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A country with no memory

As an anthropologist working in Russia in the 1990s, I believed a culture of memorials would emerge

I remember St Petersburg in 1991. There were people sitting on the pavement, feet wrapped in rags, selling dismal mementoes from depleted Soviet homes, or piles of rusty nails, a few fish laid out on newspaper. It was like the aftermath of war.

It is not so long ago. No wonder that the economic growth of the Putin era has made him popular in his own country. The new Russians were really only interested in material gain; Putin gave them that, with a dose of nationalism to soften the new authoritarianism. You might say that they won, and that the intellectuals, whose position seemed so promising in 1989, lost.

The collective farm in Estonia where I did my anthropological fieldwork was a dismal place in the early 1990s. Poverty, alcoholism and unemployment were the main social themes. There was virtually no heating in the winter of 1993-94, and temperatures dropped to -33°C. Men in their fifties died of blood poisoning and alcoholism, undiagnosed and uncared for.

My book on the collective farm was published in 2004. In it I predicted that the culture of memorials would take off: prison camps would be turned into museums, books would be written, documentaries made. I also wrote about the social amnesia under communism, when memories were no longer transmitted freely between generations. In the Soviet era the pre-Soviet past was forgotten, and in the post-Soviet era, it seemed to me, the Soviet past was also in danger of being forgotten. "Thus the revolution that caused the end of the Soviet Union," I wrote, "has also brought with it a temporary amnesia about the Soviet years."

I thought of it as temporary, because I believed that civil society would soon begin to generate countless memorial initiatives. The problem was that real democracy didn't last long, at least not in Russia.

In December last year, the offices of Memorial, the most important NGO dedicated to documenting the human rights atrocities of Stalinism, were raided. Thirty hard-drives containing 20 years of interviews and archival material about the Gulag and post-Stalinist political persecution were confiscated. Irina Flige, the director of Memorial, called it a "war over memory": whitewashing Stalin in order to justify the new authoritarianism.

The Financial Times reported recently that Gleb Pavlovsky, a Putin-friendly political scientist, had written a piece attacking Memorial and claiming, ominously, that Russia was vulnerable to "foreign projections" of its history. "Russia," he wrote, "not having a memory policy, has become defenceless before defamatory projections and aggressive phobias." No memory policy indeed. No national Gulag museum, no official attempt to mark the mass graves, no open access to secret police files. The future I imagined did not happen.

This is part of the context of political violence in Russia. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that at least 49 have been killed in Russia since 1992. Only in Iraq and Algeria is it more dangerous to be a journalist. The latest victims, Stanislav Markelov, the human rights lawyer representing Novaya Gazeta, and Anastasiya Baburova, a trainee journalist at the same newspaper, were shot dead in central Moscow, in broad daylight, on 19 January. Markelov had just announced that he was filing an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights against Yuri Budanov's early release. Budanov, a former colonel of the Russian army, had been imprisoned for the murder of a young Chechen woman, Elsa Kungayeva, in 2000, following her arrest. She was violently beaten, raped and sodomised. Three of Budanov's subordinates were allegedly responsible for the assault, but charges against them were dropped. Budanov is a hero of the Russian nationalist right.

On 13 January, Umar Israilov, an opponent of Chechnya's president, Ramzan Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna, again in broad daylight. In 2006, he had filed a complaint, which had lapsed, against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights about abduction and torture under Kadyrov's regime, claiming that Kadyrov himself had tortured him.

There are many others. Here are a few:

Igor Domnikov, Novaya Gazeta reporter, was attacked and died from head injuries in 2000.

Yuri Shchekochikhin, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, died in 2003, allegedly from a "rare allergy". The hospital authorities have refused to grant access to his medical records, even to his family.

Paul Klebnikov, the American-Russian journalist, was shot in Moscow in 2004, a year after publishing a book about a Chechen warlord, and after publishing lists of oligarchs in the Russian Forbes.

Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's most famous journalist, was killed on 7 October 2006. She was working on an investigation into torture in Kadyrov's prisons.

In 2008, Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the Ingushetia.ru website, which reported on human rights abuses during counter-terrorist operations in Ingushetia, was killed in a police car, according to Human Rights Watch.

Mikhail Beketov, the editor of a local newspaper, who had run a campaign to save a section of forest outside Moscow from development, was left unconscious, his skull cracked and leg fractured, on 13 November 2008. His leg and several fingers had to be amputated because of frostbite. Previously, his dog had been shot dead as a warning.

The FSB, or rogue elements within it, ultra-nationalists, Chechen henchmen and corrupt Mafia-style businessmen form a circle of violence. As long as the state remains silent, or issues only half-hearted responses, there will be no change. It is so easy to kill people, and it is so difficult to eradicate a culture of violence once it takes hold. Even Putin may eventually come to regret it. He is playing a dangerous game with the future - and past - of his country.

Sigrid Rausing is a publisher and philanthropist

This article appears in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009