society."