The Mask of Sorrow, the Unlit Candle: Political Repressions in the USSR

October 30 was the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions.

Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye

But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes

(Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,

The Gulag Archipelago


October 30 was the

Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions.

It’s difficult to say something about this topic. Because it’s only possible to speak of terrible and painful things when they’ve already passed and remain in the past. Not in oblivion, not forgotten, but as about a past that has been survived and acknowledged. This is the primary difference.

1989 was a landmark year for the USSR. In this year the economic system experienced a definitive crash and the political destabilization in the vast spaces of the country entered a new phase.

It was then that the rise of national movements could be observed on the edges of the Empire – in the countries of the Baltic, the Caucasus, and Ukraine, where the first congress of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (RUKh) was held, which came out in support of Ukraine’s independence. The bloody ethnic conflicts in the USSR only gained strength at that time – between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between Georgia and its autonomous regions; just a little earlier in Fergana there were pogroms of the houses of Meskhetian Turks who had been settled there all the way back in 1944. And then, on November 9, 1989, there took place a wholly symbolic event – the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the spring of that same year, the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union took place, and for almost two weeks, under the rafters of the State Kremlin Palace and broadcasted live on television, monstrous passions raged and revelations poured forth about which simple Soviet citizens had not previously heard. The deputies noted the failure of economic reforms in the USSR, pointed out the malignant nature of the administration-and-command system of management, and they put forth demands to annul the notorious 6


article of the Constitution of the USSR on the defining roll of the CPSU.

In fall of that same year, on a backdrop of colossal historical cataclysms worthy of chronicles, there took place a different landmark event – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s revelatory, documentary novel,

The Gulag Archipelago

, which was published for the first time in the journal

Novy Mir


New World

). Its publication had the effect of an exploding bomb for the already-deteriorating Soviet society. Of course, this could have been called a phenomenon of the so-called “fat journals” – an extraordinary peculiarity of Soviet reality of those years – but it was precisely then that everyone began to understand that this was the beginning of the end.

Anyone who has even just a little, even briefly, gotten acquainted with this monumental historical work which uncovered the monstrous, criminal anatomy of Soviet power, would be unable to live any longer in that political and social system. At that time it seemed that there was nobody who was not acquainted with this documentary work and that, at last, the secret had become clear. Since that autumn, the monstrous abbreviation GULAG has become a widely-known term, which symbolizes in and of itself the inconceivable logic of political repression and the cruel penitentiary system of the country of the Soviets.

This work described a previously unknown story – it spoke of thousands of annihilated futures, of the frozen blood of its mass repressions, to which millions of people fell victim. And all this on a backdrop of grim shifts in the USSR, beginning with the October Revolution of 1917, up through the fifties, right until the demise of the primary figure of that epoch: Stalin.

Before this, of course, there were a few other reminders – at the 20


congress of the CPSU, in the 60s, in the years of the “thaw”, there was quite a bit said about the “Great Terror” of 1937, a story by this same Solzhenitsyn – “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” – was even published in 1962 in the journal

Novy mir


But it was then, in autumn 1989, that it suddenly became clear to all of society that the entire history of Soviet power is itself a Great Terror against its own people – it never ended, beginning with the October Revolution and all the way up to the present day. It became clear that the mass political repressions that took place in the USSR for almost the entire period of its existence don’t have any sort of logical, moral or legal basis. That the number of direct victims of repressions tally up into the millions. And that this is something for which there is no redemption – a criminal political system should pass into oblivion.

Much water has passed under the bridge since that time. There was no Nuremburg for communism. In fact, there was no ‘repentance’, despite the great Tengiz Abuladze’s monumental film of the same name, released in 1984.

And there was no sort of awakening to the fact that these people, many of whom disappeared without a trace in immeasurable suffering, are the unrealized dreams of our society, valuable, lost genes, and their absence led to serious, negative consequences for our society as a whole. And that true repentance is necessary for healing.

A mere twenty years ago, Ernst Neizvestny’s monumental sculpture, titled the “Mask of Sorrow”, was installed in Magadan; the sculpture is dedicated to the victims of the repressions in the USSR. And the Solovetsky Stone was installed in Moscow. It goes without saying that today, all the works of Solzhenitsyn, and Shalamov, and Rybakov, and Aksenov, and all the others that wrote about this, have already been published. And

The Cold Summer of 1953

, in which the legendary Anatoli Papanov acted his final role in cinema, wasn’t the last film about these tragic events.

Since that time, many things have turned inside-out, we’ve heard and found out many things, both about the “effective manager” and about the fact that “political repressions in the USSR are a monstrous lie”. As previously, researchers encounter difficulties getting access to the archives pertaining to the Soviet repressions. When I was in Tiflis, I heard an completely sinister story from one academic about how, it seems that in the center of the city, in the Saburtalo district, there sites of mass graves, and these sites are impossible to uncover – they’re hidden too well and too deep, and moreover, a fair amount of time has passed.

And the fact that we can still feel the echo of mass political repressions in the history of Azerbaijan is a bitter reality of daily life. One can make sure of this simply by taking a passing glance at our so-called political, artistic, etc. “elite”.

And you’re unconsciously reminded of Karimov and Artelev’s dialogue from the other familiar novel of that epoch,

Life and Fate

, by Vasily Grossman:

“If you remember that just in the twenties they were branding those who were the pride of the Tatar people, all our great cultural people, you’ve got to wonder, why ban

A Writer’s Diary


‘It wasn’t just yours, they killed off ours too’, said Artelev.

Karimov said:

‘For us, they didn’t just exterminate people, they exterminated the national culture as well. The current Tatar intelligentsia are savages in comparison with those people.’”

And this is an absolute truth, which the great writer is conveying via the words of his protagonist.

And if there won’t be true repentance, if candles won’t be lit in our souls in memory of the irretrievably departed, and if a full and absolute ousting of officials – there won’t be any sort of exit from this dead end that we’ve come up against.

And for the meantime, society (yes, precisely the entire “society” of the so-called post-Soviet space) will remind one of a scorched field, like after a monstrous fire. And the face of our society will never be anything but a mask of sorrow.

Or rather, alas, a mask of sorrow only on that part of society that acknowledges this whole, nightmarish picture…

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