16.10.2009 / The Telegraph / Russia's punishment of historians a symptom of 'creeping re-Stalinisation' / Alexander Osipovich
When the police stopped Mikhail Suprun's car last month, he did not expect to be questioned about his research into mass deportations that took place in Russia more than six decades ago.
But Suprun, a history professor in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk,
discovered that his research into the 1940s deportations had drawn the interest
of the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB.
Briefly detained by the FSB, Suprun was told he was suspected of illegally
publishing private information - a charge he calls "absurd".
Agents also searched his apartment and seized his computer and personal
archive, which held a trove of information about victims of Soviet dictator
Joseph Stalin and his brutal Gulag prison system.
"Everything was taken away. All the things I've been working on for the past
10 years were on my computer and hard drives," Suprun said from Arkhangelsk,
where he is an expert on local Stalin-era history.
Some Russian historians fear that probing too far into the Stalin era may
incur the wrath of today's authorities, who have made the positive portrayal of
Soviet history part of their political agenda.
Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union for nearly three decades until his death
in 1953, is deeply controversial and even his defenders admit he sent millions
of people to the Gulag, where many of them died.
But he also oversaw the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany, which cost the
lives of millions of Soviet citizens, and to many Russians he is overwhelmingly
associated with their country's victory in World War II.
The Kremlin has made reverence of the Soviet victory a major part of efforts
to boost patriotism among Russians in recent years.
Critics say the government has gone too far by taking steps to polish
Stalin's image, such as a 2007 decision approving the use of a school textbook
that praised his management style as "efficient".
The public seems increasingly sympathetic: last year Stalin took third place
in a televised competition in which viewers voted for the greatest Russian in
"This is all part of a creeping re-Stalinisation, the return of his persona
as a figure who is depicted not just in dark colours," said Irina Shcherbakova,
a historian who researches the Gulag for the Memorial human rights group.
Memorial has also battled authorities over its research.
Last December, police raided its St Petersburg office, seizing documents and
computer discs with evidence of Stalinist repressions that the group had
collected over two decades.
Following a court battle, police returned the materials, which they said had
been seized as part of an investigation into "extremism".
Shcherbakova said people have become afraid to help Memorial, especially
officials at state archives that contain Stalin-era files.
In the 1990s such archives were a rich source of information for historians,
but they became much more reluctant to share documents after Vladimir Putin came
to power in 2000.
"They are afraid to give them out," Shcherbakova said.
The investigation of Arkhangelsk historian Suprun centres on a controversial
chapter of Soviet history - Stalin's treatment of ethnic Germans, who had lived
in Russia for centuries, during World War II.
Large German communities had lived in Russia since the 18th century, when
they were invited by Catherine the Great, but after 1941 Stalin doubted their
loyalty and ordered their mass deportation to remote regions.
Suprun was researching the fate of ethnic Germans sent to the Arkhangelsk
region when the FSB became interested in his project, which he was doing in
collaboration with the German Red Cross.
He said agents had questioned his graduate students in the weeks before
September 13, when he was detained and given warning that his research might be
Suprun is suspected of violating the privacy of 5,000 Soviet citizens of
German and Polish ethnicity deported to the Arkhangelsk region in 1945-56, said
Svetlana Tarnaeva, a spokesman for Arkhangelsk investigators.
The investigation is also targeting Alexander Dudarev, a police official who
gave the historian information about the deportees, Tarnaeva said.
"According to the investigation, Suprin with the help of Dudarev gathered
information on the private lives of 5,000 deportees and members of their
families without their permission," Tarnaeva said.
Gathering such information "violated the constitutional right of citizens to
the inviolability of private life, personal and family secrets," she said.
"This is absurd, this is nonsense," Suprun said of the investigation.
Suprun said his work had been explicitly allowed by a 2007 agreement between
his university, the Russian interior ministry and his partner organisations, the
German Red Cross and an association of Russian Germans.
The project's goal was to assemble a "memory book" detailing the fates of the
Memory books are thick tomes with brief biographies of victims of Stalinist
repression that historians throughout Russia have been compiling since the early
1990s in a quiet effort to document the tragic Gulag period.
Suprun believes the investigation is linked to broader government efforts to
control portrayals of history, including President Dmitrii Medvedev's creation
in May of a commission to battle "historical falsifications".
The Arkhangelsk probe "is one link in the same chain of events," Suprun
Suprun later said he could no longer speak to journalists because of an
official gag order. He gave his interview in early October before the order was
The FSB did not respond to phone calls or written requests for comment.