“Memorial and the universal importance of the history of Stalinism: European memories and national histories”
Paris – Thursday, 10 March 2022
"Ladies and gentlemen,
As Vladimir Putin’s regime ventures every day a little further along the paths of an unjustifiable war against Ukraine and massive repression of Russian civil society, I was keen to be with you to reaffirm France’s support to Memorial which, for more than 30 years, has represented everything those two courses of action deny. Memorial’s future is now seriously threatened in Russia.
I would therefore like to warmly welcome Nicolas Werth and Alain Blum who, on behalf of Memorial France, invited me to speak before you, following an afternoon of discussions that have been very fruitful and useful, as we have just heard. It shows how important the words of historians should be today.
To find our bearings in the profoundly historic time into which we have all been plunged, we need you: your knowledge, your outlook and your vigilance.
Firstly, this moment is a time in which everybody can feel the return, at the very heart of our continent, of the most painful echoes of the last century.
The military aggression that Vladimir Putin irresponsibly chose to launch against Ukraine and 44 million Ukrainians in violation of international law marks the return to Europe, after years of peace and several decades of stability, of war in the strictest and most canonical sense of the term: a vast military offensive, carried out by one State against another, with the goal of invading its territory and imposing its will by force.
The columns of tanks on the roads, the cities under siege and the exodus of refugees under enemy bombardment are images that, like many more that now haunt us ceaselessly, revive the memory of all the darkest hours of the 20th century.
Of course, comparison is not proof. But we have all thought of 1914, of 1939, of 1956, of 1968, of 1992, of 1999 and of each of the terrible years of this long European tragedy, as Ukraine was at the centre of what one of your colleagues has called the “bloodlands” of our continent.
The moment we are living through is also, very objectively, a moment of historic regression.
Because it violates the cardinal principles of international law and the European security order, Vladimir Putin’s choice brutally undermines more than seven decades of joint efforts, made with the USSR and then Russia, to break away from the horrors of the Second World War and build a safer, more stable world and Europe by regulating power balances and governing the competition between powers by means of the law, mutual commitments between States, and diplomatic dialogue.
We are all aware that what has just happened is the sinister culmination of a long effort to undermine and dismantle that order. We must recognize that a new threshold has just been breached, at the cost of a qualitative leap in transgression which is most certainly a tipping point.
This tipping point thrusts us into a new era. In this sense too, we are living through a historic moment: a time when the fabric of our present is being ripped apart, where a certain world is disappearing irrevocably, and where, perhaps more than usual, our future is dependent on the choices that we can make.
The upheavals and shifts of recent years have gradually defined a new configuration of power, where brutalization – of international relations, of the information space and of the rivalry between models – is fully at work in the war waged by Russia against Ukraine. But this war is no less an event, in the strongest sense of the word. While it can be analysed through the prism of existing and already proven trends, it takes on its full meaning in the light of the consequences it is likely to bring.
That is why European countries and their allies were quick to take unconventional decisions.
Unconventional decisions, firstly, to address the emergency.
That is the meaning of the support we are providing to the Ukrainian government and resistance, who are standing firm.
That is the meaning of the massive sanctions we have imposed on the Russian economy to make the cost of the war untenable. They will be strengthened.
And that is the meaning of our humanitarian efforts and our work to welcome refugees from Ukraine.
Unconventional decisions, too, to address the long-term consequences of what is currently happening.
That is focus of the summit dedicated to the future of our European model and European sovereignty that is taking place today and tomorrow in Versailles, with the President of the Republic and his counterparts from the 27 EU Member States.
And that is what we will continue to do throughout the coming weeks and months. France, which currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first half of this year, has particular responsibility in this respect, and we intend to shoulder it fully.
These different levels of historicity – the echoes of Europe’s 20th century, the shock of a major regression in international relations, and the experience of being thrust into historic turmoil – which saturate, as I was saying, the moment we are living through, all collide, intertwine and overlap, with the risk of amalgamation.
There is also another level of historicity, no less crucial, that is at the heart of the present moment. It is that the war launched by Russia against Ukraine is very overtly an armed revisionism.
The speech by President Putin on 21 February, to provide a semblance of justification for his decision to recognize the independence of the two puppet republics of Donbas, a speech that opened the way for the launch of a large-scale military offensive against Ukraine, took the form of a discourse mainly focused on the past of Ukraine and of Russia of much the same sort as the essay that same Vladimir Putin published last summer on the subject of what he considers to be – to use his words – “the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. Those words are of course problematic, presenting as a fact what the pseudo-demonstration they introduce is supposed to show.
