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The Return of the Soviet Union

David Satter

When President Bush ascends the reviewing stand in Red Square on May 9 for ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, he may find that his presence is being used less to mark a historic anniversary than to rehabilitate the Soviet Union.

The anniversary has unleashed a wave of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. A report by the RIA press agency said, “all the veterans agree that the great love that the Soviet people had for their country and their belief in the righteousness of their cause helped the Soviet Union survive the worst war of the twentieth century.” Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech last year at the Victory Day ceremonies said, “We were victorious in the most just war of the twentieth century. May 9 is the pinnacle of our glory.” In his state of the nation address, April 25, Putin referred to the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

This type of nostalgia, however, is not harmless. Not only does it ignore the fact that the Soviet Union was just as terroristic as Nazi Germany. It also reflects what Hannah Arendt referred to as a “pervasive, public stupidity.” This is the failure to understand that the truth about the past is not irrelevant and, in fact, is the best hope for a decent future.

The re-sovietization of Russia is possible because when the Soviet Union fell, the new Russian state did not break irrevocably with its communist heritage. To do this, it needed to define the communist regime as criminal and the Soviet period as illegitimate, open the archives, including the list of informers and find and commemorate all mass burial grounds and execution sites. Unfortunately, none of this was done with consequences that are being felt today.

There is still no legal evaluation of the Soviet regime. The communist regime has never been declared criminal and no Soviet official has ever been tried for crimes committed under communism. The result is that former communist leaders in Russia are viewed as leaders first and criminals second (if at all), no matter how heinous their actions. Under these circumstances, Russians frequently lack the conviction, intrinsic to free men, that an individual answers for his actions no matter what the external conditions.

At the same time, because the Soviet regime was not repudiated, the Russian government became the Soviet regime’s legal successor. This has meant that millions of victims of repression were rehabilitated, usually posthumously, by being cleared of official charges rather than because those charges were the product of a deranged system. The regime therefore continued to judge its victims rather than the other way around.

In addition to not declaring the Soviet regime criminal, the new Russian government did nothing to reveal the identities of KGB informers. In March, 1992, the Russian Supreme Soviet passed a new law on investigative activities that declared the list of the millions of informers to be a state secret. One reason for the vote was believed to be that many of the deputies had themselves been KGB informers. The decision, however, had serious consequences. It established a precedent for concealing the truth about the past that was to become increasingly important as new decisions were made regarding access to vital records, for example, the KGB, Comintern and foreign ministry archives.

Perhaps most important, the Russian authorities made no serious attempt to find and memorialize the mass graves and execution sites that cover the country. The victims of Stalin era terror were executed in secret and the Soviet leaders intended that the bodies would never be found. Nonetheless, some sites have been discovered. This, however, has usually been the achievement of the Memorial social movement operating with little or no help from the outside.

In August 2002, after a five year search, the execution grounds for the majority of the victims of the Great Terror in Leningrad were discovered by Memorial in a firing range near the village of Toksovo. It is estimated that the site holds 30,000 bodies, making it possibly the largest on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Neither the federal nor the local authorities, however, have shown any interest in excavating the site and analyzing the remains let alone memorializing the victims. Instead, they have cautioned the volunteers from Memorial not to interfere with the operations of the firing range.

>The result of the indifference of the authorities is that the burial grounds and execution sites that stand in silent witness to the horrors of Russian communism play almost no role in the moral and spiritual life of the country.

Without a concerted effort to memorialize the horrors of communist rule in Russia, the growing nostalgia for Soviet power is a natural tendency. Although communism was the moral nadir of modern Russian history it was also the period when Russia was at the height of its power.

Increasingly, however, nostalgia for the Soviet Union is taking frightening forms. Statues of Stalin have begun appearing in Russian cities and in Orel, the town council has written to Putin, demanding that Stalin’s “honor” be restored to the history books, his statue re-erected and his name given to streets and squares. In mid-April, the communist party leader, Gennady Zyuganov said Russia “should once again render honor to Stalin for his role in building socialism and saving human civilization from the Nazi plague.”

In another sign of the time, a group of leading political and cultural figures in St. Petersburg has called for the erection of a monument to Alexei Kuznetsov, a party official who organized Leningrad’s defenses during the Second World War. Kuznetsov was later shot in the postwar “Leningrad Affair” and he is buried in the Levashovo Cemetery along with many of Stalin’s other victims.

Before the war began, however, Kuznetsov himself was a key participant in Stalin’s atrocities as a member of the three man extrajudicial board or “troika” that signed death sentences for the Leningrad oblast during the terror. The troika operated in Leningrad from August, 1937 to November, 1938 issuing almost 40,000 death sentences and from January to June, 1938, Kuznetsov, as the second secretary of the oblast party committee, was a member.

It is too late to decline to go to Moscow as the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia have done, citing Russia’s refusal to admit and apologize for the crimes committed in the Baltics. In any case, for the U.S., such a move would be unjustified. Bush, nonetheless, would be doing a real service to history if, in addition to participating in the celebrations, he would also visit the Butovo firing range south of the city where the bodies of at least 20,000 victims of Stalin’s Great Terror lie in mass graves.

In contrast to the meticulous attention devoted to anything to do with the Second World War, Butovo is neglected. There is no museum or general memorial. The common graves are marked off with ropes. Until recently, the area was choked with weeds and used as a garbage dump. The number of visitors is miniscule, about 4,000 a year, mostly Orthodox believers and relatives of those buried there.

The Soviet Union did indeed achieve a great victory in defeating Nazi Germany. The cost was 27 million Soviet dead, including 8.6 million soldiers. The failure to put the victory in perspective and describe the true nature of the Stalinist regime, however, means that the May 9 events, in addition to a celebration of the victory are also an exercise in propaganda that glorifies the Soviet system. As a result, the visiting heads of state risk endorsing with their presence a view of history that works against the interests of Russia’s democratic future.

A visit by Bush to Butovo during the May 9 celebrations would help to redress this balance and by injecting an element of reality into the event emphasize that for the Western allies the goal of the war was not just the defeat of Germany but the eradication of totalitarianism, in 1945 and in the future as well.