Anatol Petrecu: Nostalgic people should also accept hidden part about life in USSR. IPN interview

“Where does the political nostalgia for the former USSR that marks a significant part of Moldovan society even after three decades of its dissolution come from?; What are the eventual benefits and risks of this nostalgia; What shall we all do to diminish what can represent a risk to our society today and tomorrow. Answers to these and other questions can be found below in an interview conducted by Valeriu Vasilică with Anatol Petrencu, president of the Association of Historians of the Republic of Moldova

IPN: Dear Mister Petrencu, general perception and particular sociological data reveal the presence in Moldovan society of a less normal phenomenon, which is political and geopolitical nostalgia for the former USSR that stopped existing three decades ago. I say this nostalgia is less normal because those who are nostalgic seem to ignore a series of events that are really tragic for our people, with the mass deportations being the most relevant ones of this series by their size and disastrous effects. I ask you to help us understand this paradox. To begin with, let’s recall the mass deportations of Moldovans. How did they happen and what direct effects did they have?

- Anatol Petrencu: I think we should delimit these persons who are nostalgic for the USSR. It seemed that such nostalgia affects mainly the older ones who lived better times under that great power, as the Soviet Union was considered then, while they were younger, more energetic and full of life. But things do not stand really so. There are young people who didn’t live in the Soviet Union and don’t know what was there, but they tend to those times that cannot be restored. Among those who are older, we must separate those who formed part of the nomenclature of the Soviet system: people holding not very high-ranking posts – secretaries of Komsomol or party organizations, kolkhoz presidents – they enjoyed particular advantages against the majority population. They had cars near their stairs, money, possibilities of travelling, of dressing, of eating better. They surely had what to lose and those are times to which they would like to return. As regards the younger generation, which regards the former USSR as a great power, I believe it goes to their wish to live in a large, important country that was competing with the United States. If those nostalgic persons exist now in society, we should make them realize that they actually idealize a criminal past, that psychiatry, for example, was used for political purposes in the Soviet Union. Only when Gorbachev came to power in 1985 those criminal methods were abandoned.

IPN: Do the deportations form part of those methods?

- Anatol Petrencu: Surely. The population between the Prut and the Nistru suffered a lot, especially after June 28, 1940, when the Soviet Union, together with Nazi Germany, attacked Romania following the signing of the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Using the defeat of France, the successes of Germany in Western Europe, the Soviet Union decided to gain control over Bessarabia, north Bucovina and Hertsa region. The Soviets came here with their conceptions and their legislation that worked in the former USSR. The internal NKVD troops came and started a real hunt for people. The Soviets came with the idea of class enemy, exploiter, capitalist, bourgeois member, which was applied in Bessarabia. In Romania, there was a kind of democracy compared with the Soviet Union, the Nazi Germany, Italy and other totalitarian states. For example, it wasn’t a crime to be a member of the Liberal Party or the Tsarist Party. We had persons from here sitting in Romania’s Parliament. For the Soviets, who had only one party, this was something unusual. They considered these bourgeois leaders who should be arrested. Mayor were considers as employees serving the Romanian state and a part of them were immediately deported out of the Moldovan SSR. On the night of June 13, 1941, the Bessarabians were witness to the first wave of deportations. It happened scleral days before the start of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union. Then, there were arrested 5,033 persons and deported 14,542 persons. Among the deportees were landowners, members of political parties and also 650 mayors. In our villages, the mayors were the best managers who served as models for locals. Why were the mayors deported? Not only because they were good mangers but also because they had influence over the people. Life in villages had a specific feature – the people became related, borrowed from each other and the atmosphere was acceptable for most of the villagers They sent these villagers to Siberia so that society became disoriented, intimidated and frightened. Beyond the Nistru, the men were taken out of wagons and one of the most genial lies was invented then. The women were told that the men were taken there first to prepare the place of stay, but these were actually taken to Sverdlovsk, currently Yekaterinburg, and from there to a network of camps based in Ivdel that was 680 km northwards. Most of them died there in the winter of 1941-1942.  

IPN: There were several waves of deportations. What are the particularities of these? Why didn’t the Soviet authorities stop at one wave or stage more waves than they did?

