NEW YORK — The darkest chapters of Soviet history have been revealed to the Soviet people for the first time, as a result of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's campaign for glasnost-- openness. Josef Stalin's purges and mass terror campaigns and the tragic consequences resulting from the forced collectivization of agriculture in the early '30s are now freely discussed. The more recent past is also open to question; there have been frank exposes about corruption and organized crime during the Brezhnev years and on such contemporary problems as environmental pollution.
Glasnost is also responsible for the remarkable growth of grass-roots political organizations representing a kaleidoscope of opinions. Although unofficial, these groups are free to meet, discuss and even to engage in low-key propagandizing.
But it is a bitter irony that one of the most prominent of these children of glasnost is a virulently anti-Semitic and nationalist organization, Pamyat (Russian for memory). Pamyat is often labelled by the Western press as a "fringe" or "lunatic fringe" organization. Although certainly extreme by Western standards, these labels underestimate the appeal of Pamyat's message when applied to the Russian context.
Interviews I conducted in Moscow with Pamyat members, as well as an analysis of documents obtained from the organization, suggest that Pamyat's mixture of anti-Semitism and anti-Westernism has gained a modicum of popularity, precisely because it reflects anti-Semitic and anti-Western traditions that are deeply rooted in Russian thought and history. Its ideology is the first to offer a consistent, if extremist, challenge to Gorbachev's reforms.
Unlike Soviet conservative groups, Pamyat does not gloss over the political terror of Stalin's time. On the contrary, it eulogizes the "huge number of people of various nationalities (who) were exterminated in concentration camps." But unlike Gorbachev and his supporters, Pamyat blames Jews, or more euphemistically, a "Trotskyite-Beriaist" coalition of Zionists and Russophobes (Leon Trotsky was Stalin's chief political rival; Lavrenti Beria was his infamous chief of secret police who, ironically, arranged Trotsky's murder in Mexico in 1940.).
While party conservatives still defend collectivization, Pamyat claims that it destroyed traditional Russian village life and ruined agriculture. The organization says that current rural problems were "artificially created," and advocates a return to "traditional forms of agriculture." But again, dark forces, whether Zionists, Russophobes, "cosmopolitanists" or others, are named as the culprits.
Pamyat, which claims to have about 40 chapters nationwide and an estimated 20,000 members in Moscow, is equally vociferous concerning environmental issues. It warns of "anti-people's projects" that "threaten ecological disaster," decries the recklessness of building nuclear power plants such as Chernobyl in prime agricultural regions and even warns that the Soviet Union is being turned into a "natural resource colony of Europe." Once again, Jews or "international Zionist capital" are the scapegoats.
Pamyat also demands a reversal of what it claims is long-standing discrimination against the Russian intelligentsia by "Russophobic forces." It uses images from the Stalinist past to describe its own plight in the face of an "anti-Pamyat" campaign being waged by the media and party organs. It says that it is being subjected to a "new political terror" by officials who act like "concentration camp directors . . . in the spirit of Beria's time." The Soviet press is described as controlled by Jews and "traitorously united" with the Western press in attacking Pamyat.
Although the group uses the restructuring vocabulary of perestroika, Pamyat's message denies the dilemma of unchecked and absolute power. It is hostile to democracy as conceived in the West, and the Western-influenced notions of Gorbachev and his supporters. Rather, Pamyat advocates a strong autocracy in "the Russian tradition."
It is not surprising that this ideology has some popularity. In the nation where the pogrom was invented; blaming Jews for all ills is a longstanding tradition. Pamyat's message is further reinforced by officially sponsored "anti-Zionist" propaganda, which caustically blames Zionism for any number of past and present Western social ills--one component has been the officially supported claim, yet to be retracted, that Jews helped Hitler come to power and then helped him carry out the Holocaust.