FP: But Russia today is in the throes of change. The Russian people are no longer passive. Is there hope for democracy?
David Satter: There is hope for change but only if Russia can establish a tradition of respect for the individual. This, however, cannot be done without facing the full truth about the past. What exists in Russia today is an unwillingness to assimilate tragic history and evaluate realistically the consequences of Russia’s authoritarian political tradition. For many, such an examination is simply too painful because it seems to imply a rejection of Russia itself. In fact, without such an effort, Russians are caught in a trap. Denial and aggressive nationalism feed on each other leading Russians to see themselves as victims not of their country’s political practices but of unseen outsiders and transform sympathy for their people into feelings of aggression against the outside world.
FP: Putin’s rule is now being challenged. What are the dangers in the present situation?
David Satter: The Putin regime is corrupt, lawless, and authoritarian but it is not really ideological despite its occasional efforts to depict itself as the protector of Russia and to exploit Russian nationalism. Without coming to terms with the communist past and also the abuses of post-communist Russia, the possible democratic alternative to Putin will be hobbled and the field will be cleared for the appearance of a new regime based on a debased form of Russian Orthodoxy and extreme Russian nationalism. Such a regime could be a much more dangerous opponent of the West even than the Putin regime which is limited by its greed and the desire of its leading members to keep their money, children and property in the West.
FP: Is recognition of past crimes enough to prevent this if Putin is removed?
David Satter: It would make an enormous difference. Religious and political power were fused in Russia. The result was the deification of the state. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the state lost its aura of sanctity. The status of the individual, however, did not improve. He was rightless under the Soviet regime and, although he is a great deal freer, he lacks reliable democratic rights today. This is the fundamental difference between Russia and the West. The individual in Russia has everything on condition, including his life. He is secure and free only until the moment when he finds himself in conflict with the authorities.
Facing the past honestly is important because, by extending even a small degree of posthumous justice, to the victims of communism, the conditions are created for changing the status of the individual in Russia generally. It was intended that the victims of communist terror would disappear and never be heard from again. The regime sought to kill the person and kill the memory of the person. For decades the victims’ relatives and friends feared to speak about them even in private. If Russia now recognizes the value of the millions of lives that were destroyed, that act would also be a warning against all future ideological projects that seek to use individuals as raw material. It would create the moral conditions for Russia to establish a system of rights and for the country to experience a new beginning.
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