- Anatol Petrencu: The ideology was the particularity of this first wave. The goal was to harmonize the occupied territory with the rest of the atmosphere in the USSR from political and ideological viewpoints. We should not forget that the Bessarabians experienced harsh famine in 1946-1947, primarily in February 1947. Most of the people in all localities died then, about 200,000 in total. This is 10% of the population. Historians proved that this was a well-thought-out policy aimed at starving and disciplining the people, at humiliating the people by starvation. In 1946-1947, wasn’t the Soviet Union that stretched from Kamchatka up to Berlin able to find several wagons of wheat to give them to the people in Moldova? It could! Droughts and hard years had been experienced earlier too, but reserves were always found. The policy pursued by the Soviets was to collect food products, such as meat and wheat, and this surely led to starvation.

The second wave of deportations took place on July 15-16, 1949, when the people already overcame famine. There were deported 12,860 people. There were imposed the ideology and policy of the Communist Party that governed the Soviet Union, for which our compatriots are nostalgic even if this was a state based on fear and blackmail. The political and ideological factor dictated the collectivization of agriculture. What happened here, in Bessarabia? In the interwar period, our peasants were given by 6 ha of land and more in ownership. When the Soviet power came, the land was nationalized, but was left to peasants for being cultivated. After the wear, in 1949, the Communist Party set the task of uniting the villagers in Moldova into work groups, to take their work tools and cows and to form the so-called infrastructure, which meant spaces for schools, mayor’s offices, kolkhoz offices.  The second wave of deportations was then staged for the reason that the people were considered ‘exploiters or kulaks’. I know a case that happened in Șoldănești discrete. Two older persons were put on the list of deportees even if they didn’t own land. The fact that they possessed a stone house in the center of the village was their bad luck. The Communists from the village turned this house into the office of the kolkhoz. The goal of this second wave was to build the material basis of the future kolkhozes. For fear of deportations, the people wrote thousands of applications to enter kolkhozes. The Soviet Union was a state based on fear, blackmail, starvation.

- IPN: How did the representatives of the regime behave during these “special operation”? What imprints did this behavior leave on the heart and memory of the deportees and their descendants? 

- Anatol Petrencu: In 1940, when the Soviets came, those NKVD members were saved from the great purge that occurred in the USSR in 1937-1938. They were ferocious, harsh people who fulfilled any order. If they, God protect, were solidary with the victims of this policy, they could be taken away by wagons. Why didn’t they dive water to the deportees? Because some of the soldiers, offspring of Russian peasants who were on guard, were afraid to be accused of being solidary with “enemies of the people”. Those who came here in 1944, those administrators, behaved like superiors, like people who won the war, but their behavior was far from being civilized. They were drinking alcohol, fighting, insulting, stealing from people’s homes as the Russian army does now in Ukraine. This is the image of the occupant that remained in the people’s memory. It was depicted as negative in historical documents.

IPN: To pursue our central goal, including by the method of exclusion, can you say if that behavior could have served as a source of nostalgia?

- Anatol Petrencu: Who can be nostalgic? First of all, the persons who are now nostalgic should know that the Soviet Union and the Community regime pursued a repressive policy towards hardworking people, entrepreneurs, landowners, but they weren’t necessarily exploiters. Each work had to be paid. As now, they looked for locals who would hoe. They also had to negotiate with the worker, as now. Those deeds were distorted and many nostalgic people believe that those exploiters were deported justly. But this is not true. The property of those people wasn’t large and they acquired it by their work. Those who long for those times should realize that those times cannot be revived as current Russ, with its ambitions to restore the Soviet space, is not that Soviet Russia. Russia today, even with its ambition to restore the former Soviet space, is not the Soviet Russia. Capitalism dominates in Russia now. That capitalism is even more inequitable than that under tsarism as all the clans that gained control over Gazprom, forests, gold mines do not share what they have with the poor people. We see expanding poverty among the population of Russia. After February 24, 2022, things changed radically. The war in Ukraine showed that Russia’s grandeur to which some aspired no longer exists. The so-called second greatest army of Russia, as they called it, cannot succeed in this war against Ukraine.

IPN: It is probably worth speaking about the role of local “collaborationists” in this tragedy?  Why was this mass collaborationism possible? Can this explain current nostalgia? Do we have relevant historical data?

- Anatol Petrencu: Collaborationists always existed in times of war or in moments of crises. The Germans had their own collaborationists, like Soviet general Vlasov, who took sides with Germany. The Russians also had their collaborationists in the person of Germans who staged a coup against Hitler. The roots of current nostalgia can be traced here. The collaborationists are never regarded with sympathy. There is a saying: “I like treason, but I don’t like traitors”. This saying is typical. In Ukraine, we see that 2% are collaborationists, former Ukrainians. They are either hunted by partisans and killed or will be convicted when the “military operation” ends. The same happened in France. 2,000 French people were convicted to death by democratic France.

