The set-up of the advert is innocent enough. Three kids are goading their parents into taking them to Moscow’s famed Central Children’s Store — a city landmark since Soviet times — using well-tested tactics: inane questions, threats and tears.
The twist, however, is darker. The emporium, founded in 1957 and formerly known as Detsky Mir, is located on Lubyanka Square, home to Russia’s feared security services and the affiliated prison. In the commercial, the kids pretend to be KGB interrogators.
“We don’t know anything,” the parents insist as one of the children flashes a lightbulb on and off. “You’ve left us no choice,” says one of the sons. “We’ll have to resort to use of force.”
The force in question is relatively harmless: when the parents refuse to relent to a trip to the store, which reopens next week after an Rbs8bn renovation lasting six years, one of their brood begins crying on cue.
But the parallels are grim. For decades the so-called Lubyanka building, which is nicknamed after the square and stands across from the toy shop, has stood as a symbol of one of the worst episodes in Soviet history: the clandestine interrogation and torture of thousands of citizens.
Founded as the Chekha, shorthand for the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage, the secret service housed in the Lubyanka building has had many names over the years: GPU, NKVD, KGB. Its crimes are legendary. The secret service created in 1918 by aristocratic revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinsky quickly took on a reputation for governing through torture and intimidation. In his first few years on the job, Dzerzhinsky oversaw the execution of tens of thousands of potential opponents to the new regime. “We stand for organised terror,” he declared.
Under Stalin, the NKVD interrogated and tortured tens of thousands of Red Army officers. While many were shipped off to labour camps, at least 300 were executed inside Lubyanka, according to Vasily Khristoforov, a senior archival official for the secret services, because there was not enough room on the trains for all the prisoners. An estimated 15,000 officers were killed.
The KGB’s end came in 1991. Its successor, the FSB, was established without a fifth chief directorate — the code name of the division in charge of stifling political dissent. Yet there was no cathartic rejection of the service’s wrongs or reconciliation with the past.
In the New York Review of Books last May, Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin recalled being among hundreds of demonstrators who tried to demolish a statue of Dzerzhinsky on Lubyanka Square in August 1991, during the failed putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev.
They were told that toppling “Iron Felix” would destroy vital underground communications networks and they should wait for an official demolition crew. And wait they did.
Had he and the other protesters refused to wait, the past two decades might have turned out differently, he argues. “Yeltsin’s revolution ended up being ‘velvet’: it did not bury the Soviet past and did not pass judgment on its crimes, as was the case in Germany after the second world war. All those party functionaries who became instant ‘democrats’ simply shoved the Soviet corpse into a corner and covered it with sawdust.”
In the past year, the layer of sawdust has thinned. Against the backdrop of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in east Ukraine, the country has slipped back into the language of “fascists”, “traitors” and anti-Kremlin “fifth columns”.
Inside the Kremlin, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin is said to be taking advice from a small inner circle, primarily of fellow KGB alumni such as Nikolai Patrushev and Alexander Bortnikov. Mr Bortnikov is head of the FSB, an office Mr Patrushev held until 2008, and Mr Putin before him.
While the Central Children’s Store did not deem it inadvisable to shoot a video simulating KGB interrogations, it did realise after the fact that it was perhaps poor PR.
On Wednesday, after it was highlighted by Meduza, one of Russia’s last independent news sites, the advert was removed from YouTube.
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