Glossy View of the Soviet Era Takes Hold in Russia

Members of the Memorial Organization i i

Members of the Memorial organization lay flowers and light candles at a monument commemorating the victims of Soviet repression. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the Memorial Organization

Members of the Memorial organization lay flowers and light candles at a monument commemorating the victims of Soviet repression.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

One Man's Ordeals

Read more about Lev Mishchenko's life during the Soviet era.

Lev Mishchenko
Gregory Feifer, NPR
Russian President Vladimir Putin i i

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a recent press conference. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Juan Carlos Munoz/Getty Images hide caption

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Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a recent press conference. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

Juan Carlos Munoz/Getty Images

Ninety years ago on Wednesday, Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power in Russia. The communist revolution ushered in a totalitarian dictatorship that killed and imprisoned tens of millions of people.

But 16 years after the end of communism, Russians increasingly support their government's efforts to resurrect many Soviet-era practices.

Lev Mishchenko has lived the Soviet nightmare. Born in 1917, the year of the revolution, he says the Bolsheviks killed both his parents by the time he was four.

"It was a period of criminal rule by a group of thugs," Mishchenko says. "Our history is notable for its cruelty and the baseness of its ideas, such as class warfare ... which the regime cultivated to justify violence against its opponents."

Life Under Soviet Rule

Speaking in the kitchen of his small apartment in a concrete-slab Moscow suburb, Mishchenko says he went on to serve as an officer in World War II.

He was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp. But he survived the camp and returned home before the Soviets accused him of spying for Germany and sent him to a Siberian gulag.

"After I was released 10 years later, I ran into an old childhood friend on the street. When I told him I'd been in a labor camp, he began to shake with fear for being seen with me," Mishchenko says. "I've never seen anything like it. He turned and quickly left. That's how much people were enslaved to the system."

In the mid 1930s, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin launched his Great Purge.

Russian historians conservatively estimate that at least 12.5 million people died from execution, famine and imprisonment during 70 years of Soviet rule. Tens of millions were sent to labor camps.

But despite communism's terrible legacy, a growing number of Russians now praise Stalin for overseeing the country's massive industrialization before leading the Soviet Union to victory against Nazi Germany in World War II.

Soviet-Era Nostalgia Grows

Syleia Daripova, 34, says she believes Stalin was a great man.

"Not every person can accumulate power in his hands like that," Daripova says. People say he murdered half of Russia ... but, still, he was a unique personality. There are very few like him in history."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

Since taking office eight years ago, the former KGB officer has abolished elections of regional governors, silenced independent media, and put control of politics and the economy firmly back in the Kremlin's hands.

The public has rewarded Putin with approval ratings of over 80 percent. But not everyone shares Putin's sense of loss about the Soviet era.

No Apologies for Soviet Crimes

Outside the KGB's austere old headquarters in central Moscow, members of the Memorial organization read the names of people shot by the Communist authorities.

The organization has spent decades compiling information about the victims of Soviet repression. Post-war Germany had the Nuremburg trials, and Germans later learned to acknowledge and apologize for Nazi crimes.

But Memorial chairman Arsenii Roginskii says the Russian government failed to admit to Soviet crimes because many former Communist Party officials remain in power.

"We weren't occupied by enemy forces. And unlike other former Soviet republics, we couldn't blame outsiders and collaborators," Roginskii says. "We cooked up the Soviet system ourselves and we have to judge ourselves. That's very difficult and our leaders just didn't have the political will."

Glorifying the Past

Roginskii says the upheavals of the 1990s fostered nostalgia for a stable past in which the country was ruled by a strong hand, something Putin exploited.

Roginskii says there's not a single memorial in Moscow for victims of the Soviet regime, because reminders of the country's bloody past would help undermine the authority of Russia's new leadership.

That pains former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms helped bring communism crashing down in 1991 and who says his role in Soviet history is being written out of school textbooks.

"A new history is being created: Stalin's rule was a golden age. Khrushchev was utopia. Brezhnev was a continuation of the golden age. None of this today is happening by chance," Gorbachev says.

Gorbachev refuses to criticize Putin's administration directly, but he says the current trend toward historical revisionism is putting Russia at risk of a rebirth of Stalinism.

Russian Recalls the Horrors of the Soviet Era

Recalling the Past

Read about how Russians remember the Soviet era, 90 years after the Russian Revolution.

Lev Mishchenko i i

Born the year of the Russian Revolution, Lev Mishchenko's life during the Soviet era was a living nightmare. Gregory Feifer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer, NPR
Lev Mishchenko

Born the year of the Russian Revolution, Lev Mishchenko's life during the Soviet era was a living nightmare.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
Lev Mishchenko in 1940

Lev Mishchenko as a student in 1940, before his deployment in World War II and his long imprisonment. Courtesy of Lev Mishchenko hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Lev Mishchenko

Lev Mishchenko was 9 months old when the Bolshevik Revolution took place. His engineer father evacuated his family from Moscow to what he believed would be relative safety in Siberia.

But during the bitter civil war that engulfed the country soon after, Bolshevik revolutionaries shot Mishchenko's parents. Four-year-old Mishchenko attended both their funerals.

He was raised by his grandmother and grew up to become a physicist. He graduated from Moscow State University the day before the Soviet Union entered World War II.

From Frontline to Concentration Camp

Sent to the front as a junior officer, Mishchenko was captured during his first battle when Nazi troops encircled his infantry division.

Mishchenko was imprisoned in several German concentration camps. Caught after escaping, he was sent to the notorious Buchenwald camp. In 1944, Allied forces were closing in on Germany and the prisoners were evacuated elsewhere.

Mishchenko escaped again, this time from a convoy of 1,000 captives. He made his way across the frontline to an American tank platoon. But when the highly qualified engineer was offered a chance to go to the United States, he refused.

Millions of Soviets taken prisoner by the Germans died in captivity. Of those who survived to return, more than a million are estimated to have been sent straight to the gulag on suspicion of spying.

Nine Years in the Gulag

Among them was Mishchenko, who was put on trial a second time after an alibi led to his initial acquittal. At one point, Mishchenko was loaded into the back of a truck with other prisoners, who he believed were to be driven away to be shot.

Instead, Mishchenko spent the next nine years in Siberian gulags. His wife, whom he'd met before the war, made arduous trips from Moscow to visit him.

"Stalin was a maniac," he says. "People say he led us to victory against the Germans. In fact, he drove the Soviet Union into the ground. The war was won only because of the heroism of those who fought in it."

Released in 1954 — one year after Stalin's death ended the worst Soviet excesses — Mishchenko joined hundreds of thousands of prisoners streaming back from labor camps. But he was unable to find work in physics for another 14 years.

No Room for Nostalgia

Recounting his experiences, Mishchenko breaks down only when describing some of the people he met as a prisoner.

He says tiny acts of kindness took tremendous bravery: a sandwich secretly given to him by a German secretary; a sympathetic guard who snuck him out of his camp barracks to talk to others.

"Such gestures of humanity," Mishchenko says, "they were the true acts of heroism."

Today, Mishchenko says Russians' growing nostalgia for the Soviet era is a dangerous result of past Communist Party propaganda.

"Tens of millions of lives were destroyed under the Soviet Union," Mishchenko says. "I saw how people lived. Children were starving, and their parents still had to give milk and eggs to the state."

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