Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Satter who, for more than three decades has written about Russia and the Soviet Union. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is the former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London (1976-82) and has written three books about Russia, Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which has been made into a documentary film, Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State and, his latest book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, which is just out from the Yale University Press.
FP: David Satter, welcome to Frontpage Interview. Congratulations on your new book. It could not be more timely, coming as the ground is shifting under the feet of Russia’s authoritarian rulers.
What are the main arguments of your book?
David Satter: Thanks Jamie.
I try to show that the source of Russia’s historical tragedy is the distorted relation between the individual and the state, the degradation of the former and the deification of the latter. The notion that the individual has no inherent value but is only a means to some crazed political end is traditional in Russia. This attitude found its most radical expression under communism but it exists in post-Soviet Russia as well. It automatically conduces to dictatorship. This is why for Russia to have a democratic future, the dignity of the individual must be restored.
FP: But how can this be done practically?
David Satter: Russia needs to begin with the memorialization of the victims of the communist regime. There were 20 million victims of the Soviet regime. By this I mean those either put to death by the regime or those who died as a result of its repressive policies. This figure does not include the millions who died in wars, epidemics, and famines that were the predictable consequences of Bolshevik policies but not completely the result of them. Until that time, no country had ever inflicted such a holocaust on its own people. But the memory of these millions is still not honored in contemporary Russia. There is no national monument to the victims in Moscow, the city from which the orders for mass killing emanated. The only mark of remembrance is the “Solovetsky Stone,” a boulder in Lubyanskaya Square that is nondescript, easy to miss and, in any case, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings of state security. Those burial grounds that have been identified are either not commemorated or else, as in the cases of Butovo and Kommunarka, the two major execution and burial grounds in the Moscow area, turned over to the Russian Orthodox Church, which depicts the victims of communist crimes as religious martyrs, an interpretation which has no relation to reality.
FP: What about outside of Moscow?
David Satter: There have been some attempts to memorialize the victims in the regions. The largest monument to the dead in Russia is the “Mask of Sorrow,” a 60 foot high sculpture by the Russian sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny in Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma gold mining region in the Far East. There is also a small museum in the basement of the former NKVD headquarters in Tomsk and the former Perm 36 labor camp about two hours from Perm has been restored. The problem with all of these memorials is that they are very remote from the principal population centers and have little effect on the consciousness of the country.
During the perestroika period, there was a nationwide movement to commemorate the victims of communist oppression. The Solovetsky stone in Moscow and the monuments in Magadan and Tomsk date to this period. At that time, history was important in Russia and, as a result of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, it seemed that the country was dedicated to setting the record straight about the communist regime’s crimes. This impression was misleading. History was an issue because the record of the past could be used as a weapon against the tottering communist regime. Once the Soviet regime fell, the energy behind the drive to settle accounts with history all but disappeared. During perestroika, plinths and pedestals were erected all over the country to mark the locations of future memorials. They are still there, haunting reminders of a promise that Russian society lacked the will to fulfill.