Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has selected a prominent journalist to head the government’s human rights council.
A known defender of media freedom, Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia’s Union of Journalists will also become Medvedev’s personal counsel on human rights, elevating his status above that of his predecessor.
Fedotov’s appointment is a “good sign,” said a leading democracy advocate. “It’s probably an ideal compromise,” Yuri Dzhibladze told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “He’s accepted by members of civil society and the authorities and is able to find diplomatic solutions to difficult problems.”
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and a council member, also praised Medvedev’s decision.
“Fedotov has experience with both state and nongovernmental work,” the veteran dissident told The Moscow Times. “I am personally satisfied with the choice.”
Some activists expressed doubts. “Fedotov isn’t just a rights activist, he’s also a former bureaucrat of the first order, with all the attributes,” said Kirill Kabanov of the National Anti-corruption Committee.
But Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Citizens Aid Foundation, called Fedotov “a democratic person,” who would provide the leadership the council needs. Gannushkina was recently considered a potential winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Fedotov recently called for memorials to honor the victims of Josef Stalin’s terror.
“The idea is to gradually squeeze the remnants of totalitarian thinking out of us,” said Fedotov, 61, adding that he hoped to use his new position to remove positive references to Stalin in school text books.
Kremlin officials have tended to play down the Stalinist legacy. Premier Vladimir Putin has credited Stalin with industrializing Russia and winning the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.
Positive aspects of Stalin’s rule “undoubtedly existed”, but progress came at too high a price.
“There was repression. This is a fact,” he said. “Millions of our citizens suffered from this. And this way of running a state, to achieve a result, is not acceptable. It is impossible.”
But memorials to victims of the gulag are scarce and Russia has yet to undertake a process of transitional justice equivalent to the historical re-assessments of other post-communist states or the truth and reconciliation commissions that emerged in the wake of Latin American dictatorships and South African apartheid.
The Memorial human rights group plans to create a Virtual Gulag Museum, which will collate research and archives from across the former-Soviet Union to commemorate and record the gulag and its victims.
The Moscow Helsinki Group, the Citizens Aid Foundation and Memorial are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy.