Where KGB victims fell silent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 12:00am

'IN SOVIET TIMES, a murder or discovery of an unlicensed gun was big news. We dealt with it rapidly and caught the murderer quickly.'

Nikolai, the curator of the KGB museum in Moscow, was warming to his theme. 'But now, illegal guns are everywhere, and many murders are committed each day. They pass unnoticed. Crime was low in the Soviet era. We were proud to be members of the KGB.'

The museum is next to the Lubyanka, headquarters of the world's most famous and terrifying secret police organisation, one copied in Communist countries worldwide.

From a corner office on the third floor, its directors, including founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lavrentiy Beria and Yuri Andropov, looked over the square outside and ordered the extermination of the enemies of the Soviet state, real or imagined, at home and abroad.

For US$15 (HK$117), visitors to the museum can see the wreath of bullets and bayonets placed on Dzerzhinsky's body during his funeral in 1926, the pistol and poison needle of Gary Power, the US fighter pilot shot down in the 1960s, and a copy of a secret Nazi plan to invade the Soviet Union, dated January 31, 1941, and shown to Josef Stalin nearly five months before it happened.

Nikolai is happy to extol what he views as the organisation's achievements: 'We made great contributions to the country. We fought terrorists and captured foreign agents.'

But when asked about the purges of the 1930s in which millions of people, including a quarter of the KGB itself, were executed or sent into exile, Nikolai's answer is different.

'Our view on that is negative. But this was decided by the political leaders, reflecting the struggles in the party. We were simply carrying out the policy. The responsibility lies with the politicians.'

That is one way of dealing with the past century in a country where more people died unnatural deaths than anywhere else, except China.

Another way can be found in a small park facing the KGB building, where a statue of Dzerzhinsky used to stand before it was pulled down by angry demonstrators in August 1991. There is a stone slab here from an infamous labour camp on the Solovetsky islands in the White Sea on the northwestern coast of Russia. The inscription reads 'in memory of the millions of victims of the totalitarian regime' and is followed by a telephone number of an organisation devoted to exposing the truth about Stalinism.

Ten years after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the banning of the Communist Party, Russians hold contradictory views of their own extraordinary history, a history which continues to overshadow the present.

One issue now being hotly debated is whether to remove Vladimir Lenin's body from its mausoleum in front of the Kremlin, where even though it no longer has an honour guard, it is still a place of pilgrimage for ordinary Russians and foreign tourists.

'I am against [the burial of Lenin],' Russian President Vladimir Putin told a recent news conference. 'Many people have their own lives tied up with Lenin's name. For them, his burial would mean that they had worshipped false values, put forward false tasks and that their lives had been lived in vain. We have many such people.' Burying the body would be 'destructive to the social fabric', said Mr Putin, a former KGB agent.

About two kilometres from the mausoleum lies another attempt at dealing with the past: the Church of Christ the Saviour. The church cost US$300 million (about HK$2.3 billion) to build on the site of a previous church of the same name that was destroyed by Stalin in 1934.

A convent originally stood on the site, but in 1832, Tsar Nicholas I decided to build a church to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812. As the convent grounds were cleared, the Mother Superior chained herself to an oak tree, refusing to leave. When she finally did go, she cursed the place. The original church took 44 years to build and was made of marble, granite and jasper. It could accommodate 10,000 worshippers. When Stalin blew it up, monks who had hidden in the basement were killed.

He planned to replace it with a Palace of Soviets, 315 metres high with a 100-metre statue of Lenin on top. But the land could not support such a large building, and the war intervened. After the war, a large swimming pool was built on the site instead.

Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov spared no expense in building the new church, with every centimetre lavishly painted and many pieces from the original structure included.

For believers, it is a triumph of their religion over communism and a symbol of the return of the city to its Tsarist past. To others, the money would have been better spent paying pensions, teachers and public servants who went without wages at that time, or for fixing the hundreds of churches in need of repair. For them, it was an attempt by Mr Luzkhov and other leaders to earn popular legitimacy by doing a favour to the Orthodox Church.

'The post-Soviet leadership desperately needs an ideology, since there was no popular revolution here against communism,' said one Western diplomat. 'Historically, the Orthodox church was an arm of the state, so the leaders have adopted it as a pre-revolutionary symbol, in the same way as [former President] Boris Yeltsin reburied the Tsar.'

Streets have been given back their pre-1917 names. The new 1,000-rouble bank note shows a picture of the Church of the Ascension and a Kremlin tower. The 500-rouble note has a picture of Peter the Great and a monastery that was turned into a labour camp.

The issue of how to evaluate the past is more difficult in Russia than in eastern Europe, where most people see communism as a 'foreign' ideology forced upon them and the era since its fall as a continuation of the pre-1945 period.

But Russia is the birthplace of communism. Complicating things further is the fact that post-1991 capitalism has failed to deliver better living standards for most people, leading to a favourite joke among Muscovites: 'Everything the Soviet leaders told us about communism was a lie, but all they told us about capitalism was true.'

Astonishing data published recently by the State Statistics Committee showed that Russia's death rate last year reached 15.3 per 1,000 people, the highest in Europe and the highest in Russia since 1945. The population is in decline as women produce fewer children. Signs of poverty are everywhere. A survey last year found that 70 per cent of Russians regretted the end of the Soviet Union, which they associated with a stable life and secure jobs. The poll also revealed that 14 per cent of people thought Lenin was the greatest Russian political figure of this century.

Ludmila Kolesnikova, a retired school teacher, said when the truth of the Soviet past began to emerge - from 1985, thanks to the glasnost of former President Mikhail Gorbachev - the intelligentsia welcomed it. 'But many Russians do not want to believe it. They deny what happened and do not want to know.

'The only museum dedicated to the crimes of the past is that of Andrei Sakharov, which has received a few thousand dollars from individual Russians but survives on money from the United States. Many of our leaders come from the old order,' Ms Kolesnikova said.

Mark O'Neill is a member of the Post's Beijing bureau