BOOK REVIEWThe Dangerous Truth about Communist Crimes
It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past By David Satter Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012 HC, 383 pages, US$29.95ISBN: 978-0-300-11145-3
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l October 24, 2012
n apocryphal 16th century story has Polish diplomats meeting their
Russian counterparts about yet another Muscovite invasion. The Poles try
to reason with the Russians: â€œLook, you come every year and we defeat
you invariably. Each time you lose at least 10,000 men. What a waste of
human lives!â€� The negotiators respond: â€œWe have a lot of people.â€�
Cracowâ€™s envoys dealing with Moscow at the time were usually Polish
nobles of Ruthenian, Eastern Slav origin and often Chrisitan Orthodox
faith. They were virtually cousins of the Muscovite diplomats. However,
unlike the latter, they were also Westernized. They valued human life.
They understood innate dignity of individuals. Their counterparts did
not as they emulated their erstwhile Mongol overlords to subjugate human
beings to the needs of the state for the purpose of retaining,
increasing, and projecting power. Thus, in the Muscovite system the
individual was expendable.
Historians Jan Kucharzewski and Richard Pipes have described this vicious modus operandi
of the Kremlin throughout Russiaâ€™s history, including the Soviet times.
Now David Satter, in his incisive new book, has demonstrated that the
tradition sadly continues in Putinâ€™s Russia.
The pattern of disregarding the individual translates into the
inability of the Russian Federation to shake off the legacy of the past
and to construct a viable Rechtsstaat with a robust free market
economy. The post-Soviet system is simply post-Communism rather than
liberal parliamentarism. The system retains institutions, personnel, and
symbols of the USSR. It evolved merely into a soft totalitarian version
of its predecessor. It is corrupt and oppressive.
Only a comprehensive dismantling of the totalitarian legacy, physical
and spiritual, could result in a free Russia. But to do away with the
heritage of collectivistic Communism requires a paradigm shift to
Western individualism. The Russians would have to embrace the shocking
idea that the state serves the individual and not the other way around.
That should be the foundation of a successful transformation of Russia.
It has not happened precisely because the post Soviet successor elites
refuse to jettison the bad old ways for they alone guarantee their
monopoly of power.
The easiest way to commence the dismantling process leading to the
reassessment of Russiaâ€™s priorities would be to examine the past
critically. That, in turn, would require coming to grips with the crimes
of Communism as they impacted individual human beings. However, the
post-Soviet ruling elites are incapable of relating with empathy to
human suffering. They continue to think that the horrors of Communism
were justified because they resulted in a strong state, which stood the
test of history, most notably during the Second World War. For them
Russia is the state, and not the people. In this context, human
suffering is immaterial. Consequently, for the lack of empathy really,
Russia has failed to change.
Instead, Moscow treads a familiar path of glorifying state power through stubbornly pursuing a schizoid historical policy (istoricheskaia politika).
It is based on brazenly upholding and meshing all features of Russiaâ€™s
past that are congruent with the idea of the supremacy of the state, on
the one hand, and on rejecting and vilifying all elements that challenge
the statist myth, on the other. Consequently, it consists of a
dialectical series of ideological and propaganda contortions forged by
the Tsar and tempered by the komissar. For instance, there is an effort
to reconcile the Whites and the Reds in Russiaâ€™s Civil War in a way that
suggests that both were right.
ostensible reason for the Kremlinâ€™s historical policy sounds like the
U.S. State Departmentâ€™s mantra: stability. The official trope goes as
follows: If we open the archives to independent inquiry, it will result
in chaos and civil war. The truth about Communist crimes is dangerous
because brother murdered brother in Russia. So letâ€™s keep everything
under wraps. Therefore we must also ignore, discourage, and even
persecute, if needs be, grass-roots efforts to commemorate the victims
of the Red terror. If there is no other way, let us neutralize them by
allowing the Orthodox Church to appropriate and monopolize the
commemorations. Thus, despite the fact that they came from all ethnic
backgrounds and faiths, henceforth all victims will be considered and
perceived as Russian and Orthodox, thus further unifying the state. This
also permits them to use the Christian gospel of forgiveness to let the
perpetrators off the hook. Commemorating therefore will be collective,
anonymous, and harmless to the executioners. The process is foolproof
because of the traditional, Byzantine nexus between the Church and State
in Russia, including past KGB pedigrees of many an ecclesiast and
current chummy personal relations with the FSB.
The Kremlin argues that denigrating Russiaâ€™s past undercuts the
state. Let us be positive. Hence, the best way to commemorate the
history of the KGB is to put up the plaque to its erstwhile head, Yuri
Andropov, at the Lublianka headquarters of the secret police in Moscow.
And let us not forget the great Feliks Dzerzhinski, Russiaâ€™s leading
modern hero (but never mind that he was really a Polish Catholic
nobleman Feliks DzierÅ¼yÅ„ski, hell-bent on destroying the empire of the
Tsars). These Chekists must be remembered and eulogized. Meanwhile,
there is no mention of the torture and execution of tens of thousands at
Lublianka and millions elsewhere in the former USSR. The victims are
either glossed over in silence or sentenced to obscurity as reflected by
a handful of understated, even abandoned memorials half-erected in
obscure places. Mass graves remain unexplored; their contents consigned
to anonymity. Only the perpetrators bask in the Chekist glory. After
all, they served the state and only carried out orders, even if mistakes
Moscowâ€™s foreign policy also serves this paradigm. Take the most
notorious case, the Katyn Forest massacre, for instance. At the end of
the 1980s, during perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev resolved to re-visit
the case and admit Soviet guilt to an extent. But he also created a
propaganda safety hatch: the story of 40,000 Bolshevik POWs who
allegedly died in Polish captivity in 1920. In fact, some Soviet
prisoners did die, along with the Polish guards and hundreds of
thousands of Polish civilians because of hunger and epidemics, in
particular so-called â€œSpanish feverâ€� which decimated Europe in the wake
of the First World War. But at the twilight of the USSR the Soviet
propaganda introduced a false narrative to posit a parity between
Stalinâ€™s treatment of Polish POWs and PiÅ‚sudskiâ€™s attitude to captive
Bolsheviks. The humbug of the Red military martyrs is alive and well
under Putin, despite the impressive cooperative effort by Russian and
Polish scholars alike, which conclusively has shown that Poland did not
massacre Soviet POWs in 1920.
David Satter, the former Moscow correspondent, clearly and succinctly
explains all these intricacies of Russiaâ€™s pathology with great wisdom
and compassion. He hopes to enlighten the Westerners about the sources
of Moscowâ€™s condition and, perhaps, to help the Russians defeat their
historical amnesia. Remembrance is an indispensable tool to imagine and
implement freedom. Russia will learn this or relapse deeper into
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics:
A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in
Washington, DC, where he also holds the KoÅ›ciuszko Chair in Polish