Many historians immediately challenged the validity of the biased and sometimes even dishonest sophisms advanced by Vladimir Putin in the two texts. It is not my role to go back over that.
What I do want to say, as a political figure of a country where some also sometimes seek to rewrite history, is that the theorization of historical revisionism has been used to justify the conduct of a geopolitical revisionism. And this two-fold revision is today leading to the denial, through acts of war, of the territorial integrity of Ukraine in its internationally recognized borders, of the sovereignty of Ukraine and, ultimately, of the very right of the Ukrainian nation to exist.
Similar violence is expressed in the discourse that presents Ukraine as the product of so-called historical errors and in the deployment of military means to correct said “errors” – an expression that I use in quote marks and with all the required distance.
It is a violence against the Ukrainian nation, which is showing, however, through its brave resistance, its determination to stand strong as the protagonist of its own history.
It is a violence against facts, and not only historical facts.
Marc Bloch wrote that “misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past”.
That is true. But today, we are seeing another spiral of falseness take shape, when the distortion of the past extends into a falsification of the present. It is very clear, and unfortunately proven, that manipulations of history and manipulations of information answer and strengthen one another mutually.
That is particularly striking, and revolting, in the instrumentalization and misuse, by the Russian authorities, of the notions of denazification and genocide, as said in the introductory remarks.
So, denial of facts.
Because neither President Zelenskyy, if only for obvious personal reasons, nor the political movements chosen democratically by the Ukrainian people to govern the country are Nazis, neo-Nazis or admirers of the Third Reich. As everyone can see, for that matter, from their words and their actions.
A denial of facts also because the idea that the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine are victims of a genocide does not stand up at all, there is not the slightest basis and it cannot be supported by any type of evidence.
The instrumentalization and misuse of the notions of denazification and genocide are therefore a denial of the terrible historic experiences they refer to.
That is why the violence of Vladimir Putin’s revisionism is also a violence that relates to the most sensitive aspects of the memories of the Second World War.
I particularly have in mind Ukrainian, and therefore European, memories.
I have in mind our own European memories, in all their diversity.
But also Russian memories, to which this shameful distortion of the past and present is an insult.
The fact that Vladimir Putin is waging a war under the pretext of a clear distortion of history undoubtedly does not surprise you, as you are people who share Memorial’s commitment and combat. To be truthful, nor does it surprise me.
Because, like you, I have noted that for several years, history and memory have been placed where political abuses of his regime meet geopolitical ones.
At the core of the headlong rush into authoritarianism, which, in Russia itself, has one by one battered all the principles of the rule of law and all civil liberties, there is a policy of consolidation of an official national historical narrative based on the advent of a strong State through the centuries, coupled with a policy of harassment and systematic repression of all “producers of history” that could undermine the univocal nature of this narrative. Harassment of which the different aspects have been well documented and analysed in a report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), written by one of you here today, Ilya Nuzov, and I thank you for this very valuable work.
Political and geopolitical abuses because at the core of Russia’s race for power in the international and European arena, which since 2008 has taken the form of a gradual rise in violence and destabilization, we see propaganda at play which is based on the imperial dimension of this same historical narrative, and used to justify the worst violence. As if the war were nothing more than a continuation of history through other means.
That is why repression against Memorial has increased since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began its efforts to destabilize the Donbas region. And that is why Memorial is threatened now more than ever.
At the end of December, while troops prepared to march towards the Ukraine borders, Russian courts ordered, under false pretences which fooled no one, the judicial liquidation of Memorial’s two branches: the NGO Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Centre.
A few days after the offensive against Ukraine began, this verdict was confirmed.
Last Friday, while authorities were ramping up pressure on civil society, the Moscow offices of the Memorial Human Rights Centre were being searched.
That day – as you may very well know – President Macron spoke with Alexander Cherkasov, with whom he met, I remember this well, during an official visit to Saint Petersburg in 2018. He assured him of France’s support.
That is the same message I came here to share.
I would like to reiterate to you – and particularly to you, Nikita Petrov and Natalia Morozova – France’s indignation and concern about this unacceptable repression aimed at silencing Memorial.
Silencing Memorial is not only an attack on Russia’s past, but on its future as well.
I remind you of this, with the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explaining, unequivocally, why silence in the face of atrocities is a poison for entire generations.
Allow me to read a few lines: “We must publicly condemn the very idea that men can exercise such violence on other men. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand-fold in the future.When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”
I would also like to reiterate, that, like our European Union partners, we call for the release of Yury Dmitriev, a historian, who we mentioned earlier, specializing in the mass graves of the Stalinist era, human rights defender and local leader of Memorial, whose prison sentence was extended last December to 15 years in a penal colony.
