Russian amnesia

  • By
  • Arnold Beichman

This book is a justifiable indictment not only of the Soviet Union but also, even more justifiably, of its successor state, Russia. And why Russia? Because from President Vladimir Putin down, few Russians today, with honorable exceptions like Alexander Yakovlev, have been willing to face the hideous Gulag history of the criminal Bolshevik dictatorship. And why won’t Mr. Putin and the Russian people face up to the crimes of V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin and their heirs? Because, said Mr. Putin, an ex-KGB officer, it would be a “mistake to get bogged down in old problems from the past.”
Here are Mr. Putin’s own words (Agence France Presse, Jan. 16, 2002) which explain Russia’s refusal to face up to its sanguinary past: “We don’t want and we will not equate Nazi crimes with Stalinist repression.”
But Mr. Yakovlev, a onetime member of the Soviet Politburo and the intellectual architect of perestroika, sees it differently. Unlike Mr. Putin, he thinks Russia should get “bogged down in old problems from the past.” Appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev and reappointed by Boris Yeltsin as chairman of the Russian Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Repression, he has become the conscience of Russia. He told Anne Applebaum,the author of “Gulag: A History,” that “Society is indifferent to the crimes of the past because so many people participated in them.”
Adds Ms. Applebaum: “The Soviet system dragged millions of its citizens into many forms of collaboration and compromise. Although many willingly participated, otherwise decent people were also forced to do terrible things. They, their children, and their grandchildren, do not always want to remember that now.”
The situation is even worse today. Stalin’s approval rating is going up, according to All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion. A March 4th report of its latest poll shows that more than half of all Russians, 53 per cent, interviewed the previous month in 100 Russian towns and cities in 40 regions approved of Stalin overall, 33 per cent disapproved and 14 per cent declined to indicate any opinion.
The seven Bolshevik decades were among the most horrible in modern history. Millions and millions of innocent men, women and little children were slaughtered before the Marxist Moloch. And yet, the author points out, Russia “continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union’s history.” Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression nor a national place of mourning, nor “a monument which officially recognizes the suffering of victims and their families.”
In fact, Mr. Putin granted a legitimacy to the KGB when, after the November 2000 Duma elections, he and other party leaders in a post-election Kremlin conclave commemorated Stalin’s 120th birthday with a toast. Earlier,Mr. Putin placed flowers at Yuri Andropov’s grave in Red Square and on his monument at the onetime KGB Lubyanka headquarters.
One result of Mr. Putin’s politics of amnesia is that the heroic opponents of the Soviet regime remain unhonored. The dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Yuri Orlov, and many others who fought the regime at risk of their lives, are unpersons rather than heroes in today’s Russia. In fact, Mr. Putin doesn’t even have the guts that Nikita Khrushchev had. in 1956 Khrushchev exposed the horrors of Stalinism. Thanks to Putinist policies, Russia is a country without a past. Or, as Ms. Applebaum puts it, for Russians “The past is a bad dream to be forgotten . . .”
A pathetic event occurred a few weeks ago, too late for inclusion in Ms. Applebaum’s book. The Duma upper house, the Federation Council, in late January approved a bill whereby children who before they became adults lost one or both parents because of political repression were granted the status of victims and became eligible for state benefits. Approximately 150,000 people are affected by this bill. It is estimated, according to ITAR-TASS news agency, that the cost of implementing the bill will be $880,000, or $5.87 for each of the victims.
I note here Ms. Applebaum’s report that in contrast the KGB hierarchs have kept their apartments, their dachas and their large pensions. And that would include the KGB torturers in the basement of the Lubyanka and the KGB monsters who policed the Soviet Auschwitzes.
This appalling Russian behavior is in sharp contrast to democratic Germany which has faced up to the Holocaust. Imagine the public outcry if a German chancellor were to say that he would not discuss the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler since, to use Mr. Putin’s formulation,it would be a “mistake to get bogged down in old problems from the past.”
Half a century after the end of World War II, writes Ms. Applebaum, “the Germans still conduct regular public disputes about victims’ compensation, about memorials, about the interpretations of German history, even whether a younger generation of Germans ought to go on shouldering the burden of guilt about the crimes of the Nazis. Half a century after Stalin’s death, there were no equivalent arguments taking place in Russia, because the past was not a living part of public discourse.”
Ms. Applebaum is a little too forgiving about the Germans. In a recent book, “Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past,” Norbert Frei, a German historian, writes that “the overwhelming majority of West Germans were clearly in favor of . . . forgetting everything to do with Nazism.” The actions of the Adenauer government from 1949 restored Nazis, even onetime Gestapo and Waffen SS members, to their former positions. Even so, the post-Nazi Germany can compare favorably with a willfully blind Russia.
One of the fascinating chapters of this fine work is the comparison of the Stalinist Gulag with the comparatively paradisiacal Czarist prisons even in far off Siberia. The revolutionariesreceived favorable treatment because they were “political” not criminal prisoners. Torture was out of the question. The prisoners were allowed books, paper and writing implements and they were well fed.
A photograph of an exiled Leon Trotsky shows him in a fur hat, a heavy coat, surrounded by other men and women, also in boots and furs. And if Czarist exile became onerous, escape was easy. Stalin himself was arrested and exiled four times. In fact, arrest and exile became a rite of passage for young subversionists. Even more interesting is that the Czarist political prisoners weren’t forced to work or if they did, it wasn’t too unmanageable.
Under the Czar, political prisoners were small in number: In 1906, there were 6,000 convicts and in 1916, on the eve of the Revolution, there were 28,600. In comparison, between 1929 and 1953 some 18 million people passed through the Gulag and another six million were exiled within the Soviet Union. As Bukovsky put it: “Truly being in the camps was like having entered a land beyond the grave.”
The Bolshevik Gulag began its expansion in 1929 when Stalin became the undisputed dictator. It played a central role in the Soviet economy. According to Ms. Applebaum, the Gulag produced one-third of the country’s gold and much of its coal and timber. While the expansion stopped with Stalin’s death in 1953, his successors allowed the Gulag to continue its inhuman existence.
As World War II came to an end cameras recorded for posterity the gruesome images of the Nazi death camps, and they are played and replayed on TV documentaries but so far as we know there were no Soviet cameras around when Mr. Gorbachev, himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners, dissolved the political camps in 1987. And there are no documentaries about the Bolshevik death camps.
Ms. Applebaum’s book, which comes 30 years after Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s first volume of “Gulag Archipelago” appeared, is an essential volume in the history of Soviet oppression. (Gulag is an acronym formed from the official Soviet designation of its system of prisons and labor camps.) This new history is based on Soviet archives which have only become available since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As such, it is a work of great scholarship. It is also a forcible reminder to the Russian people that if they and their leaders are determined to bury the Gulag, the West will remember. Perhaps, a new generation of Russians will someday reopen those archives and thus recover their lost history.