In Bessarabia, there were collaborationists too. They supported the Soviet power and compiled the lists in mayor’s offices. They weren’t forgiven. This phenomenon was possible because there are weak people who are envious of the wealthier ones. The consequences were bad as the most assiduous people left and they helped improve the situation in agriculture at the place of detention too. For example, a man with the surname Curoș from Călărași built an electric power station in the locality to which he was deported. Hardworking people from here were taken to Siberia and they improved the economy there.

IPN: As a preliminary conclusion: can we say that the mass deportations formed part of the official policy of the then state? What do historical documents say about the reasons and goals of such a policy?

Anatol Petrencu: in 1941, before the first wave of deportations, Sergo Goglidze, who was the vice people’s commissar of internal affairs, Beria’s deputy, came to Chisinau. He analyzed the presented materials as the list of people who were to be deported were compiled by the NKVD bodies, and wrote that “reason” for which these were to be deported. He knew about Stalin’s mother as there were spies, organizations that wanted to remove the Soviet regime everywhere. Goglidze then wrote that large parts of bourgeois parties remained in the Moldovan SSR and these people were nostalgic for what was earlier and they maintained ties with former bourgeois parties. The second “reason” was based on political-economic causes: “that they were kulaks and were fighting against the Soviet regime” – mayors, church officials who didn’t accept communist theory. There are official documents showing this.

IPN: What danger does this political, geopolitical nostalgia pose? For example, can it be taken into account by important political, geopolitical players that tend and even act very violently now in the neighboring Ukraine so as to restore that chimera, the Soviet Union? Are there historic antecedents when someone from outside used the feelings of particular categories from inside another state?

Anatol Petrencu: If we speak about the past, I would give the example of Hitler’s Germany when in 1938, at the Munich Conference, Hitler said that the 3 million Germans from Czechoslovakia should form art of the Reich, which is of Germany. There were exploited the feelings of ethnic unity of the Germans even if the borders of Czechoslovakia were recognized internationally. In fact, the Germans from Czechoslovakia were native of Austria, not of Germany. The idea of “Russkii mir” (“Russian world”) promoted by Russia does nothing but speculate on the feelings of the Russians from outside the state borders of the Russian Federation.

What was presented to us in the Soviet period was something false. In reality, things were very bad. Gulags, political repressions, use of psychiatry for political purposes. The then propaganda presented only the good sides to the public. The Russia propaganda insists on the fact that the other ex-Soviet states are failed states.

I consider the risks generated by the political and geopolitical nostalgia are not very big as the prospects of the Republic of Moldova. But there are yet particular risks. Inside Moldovan society, we should think about two strong parties, which is something traditional in advanced democracies, and both of the parties should be pro-European. We should not accept as pro-European state and a pro-Russian state as these nostalgic people will be exploited the. In the UK, there are two parts, as in the U.S. and in Canada.

As a historian, I can tell you that the Russians always did well when they had good relations with the West and their economy lagged behind when they had bad relations with the West. Now the Russian Federation is blocked by the whole civilized world. The younger nostalgic people who say they want to live in a bigger country may be right, but this bigger country should be based on democratic rights and freedoms. Look what is going on in Russia today. There are no alternative sources of information. There are only official sources but these cannot be attractive to the people who are able to think.

- IPN: How can the deportations about which we spoke be used as an antidote to political nostalgia for the USSR and why hadn’t been they transformed until now?

- Anatol Petrencu: We, as historians, do what we can. I examined this past that was dramatic for us. I spoke to a lot of people, took part in such interviews, in programs and scientific conferences. We should have an alternative course in schools for the people to know what the Soviet Union was like in reality. But if the state does not lend a hand, it is hard for us as individuals to do more. The state does not accept alternative programs. We had two alternative courses – the Holocaust and Local History. But we need alternative courses about deportations, organized famine. The history teacher can then choose a particular course so that the historical past is presented correctly.

The interview was conducted as part of IPN Agency’s project “100 years of USSR and 31 years without USSR: Nostalgia for Chimeras” that is supported by the German Foundation “Hanns Seidel”. The video variant of the interview is available here.

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