I would like to reiterate our solidarity with all the members of Memorial’s different branches.
For three decades, taking more and more risks, it has been fighting to firmly establish a documented history in Russia, starting with the Stalinist era, in the name of a demand for truth, which is scientific, social and ethical.
By consulting archives, witness accounts and academic research, they have accomplished remarkable historical work that has crucially contributed to information on 20th century mass crimes, and to the rehabilitation and remembrance of millions of victims of repression.
It is historical and memorial work, which pertains both to truth and justice, and lives on through tireless efforts to defend human rights in Russia, and in theatres of war where Russia has been engaged – from Chechnya and Syria to Ukraine as of 2014. The importance of which today can only seem obvious as we witness the sieges of Mariupol and Kharkiv, similar to those of Grozny and Alep in terms of their horrifying violence and terrorizing approach.
And I would lastly like to say that France and its European partners will support Memorial in safeguarding archives collected.
It is unthinkable that the fruit of 30 years of work could be lost.
It is unthinkable that the legacy of Andrei Sakharov could disappear.
It is unthinkable that the flame of Memorial could be extinguished, the flame of this little candle that has become the symbol of its fight for us all.
For we all need the light that it shines on the past and the present.
Yes, we all need it. I have heard that this is what you wanted to underline by emphasizing here today the universal, singularly European scope of Memorial’s contribution to the history of Stalinism.
For this reason, the motive that serves as pretext for the judicial harassment of Memorial and so many other organizations defending freedom of expression and human rights in Russia, namely its status as a supposed “foreign agent”, is not merely a sad tactic to cover up the repressive and slanderous motive.
This is not only the height of cynicism, coming from a power that has made interference in public spaces and elections of democracies one of its specialities.
But also the expression of a deep misunderstanding of the value of Memorial’s work, and the reasons for which a country such as France supports it.
The “foreign agent” notion insinuates quite strongly that Memorial supposedly acts against the interests of Russia, on behalf of other powers. When, in reality, the complete opposite is true.
Memorial provides Russian society with decisive instruments for having a clear view of its own history.
And in doing so, Memorial provides its society with decisive instruments for understanding Europe’s past.
For neither the history of the Great Patriotic War nor the history of Stalinism belong to Russia – and even less so to its President alone. They are, at the very least, links to our own European history.
That is why I also wanted to commend the joint effort of all European Memorial branches, meeting here today, to continue Memorial’s work.
It runs through France, Italy – thank you Niccolò Pianciola – and the Czech Republic – thank you Štěpán Černoušek – as well as many other countries of our Union. And all Europeans have reason to be grateful for that.
For while it is a sign of solidarity with organizations persecuted in Russia, it is also a response to one of our greatest European challenges: the challenges of building a shared European historiography and memory which ensure an implacable diversity of our national histories and an implacable plurality of our European memories.
Each of us here knows that this crucial work – which is essential for the ability of our Europe to affirm its sovereignty, its model and its stature as a power in the international arena – mainly stumble over the fact that we still meet too often to talk about our experiences, which are at times radically different, of the end of the Second World War, which did not restore freedom to our entire continent. The history and memory of the Soviet past are certainly one of the main reasons for this. That is why they not only concern Russian people, but all Europeans.
By raising awareness of Memorial’s work in your respective countries and in meetings such as this one, I believe that you are playing an important role in establishing this pluralistic European historiography and memory. And we are very proud to accompany you, I am thinking of the Condorcet campus in particular, through our entire cultural network and education network in Europe.
Lastly, ladies and gentlemen, by paying tribute to Memorial’s Russian members, I would like to reiterate very clearly that we stand with all Russians who – in daring to demonstrate and daring to speak out publically – are opposing Vladimir Putin’s war.
We are aware of the risks they are taking.
We are aware of the violent repression to which they are subjected.
And we respect their courage.
Although we have taken, are taking and will take drastic measures to isolate Russia in the international arena and are exerting pressure on its economy and the members of its elite to obtain, to start with, a ceasefire in Ukraine, under no circumstances do we intend to break intellectual, academic and cultural ties that we share with Russian civil society and its forces for progress.
Undoubtedly this will unfortunately be increasingly difficult, but we will do everything in our power to preserve these ties. Until we can fully meet again.
At a time when Russia is closing itself off, I felt that this had to be said here.
I hope that this last message will be heard.